Set your Standard High… and Then Aim for it!

IMG_7477Back then it seemed like the least helpful instruction my mother ever gave me, but she frequently stood in the center of the arena saying something like “wait it out” as I rode around trying to cue my pony to do something she was not at that moment doing. For all I knew, we were a long way from ever doing the thing I wanted, and I needed someone to tell me something more specific than just to wait around.

Of course in those pre-teen years, I missed the importance of that instruction. I had to discover it much later on my own. I also had to discover the hidden profundity that, in those words, my mother was planting a seed that involved holding my horses to high expectations. This is a point I have thought about a lot lately when co-teaching with a colleague who uses a different phrase to convey the same instruction I found so dubious all those years ago. When a student is giving an aid but not achieving the immediate desired result, my colleague will say “hang in there” to prevent her student from giving up or trying a new or stronger aid.

This kind of instruction can get lost in the background noise of our busy minds. But trust me on this, it is one of the most important things to learn as a rider. Seeing an aid through to its desired result means having complete confidence in it. If you begin to question your request part-way through, your horse will question not only that one but also the next one you give. Admittedly, this involves treading outside our comfort zones as riders. And this is where the part about holding our horses to higher standards comes in.

If we never ask too much of our horses beyond our normal comfortable routine, we can kid ourselves in to believing they are pretty responsive. When we increase our requests, however, we often discover just the opposite. Many of us have forged an agreement where we ask our horses for a comfortable amount of work or attention and he in turn delivers an acceptable enough effort. Occasionally if we drift outside this arrangement to ask for more, we quickly doubt our game plan if the horse responds incorrectly at first. Caught by surprise, confusion, or worry, the horse might lock up through his body, raise his neck, and try to feel his way through– or against– your aids. If we quit our aids right then, we do not lead the horse to something he is very capable of achieving.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps owing to a blurry interpretation of natural horsemanship techniques, or a desire to be kinder in their training, many students have grown dependent on being in a comfortable zone 100 percent of the time with their horses. This usually translates to a lowering of expectations. I have witnessed– and likely been guilty myself– students decrease their standards in moments that are becoming uncomfortable rather than work through them.

Let me give you an example. Last week, I watched a rider who wanted to ask her horse to back up through a pair of ground poles, which was the kind of exercise well outside what she normally does during a session. Initially, the horse stepped backwards fine. Once he was aligned between the two poles on the ground, though, he got confused. So, he stopped backing up, raised his neck in the air,and braced his body like a piece of timber. Instead of “hanging in there,” his rider froze up, released the reins, and abandoned her idea to back him up through the poles.

She convinced herself that she had asked for way too much, her horse had lost his composure, and so on. Rather than attempt to break the exercise down in to step-by-step pieces so that she could in the end achieve her goal, she left it alone and returned to her normal comfy routine. In so doing, she decided that her smart and athletic young Arabian was not capable of that simple task. I would argue that this abandonment of her aids led to lowering her expectations for her horse. As unhelpful as it probably sounded, I encouraged her to “wait it out.”

I believe we can hold our horses to high expectations and still treat them fairly and calmly. And by doing so, we can create an even more fulfilling relationship with them. Remember this: many times you have to give your aid and just wait. Do not abandon it just because the situation might get a little untidy at first. Hang in there.

The Downside of Good Training

Well, shoot. My previous argument might have lost its weight, literally. I used to spend a lot of time convincing my sporty but non-riding friends that horseback riding was indeed an athletic endeavor. They assured me otherwise, that my horse was doing all the effort and I was just along for the not-so-aerobic ride. It was a pleasant pastime, they debated. A worthwhile hobby, but definitely not a workout.

IMG_0077My other pleasant pastimes, however, did not leave me red-faced and wrung out. Many times I peeled myself off an obstinate youngster, sweaty and over-worked, and wondered why so many people kept gym memberships when they could just ride a couple ornery Warmbloods. In fact, many of my days as a young trainer were spent on the higher end of the aerobic zone. Quadriceps and hip flexors throbbed as I shoved horses away from my leg cues, back muscles clenched to balance myself during some topsy turvy movements in trot-canter transitions. By day’s end I was purely exhausted sitting over a plate of dinner with droopy eyelids pondering the likelihood of staying awake past 8pm.

And then my mentors’ teachings took firmer hold. Finally as a not-young-anymore trainer I became a lot pickier about my horses’ responsiveness. No excused accepted, I insisted they respond to my aids well beyond a kinda, sorta way. And they did. And then I started to lose the debate with my non-rider friends. Riding was no longer such punishing exercise. In fact, I dismounted after most riders feeling pretty fresh, no sweating or aching. After several months of this consistent state, it occurred to me that all this had a down-side: I now needed a gym membership. I now had another activity (working out) to add to my schedule and budget. Shoot.

