How About We Move ‘Em before it Gets Hard?

Last week as my right hip flexors began to ache from the effort of creating responsiveness in the horse under me, I could not help but wonder if we dressage folks might revisit our ideas about a horse’s early training.

imagesFor the first year or so of work, this horse’s training centered around teaching him to move forward with rhythm, in itself an important competency. But in this case, this large Warmblood had become so patterned at moving out– and doing so with energy– that he was almost impossible to move sideways, backwards, and to turn around on his hindquarters. I would like to conjecture that, had equal time been spent on executing turns on forehand, turns on haunches, and going backwards, I would not have needed so much wrangling to get him lighter on his feet last week. If this big fella had learned early on to shift his weight around and move nimbly, he would have found our current task pretty simple.

A commonly practiced dressage trajectory puts other fundamentals ahead of learning these sideways turns. Some dressage trainers de-value them completely, while others wait to teach them until the horse has learned to move very forward and perform the basics of being on the bit, and so on. In other words, these turns might not get addressed until a point at which they are much harder than they need to be.

Taught earlier, however, they can create a horse that is much more balanced over his feet rather than falling forward on his forehand as he is naturally disposed. In the USDF tests, turns on the haunches are not executed until Second Level, which generally takes riders a few years to reach. Turns on the forehand don’t exist at all except for the new Rider’s Tests, meaning they get very little, if any, attention during regular schooling. The lack of early attention on these excellent gymnastic tools is an oversight in my opinion. Even if they do not show up in competition until later or not at all, they should be an integral piece of dressage training for the fact that they make much of the other skills SO MUCH EASIER for the horse.

Learning to step around independently with each front and hind quarters necessitates that the horse remain soft and supple through his body. It eliminates any tendency to brace his top line, raise above the bit, or throw himself on the forehand. Becoming more adept and comfortable with these moves, the horse grows more accountable for his own balance and more tuned to the rider’s seat. All his other basic training in these early stages– half-halts, circles, transitions, etc.– then flows much easier.

Many of us dressage riders learned not to emphasize tuns on the forehand, turns on the haunches, or rein-backs early because they might somehow create more disorganization in a horse not yet confirmed in his balance. I operated for many years as a trainer with this idea in the background of my game plan for each horse. And then I started to change the way I did things. I witnessed the magnificent results that some Western riders were achieving by slightly altering the training progression I was used to. I rode several horses in Portugal that, I swear, spent as much time traveling sideways and backwards as they did forwards. These horses felt as smooth and loose as silk to ride.

Then I began asking my dressage horses to do these turns a lot, and not just as preparation for test movements, and witnessed faster results in terms of how responsive they became to my aids for them to shift their balance while we were in forward motion. All this is to say that I have become a convert. I would like to propose that we use tees tools early on as a great assistance to our horses. They are a very clear and effective means of showing our horses how to improve their body mechanics.