Fit for Dressage: the case for grace and lightness

dressage horse

The case for Lightness

It took me longer than it should to respect the necessity of lightness when giving my horse a cue from the saddle.

“If I can see your aids, you’re doing too much,” my mother barked at me, to which I usually replied by rolling my eyes. Granted, devotion to invisible, gentle aids ran deep in the company of classical dressage students and teachers we kept. My mother was not the only one pushing for more refinement. Still, though, I assumed it had to do with keeping a certain aesthetic ideal.

The further I got in studying equine movement and fitness, the more I discovered on a daily basis that lightness of both our aids AND the horse’s response was not just about artistry. Lightness is not an aesthetic pursuit of classical crusaders but the evidence of everything working correctly beneath the surface.

As researchers have learned more about various muscle contractions, we have discovered that the neuro-motor systems in charge of the highly coordinated, fine-tuned maneuvers in dressage are the deep slower twitch fibers near the spine and joints. I refer to these as the postural muscles. They store a great deal of data related to coordination and proprioception. Leading the horse to access them requires tact and specificity.

Because horses are hard-wired to escalate psychological and physical tension to survive in the wild, big or strong aids cause them to react by engaging their large surface muscles for flight or to brace and protect themselves. When these engage with force, the switchboard sending signals to the postural muscles shuts off. In other words the neuro-motor and neuro-sensory responses that help horses move better go dormant. Instead of fine-tuned maneuvers, we get big surface muscles clamping and bracing.

You can see here this often creates a negative cycle: braced horse leads to stronger aids, which further braces the horse and alters the neuro-sensory feedback. The good news is that lightness creates a cycle, too, if we pay attention. When we aim to turn down the volume on our aids, when we seek to gain clear responses to them, the nerves and muscles controlling graceful and coordinated movements remain turned on.

Riding then transcends sport and becomes artistry. It gives us evidence that the aesthetic is right but so is the physiology. Naturally, when you are learning new exercises, your cues to the horse might be clunky or overly strong. As you practice, though, keep asking yourself can I be gentler? When the answer becomes ‘yes’ more and more frequently, you will have a more consistent conditioning effect on the right muscles. Likewise, they will stay engaged more readily, allowing you in turn to automatically choose lighter aids. This is the perfect cycle of science and aesthetics all working together!


Cross Training for Successful Daily Rides

If you’ve ever undertaken an exercise program, you have undoubtedly come across the merits of cross-training. Maybe this was as simple as a sports coach reminding you not to work the same muscle groups on consecutive days or recommending strength conditioning along with your endurance training and so on. Where athletic training is involved, cross-training provides an edge not obtainable by continually drilling the same muscle groups or cardiovascular response daily.

The most commonly known reason for cross-training is to avoid repetitive motion injuries—inevitable breakdown that occurs from taking the body’s muscles, joints, and ligaments through the same series of movements day after day. Cross-training allows your horse to achieve peak fitness without creating inflammation, muscle/ligament tears, or other injuries along the way. Maybe lesser known, though, are the other compelling reasons to cross-train. These include the ability to get more out of your performance and to train your horse for a much higher level of athleticism, which makes him more enjoyable to ride. This has the double benefit of making his riding and training more enjoyable for him too.

Interdisciplinary exercises like the ones includes in this book allow the horse to acquire more powerful and efficient locomotion. They teach his nervous system to recruit the best muscle fibers for each movement and exercise, leading to his ability to perform with greater ease over time. These types of exercises, outside your specific discipline, take a horse’s joints through a larger range of motion than his regular movement patterns. By making these gains in his overall balance, coordination, strength, and suppleness, your horse will quickly overcome the training roadblocks that impede many horses. For instance, exercises that require a different level of intensity or coordination can greatly improve your horse’s collected work. Too often, these roadblocks cause horses and riders to get stuck for prolonged periods of time. When this happens, riding can become frustrating, boring, or overly difficult. However, by integrating some cross-training into your normal routine, your riding journey will maintain forward momentum. And it will be fun!

This book will give you an easy roadmap for identifying useful cross-training principles and exercises and show you how to incorporate them into a plan that works for you. Above all, you will learn that you do not need new equipment, a different boarding situation, or even a drastic change in your normal routine.

