If you’re going to have a reputation when riding into a clinic with a new trainer, a good eye for horses is not a bad one to have. While attending Carl Hester’s clinic in Del Mar, California on April 8-9, 2017, Amélie Kovac already had a leg up on the other riders: her former horse, the six-year-old Dutch gelding Toretto, is happily installed in Charlotte Dujardin’s string back at Carl’s barn in the U.K.

Charlotte purchased Toretto after she spotted him with Amélie at her own clinic in Southern California last fall. At 25, Kovac—who was born in Cannes, France and competes for Croatia—already boasts an impressive resume, having trained in Europe with Adelinde Cornelissen and Emmelie Scholtens and competed in the Under-25 Grand Prix division at major events including Aachen. In 2012, Amélie relocated to the U.S. to work for Jan Ebeling before eventually striking out on her own at Frontier Farms in Moorpark, California.

Since selling Toretto last fall, Kovac has moved on to her newly imported three-year-old Dutch gelding, Ivar (Desperado x OOSeven) who she rode in Carl’s April clinic. Here, Amélie shares 10 things she learned from Carl about working with young horses, getting the most out of your ride, and why you should always “pretend like you’re riding Valegro.”

1. Have simple goals.

What should the goal be, for example, with a four-year-old in a stadium with 2,000 people? If the horse ends the session relaxed, then we could definitely call it a good experience and should probably stop there.

2. Safety first.

Before you focus on achieving relaxation on a young horse, make sure you’re safe. Of course, it’s not always possible to lengthen your reins and try to have your horse stretch and relax. Sometimes, you just need to let them use some of the energy up before you can try to slow them down and let them stretch.

3. When working a fresh horse, adjust your own position first.

If the horse is hot and wants to jog in the walk, stand in your stirrups and slowly sit back down in your saddle. Sometimes the rider, knowing that the horse is tensed, will automatically and without realizing it tense their own muscles. Standing and slowly sitting back down in your saddle will relax your muscles and most of the time, the horses respond by relaxing their back and showing a clearer walk.

4. Legs on with a hot horse, legs off with a lazy horse.

If you have a hot horse, you want to gently always have your leg against them so they know you’re here. It eventually becomes reassuring to them. If you have a lazy horse, you do not want them to get used to you helping them constantly. You want to keep your leg off and only use it when you need it.

5. Fix stiffness with compromise.

If you have a stiffness problem on a particular side, the solution is not always to bend that way. For example, if your horse is stiff on the left side, most riders will track left and bend to that left side over and over again. Sometimes, simply flexing to the left will be enough to get rid of the tension in that rein, but not if the stiffness runs through the whole body. In that case, straighten your horse, almost slightly bend to the outside, and let that inside rein become your outside rein without changing direction. It will also prevent the rider from leaning to the inside and throwing the horse off balance.

6. Bigger isn’t always better.

Don’t make your horse move bigger than he’s ready for; don’t go forward off balance. Focus instead on suppleness and relaxation in a small, balanced pace, then allow your horse to go forward while staying in balance. The expression will come from there.

7. Work on the hard stuff.

Train the opposite of what comes easily. Make a big mover take small steps, and a small mover take big steps—that’s what training an athlete is all about. Help them get strong in all areas.

8. Vary your work at home.

Don’t just ride in the arena five times a week. For example: ride two days, give a day off in the field, ride again, then go out on a hack. And turn out the horses that need it as much as possible.

9. Pay attention to the details.

Be precise while riding your test, even when it comes to little things like making your entrance perfect. Even if you have a very normal horse, a beautiful, straight entrance will score high. Get the points where you can get them.

10. Ride for a 10.

It doesn’t matter if you think your horse is not capable of scoring a 10. Ride for it. Valegro literally needs the entire diagonal to fit in all his changes because he covers so much ground—make it your goal at home! Pretend like you’re riding Valegro and try to use the whole diagonal for your changes.

-Photo credits from left: Erin Gilmore, Cara Grimshaw.