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.
One way of preventing the work from getting too repetitive and boring is to create variety through different types of work, such as trail riding, jumping, longeing, double longeing, long reining, work in hand, liberty work, or working equitation.
Even in the Dressage Arena…
But even within the dressage work in the arena there are many options you can choose from to keep the time you spend with the horse under saddle fresh and interesting.
A good starting point is always to treat riding as a dialogue with your horse, a collaboration in which the horse is not only allowed, but encouraged, to take an active role in the creative process.
I want to share seven training strategies with you that I have used successfully in riding as well as in teaching to keep things interesting for the horse, the rider, and the teacher.
Scan the horse's body and mind for specific problems and address them.
That’s always a good strategy. Tune in with your horse mentally, emotionally, and physically, as soon as you enter his stall or get him from the pasture. Continue with it as you groom him and tack him up. As you start the workout in the arena, scan his body with specific, targeted exercises, as well as with your seat, legs, and reins to detect muscles blockages, false bends, and areas of reduced mobility in general. Once you have found areas that are not moving as smoothly and effortlessly as they should, make them soft and supple with additional gymnastic exercises.
Check for the 6 basic maneuvers (go, stop, turn, bend, sidestep, reinback)
You can ride a few simple transition as well as some basic exercise patterns to find out if your horse is able and willing to execute these 6 basic maneuvers in good quality. Pay special attention to how easy or how hard each of these maneuvers is. How does your horse do it? What stands out in the way he is performing the exercises? Is it easier to do up or down transitions? Is it easier to turn left or right? Is it easier to bend left or right? Is it easier to cross with the left hind leg or the right hind leg? If you observe closely enough you will find something that could be improved with every horse. If everything appears good and you don’t find anything worthy of improvement, you are probably not looking closely enough. In that case, raise your quality standards and try again. This approach leads to a ride that unfolds organically on its own.
Pick an arena pattern and ride it at walk, trot, and canter, with and without lateral movements.
You can select a gymnastic training pattern that involves circles, rectangles, squares, triangles, ovals, or serpentines, or a combination of several figures, and ride it slowly at the walk first to show the horse the new task. This already gives you a sense of which part of the exercise is difficult for the horse. When the horse is able to do it smoothly at the walk, try it at the trot. When it starts to flow at the trot, try it at the canter. Ride the exercise pattern on a single track first, and then add lateral movements, as they fit into the geometry. Use not only shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half pass, but also the counter movements counter shoulder-in and renvers. If your horse is not ready yet for half passes, ride leg yields on the diagonal. Ride the lateral movements not only on the traditional lines, but also on unusual lines like the center line, quarter lines, diagonals, curved lines, and any other line you see. This sharpens the horse’s attentiveness to the aids and the rider’s awareness for the horse’s body alignment.
Pay close attention to which parts of the exercise are especially challenging for the horse. In my experience they are usually not the nominally most advanced movement, but rather a lower level turn or transition that is challenging due to its location and context within the exercise. Any problems that reveal themselves can be addressed through additional exercises that target the specific motor skill or muscle group involved.
Set out cones at strategic points of the arena and think about which patterns you see that connect them.
This is based on the idea that you can visualize the arena as a checkerboard of squares with a side length of half the arena width. In a standard size arena of 20m x 40m or 20m x 60m each square would be 10m long and wide. You can fill these squares with 10m voltes, you can ride them as squares, you can put two or more squares together to form a 10m x 20m rectangle, a 10m x 30m rectangle, a 20m x 20m square, etc. If you put “cone gates” on the middle of some of these 10m square lines (i.e. 5m from the corners of the square), you can see the outlines of a variety of circles, squares, and rectangles more easily.
It’s fun to think: What lines do I see that go around or through these markers? These cone gates are also good stopping points for turns on the forehand in motion, turns on the haunches, and other exercises. This gives you an almost endless supply of creative ideas for your training. The exercises you come up with will invariably uncover issues with the horse’s balance, coordination, body awareness, and suppleness that you can then investigate further with new gymnastic exercises. Each mistake that happens can give you the inspiration for the next exercise.
Explore certain techniques
You can also approach a training session by systematically exploring certain techniques, such as riding with cavesson and bit, or you can try several different ways of holding the four reins of the double bridle in order to find out their advantages and disadvantages. If you have never done work in hand or long reining, you can start experimenting with these. You could also investigate the issue of whether you should sit on the outside or inside seat bone in lateral movements. You can experiment with your seat, in the sense that you distribute your weight over a larger or smaller area by sitting more on your inner thighs or your seat bones. You can purposefully allow or enhance the movement of the horse’s back in one direction (up, down, left, right, forward, back), or resist against one of these movements to find out what happens. These are just a few suggestions. But you can play with anything that strikes your curiosity. Every time we do anything or change anything, the horse will respond by becoming either better or worse. Through thoughtful experimentation we can learn from our horse what makes him better and what makes him worse.
Explore the effects of certain aids combinations and patterns on the horse.
Here you can experiment with stirrup stepping, leg and rein combinations in order to connect the horse to the weight and the ground, and to connect various parts of the horse’s body with their corresponding aids. This is based on the idea that each aid is able to address a specific part of the horse’s body. You can use this type of exercise to check the horse’s attentiveness and connectedness, and you can improve his fine tuning to your aids this way.
Try something that you observed in one horse with other horses and students
Every time I learned something new from my teacher or from a horse, I always tried it with every horse and with every student - whether they needed it or not, because I wanted to find out how this exercise or this particular aid worked. This means that it will improve some horses, it may not affect others, and some horses may even have a negative reaction. By systematically testing something on as many different horses as possible, you increase your understanding of the gymnastic principles, the effect of conformational features such as the angles of the hind legs, the shape and length of the neck, the length and circumference of the back, and others. You drastically improve your diagnostic skills this way, which will allow you to problem solve much faster and more effectively in the future.
So, as you can see, as a rider you have many creative options to help you make progress again when you feel like you, or your horse, are in a rut. One of the greatest sources of endless inspiration are the multitude of variations of exercises and patterns you can ride. Gymnastic exercises that consist of geometric shapes, combined with dressage movements are a key to creative training that doesn’t get stuck in a rut so easily. I often tell my students that every riding lesson is also a geometry lesson. The more exercise patterns you know, the larger your exercise library, the more flexible and creative your training will become, the more your training will progress, and the happier and more fulfilled you and your horse will be in the work.
I hope this was helpful and provided you some ideas for inspiration you can take into your next ride. Let me know how it goes.