First, let’s consider the purpose of cross-training. Some riders mistakenly assume that the value only comes from giving the horse a “mental break” from his regular dressage training. This isn’t the case. Cross-training exercises still require effort and work, after all, so while the horse may approach them with a bit more eagerness, they don’t exactly constitute a rest for the horse mentally. Instead, the purpose of adding variety to your schooling is to strengthen different muscle groups and improve proprioception (and therefore balance) in ways that don’t happen in everyday dressage riding. Also, it allows for conditioning the dressage horse without risking repetitive motion injuries (e.g. soreness, strained tendons, tired muscles) from always drilling the same movements.

These exercises will enhance your horse’s overall athletic ability– balance, coordination, strength, stamina. Imagine how much better your canter circles will be, for instance. Or your shoulder-in, transitions, impulsion.

The following are my guidelines for blending cross-training elements into your daily rides. They’re applicable to students of all disciplines, but especially useful in keeping a dressage athlete’s body in full working order. Give them a shot and see what happens. And remember to have fun.

Backing Up to Go Forward

Backing up can hugely improve our horses’ strength. When done properly with the horse in a rounded frame, rein-backs put the same demand on the horse as sit-ups or crunches do for us humans. It requires the horse to firm up and engage his tummy and back muscles while simultaneously stretching his hamstrings.

Julie Rotolo, a popular equine massage therapist around San Francisco Bay area, tells her clients that rein-back is arguably the most important exercise they can do for their horses.

“Hands down, it’s one of the best all-around conditioning exercises you can do,” said Rotolo, noting that the horse should ideally perform it with a low neck frame.

Gina Miles, 2008 Olympic gold medalist in eventing swears by backing up hills, which she does with all her performance horses in hand and under saddle. So, find a driveway, a knoll, or a pathway somewhere that you can ask your horse to back up for 10-15 steps, three times a week. At first, you may only get a few decent steps before you have to stop and remind him to lower his neck. Aim to get as many steps as the horse will willingly give. Ten steps should be your goal at minimum.

Take a Hint (and a stroll) from the Masters

Growing up, I watched a lot of training videos by dressage legend Reiner Klimke and I noticed the same thing about every single one: at the start of each session, his students would ride their horses in a walk on long reins repeatedly over a line of ground poles outside the arena. When they felt the horse’s back start to relax and swing, they gathered up their reins, headed into the arena and began their workouts.

Klimke obviously knew what equine chiropractors have since proven—that slow work over poles allows the horse’s sacral region to rock back and forth, thereby loosening. Few other exercises, except rein-back and walking down hills, have the same effect. And without focused loosening, this area of dressage horses gets pretty jammed up from doing so many collected movements.

Add this simple routine to your daily sessions. It’s simple, quick, and requires no special equipment except for a few fence poles that you probably already have lying around. Setting them up someplace outside your arena allows your horse to relax mentally before entering the arena. It also means that he’ll get to warm up on a different type of ground/footing, which in itself is a type of cross-training. There’s no need to go any faster than a walk. Just give yourself—and your horse—five minutes of sauntering slowly back and forth over those poles. It’s like medicine to his body!

Add a Slope to your Longe

We dressage riders are most often fanatical about finding level ground with good footing to ride on. However, when it comes to longeing, it can help your horse’s balance and hind-end strength—a lot!—by occasionally doing your groundwork on a gentle slope, also with good footing. In fact, this exercise is so great for horses that many equine physical therapy books recommend it for rehabbing horses after time off. It’s also frequently suggested as a cure for chronically crooked horses. Working a horse on sloped terrain encourages the horse to use his back in a way that improves looseness along his dorsal muscles and over his croup. On the descent portion, the horse’s abdominal muscles engage to balance him. On the ascent, his hip and back muscles engage. Therefore, the exercise is valuable in developing his entire core.

You’ll want to find a 20-meter circle area to longe your horse where the ground rises approximately three or four feet on one side and slopes downward the same amount on the opposite side of the circle. The footing must be somewhat smooth and stable. Begin by longeing your horse at the walk to ensure he is managing his footwork on the uneven ground. Then, pick up a rhythmic trot around the circle. Keep the tempo slow. In this exercise, the speed must be slow and easy enough for the horse to maintain the same rhythm all the way around the circle, rather than changing his speed from uphill portion to downhill.

