Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dressage Is For Everyone!

Here is another LTF article that's a number of years old, I dusted it off for your enjoyment. :)

"It seems that every two nickel cowboy out there today competing for your dollar is advocating how even your horse can be the next top level Dressage performer ~~ using his patented “whisper-to-him-and-play-these-games-while-using-my-specially-designed-horsey-guru-thingy-mahoohaw”. Well, maybe you do own the next Keen, Avontuur or Brentina and don’t know it. But even if you do unfortunately fall into that Natural Mumbo Jumbo trap, in reality, Dressage as a basic foundation really is the best thing you could do both for your horse and your horsemanship.

What does the term ‘dressage’ mean, anyhow? All it boils down to, is training. Dressage as a concept is simply taking steps to train your horse and make sure he’s fully trained through each step, or level, of advancement. As a sport in of itself, Dressage is learned (by horse and rider) in levels, from the most basic of maneuvers to what we see on the Grand Prix field at the Olympics. Do you need to push both yourself and your horse to perfect a pirouette, a piaffe and single tempi lead changes in order to consider yourselves an advanced pair or be sure your horse is really well trained? Of course not. But when you have mastered the basics of good, beginning (or basic Training Level) moves, incorporating them into your daily riding program or regimen, I can assure you both horse and rider will be far better prepared for whatever challenges lie ahead, whether in the show ring or on the trail.

All my horses, no matter what their lot in life, are trained using very entry-level Dressage principles, which carry them through life in whatever endeavor I (or their owners) choose for them. No matter if he’s a Western pleasure horse, a Jumper, a Reining horse or just a trail mount, it works because he’s taught to use himself correctly.

With the ultimate goal of a responsive and willing partner, teaching your horse how to supple and to relax, to flex and to respond, to accept contact and to listen...why wouldn’t we want these things from any horse?

Let’s begin by taking a look at your horse. When you first climb aboard, for instance, to go down the road on a nice relaxing trail ride, can you lift the reins, giving him a cue to collect himself and have him respond by rounding up his back, engaging his hindquarters and moving off softly yet obediently? Or does he shake his head, hollow out his back and balk, leaving you sitting there kicking the heck out of his sides until your legs hurt? Personally, I want a horse who’s going to be a joy to ride, not a chore.

In order to correct some of the issues many horses have, I’ll take them back into the arena and deal with whatever is going on both in his head and in his body before I can expect him to feel good about being out there in the open -- or being ridden at all. Most of the time it’s as simple as a stiff neck or sore back somewhere in the past, causing the horse to think he’s going to be in pain when he’s ridden. A horse will overcompensate by locking up his shoulders and dragging his rear quarters out behind him.

Following a good, relaxing grooming session, I’ll start out by saddling and bridling the horse (making sure no part of the tack I ask him to wear is causing the horse unnecessary pain or discomfort), then head out to let him stretch his legs on a longeline in the round pen for a while before climbing aboard. Once he’s listening to me, he’ll be ready to work and I’ll be ready to begin sorting out his problems using the most basic of Dressage concepts.

Utilizing his instinct of wanting to get relief from pressure on his mouth, I’ll pair my inside hip and leg with my outside rein and ask for a simple bend toward the rail in a pseudo-shoulder in, keeping him counter-bent (meaning, bent toward the rail) I want him bent around my outside hip, moving him off my outside leg. Once I release his head, I’ll change how I’m asking him to bend in the opposite way, requesting a marked change to a shoulder out. All I want from him is to respond by bending his body yet still moving forward away from the pressure of my hips and legs.

These types of exercises will help keep the horse supple and responsive, so when you ask for collection he will be quicker to respond properly without giving you a fight. The same techniques can be applied to circling and bending through the corners of the arena.

Another Dressage-based exercise for helping the horse to use himself better (and lead his rider to better understanding the benefits of a collected horse) is allowing him to extend, or lengthen, his stride down the long rail of the arena, and asking him to collect, or shorten, his stride down the shorter rail.

Let’s stop here for a moment. Most folks don’t understand that there is definitely a difference between extending/lengthening and speeding the horse up, just as there is a difference between collecting/shortening a horse’s stride and slowing him down. Extension is not merely a lengthening of the horse’s stride, but also of his frame. The same goes for collection in the reverse situation.

To properly collect a horse, he must shorten his frame along with his stride. We’ve also got to understand that “collection” of the horse is far more than just a headset, and it comes from the horse’s hindquarters, by using our legs and seat. Basically speaking, a horse is a ‘rear-wheel-drive’ vehicle. Or, perhaps better stated, a horse is a ‘rear-engine, four wheel drive vehicle’. The motor is in that powerful hind end. How to we get him to propel himself forward the way we want him to? By using our legs, of course, along with our seat.

To begin, I’ll use a very basic ‘lifting’ of the horse with my legs and hands, asking him to elevate his front end and shorten that stride. Naturally, I’m going to start at the walk (you can even begin by doing similar exercises when halted, by asking him to round up his back underneath you and flex his neck upward, while standing still ... but that’s generally harder for the horse than doing so while walking) and work up to trotting, then cantering.

