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.
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.