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The ABC of Cathrine Dufour: 9 tips for you and your horse

It is no secret that Cathrine Dufour, the world’s 6th best dressage rider, goes against the flow. Cathrine has always been active on social media and uses her SoMe channels to provide her followers with insight in to her training methods and daily work with the horses. 

This is something she herself missed when growing up in the sport. When she was younger, she sought inspiration from the top riders but they were not that willing to let just anybody in on their training secrets. We talked to Cathrine about being a famous dressage rider and her training of younger horses. Here is a list with 9 of her very own tips, and as you will learn, Cathrine is not afraid to use somewhat alternative approaches in her training.  

Tip # 1: Handle young horses from an early age 

“Generally, when I work with young horses, I make sure that the education of the horse starts from an early age. I try to teach them basic rules early, making it far easier to introduce ridden work later on,” Cathrine says. 

The first couple of years they are kept in loose housing but when turning 3, their carriers as dressage horses begin. One of the first things Cathrine does is to teach them to be handled in a stable environment, to be tied, groomed, washed and so on. Handling the young ones from an early age makes a huge difference, Cathrine explains and continues:  

“Early handling makes the process of breaking them later in much easier. The more they are in the hands of humans from a young age of, the easier everything becomes later, I think” 

A good example of that is that the young horses, with an early handling, become better at walking alongside the rider. That is important, says Cathrine. She does not like if the horse rushes off at 20 km per hour in front of her. The horse must learn from an early age to be relaxed and aware of the rider’s pace.  

And then there is the little thing about mounting the horse. When you ride 8 horses every day, you may spend a long time getting the horse parked properly in front of the stool in the riding arena. That is why it is important for Cathrine that the horses learn the routine of standing still until the rider has mounted. However, it is not something she is fanatic about. So, if the horse takes a few steps forward when she is mounting, it does not matter all too much, she says. 

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Tip # 2: Do environmental training via TV and YouTube 

Environmental training is one of the things that Cathrine is a big advocate for. It gives the horse confidence and trust.  

“It is important to me that my horses see something different than the inside of the arena every day. I ride many hacks and do lots of variations in my training. Sometimes we jump, sometimes we longe. It is important that my horses get to know the world around them” 

Cathrine also puts small jumps out in the arena, so she can switch between dressage and play time. This way, she ensures that the horses are motivated to work. It is also a way for Cathrine to train the horses not to be afraid of sudden changes in their environment. And that is something Cathrine struggled with when it came to both her star horses; Atterupgaard’s Cassidy and Bohemian. Here creative solutions were needed. 

Atterupgaard’s Cassidy, Cathrine’s 17-year-old red gelding, currently ranked as number 7 on FEI’s world rankinglist, initially had a fear of big screens. And Cathrine’s solution was both alternative and inventive: “When Cassidy was afraid of big screens, I took my TV from my apartment and put it up inside the riding arena so he could get used to it, and to show him it was not dangerous. So, he saw himself on the television while he was in the arena”, Cathrine says with a laugh.  

For Cathrine, the message is clear: Sometimes you have to think outside the box to accustom your horse to something potentially dangerous. And she generally believes that if the horse is afraid of something, the best thing a rider can do is to train the situation many times. She therefore tries to expose the young horses to what they are afraid of a little bit at the time, so the horses eventually end up not carrying about for example noise from the crowd.  

Then there is the clapping from the audience. Also, something that both Bohemian and Cassidy were afraid of. Again, Cathrine had to come up with a creative solution to familiarize her horses with the sounds:  

“I have been training a lot with the use of videos from YouTube, where people have applauded very loudly“ 

The first few training sessions were quite difficult, but then the horses started calming down because they could sense that nothing unpleasant was happening. So, it is really about thinking a little outside the box when trying to expose horses to some of the situations which can happen at the big competitions. 

Tip # 3: Do lots of transitions in your warm-up 

“Transitions in the corners are my go-to exercise # 1,” says Cathrine. If she asks the horse to do a rising trot, she makes sure to do walks through the corners. If she does a canter, she trots though the corners. It really is a pretty easy system, Cathrine says. And the reason why she does it? It makes overexited horses calmer, and the calm horses a little more alert. The purpose of the exercise is also to loosen the horse and activate the back through the transitions in the corners. The same thing goes for the canter. Cathrine practice lots and lots of those transitions:  

“It is a great help to get your horse agile and responsive, whether you are an international Grand Prix rider or a beginner”  

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Tip #4: Hit the gym yourself 

It is no secret that Cathrine is a big fan of physical training and a healthy lifestyle. She hits the gym 6 times a week in her spare time – after riding 8 horses a day.
“One thing is to be corrected about 90,000 times by your trainer, but I also think it is really important to be strong enough to hold the position you want to sit in. Which you cannot, if you are not physically strong enough. Physical training has really made a big difference for me and my position, especially in the sitting trot.” 

