Many riders approach riding from the point of view that dressage movements are like tricks that you teach to a horse because they are contained in a competition test, or because they look pretty. They seem to expect to be able to produce the finished product relatively soon, and they think that you can improve the movement simply by repeating it and tweaking it. However, simply going through the same motions and repeating the same steps with the same seat and aids rarely leads to a different outcome.
But what does it mean for the horse to perform a certain movement? And not only that, but to have to carry a rider on his back at the same time who changes his center of gravity, his balance, and who can interfere significantly with his freedom of motion.
- How does the horse have to change his balance and his posture to be able to do the movement?
- Which muscles does he have to use?
- Which leg goes where?
- Which leg has to support the majority of the weight in order not to fall down?
- Which prerequisites does he have to meet to be able to do the movement?
- Which skills does he have to master beforehand?
A Different Way Of Thinking
I like to put myself into the horse’s shoes and think about these things because they help me understand what is required of the horse and how I can help him. Then I can build a ladder of small learning steps that teach the horse the prerequisites for each movement through other exercises that contain certain aspects of the half pass, or the flying change, or the pirouette, or whatever it is I want to ride.
If you have to climb a staircase where the individual steps are 5 feet tall, it’s very difficult and slow, and you may exhaust yourself before you get to the top of the stairs. If the individual steps are only a few inches tall, you can practically run up the stairs and arrive at the top in no time, without being tired. It’s the same with the training of the horse. Always think in terms of how you can build a staircase of exercises that lead the horse in a logical fashion form here to there, so that each new step builds on the previous one. If the horse struggles with one of these steps, think of how you can break it down into several smaller ones. This way, learning and training will be fun and (relatively) easy for the horse, and you can drastically reduce stress and anxiety in both horse and human.
In other words, you can deconstruct each complex movement into its basic component parts. Then you can practice them by themselves in slow motion, so the horse has time to think about them, and he has time to think about what he has to do exactly. By practicing individual aspects of complex movements you also find out very quickly which aspect of a half pass or a flying change is especially challenging for the horse, and what it is that is preventing the horse from doing it well.
So, instead of trying to improve a movement by “practicing” it - the sense of: repeating it over and over - and expecting a different outcome, I try to analyse what it is that is preventing the horse from doing the movement (well).
I research this by asking the horse questions through exercises, such as ‘can you shift your weight left or right?’, ‘can you move your shoulders?’, ‘can you move your hips?’, ‘can you bend your spine left and right?’, ‘can you stop at any moment?’, ‘can you turn at any moment?’ etc. The horse’s answers to these questions tell me a lot about the horse’s knowledge base, his body awareness, his balancing ability, his coordination, his suppleness, his strength, his understanding of the aids. By choosing the right exercises you can very quickly get an accurate picture of the horse’s strengths and weaknesses, which then enables you to design a training program to help the horse overcome his deficits.
When you compare your analysis of the horse’s strengths and deficits with the list of ingredients or prerequisites for a certain movement, you can estimate beforehand if the horse is ready to attempt the movement and whether you need to work on some of these ingredients separately first before trying to put them together.
If you approach it from a biomechanical point of view, you will see that in a traditional dressage movement, such as lateral movements, pirouettes, flying changes, or piaffe and passage the horse has to place his feet differently than when you are riding straight ahead at the simple walk, trot, and canter.
A different position of the feet implies a different balance, a different posture.
A different balance and posture imply the use of a different set of muscles.
These muscles are often not well developed. I sometimes joke that these muscles are as good as new because the horse has never used them very much before.
If a horse has never really used a muscle, there is often a very poor neurological connection from the brain to this muscle, which means the horse finds it challenging to access it. In this respect, horses are no different than we are.
If we suddenly have to move differently and use different muscles than before, it is initially quite awkward. Just try to hold the pitchfork in the other hand when you’re cleaning stalls, or change direction in the work in hand, so that the whip is in the other hand, and you’ll know what I mean.
This may seem obvious, but it’s not as trivial as we may think at first, because many horses don’t have very good body awareness. They don’t necessarily know how many feet they have, or where they are, or how they can get a certain foot from A to B without falling over. And training body awareness is not a central focus of most traditional dressage methods.
So, this is very often where we have to start. We have to create neurological connections between the brain and all the different muscle groups, so that the horse learns how to find them and activate them. The more regularly the horse uses certain muscle groups, the easier it becomes to access them, until it becomes habitual and automatic.
And the more a muscle gets used, the stronger it gets so that the horse is able to sustain a certain posture for longer periods of time.
This suggests a certain natural progression in the training that makes learning easier for the horse:
- Body Awareness
Essentially, you start by working on the horse’s brain first and gradually make a transition from body awareness, balance, and coordination to more physical aspects of training such as improving suppleness, strength, and stamina. Of course, there is no absolute, clear cut division between those areas. There is always overlap, but it helps us to have a certain philosophical, strategic framework in the back of our minds that gives structure to our endeavors.