Gearing up to Gallop

Popular FEI dressage trainer Yvonne Barteau believes a lot of dressage horses’ movement would be improved by a good swift gallop to free up their back muscles. Many of the sport’s forefathers and authors, like General DeCarpentry and Udo Berger argued this point decades ago. While obviously not a movement in dressage tests, galloping strengthens the horse’s front end and puts his limbs into a greater range of motion, which has the effect of releasing tension in his back from ordinary work.

Riders who train primarily in the arena often fail to gallop their horses, therefore missing out on a really valuable gymnastic tool. If you are unaccustomed to galloping, or a little timid, the best way for you to start is by taking small steps. So, first define your comfort zone. If you are afraid to gallop, you will not be a useful teammate for your horse. You will, however, be able to incrementally get past your fear one small step at a time.

Begin in the arena with a regular working canter. Then, for 30 seconds, make the canter bigger (slightly faster and with longer strides). You may sit in half-seat. Come back to a regular canter. Then, again make the canter bigger for 30 seconds and return to a regular canter. Keep doing these bouts for a period of several minutes until you’re able to stay in the bigger canter for longer than 30 seconds until it becomes a sustained period of galloping. If you eventually decide to take your efforts outside the arena, great! If not, don’t worry. Galloping is a useful exercise no matter the terrain.

** Note: In a bigger canter, the horse should never be out of control or excitable or start pulling on the reins, etc. That’s why we start in the arena to show him how to do things appropriately. If your horse shows a tendency to get excited or out of control, he needs to learn what’s expected of him. So, stick with the 30 second bouts until he learns the drill!



Finding Shape and Frame from the Ground Up

Ask a dozen riders what their primary goal is and I bet at least eight of them reply with the wish of getting their horses on the bit more consistently. Achieving a correct and consistent topline posture is indeed a vexing issue for most riders. Many grab their side reins in the hope that they will teach the horse’s neck to stay put where they want it. However, from a physiological standpoint, auxiliary aids like side reins are not the cure-all that many riders hope. The primary explanation for this is that a tight or weak muscle never improves by being fixed in a static position. What results is a pattern of restriction: reduced blood and oxygen flow.  In response to being held in a fixed position, an undeveloped muscle either braces, fatigues, or passes on workload to a compensating muscle group. None of these outcomes leads to progress.

I am going to share with you a better way to go about things.

When I travel to horse expos around the country, riders frequently come up and ask me how they can get their young, un-fit, or un-experienced horse to carry himself better. My answer is always the same: put his body in the outline you want him to learn. This means that even before you get in the saddle, spend time repeating exercises that show and develop his body how to be rounded and on the bit. The best part of this is that you can do it all without any pressure of the bit in his sensitive mouth.

Horses object to being on the bit for two reasons. Either they do not mentally understand how and why to put their spines in the posture we’re asking or they are physically inhibited from doing so. Sometimes it is a combination of both. The most straightforward and simple way to accomplish our goal is to simply put the horse’s body where we want it, helping him from the ground to develop the mental and physical ability to hold himself in a frame. By repetitively doing this, the horse’s musculo-skeletal system is recruited properly without physical resistance or mental apprehension.

I start all horses the same way. First, I saddle them and put them on a longe line, with the rope attached to a cavesson over their bridles, so I am not longeing from pressure on their mouths. A rope halter also suffices. Then, before asking them to move out on a circle, I create the shape that I want in their bodies. I do this at a halt by asking the horse to lower his neck out and downward (and then praising him) and then stepping around behind him and asking for a pelvic tuck (in photo). Now his topline is rounded in the shape I want, mirroring an “on the bit” posture we want him to have under saddle.

Now, from this posture, I gently ask him to move forward for several strides. In the beginning while he is still learning, he will eventually throw his head up after a little while. That is fine. Allow him to travel for another several strides and then bring him back in towards you and re-position him by lowering his head and tucking his pelvis. Then, send him forward again. You can also mix things up by putting his body in the correct shape and then executing a few turns on the forehand or back him up 10 steps. Or you can just walk along beside him around the arena, re-positioning him as necessary. Break up these maneuvers with a 2-3 circles of trotting on the line. By continually re-positioning his body and putting it in balance, you will help his nervous system form a habit of being here.

This is technical work and you want to be sure not to nag your horse for long, picky sessions. But by doing short focused sessions like this for 10 minutes at a time, you will be amazed at how quickly the horse’s body changes without needing restrictive gadgets or aids.