Everybody who studies anything seriously is familiar with frustration. Especially when you are an artist or an athlete, and especially when you are a rider. This frustration can have several sources. It can be due to impatience because we are not progressing as quickly as we would like or as we had hoped. A very common cause for frustration is when we compare ourself to others, whether they are our peers or our role models, or some arbitrary standard of excellence. I used to think: “What is WRONG with me? Why can’t I ride like so-and-so?” I would for instance expect myself to be able to ride as well as my teachers, although they had many more years of experience than I - not to mention the talent issue.
We all know from experience that we can’t get everything at once, especially when we are teaching the horse a new movement, or when we ourselves are learning a new movement. It’s very difficult to have all ducks in a row. Often we’re lucky if they’re even all on the same lake. This means that we have to make a decision as to what elements of a movement we want to establish first. Which aspects are the most important ones? Which aspects are fundamental? Which ones are peripheral and can be fixed later? In other words, we need to set priorities. We need to start with the most central, most important ingredient, and then work from the center to the periphery.
This is a subject that is interesting for students and teachers of dressage as well. We all want to learn to ride. That makes us curious. Curiosity leads to questions like: “How does this work?”, “How do I need to sit?”, “How do I ride a shoulder-in?”, “How do I teach a piaffe?”, etc. In pursuit of these questions, we take lessons, read books, and watch videos in the hopes of finding answers. Over the last 30 years the amount of equestrian literature has vastly proliferated, so that you can find many different publications to choose from on most topics. So far, so good. The danger is that there is a long tradition in the history of dressage to believe that there is only one true and correct way of riding and training. Everyone believes that THEIR way is the one and only RIGHT way, and that everyone else is, therefore, wrong.
Biomechanics is the field that provides the scientific framework to describe these interactions. The more thoroughly we study and understand the principles that govern the relationships between the different body parts, the easier it becomes to trace surface level symptoms back to their root causes. This makes it easier to find solutions to problems, or to build a ladder of small learning steps for the horse when you are teaching him a new movement. This knowledge helps you in choosing or designing the right exercises for your horse. Many of these correlations and mutual interdepencies are not written down in one convenient location, but there are hints scattered throughout the literature. Many older, experienced horse people know them from years or decades of experience with hundreds of horses, but won’t write them down for a variety of reasons. So I thought I would make a list of correlations that I have observed over the years.
You can make the training easier and better understandable for the horse if you try to look at it from the horse’s point of view. Ask yourself what it is you are asking the horse to do in physical, biomechanical terms. Find out which elementary skills your horse needs to possess and which elementary types of movements he has to be able to do in order to perform a certain movement. Then try to build him a ladder of small learning steps that teach him those elementary skills that he is still lacking. Try to utilize the principle of the economy of motion whenever possible, i.e. lead the horse down a path where the movement or transition you want to ride appears to be the most energy conserving thing the horse could do under the circumstances.
In addition to the preparation of the canter depart the rider has a few more options of influencing and shaping the canter stride with her seat and aids. You can even improve the quality of the natural canter.
Conventional wisdom says that for dressage you need to buy a horse with a good walk and a good canter because these gaits are difficult, if not impossible, to improve, whereas it is much easier toimprove the trot. Like many generalised rules, it is not altogether wrong, but it’s not completely true, either. On the one hand, it is accurate to say that horses with a calm, round, uphill canter and good suspension are much easier to train than horses with a rushy, scratchy, downhill canter. On the other hand, it is possible to improve the canter quite a bit, if you know how.
Lateral movements are pretty to watch, when they are ridden well. They are fun to ride, and they are contained in certain competition tests. In addition, they are indispensable gymnastic tools in horse training. In this newsletter I want to share a few thoughts and observations concerning the gymnastic function of lateral movements. It is not a comprehensive, ultimate treatise on the subject. That would go beyond the scope of this post.
Due to their sidestepping aspect, lateral movements are very well suited to mobilizing and strengthening the horse’s hind legs and oblique abdominal muscles.
Once you see that the rules you had learned don't always seem to apply, and that there are often alternative routes that lead to much better results you start questioning everything you ever learned and you start testing the rules by experimenting with alternatives.
Then you realise that the old absolute rules you learned are in reality only rules of thumb that work in a certain percentage of cases, but not always. I tell my students in lessons that the horses don't read our books. So they don't know that they are supposed to react a certain way, according to our theories.
To the rider it may sometimes seem that the horse can come up with an unlimited number of evasions that enable him to protect his hind legs. But from a systematic point of view there are only FIVE different ways in which the horse can avoid flexing his haunches and supporting the weight with his hind legs:
One of the issues that our members in the Artistic Dressage Community on Facebook wanted to learn more about is the Half Halt. It is one of those terms that everybody seems to USE (sometimes for no other reason than that it makes the user sound knowledgeable) but nobody seems to EXPLAIN. That’s why it is shrouded in mystery for many riders. But it doesn’t need to be. The theory behind it is actually quite straightforward.
One important aspect of horse training is that in teaching a new movement or a better posture the rider first has to improve the horse’s body awareness, coordination, and balancing ability. This includes teaching the horse to place his feet differently, to distribute his weight differently, and to use different muscle configurations than he has been up to now.
This only works, if the horse knows where his feet are, of course. This means creating neurological connections between the brain and these muscle groups, so that the horse learns how to find them and activate them.