One time while auditing a clinic with the late– and very frail– Hans von Blixen- Finecke (The Art of Riding) I heard him say of a rider using forceful effort: “If it took strength, I could not do it.” He urged the student to not accept that she was putting in such intense effort with such little response from her horse. To make his point, the old riding master asked for some assistance up from his chair so that he could mount the student’s horse and demonstrate. My breath caught in my throat. If he could not even lift himself from his chair without help, how was this weak octogenarian planning to ride this woman’s Warmblood mare? A tense silence fell over the auditors around me who were obviously worrying over the same question.

Two assistants helped settle Mr. Blixen-Finecke in the saddle and threaded the double bridle reins through his clawed fingers. The old master wobbled around in the saddle as though he had no bones inside to hold him up. Nonetheless, he urged the mare forward past those of us still holding our breath, clasping the reins the best he could in his arthritic hands. Then with an expert timing of his frail leg and very weak hands, he aided the big horse sideways in a nicely angled and marching half-pass. Given that he was incapable of shoving of working too hard, the mare moved from appeared to be totally effortless guidance, just correct and insistently timed cues.

That episode obviously left a lasting impression on me, a standard for myself as a trainer. If a nearly crippled guy could get so much responsiveness from a horse, why was I using all my youthful vigor to get less results? Why not join my non-riding friends at the gym and adopt their view that horseback riding is a pleasant pastime rather than a dose of exhaustion? Of course this paradigm is one that requires constant honing, one that comes in to sharper focus each week. But in memory of the late Hans von Blixen-Finecke, I would like to say thank you for inspiring me to get my horses to do all the effort and sweating.

Western Dressage Exercise – Serpentine Three Ways

Blending arena figures together allows us to shape our horses’ bodies under us. Whether we want more bend or impulsion or roundness, we should remember that well ridden figures are our sharpest tools. By well ridden, I mean accurate and rhythmic. More often than not, riders end up with vaguely defined figures: wobbly circles, wandering turns, and so on. The downside of this, aside from being unclear to the horse, is that the rider loses communication with the horse’s hind legs and the horse adopts poor alignment, usually getting crooked in the direction of his dominant side since horses are as naturally crooked as their human partners.

My solution has always been for riders to practice figures that force them to pay attention to this. The following is an excellent tool to coordinate a rider’s aids. It requires making subtle but clear shifts in geometry that bring more control and engagement to the horse’s hind legs. When this happens, other delightful things start happening such as collection, self-carriage, and lightness.  Practice alternating between the following figures during a session.

3 Ways to Serpentine

Western Dressage Exercise 3 loop serpentineA.      3- Loop Serpentines

  1. Begin in working walk or jog, tracking right.
  2. At A, begin a 3-loop serpentine. (for an accurate 3-loop serpentine, you ride three 20-meter half circles connected together).  Be sure to touch the rail at the apex of each loop. If you are not reaching the sides of the arena, your loops are too small.
  3. Be sure to change flexion/bend through your horse’s entire poll and spine each time you start a new loop; do not just turn and drift in the new direction.
  4. All three loops should be EQUAL size and shape. Arrive at the end of your serpentine with the SAME rhythm that you started in.

Western Dressage Exercise square serpentine B.      Square Serpentine

(image only shows how to make your corners, does not necessarily follow the instructions below)

  1. Ride the above pattern again, except in the place of rounded loops, make box turns across the arena.
  2. Begin at A in working jog traveling right.
  3. Between K and E, ride a square turn to the right.
  4. Proceed straight across the arena to the opposite rail.
  5. Turn left and ride straight down the rail.
  6. Half way between B and M, ride a square turn left and again ride straight across the arena.
  7. At the opposite rail, turn right and proceed along the rail.

 Western Dressage Exercise 5 loop serpentineC.      5-Loop Serpentines

  1. Again begin at A in a working walk or jog, tracking right.
  2. Begin a 5-loop serpentine. If you are in a standard large dressage arena, this means each loop will be like riding half of a 12-meter circle…
  3. … then proceed straight for 2-3 strides while you change your horse’s bend. Then begin a new 12-meter half circle the new direction.
  4. Carry on like this until you arrive at the end of the arena at C, having ridden 5 equal sized loops.
  5. Be sure that each loop touches the track of the arena.


Remember to support your horse with your outside leg during each turn or loop. Many riders struggle to create an adequate bend with their horses due to not getting their own outside leg far enough back and against the horse during the moment of the turn. Think of your outside leg like a guardrail. It keeps the horse’s haunches aligned, maintains his momentum and defines the amount of bend or sharpness of turn you want.

