Reflecting back over almost 50 years of teaching and training horses, one of my most prominent truths is that dressage training helps every type of horse. Dressage, which is a French word meaning “training”, is a very “systematic method” of training a horse. Through a progression of exercises of increasing difficulty, based upon a foundation of correct basics, the horse’s agility, balance, suppleness and cooperation can all be enhanced.
Dressage Training for Every Horse
Dressage can be introduced to a horse of any age, breed, training background or experience level. As with most anything else, however, beginning at a younger age will bring quicker results with less confusion. Dressage, when presented patiently and correctly, enhances a horse’s gaits, builds beautiful topline muscling in the body, and creates a more focused mind with willing cooperation.
First Importance: The Rider’s Position
Before putting attention into improving any horse’s way of going, the focus must first be drawn to the rider’s position. The horse is greatly influenced by how the rider sits upon his back. When a rider sits in a balanced posture, maintains a supple lower back and allows the horse’s movements to flow smoothly through his body, the horse has a greater chance to express his gaits in a calm and even manner. When a rider sits in a crooked or unbalanced fashion, such as collapsing one hip, throwing one shoulder forward, or using the reins inconsistently for balance, bracing the feet in the stirrups, etc., the resulting lack of balance will quickly be transmitted to the horse. Often, unnecessary tension is then created in the horse, which deteriorates the chance for balance, harmony and trust.
The Basic Building Blocks of Dressage Training for Every Horse
The platform of correct basics I previously mentioned would include the concepts of steady rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and, later, collection.
Whatever gait that is being ridden, it is very important that the rider focuses on the RHYTHM remaining consistent. It may be helpful to count with the footfalls or hum a tune to serve as a reminder. The most powerful impact we have on our horse’s rhythm is through our body’s rhythm. If stabilizing our rhythm is not enough, then clear relaxation down through the legs, or a calm/steadier support of the reins may be added. I remember a Tennessee Walking horse that I rode for a gentleman in the past. At first, her rhythm in all of her gaits was quite sporadic and inconsistent. By simply focusing on stabilizing her footfalls, she relaxed a lot and stretched more consistently over her back on the topline muscling of her body.
SUPPLENESS refers to the relaxation and elasticity of a horse’s body. In most cases, a supple body performs a task more gracefully and efficiently than a stiff one. In dressage, we ride correct bends into circles, corners and the various other exercises to attain a higher degree of balance and adjustability in our horses. We bend the horse’s body to the shape that is being ridden. Transitions between gaits, and within the gaits, also adds variation and interest. Riding predictably and consistently in this way greatly impacts the horse’s confidence and ease, which, again, enhances the overall suppleness and relaxation.
The CONTACT mentioned above, as part of the correct basics, deals with a horse calmly and confidently accepting the bit and the rider’s hands. This would be evident by a closed, chewing mouth, some foam at the lips, a quietly held head and neck, and, hopefully, carrying the body on the top muscling. Clear, quick, smooth response to the rider’s aids would be the desired response.
STRAIGHTNESS refers to the hind feet tracking directly behind the front feet on straight lines, as well as on curved lines. Horses are innately crooked, and so it is through the consistent training, which involves dressage exercises, lateral work, bending the horse uniformly to the shape it is being ridden, and riding for true straightness, that this can be achieved.
IMPULSION refers to the power readily available from the horse’s engine or hind legs. We want activity from the hindquarters, but it must be reliably controlled. The horse must always be ridden from the back to the front, meaning the leg aids should be greater than the stopping aids of the reins. Even a hot horse will relax and settle better if it can be trained over time to wait and not always be pushing through the rider’s hands. Unfortunately, horses that haven’t learned this lesson to slow tempo through the rider’s seat and rhythm have been over-bitted to the point that their mouth are basically dead from excess rein pulling.
COLLECTION basically means that the horse’s balance has been gradually shifted back behind the saddle to the greater carrying power of the hindquarters. This is developed through mindful training over time. It is of value for the basic riding horse on trails or the performance horse in the competition arena. The result is better balance, less weight on the forehand, more agility and elegance, and longer lasting soundness. These benefits are a gift to any horse, gaited or not!
Photo Credit: All photos courtesy of Barbi Breen-Gurley