He must respond by giving me a noticeable elevation of his entire body, an arching of his neck and a shorter step with each stride. That’s true collection. What if he’s not perfect when I first start these lessons? That’s not something I’ll ever be concerned about, as long as he gains an understanding of what I’m trying to teach him.

The lengthening, or extension, is essentially just the opposite in terms of how we ask the horse to perform. I’m going to let the horse stretch out his neck and lower his head, though not to the point of getting distracted and forgetting to pay attention to me. I’d like to see him take longer steps until he’s overstepping -- which means each hind hoofprint lands into or in front of the forefoot’s print.

I’d like to see (or, perhaps more aptly, feel) a noticeable changing of both frame and stride each time I ask going down the rail. He should move off freely, low and long when I request an extension then collect up and shorten himself akin to an equine accordion upon being asked. Simple. Really! It’s not vital that the average pleasure horse look or move like a World Cup Champion, just that he’s getting the benefits of these training exercises and becoming both more motivated and more consistent, not to mention giving you a better trained partner.

How about out trail riding where you’re taking the horse up and down a lot of hills and he wants to rush along? I’ll utilize the half-halt in this instance, again, going back into the arena to show him exactly what’s expected out of him before asking him to apply these concepts to the ‘real world’.

A half-halt is simply explained as a preparatory move to get the horse to listen and be prepared for a change in gait, direction or otherwise make a transition to something other than what he’s presently doing. When riding down the rail, I’ll shift my weight back in the saddle, lift my reins and almost ask the horse to stop, yet still propelling him forward with my legs.

Should he decide he’s not listening (liken his who, me? response to the insolent teenager who defies both parent and teacher), I’ll give him a rather sharp reprimand with my seat by sitting deeper in the saddle while lifting him a little more, actually supporting his front end with my hands, for a split second until he gives to the pressure. Usually, with most horses it doesn’t take more than a time or two before they understand what you’re asking. You can apply this concept while out on the trail and in most any situation where you need the horse to be better prepared and more responsive to your requests.

As you can see, the really basic fundamentals of Dressage can be helpful to most horses in a variety of situations, disciplines and venues. Don’t be afraid to venture out and try new things. Now is the time to ensure your equine friend is a partner rather than a combatant. So, get out there and ride!"



  1. Hey STFS, I just came back from an impromptu horse shopping trip. I wasn't shopping but one of my friends is. We got to go to a famous American Saddlebred Breeders facility and take a tour. Then we looked at the 2 and 1/2 year olds. They have just been started undersaddle. I mean JUST started. They have been introduced to the concept of saddle and bridle.
    I think the first cut of "These horses don't have what it takes to be a competitive horse for our barn" evaluations took place recently. The horse my friend was interested in was a "Harlem Globetrotter" colt. He was just gelded in April. He is coal black and at 2 1/2 is 16 hands.

  2. I love the Yorktown bred horses! HG has covered a few Arabian mares to produce some really nice NSH's. :) What a fun shopping trip!! Some years back we headed down to Scripps Miramar looking for some bloodstock to be added to a client's breeding program. Some way cool horses.

    A friend of mine (Lance Bennett, Bennett Stables, now Rancho Vista Show Horses where Friesian Focus is located, he also operates Bennett Saddlery) runs the Jingle Bell horse show every December down in Del Mar ~ which used to be the Snow Ball show ~ and we venture down there to catch the ASB, Morgan and Friesians. What an outrageously fun show!! We're trying to get them to add Arabian & Half-Arabian classes, so we can actually participate. ;)

  3. Yes, every horse, no matter what discipline, will benefit from ongoing Dressage training.

    My attitude towards the half-halt might be a bit different from yours--I first ask for attention with my seat (stop moving),then with my legs (close around the belly to encourage an arched back and then don't move) and hope I don't have to do anything with the reins, beyond keeping the contact still. If I have to raise the reins to get him to listen (which, yeah, happens all the time with greenies) I consider it a fault caused by me, reward him, and start from the beginning again, trying to make all the previous seat and leg aids faster and more effective.
    Half-halt should have nothing to do with the reins, though it might take a rein cue for reinforcement to a greenie--but you don't want to depend on rein cues for very long, as ultimately, half-halt is a private signal between rider and horse, that he should be ready for a transition that is undiscernable to onlookers.
    Of course, my horse and I only achieve this on our best days--but when we do, it's like magic.

  4. Yeah, you're right about a trained Dressage horse and the half halt. :) In an ideal world, with a horse who's been trained to be fine tuned with finesse I would rather not have to use my reins to cue the horse. Really, I was referring to the "average" trail horse with precious little formal training, sometimes they are in need of a more firm reminder as to what the seat and legs are doing. :) Not unlike the greenies!

  5. Too true--the trail horses I've ridden who have "been-there-done-that" learn what a half-halt means really quickly--faster than a greenie who is still learning to balance and leans on the reins--but, both kinds are really fun to train. It definitely puts a smile on your face when you feel that lightbulb in their mind turn on.


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