Western Dressage Exercise – The 4 x 4 x 4

This week’s exercise is more for the rider than the horse. I assign it to riders struggling with their leg positions or effectiveness and clarity of their cues. Basically, it works by getting riders to use their legs instead of sitting passively on the horse. It brings the side effect of also opening the rider’s hips—something we all need! I have also found that, by moving themselves around in the saddle like this exercise requires, riders are then more able to isolate different body parts later in the ride.

Icall this exercise the 4-4-4. You must start from a good hip-heel alignment. Be sure that a plumb line dropped down from your hip would intersect your heel. Also please remember to STEER your horse during this exercise. Don’t let yourself get so focused on doing the exercise that you forget to tell your horse where to go. This will require keeping your reins organized and looking ahead.

Now, let’s get started.

                                                                                                            Illustration by Susan Harris

The 4-4-4

  1. Begin in a sitting jog. Establish a good working rhythm.
  2. Then, proceed in a posting jog for four strides (count strides on the horse’s outside shoulder. Each time it comes forward counts as 1 stride)
  3. Immediately hold yourself up in a two-point or “half seat” position for four strides.
  4. Then resume sitting jog for four strides.
  5. Repeat entire sequence several times.
  6. Be sure to maintain a steady jogging rhythm.

You want to be able to transition from sitting to posting to half-seat to sitting without any disturbance in the horse’s balance. So, remember to give him clear guidance with steering (it is easiest to just follow the arena fence for this one) and make smooth transitions between each type of seat position. For instance, do not flop down abruptly when you resume sitting jog; sit down lightly. Also, when you lift up for half-seat position, stretch your upper body tall and keep your knees supple to absorb motion. In all your transitions, control your body to make smooth adjustments. Also, stop and re-gain your hip to heel alignment any time you lose it! Otherwise, your half-seat position will be entirely unsuccessful!

Your Firm, Flexible Frame

Have you noticed that all great riders share the same thing? They sit so still that they look like they aren’t doing anything. They seem to be exempt from the challenging, sometimes bumpy process of correctly cuing the horse under them. For some, they inspire envy. For others, they elicit an unanswered “how do they DO that?”

This way of sitting is what I call the unmovable frame. It is what makes an exceptional rider, no matter the discipline but especially in dressage where the precision and clarity of aids rely on an absolutely stable foundation. Without an unmovable frame, much of riding can be difficult, even frustrating. At the very least, its finer points will seem elusive.

So, what exactly is an unmovable frame? It is a deeply stable framework of your body around the horse that is also light and flexible, allowing you to absorb motion without disturbing that stability. This frame allows the rider to effectively organize her horse underneath her without tightening or toppling her own position in the saddle. Without it—and what is commonly seen—the horse moves its rider around with its gaits, movements, evasions and the rider then gets disorganized in her body.

First, riders need to learn what this deeply rooted stability feels like. Here it is important to note that the term “unmovable” should not be interpreted as rigid, tight, or gripping. For this reason, I commonly make an analogy to martial arts.  Picture the grounded, controlled movements of a martial artist and you will begin to grasp the stability we seek in the saddle. In your body, it feels like your center of gravity has lowered (from your chest/ribcage to below your belt line), and you are more “plugged into” the horse’s back. This is commonly called riding with your core energy and tone, rather than riding from your arms and lower legs, tension, or moving your body forwards and backwards. Eventually, you will feel so much in balance that aids can become minimal.

In lessons, I often ask riders to sit at the halt while I go up beside them and push on them from the front or pull their belt from behind. I ask them to resist my push without leaning forward or backward but instead by firming up their abdominal area. This simple exercise is the first step in finding a rider’s unmovable frame. When they can meet my push with an active resistance in their core and without bracing their shoulders or arching their backs, they begin to find their deep riding stability.

To begin getting your body organized correctly, try the following martial arts posture called kiba-dachi which translates to Horse Stance. Stand with your legs a little further apart than hips’ width. Bend your knees in a partial squat, toes angled slightly inward, align your shoulder-hip-ankle vertically, point your tailbone straight down to the ground. Now, firm up your core, as if you were going to resist someone walking up to you and shoving you backwards. Notice how much weight-bearing now falls on your upper and outer thigh muscles. Imagine being in this stance on your horse.

A stable rider sits with exactly this same stance. You should feel not only firm by also light and easy for your horse to carry. In this position, you will experience the disappearance of many common riding challenges: interfering with horse’s motion, inability to sit the trot, muddled transitions, lack of maneuverability.

While achieving this unmovable frame may seem challenging or time-consuming, I have witnessed in my years of teaching riders that it is actually a short-cut to beautiful and skilled riding. Simply, put without it, riders constantly struggle or get stuck in training ruts that could be swiftly mitigated by the framework of their position. Improve your position and you just might be surprised. Your riding will accelerate in ways you never imagined!

By Erica Posely with Jec Aristotle Ballou for Honest Horses Magazine | March – April 2012 Issue