In addition to training for a better sitting position, Cathrine also has a few extra tricks. She uses, among other things, resin on the inside of her boots as she rides competitions. “It gives you really calm legs”, she says. 

Cathrine Dufour dancing with her star Atterupgaard’s Cassidy. Photo: Catarina Hall

Tip # 5: Let the hot-headed horses see the world  

Cathrine believes that hot headed horses are a challenge, but a fun one. And being hot tempered or extra sensitive is, after all, part of the horse’s life. Some of it starts in the stable. So when Cathrine deals with a hot headed horse, she makes sure that it is properly fed, trained to relax and stimulated through different types of work.  

“I work on making them see the world and trust me. One thing is to find that extra gear in the arena, another is to have them rely on me and relax in the walk. I do a lot of hacking, so they get to trust me” 

It is another thing with the dull horses. All though Cathrine prefers the hot-headed ones, she understands that a lethargic horse is usually lethargic because it is offered too much of the same training or something is not correct in regards to the horse’s nutritional needs. 

Tip #6: Do lots shifts between lateral movements and straightness  

For Cathrine the horses are introduced to the lateral movements from an early age. When the horse is four years old, she slowly introduces it to haunches-in exercises against the wall of the arena. If the horse has the balance when doing haunches-in along the side of the wall, it is quite easy to push the hindquarters slightly more in towards the middle. It is one of the first ways Cathrine introduce the horse to engaging the hind quarters. She does this before she introduces the horse to the leg-yield. It is a great way of teaching the horse to move sideways off the leg and to achieve balance.  

First, she makes the exercises in the walk and later on in all three gaits. Especially with the young ones, Cathrine makes a lot of lateral work, because it is a great way to teach balance. She may do 5 meters of leg-yield, and if the horse does it well, she straightens it out and rides forward instead of continuing. If the horse is in balance, she will do it again. 

“As much as possible, I try to alternate between lateral movements and straightening so that the horse does not just trip over in the shoulder and is not in balance” 

When it comes to shoulder-in, Cathrine makes them off the wall, again, to train the horse to keep its balance. And then a lot of tempo changes – also in shoulder-in and half-passes too. She makes the half-pass like the leg-yield. She breaks them off after five metres, straighten the horse for five metres, and continues with the half-pass. All with the main goal to maintain balance and teach the horse to move off the legs.  

“I change it up a lot. I’m not a fan of too much static work. Change tempo, play with directions and change the shape of the lateral movements. It is much more fun and challenging for you and your horse” 

Tip # 7: The trick to a bigger trot 

Tempi changes are so important if you want to build a better trot, Cathrine says. Especially with young horses she has found a perfect tool to gently teach the horse to take bigger strides with more engagement. The trick is to use a show jumping whip instead of the long dressage version. Cathrine says that she uses it to pad on the saddle pad to make the horse push up the abdomen. Some young horses get stressed because of the long dressage whip and this is avoided with the shorter version. For Cathrine, the goal is to get an uphill trot, where the horse’s abdominal muscles are shortened and the back muscles are raised. That way the horse raises its back and automatically takes bigger strides.  

Tip #8: Do canter on curved and straight lines 

The canter work is done in the same way. Especially if you have a horse that tends to ‘split a bit’ in the front and back in thecanter, Cathrine explains. If that is the case, she will use the jumping whip and place it on the saddle pad to collect the horse and get it ‘in front of her aids. 

“I think a lot about incorporating curved and straight lines into my riding. A way to do this is to ride 20-meter circle and then a straight line down the side of the arena until the horse looses its balance”  

When the young horse loses its balance on the straight line, Cathrine rides a 20-meter circle once again. This is a good way to restore the balance. When the horse is further in its education, she might make a canter pirouette and alternate between canter and walk to make the horse stronger and more supple. But for the young horse, it is all about riding big circles and straight lines.  

Tip #9: Do a lot of the walk outside in nature 

At the end of a training session, Cathrine does much of the walking outside on the beautiful paths around her farm. But if she has a horse with a lower quality walk, she recommends aqua training: 

“Aqua training has really done a lot for me and my horses when it comes to the quality of the walk. It has really helped Bohemian’s walk to do work in water”  

The walk was probably Bohemians weakest gait but with the help of aqua training he has become much looser in his body and has gotten a bigger stride. 

This article was originally published in September 2020 and has since been revised and edited.

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