Dressage Principles that Sound Like Zen Riddles
It sounded like one of those Zen riddles intended to puzzle my brain until it staggered upon some flicker of enlightenment. Forward does not mean faster, my dressage instructor annunciated, her exasperation rising. And then with the next breath she waggled her longe whip towards me to assist in creating a forward-but-not-faster movement.
My Welsh pony surged ahead in a bone-rattling trot as our speed ticked up, and I gleaned from my instructor’s grimace that I was failing her proverb. As I understood it, I needed to get my pony’s hind legs moving with more activity and energy. But how was I supposed to do that without changing her speed? For as simple as it was in theory, I found out the concept of riding a horse correctly “forward” was surprisingly elusive in practice.
I’ve observed numerous dressage riders banging their legs on their horses’ sides to get the horse moving more ‘forward’ until they are charging around the arena in a state of tension or frenzy. Just as often, I see riders who are unwilling to ride this way plodding around on a horse that appears disinterested and utterly disengaged with the work he is doing. Neither scenario is ideal. Nor are they the correct interpretation of riding a horse “forward.”
What IS the correct interpretation? A Western trainer I admire named Tom Pierson defined it best, and I think he did so without even realizing he was talking about dressage. He said working with a horse is like constantly checking in with the temperature gauge on your car. When the car is running right, the needle on your gauge should be directly in the middle of the spectrum between too hot and too cold. Think of your horse’s attention and focus being this way, he explained. You do not want him so hyper alert and fired up that the needle on your gauge tips one way. Nor do you want him so tuned out and sleepy that it tips the other way. You want it in the middle. Always.
Lately, I have begun to adopt the Western terminology of “readiness” in favor of the word “forward” that we dressage riders have relied on. No matter whether I am mid-stride in an extended trot, a halt, or a canter transition my horse needs to be fully ready and responsive for the next cue I give. When he is in this state, he travels with the activity and engagement in his limbs that we pursue as evidence that he is correctly moving ‘forward.’ In other words, nobody needs to chase after me waggling a longe whip to create a desirable amount of engagement. And I do not need to keep my horse in a state of chomping edginess masquerading as liveliness and energy.
Of course, even the term “readiness” would have been murky for a 13-year-old to solve so it still might have taken me years to arrive at the understanding that good, classical dressage requires a horse to be alert but not frenzied. If I could offer one tip for how to keep your horse in a state of readiness without chasing him unnecessarily faster, it would be the following.
At various moments during your ride, no matter what you are doing (or not doing), ask yourself: does it feel like I could instantly and immediately extend my horse’s stride right now? Does it feel just as likely that I could stop him on a dime without encountering resistance? If these answers are yes, chances are good that you’ve done well keeping him in a state of readiness. If the answer if no—and be honest with yourself—it would be a good idea to prioritize spending a week or so of your training working solely on this.
Operating with the above question in mind as you ride will inform your training considerably. The next time you are riding around practicing elusive dressage ideals and you think to yourself I think this trot is pretty good…but is it good enough?, ask yourself the readiness question and you will have your answer.
Good vs. Evil: the horse’s nervous system
An ever-present challenge of training horses is that they are hard-wired to escalate tension. This has helped them survive in the wild. Studies of the amygdala area of their brain show that when a horse is in a state of mental tension, even a small external stimulus causes the anxiety to quickly ratchet up. The horse is then trapped in flight mode. Unfortunately, we load them with stimulus whenever we interact with them, especially when we are trying to attain specific results.
Obviously a horse in a hyper-toned state of mind cannot be expected to use his body in ways requiring precise motor control. Or perhaps I should say that we cannot successfully ask him to do this when his brain and body are operating from signals to be tense. We cannot fine tune recruitment of muscles that are primed for flight. It does not matter how skilled a rider or trainer might be; a horse will never make good gains until he is under the influence of a calmer nervous system. How, then, do we go about our training in a way that diffuses, rather than builds, tension?
