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.

horse health

Avoid Burnout with Your Horse: Have a Plan

For those of us who can measure our involvement with horses by decades rather than days or months, showing up at the barn can feel like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. With a few minor variations, our days follow a similar routine. And while these routines are generally satisfying, they open the door for burnout. Even when you love your horse– or horse training career– wildly, this sameness gets dull.

When you sustain any routine for an extended time– a hobby, an exercise program, a health habit– burnout lurks around the corner.

The obvious solution, and the right thing for our horses, is to avoid the sameness. In so doing we avoid burnout. For our purposes, I’m defining sameness as exercises of similar type or intensity every time we work with our horses. Once upon a time as young trainer, I put my training horses through 45-minute dressage schooling sessions 4 to 5 days per week operating from the belief that in order to get better at dressage, we needed to do dressage as much as possible. Sometimes I substituted a day of longing or ground driving for riding, but generally our daily routines were very similar.

With small variations in the exercises we rode or the amount of time in each gait, the bulk of our arena schooling was repetitive in terms of work effort, seriousness, duration, and objectives. As a note-young-anymore trainer I admitted to myself that I felt a little burned out. Maybe not entirely toasted yet, but definitely burning around the edges.

western dressage

Luckily it was at this time that I began studying equine exercise physiology in earnest and learned the horses needed me to change my Groundhog Day approach anyway. To become better at dressage, my horses needed to become better athletes, not necessarily to do dressage every day. Funny enough, adapting my routine for this (with the convenient side effect of preventing burnout for me) involved drafting in many ways a more rigid weekly schedule. This new plan had built-in variety and cross-training, variations in duration and intensity of training days, and prevents me from obsessing over the tedium of dressage any given day. I probably don’t need to tell you it made made both me and the horses happier.

Adhering to this plan has helped me make better equine athletes, for sure. But more notably, it keeps me from burning out. It allows me to arrive at the barn each morning with a bright mood, a clear and focused mindset, and still after all these years a little eagerness. In a general outline, my weekly schedule is below. Obviously, there are times on any given day when I scrap the plan in favor of addressing a horse’s particular need that arises. More or less, though, our weeks follow a rhythm like this:

Monday: basic gymnastic work, 30-45 minutes of riding in all three gaits, several transitions between gaits, lots of stretching. No fiddling with dressage movements.

Tuesday: Cavalletti day. A warm-up followed by 20 minutes schooling an exercise from my books.

Wednesday: Dressage schooling session

Thursday: Trail ride

Friday: Dressage schooling session

Saturday: longeing/bodywork/hack

Sunday: Off

horse health

Cavesson: it’s all about connection

The Cavesson: it’s all about connection

Too much of a good thing, taken to its excess, usually becomes less than ideal. Such is the case with lightness. Its pursuit, or its misinterpretation, often results in horses moving without sufficient tone throughout their bodies because riders or handlers have over emphasized the goal of loose reins. The condition of loose reins is not necessarily synonymous with a horse moving in lightness.

Lightness is best defined as the equilibrium of looseness and positive tension in the horse’s body that allows him to move with flawless balance and coordination. It is always accompanied by a soft, light feeling of connection—not emptiness—to the rider’s reins or, in the case of groundwork, his line. Longe cavessons offer one of the best tools to create this state. They allow a handler to create ideal posture and alignment without pressure on the horse’s mouth from a bit or by twisting his poll as a halter will. It permits the handler to help adjust the horse’s balance without ‘fixing’ him in a frame where he may become rigid or defensive.

Happily, I’ve witnessed an increase in the use of cavessons in recent years. The best ones have a small ring over the bridge of the horse’s nose where a longe line gets attached. The value of this attachment position is its effectiveness in drawing the horse’s topline forward and outward while simultaneously helping flex the poll laterally.

(Corazon reaches forward in to my “contact” with the line)

(the cavesson allows me to organize and align Corazon’s body when there is proper positive tension between handler and horse).

Unfortunately, though, I often observe students standing in the center of a circle with their horses trotting around them on the end of a droopy line that is dragging in the dirt at the mid-point between their hands and the horse’s nose. This negates the purpose of the cavesson, which when correctly used, teaches the horse to actively stretch over the top of his body and maintain positive tension in his topline muscles. When he travels in this state, he creates a “draw” on the handler’s line or rope. The horse adopts consistency in this state by the handler in turn offering the feeling of light, elastic support on the rope.