One of the keys to success is to learn how to set clear goals, and then to set up a plan to achieve them. For me, personally, the process involves considering the logistics so that I can determine where I am overestimating my time and energy available (because I tend to dream big, but that dreaming process is important, too) but also so I can make some decisions about how to prioritize my time and energy so that I CAN achieve those goals. Without clearly thinking these things through, it is all too easy to get distracted by all of the things that happen in life. There is SO much to be distracted about! And whereas we cannot - nor should we - put the rest of our lives on hold in order to move forward in our riding - if we have clearly laid out our goals, prioritized which things need to make way in order for us to achieve these goals, and then revisit these goals regularly (I review and visualize my goals DAILY - that is a topic for a whole ‘nother newsletter!), then we stack the odds in our favor that we will at least get closer to our goals, if not achieve or surpass them altogether.
One of the most challenging tasks for a rider and a teacher is to stay inspired and creative in your work. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut of riding the same patterns and the same movements in the same sequence, in the same location of the arena every day, with every horse you ride. That gets stale and boring very fast, for the horse as well as the rider. Especially intelligent horses enjoy an intellectual challenge. So, if you keep the work varied and interesting, they have more fun with it, and you will, too.
How do you decide how to proceed next with your horse?
How do you know how to improve a movement, a transition, a turn, the rein contact, the horse’s suppleness, or any other problem you may encounter?
Many good, experienced riders make these decisions purely intuitively, based on their gut feeling and their experience with many different horses, and these riders are very often correct in their decisions. But this kind of skill is unfortunately difficult to communicate and to pass on to others.
The piaffe is one of the most beautiful movements to watch. It is one of the gymnastically most useful movements, and it is in some ways the gateway to Haute École, similarly to the way in whichthe shoulder-in is the gateway to Campaign School dressage. Training the piaffe is a rite of passage for the aspiring Grand Prix trainer in a similar way that flying changes are a rite of passage from Elementary School to Campaign School. At the same time, you don’t see good piaffes very often because training it is not that trivial. I often think the piaffe is like a delicate flower that can easily be crushed by too much intensity, too much rider activity, or too much force.
Here, I would like to give you a systematic overview over the principal methods that I have found useful in teaching the piaffe.
This is a question that one of our readers sent in, and it’s a problem that so many riders struggle with. Why is it a problem if a horse won’t go forward? It’s very similar to a car that won’t accelerate when you step on the gas pedal. It defeats the whole purpose of riding or driving. If you can’t go forward, you can’t steer, and you will never get where you want to go. A horse that does not want to go forward will never be able to advance in his training and reach the upper levels. In addition, many dangerous disobediences such as rearing, bucking, turning around, or bolting originate with sucking back and refusing to go forward.
Today I want to give a few tips on warming up. Many riders don’t seem to give much thought to warming up, or they follow the same routine every day without reflecting on whether this is really the best possible structure of the training session.
In my clinics and in our online courses the participants and myself make observations on a regular basis that are both interesting and significant. One such observation is that my exercises make not only the horse more supple and relaxed, but also the rider.
If I have a mantra for my riding it is “I have time.” Podhasjsky’s belief that patience is a cornerstone of the art of dressage takes into account the requirement that the horse be allowed to develop the strength, balance and understanding to develop to his full potential while remaining sound and happy in his work.
There are two groups of parameters that can describe the horse’s movements, and through which the rider is able to determine and influence the horse’s gait and posture. If you change one or several of these parameters, the horse’s appearance and feel changes. The first group refers to the positioning of the hips and shoulders, as well as the posture of the spine. The second group describes the details of the gait, i.e. the movement of the horse’s legs.
Every horse is different. Every rider is different. What works well for one horse may not work well for another. There is no one size fits all approach. You have to select the right exercise, the right seat and aids, and the right strategy for you and your horse and the situation at hand. The more options you know, the more likely you are to find one that works.
With this in mind, we want to share things that have worked in our experience with our horses and our students, but... it is up to YOU to think about them and make your own selection that fits you and your horse.
Equestrian culture has changed drastically throughout the centuries, and it continues to change at a rapid pace. Many spend their time and energy bemoaning the loss of the bygone methods, culture, and ideology, and I, too, used to belong to that camp… the camp that idolises the old masters and thinks they and everything they did was infallible. But with age and experience come some hard-earned insights, and I no longer view the history with such rose-colored glasses. There was a lot of good then, indeed, but it was not all good. It was not perfect, and like all other arts, equestrian art is evolving. It continues to evolve. It flows through time, adopting some new values while relinquishing others. Equestrian art is, therefore, a dynamic art. It changes and it can be changed.
Recently, we have received a lot of questions about how you can improve the canter or the canter depart. This is obviously a major issue for many riders. This topic is very suitable for explaining the biomechanical principles behind it.
In most cases the difficulty probably consists of the horse “not sticking to any rules” that the rider has learned. None of the standard recipes of the riding instruction manuals seem to work on a horse like that. He hasn’t read a single book and obviously doesn’t know how to behave as a proper horse. In addition, difficult horses are usually too sensitive and explosive, or too phlegmatic and sucked back. So, their disposition is problematic.
One problem I see in many riding lessons is that horses pivot with their inside hind leg in a turn on the haunches. In dressage, this is considered a mistake because the footfall sequence of the walk is interrupted, if only three legs are moving and the fourth one is stuck on the ground. It also cause the horse to brace with his belly muscles and the muscles of his inside hind leg.
In this blog post I want to share some thoughts on training strategies with you that are not usually talked about very much, but that I find important. I hope you will get some value and some food for thought out of them.