Our task is to untether the horse from his sympathetic nervous system (the flight/fight center) and recruit his parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ command center). Studies of the equine brain show that the activity in the amygdala, the anxiety and flight center, can in fact be re-programmed significantly. This happens through hands-on touch and bodywork followed by the correct physical exercises.
This equation rewires a horse’s operating system in a way that enables them to learn and adopt new behaviors and movement patterns. Over time, this rewiring becomes a permanent state of being. Without this approach, we trainers are generally just loading tension on top of already existing mental or physical tension, alienating the horse from his ‘rest and digest’ mode of operation, which is the only environment where positive change happens.
Every single cue we give our horses, every interaction and request, can send them more firmly under the influence of either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems. Being a trainer that can help access the parasympathetic nervous system means acquiring a whole new set of skills than the ones most of us were originally taught. Some days it feels like a slower path forward, but if we wish to see permanent changes, it is the only path forward. Otherwise, we try and try to change habits without getting very far because we fail to address the underlying control center for these habits. In reality the seemingly slower path is actually the faster path forward.
When a horse is not able to change in ways that we might wish—the ways that will benefit him—we need to stop and ask what about his living conditions or training might we shift in order to not continue adding fuel to the fire of his sympathetic nervous system? Is there discomfort we can alleviate? Are his schedules consistent and predictable? Is his training making measurable contributions to utilizing his parasympathetic nervous system? This sort of inquiry led me to write my latest book, 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses, and continues to challenge me to become a more helpful trainer. During my upcoming clinics, I’ll be asking students to join me in this inquiry. Meantime, what thoughts do you have to share on this?
How to Place Ground Poles for Gaited Horses
It’s no secret that I rely a lot on cavalletti routines in clinics and training. Riders of gaited horses, though, occasionally feel left out since much of the information about how to arrange ground pole exercises is based on the average distance of trot strides. I myself have been guilty of writing articles that refer only to how to set up poles for walk, trot, and canter. Riders of non-trotting horses are left with the impression that cavalletti routines are not for them. To the contrary, gaited horses benefit enormously from the spinal stabilizing effects of these exercises.
As gaited breeds gain popularity among adult amateur riders, I have noted the paucity of information available to them about modifying our most useful exercises to meet their particular needs. To this end, I wanted to share some quick advice on setting up ground poles in a helpful way for gaited breeds. This is just one exercise among dozens of possibilities, but it’s a simple and quick one. And the benefit for clinicians is that the distance between poles in this example can work for both trotting and non-trotting breeds, allowing a group of riders to work together without anyone feeling left out.
Any ground pole exercise for gaited horses has the goal of improving or clarifying the rhythm of their particular gait. We never wish to arrange poles just for the sake of challenging their coordination or seeing how high they might lift their limbs. Instead, we want to use exercises that confirm the power and steadiness of their unique footfall patterns that often become disrupted or irregular when a gaited horse does not use his body correctly. Never practice cavalletti exercises that interrupt the smoothness of their stride or cause them to struggle to maintaing gait. Bear this in mind as you scan articles and books for routines that are relevant to your Icelandic, Missouri Foxtrotter, Tennessee Walker, and others.
Meantime, you can use the following arrangement regularly in your training to help gaited breeds flex their hind limbs and find stability through their trunk.
Simple Ground Pole Set-up for Gaited Breeds
- Set four or five ground poles parallel to each other in a line (so that you can ride straight across them). Space the poles at a distance of 8 feet* apart.
- Now develop your working gait (Tolt, Foxtrot, Running Walk, etc.)
- Ride straight across the poles.
- You should count TWO steps from your horse between each pole. For instance, each front foot should take a step in the space between the poles before crossing over the next pole.
- Your rhythm should feel like this: CROSS the pole, One-Two, CROSS the pole, One-Two, CROSS the pole, and so on… Feel for those beats and aim to keep them consistent each time you ride over the poles.
- Repeat the pattern at least 12 times.
**this is an average spacing for a horse about 15.2 hands tall. If you ride a horse with a shorter stride, you will modify the spacing suggestion by 2-3 inches.