By maintaining light connection with the rope rather than wandering around aimlessly with it sagging towards the ground beside him, the horse learns confidence towards the riders’ hands. He also consistently experiences the state of his topline remaining actively engaged, which in time gets habituated. Until this happens, the energy and propulsion of his hindquarters will not be transmitted forward over his topline and connected to his front end. In other words, he will not be capable of moving well. The two ends of his body will lack the bridge that connects them.

Remember: the quality of tension in your longe line always mirrors the tonicity in the horse’s body. Excess tension in the body makes the line heavy and tight. Too little tension leaves the line slack. A horse reaching forward through his neck supported by the right amount of tone throughout the rest of his body will fill up your line. This filling up will feel like ounces of weight, not pounds, in your line.

Try this:

  1. Begin by circling your horse around you on a 12-meter circle at a brisk walk or slow trot.
  2. By maintaining a.) a steady rhythm in the horse’s gait, b.) good geometry on your circle, and c.) holding your line at the same height, aim to keep the exact same pressure on your line every stride. (many horses will pull on the line on one side of their circle and then flatten the other halt of the circle, letting the rope drag in the dirt).
  3. When you are able to do this… now, after each revolution of your circle, jog several strides straight ahead from your standing position (jogging beside your horse while maintaining the same tension on the line)… and then make another 12-meter circle. Keep the same feeling of connection in the line.
  4. Continue shifting your circle several feet in this manner, showing the horse no matter where you travel, you are keeping the tone in the line.

To Read or Not Read Old Dressage Books

The Scholarship of Horse Training
… or “Is There Value in Reading Old Books?”

My conversation last month with renowned trainer and veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann did not lead where I thought it would, having started with muscles but ending with books. He said he believed many of the disappointments in modern training are due to students no longer being committed to the scholarship of dressage. In addition to physical practice, he wishes for them to read and study and think deeply. But most riders don’t see the point, he lamented.

Or do they?

I personally have always devoured training books and articles. Maybe because of that I mistakenly assumed everyone did this. In any case, our conversation left me pondering just how important it is—or is not—to read the old classical dressage books.

Without doubt, studying these old texts is vital even for the most skilled among us. For one, it illuminates commonality between trainers of different disciplines. I remember riding in a clinic with reining horse pro Jack Brainard listening to him quote one of my favorite passages of Alois Podhajsky’s classical dressage manual The Complete Training of Horse and Rider. Another time I was listening to Olympian Peter Leone discuss strategies for training jumping horses when he cited timeless advice from General Decarpentry’s book Academic Equitation.

Plugging in to the histories of our respective sports through reading the fundamentals they are built upon reminds us that good training, no matter what specialized discipline you prefer, all progresses from the same foundation. If we lose sight of this, we risk becoming narrow vision and incomplete in our approach.

Secondly, reading promotes conscious engagement with subject matter that many of us professionals handle on autopilot. We deploy our skill sets without conscious effort, almost with our eyes shut. Mastery of any skills, however, relies on periodic practice where they are broken back down in to their conscious parts. Several compelling studies neuroscience have shown that in order to avoid an erosion of mastery level competence, an individual must examine her technique and execution from time to time. By revisiting the state of mind of learning something[ecwid widgets=”productbrowser search categories minicart” categories_per_row=”3″ grid=”3,3″ list=”10″ table=”20″ default_category_id=”0″ category_view=”grid” search_view=”list” minicart_layout=”MiniAttachToProductBrowser”] rather than having mastered it, our skills stay strong and flourish.

Lastly, I agree with Hueschmann that because horsemanship has such a long rich history we owe it to our horses to learn at least a little of it. Otherwise, we can be tempted to believe that the entirety of what we need to know rests in the hands of the latest celebrity trainer or on-line video. Granted, reading books is no replacement for hands-on practice. I would not suggest that any student can become proficient by books alone, nor should armchair dressage riders consider themselves educated without consistent time in the saddle.

But if too few riders revisit the classical texts on a regular basis, we will lose our compass. These deep roots that we must study over and over keep our modern training on course. They are our story for both past and present. And while nearly any reading can benefit horsemen, these early books in particular remain vital because they were written solely for education, not for marketing or profiteering. It is through them that we continue to educate ourselves wholly, lest we rely only on the ideologies du jour. We owe this to our horses and to equestrian sports in general.

These are my thoughts, but I’m curious what yours might be. Do you have books you fall back on?

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.