Sometimes we don’t realize how much we have already learned and how much we have improved. Our quality standards and our awareness have grown faster than our skills, and so we feel like we are riding worse than ever, although in reality we are riding better than we used to be, just not as well as we would like.
But maybe we should ask ourselves what “through the back” actually means, how it feels, how it looks, and how you get there. Does the horse really automatically go “through the back” just because the head is down? What is the relationship between form and function? What do I do when I release the reins and the head stays where it is, i.e. the horse doesn’t stretch forward and down? What do people mean when they talk about “the back” anyway? Who knows?! Sometimes everyone means something else, depending on their level of understanding and experience, and you have to translate their words into an objective, systematic, structural framework.
In one of our Facebook groups someone asked a question about elbows and hand position. She had been told by a trainer that she should keep her hands forward, close to the withers of the horse. Since she is not very tall, she has to round her shoulders or tip forward with her torso in order to put her hands where the trainer wants them to be. That compromises the integrity and the effectiveness of the seat, of course.
What? How? and Why? are the three big questions that every rider asks herself constantly and thatoften seem to be very difficult to answer. What should I do? How should I do it? And why should I do it? The reason why this information seems so elusive is on the one hand that many good riders make these decisions on a purely intuitive level without being able to render the decision making process transparent or to explain it. - That was not really part of the traditional teaching paradigm, because it relied very much on the schoolmaster horses. In the old riding schools the trained schoolmaster horses were the true teachers. On the other hand, these decisions are often not that easy to make. Since we usually don’t have well trained Grand Prix horses as lesson horses nowadays, we have to find other solutions.
By now you are probably well aware that enrollment is open for our What, Why, How Online course, and I am sure you expect us to tell you all about the things the last students learned in the last course. However, they’re not the only ones that learned something. We came away from this course with some really interesting observations, which I’d like to share with you here today.
There are 5 mistakes that happen very frequently and that make it almost impossible for the horse to perform the leg yield correctly. Many riders struggle with the leg yield, especially in the trot. So I decided to discuss the subject in a newsletter article in the hopes that it will be of interest to others as well. You can apply this discussion also to the “real” lateral movements. Most of the points I address are universal and tend to occur in all lateral movements.
Everybody has heard the instruction “Shorten the reins!” countless times. And many riders get in trouble when they try to execute it because they take it literally, and their teacher doesn’t elaborate on the how and why. So they shorten the reins from front to back, and many horses resist more or less vigorously against their hand. This is one of those cases where the instruction maybe perfectly correct, but too incomplete to makes sense to many students. "Shorten the reins" is one of those instructions that need to be translated into practical action steps because it has to start from behind. Otherwise, you can get into an ugly fight with your horse.
This week I want to share a few thoughts on something that most dressage riders are familiar with and that many of us embrace: perfectionism. It’s something that is taught to students from the very beginning, and it’s something that is demonstrated by teachers and role models. Many dressage riders even pride themselves on their perfectionism.
But perfectionism is a double edged sword. It can lead some to excellence, while it causes a great deal of pain and frustration to others.
In lessons I often see that riders start a movement or a transition without any noticeable preparation for the horse (or themselves). As a result, the movement or transition doesn’t turn out as well as it could. Since this seems to be rather widespread, I thought I would turn this subject into a newsletter article. It’s an important topic that doesn’t seem to be addressed in a systematic way very often. There are some simple strategies, however, that will help you to improve your and your horse’s performance quite significantly.
In riding we often spend a large amount of focus on establishing and polishing the suppleness of the horse's body. We even often refer to the necessity for suppleness of the rider's body.
What is often, however, not mentioned or considered is that we also need to develop suppleness in the horse’s MIND, in his way of thinking. How flexible and resilient he is. How he adjusts to new circumstances or new exercises or new ways of doing the work.
And this also applies to the rider. As riders, we need to develop our own suppleness of thinking so that we also can become more flexible in our thinking, creative in our work, adjustable to circumstances, and resilient to circumstances.
Traditional riding instruction was often very rigid and inflexible. Disharmony or disagreements with the horse were usually framed as discipline and respect issues. That’s why you were told to prevail and insist that the horse carry out your orders at all costs - which can very quickly lead to fighting with the horse. The possibility that the horse was unable to comply due to a misunderstanding, a lack of balance, a lack of body awareness, a lack of suppleness, a lack of strength, or due to pain was rarely considered.
The thing is, every training problem can look slightly different, so I can’t really outline every possible problem and the process I go through to fix each of those problems. Not right here, anyway. But what I can do is share with you my own personal process for dealing with any problem and bringing it to a successful resolution. For the purposes of this article I must be quite general, of course, but I do give a couple of brief examples of how the process can look in certain scenarios.
Anna writes that when she chooses an exercise to ride she sometimes gets stuck on one detail and continues with the exercise for too long. She loses track of her original plan and of the big picture. When she gives up her expectations and goals for the exercise or the ride, things start to improve. She also says that when she tries something for the first time on the spur of the moment she often succeeds, but when she tries it again it she can’t recreate it. This used to happen to me as well in the past. Everyone who is very passionate about their riding and who defines themselves through their riding is at risk of seeing every mistake as an “existential threat”. As a result, you get tense, you try harder, you use more strength (perhaps involuntarily because you feel pressured to get it “right”). This makes the horse tense. Instead of getting better, things get worse.
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.