Riders are the Best Training Aids
The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more it becomes clear how riding and training can alter their bodies and not always in positive ways. As we observe just how fragile and delicate these animals are beneath the surface it can be tempting to question whether we should be riding them in the first place. I have watched a couple of my colleagues step away from riding and training for just this reason, causing me to question my own participation.
I continue to believe that nearly every horse can be made better by a rider. To be clear, that rider needs to be skilled and patient, mindful and committed, and a keen observer. But having witnessed the value of dressage applied to all kinds of horses over the years, I believe a horse can have a better life through riding than without it. The physically transformative influence of the rider’s educated seat upon the horse guides him to a better version of himself– balanced and symmetrical, strong and noble, elegant, and confident through his partnership with a patient leader. I have witnessed dozens of horses ‘fixed’, or given more comfortable lives, because of the therapeutic training through dressage.
Last week, I was sorting through some videos and articles about vertebral crowding (aka “Kissing Spine syndrome”) among performance horses and several of the x-ray images showed such evidence of discomfort that I thought briefly maybe we have no business riding these poor animals. If we are pinching their vertebrae and bruising their mouths and causing imbalanced muscular development, then maybe we should just leave them alone. Probably this is a quandary many trainers wrestle with, but might feel ridiculous voicing.
When I went to the barn the following day, the x-ray images were still lingering in my mind especially as I saddled up my first horse of the morning. I paused and looked around my training facility. I noted the once anxious mare that has blossomed through training in to a serene and confident animal. I noted the big gelding that used to get stuck in place out in the middle of the field because his stifles locked up from lack of fitness. I watched the two senior Icelandics (one is 24 years old, the other 26) that remain healthy, sturdy, and energetic because of the consistent exercise program they’re in. All of these horses would currently lead lives quite a bit less comfy and content were it not for regular riding.
A rider’s seat can accomplish magical things. It can guide a horse to use his own body in ways that are far more functional and therapeutic. In this way, it is one of our most valuable training assets. Sure, many folks can accomplish– and enjoy– playing with horses from the ground only without riding. I don’t mean to infer that this has no value; it clearly does. I just wish to sing the praises of riding because I have seen it deliver such wellness to so many horses. And, yes, probably just as equally poor riding delivers deleterious effects, which we could rant on and on about here. In the spirit of remaining positive for the best interest of our noble steeds, though, I prefer to focus on the good we can achieve. For me, this means riding them.
The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more clear it becomes just how good we need to become as riders.
Spring Conditioning for Horses, where to start?
Spring Conditioning: Where to start?
When spring finally arrives, the sunny riding season ahead can meet riders with both excitement and anxiety. Where do I start, you might wonder as you calculate how un-fit your horse has become from a winter mostly off. How long will it take to ease him back to fitness? What sorts of exercises and timelines should you use? In this article, I’ll answer these questions plus offer a simple schedule in addition to some rules you never want to break.
As a starting point, let’s consider when a horse loses the fitness he might have acquired the previous season. Any time a horse’s exercise routine drops below three 45-minute work sessions per week for a period longer than 4 weeks, we consider him to have lost a majority of fitness. If he reaches 12 weeks working less than three times per week, his fitness has zeroed out, including any baseline or foundation. For our purposes in this article, we will assume most readers are starting from this point.
Your priorities for the initial six weeks will be the cardiovascular system and core stability muscles. Your workouts should focus on basic conditioning rather than schooling specific skills and maneuvers. They will remain less than 40 minutes and aim to deliver a low to moderate amount of cardiovascular stress while also emphasizing calisthenics type exercises to engage the horse’s postural muscles. I will offer a sample schedule to meet these goals below.
Keep in mind you do not need to work your horse at a gasping rate of effort in order to achieve gains. In fact, this would be counter-productive. Muscle enzymes, capillaries, and plasma volumes are not yet properly developed in order to benefit from these kinds of workloads. Instead, you would raise stress hormones and fail to improve how the body utilizes oxygen, which should be the focus. If you monitor your horse’s heart rate, it should hover between 120 and 140 beats per minute for the middle portion of your ride between the warm-up and cooldown.