These learning steps that I just outlined also lend themselves to serve as categories for exercises. They can be expanded by a couple of other categories, such as explaining the connections between the rider’s body and the horse’s body to the horse. Each part of the rider’s body that touches the horse directly or indirectly can communicate with the part of the horse’s body that it touches. So, you can have an entire conversation with the horse about the meaning of these communications (aka ‘aids’) with your calves, knees, thighs, stirrups, hands, seat bones, pelvic floor, etc.
Systematic Functional Categories Of Exercises
In examining the exercises that I use in training through this particular lens, I came up with the following 8 systematic categories. In my academic career I was a structuralist, which I have never been able to shake, i.e. I look at everything as a system, and I try to understand what the elementary moving parts of the system are, what their function within the system consists of, and what the rules are that govern their interaction with the other moving pieces.
- Testing and improving specific abilities and skills
- Improving the horse’s body awareness and coordination
- Explaining and improving certain aids and movements
- Connecting the horse to the aids and to the ground
- General suppling of the entire body
- Targeted gymnastic development of individual muscle groups
- Preparing and/or improving transitions
- Preparing and/or improving specific dressage movements
These 8 categories are not at all set in stone. You are welcome to come up with your own system, with additional - or entirely different - categories. But I encourage you to think about dressage in a systematic way. Try to bring structure to the wealth of theoretical knowledge and practical experiences you have accumulated over the years. That also makes it easier to understand where new observations fit, and to make sense of them.
Below I will give some specific examples of the types of exercises that I use in each category. It would lead too far to try and give a comprehensive list with full discussion of these exercises. That would result in a rather large book. But you can design your own exercises from the suggestions in the list.
1. Testing and improving specific abilities and skills
The exercises work as diagnostic tools as well as therapeutic tools. On the one hand, they show us where the horse’s training deficits are, i.e. where a muscle is stiff or weak, or where the body awareness and coordination are lacking. On the other hand, the exercises improve precisely these deficits.
Asking the horse to pick up one particular hind leg at the halt or to start moving off from the halt with one particular hind leg, Any exercise that changes the weight distribution over the horse’s supporting legs Shifting the weight from one leg or pair of legs to another (changes of direction, zigzags, back and forth exercises)
Mobility of the pelvis:
Lateral movements, turns on the forehand in motion, full passes
Mobility of the shoulders:
Corners, voltes, figure 8s, serpentines, turns on the haunches, passades, pirouettes
Changing the bend
Lateral bending exercises in hand and under saddle
2. Improving the horse’s body awareness and coordination
Developing the horse’s body awareness and coordination of front legs and hind legs:
- Stopping into all 4 legs
- Picking up individual legs at the halt
- Moving off from the halt with a specific hind leg
- Combinations of turn on the forehand in motion, pirouette renversée, turn on the haunches, passade, and full pass
3. Explaining and improving certain aids and movements
Leg and rein combinations:
- Inside leg + inside rein
- Inside leg + outside rein
- Outside leg + outside rein
- Outside leg + inside rein
Stirrup and rein combinations:
- Left stirrup + left rein
- Left stirrup + right rein
- Left stirrup + both reins
- Right stirrup + right rein
- Right stirrup + left rein
- Right stirrup + both reins
4. Connecting the horse to the aids and to the ground
- Rider’s lower leg - horse’s hind leg
- Rider’s knee - horse’s shoulder
- Rider’s thigh - horse’s rib cage
- Rider’s rein - horse’s neck/poll and horse’s legs
- Rider’s weight - horse’s horse’s legs
- Stirrup stepping connects the weight through the horse’s legs to the ground
5. General suppling of the entire body
Addressing the shoulder, pelvis, and spine in the same exercise (e.g. combinations of a lateral movement, a turn, and a change of bend in one exercise)
6. Targeted gymnastic development of individual muscle groups
Neck/poll: Lateral flexions
Shoulder: Corner, volte, serpentine, turn on the haunches, passade, pirouette
Rib cage: Change of bend followed immediately by a lateral movement
Abdominal muscles: Transitions, turns, lateral movements
Hind legs: Lateral movements, stopping into a hind leg, reinback, piaffe, passage, pirouette
7. Preparing and/or improving transitions
- Bringing the horse into the balance and core muscle engagement that he needs for the transition (e.g. engaging and flexing the outside hind leg before the canter depart)
- Walk - halt transitions into the four legs
- Trot - walk transitions into the four legs
- Trot - halt transitions into the four legs
8. Preparing and/or improving specific dressage movements
This type of exercise checks if the horse is able to perform the basic ingredients that make up a certain movement. If it turns out that the horse has holes in these basic ingredients, we create exercises that teach him those specific skills.
Flying changes: Exercises that practice shifting the weight, changing the bend, and increase the lateral flexibility of the hips.
Half passes: Exercises that bring the inside hind leg more under the body, and increase the lateral and vertical mobility of the hind legs.
Pirouettes: Exercises that increase the vertical flexibility of the hind legs and the lateral flexibility of the shoulders.
Piaffe, Passage: Exercises that increase the lateral and vertical flexibility of the hind legs and redirect the energy into a vertical direction.
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.
I hope you find these categories useful. Feel free to change them or to add to them, and send us feedback with your own thoughts and observations.