During this initial cardio phase, your strength training should only take the form of slow-moving, controlled calisthenics routines rather than exercises that activate the horse’s big locomotive muscles like the back, rump, or hamstrings. The connective tissues that stabilize and support these larger muscles—and the joints near them– are not toned at this point and will respond with tension and stiffness trying to play their role.
Due to this state in the early phases of conditioning, the horse is prone to developing incorrect neuro-motor patterns or faulty proprioceptive signals, which is another reason we avoid challenges that trigger big muscles. Remember: conditioning is not just about muscles and bones and lung capacity. It is just as much about training the nervous system.
There is no need to rush. More challenging strength training as well as higher cardiovascular efforts can, and will, happen after the first six weeks. Your workouts in weeks one through six will follow this pattern: basic cardio plus calisthenics to improve stabilizing muscles. A sample schedule will look like the following:
Week 1: Flat ground work 3 times per week at a moderate walk for 30 minutes, plus 5 minutes of calisthenics*
Weeks 2-3: Flat ground work 3 times per week at a moderate walk for 40 minutes, plus 5 minutes calisthenics
Weeks 4-5: Flat ground work 3 times per week at moderate walk/trot 40 minutes plus 5 minutes calisthenics.
*choose from calisthenics list at the end of this article
At this point, you have gradually eased the horse’s metabolic system back in to a regular aerobic routine but he is by no means fit. His cells will be more efficiently shuttling blood and oxygen around the body as plasma volumes increase, clearing out wasteful byproducts of exercise that create soreness. His muscles will have increased their capillary density and enlarged the fibers needed for the work at hand. And perhaps most importantly, the low to moderate work load coupled with consistent calisthenics will have woken up and stimulated his postural muscles which otherwise would have remained dormant.
Now the real work begins. From week six onward, you will be gradually increasing the duration and/or intensity of workouts. Please note that when making workouts harder in any exercise program, you do not increase intensity and duration of exercise simultaneously. During a given workout, you only increase one or the other. For instance, you can make a workout harder by either making it longer or by adding difficult exercises to your normal session length. A sample of the next few weeks follows:
Weeks 6-7: Flat ground work four times per week at moderate walk/trot for 40 minutes. One day per week can include schooling over ground poles not to exceed 5 minutes. Continue calisthenics 3 times per week.
Weeks 8-9: Moderate walk, trot, and canter four times per week for 40 minutes; two days per week can be ridden on hilly terrain. One day per week can include schooling ground poles not to exceed 8 minutes. Continue calisthenics 3 times per week.
Weeks 10-12: Moderate walk, trot, and canter 4 to 5 times per week for 45 minutes (one of these sessions should last 70-80 minutes). Include two days of calisthenics per week and one day of schooling over ground poles.
At this stage, your horse will be primed well to reach his full fitness level, which is still several weeks away, but the above schedule gives you a good basic starting place. From here, you will want to add strength and conditioning routines specific to your chosen discipline at least two days per week, and you will also want to develop a variety in the duration of each workout. Most of your workouts will remain around 45 minutes, but one or two per week should run quite a bit longer while one remains shorter than 35 minutes. Your goal is to work the horse at different effort levels day to day, hence these varying times. This article does not have space to delve in to sport specific training, but regardless what your chosen sport might be, every horse needs a well- developed base on which to build.
The schedule I have offered here does contain some flexibility. For example, how you spend your riding time in weeks one through six is up to you—riding in a flat arena, a pasture, down a flat road, and so on.
***Suggested calisthenics exercises; choose three to five per day to execute on the days noted in the conditioning schedule:
-Backing up un-mounted 60 steps
– lateral cervical stretching using either your hands or carrot baits
– Walking slowly over high raised poles (mounted or un-mounted)
– pelvic tucks and/or belly lifts
– Walking and bending around a 10-meter circle with a very low stretched neck position (mounted or un-mounted)
– tight serpentines (un-mounted)
– walking briskly over ground poles placed randomly around an area of varying surfaces, i.e. grass, sand, gravel.