Christoph Hess: Ride Like a Dressage Professional, Part 1

German master Christoph Hess explains how to become a great rider and build correct connection in dressage training.

I want to point out what kind of skills a top rider has to have for dressage training. This is not just for dressage training but for all top-class riders. As a judge and the former director of dressage training for the German National Federation, I am involved in dressage, eventing and a little bit jumping, and I know about the background of the people who are coming up in dressage. 

At a U.S. clinic, Christoph Hess teaches Peggy Wood how to focus on every one of Ron’s strides to improve his gaits. (Credit: Carole MacDonald)

The time it takes to get to the FEI Prix St. Georges in dressage training takes years, but to get to the Grand Prix from there is like walking across the Rocky Mountains. Barefoot! In the winter! When you watch a top-class rider or trainer, you see how long it takes and you can learn a lot simply with your eyes. Watch and discuss the art of dressage training with these people. You can learn from reading books by masters, which is important, but you can learn more by watching them.

So what do we see when we watch these masters at work? We learn what it means to become a good rider. It means to be picky, detail-oriented, motivated for your whole life, paying attention to every stride, having a system but with the flexibility to adjust it. Even before you can control the horse, you have to first control yourself (99 percent of problems with a horse are caused by the rider). Finally, a good rider needs the willingness to say, “I made the mistake. The horse didn’t make the mistake.”

Based on what I have seen over the years, I have developed rules that all great riders must live by to work proper dressage. I will not talk so much about movements in this article, as simply schooling a horse in the movements can be the first step in the wrong direction. Too many riders halt at X and the rest is a disaster. Then, because the horse doesn’t go right, they want another bit or some quick solution, but that is the wrong direction to go. Instead, we need to look to the root of the problem. I would like to present you with a list I have developed of those certain things that must be done correctly to ride dressage properly. These goals must be your first priority, and doing them only approximately correct is not enough. In Part 1, I will explain the first goals: balance and seat of the rider, and building correct connection. Click here to read Part 2.

Balance and Seat of the Rider

To be a good rider, you have to sit absolutely balanced, straight and supple in the saddle. People who have problems with balance will negatively affect all the horses they ride. These riders produce unhappy horses. Every rider must sit properly in the middle of the saddle, and you can improve this with certain exercises. Horses benefit from a rider that sits independently without a reliance on the reins for balance. At times, you can ride with one hand and pat the horse, give a long rein to let him stretch. A well-balanced rider can easily retake the reins without too much fussing. Without proper balance in the saddle, a rider is not able to do these things and that limits his ability to work with the horse.

When I am judging, I look to the horses, but at the end of the day, we must also look enough at the rider. This process never finishes. Maybe today on one horse you are balanced and supple, but in one hour, tomorrow or on another horse you are not.

A good rider always gets special lessons just for his position and suppleness. Do a lot of dressage work outside on the hills. From time to time, ride with short stirrups in a jumping saddle. If you only ride in your custom dressage saddle, you get like a stiff soldier, not a person who can find balance in anything. Learn to ride with short and long stirrups and even no stirrups. Learn to ride ponies and horses with big gaits. The more situations you have in the saddle, on varying terrain and in different saddles, the more flexible you will be at the end of the day. Really good riders can go cross-country and jump big fences.

Hess encourages riders to take their horses on varying terrain so they can improve balance and give their horses the chance to feel unconfined. (Courtesy, Christoph Hess)

It is worth saying that one of my dressage heroes represented her country in reining at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. What if you have friends in other disciplines in your barn? Go with them. Don’t be afraid to shorten your stirrups. You have to be brave to ride canter and trot extensions in the dressage arena. These movements are very difficult to sit properly in balance. You cannot do them if you have never gone off and ridden fast and found balance. How many riders do you see who can ride short movements but their horses have top-class trot extensions that they can’t follow? It is important to be brave to ride extensions, but on the other hand you have to be brave to ride a young or fresh horse. It is important that you are brave, balanced, supple and able to ride many ways on many horses. I love how at the Spanish Riding School they do lessons on the longe line to work on the seat.

The more balanced you are, the more flexible you are. Balance is not like sitting on a horse like a stick. Balance is being flexible to be able to swing with the horse’s movement. The more you can swing into the horse’s movement, the better you can go with him. Longe lessons are not just for beginners. They are for everyone—not because you are a beginner, but because all riders have much to learn and improve. People think that having the big pieces under control is important, but you must have the small pieces to make the big picture.

Uta Gräf demonstrates the correct balance and seat that Hess looks for in a top rider. As a result, she is able to develop correct connection in her horse. (Credit: Silke Rottermann)

Correct Connection in the Horse

If you have a horse that is harmonious, happy and willing, you know you are on the path to achieving our first goal of wellness and health in the horse. I believe the more you school a horse in his natural direction, developing correct connection (like a bridge between his hind and front end), the less you will need the vet. A horse that is not accepting of the aids cannot truly be accepting of the bit, and will become predisposed to pain in his back and his legs from carrying himself in a false frame and/or incorrectly pulling too much with his front end.

The first step in achieving this connection is to work on creating a supple horse—quiet, but not sluggish, and active, but not hurried. To supple the overly anxious horse will make him quieter through acceptance of the aids, and for the overly quiet/lazy horse, it will make him more active to the aids. A supple horse is set up to accept the bit through this newly confirmed acceptance of the aids. He becomes open to connection, working in a bridge between his back and front legs, which puts him on the path to a more healthy way of working.

So how do we create a more supple horse? Let us look at exercises that are appropriate for the overly anxious and lazy/quiet horses separately:

Quieting the overly anxious horse: In this case, proper suppling includes using exercises that focus his extra energy. It is much nicer to do this than to constantly try out special bits or to incorrectly ride with your hands to stop him.

1. On the quarterline, put your leg aid on your horse. If he rushes ahead, ask for a leg yield by putting on your inside leg. This will focus his energy in a positive way so that he accepts your leg and does not run from it.

Improve communication of the aids with a lazy/quiet horse: On the other hand, we have lazy horses. We often call them lazy because there is no reaction to the driving aids when you apply the leg. As a result, the rider gets in the habit of using too much leg. At this point, you must take a step back because the problem is that the rider needs to correctly use the aids to get his horse to go forward. Too often, a lazy horse becomes that way because he is slightly lazy and then his rider gets on and kicks, kicks, kicks until nothing happens!

Often, the best solution to a lazy horse is a rider who asks himself what the leg aid does and only uses it once to get him to go. With this type of horse, it is essential that he be ridden with a clear leg aid that is applied once and that he immediately accept this leg aid from the very beginning of his training.

Remember, if this exercise does not go perfectly in the beginning, or no matter how it goes, it tells you something about you and your horse. Our goal is to work to first have a horse that is sensitive to the rider’s aids. Before we begin, I want you to accept that in pure dressage you do not need to have a horse in a dressage frame all the time. We will talk about this more after we have reviewed the following exercise and at that point I will also explain why we must first get the horse through the transition aids:

1. On a long rein, ride a marching walk down a long side. When transitioning to walk, your horse must walk immediately and keep a marching rhythm. The rider’s heels must be down, and the horse must feel in front of the rider who does not have to kick to keep going. Maintain this walk with your leg hanging down and off your horse. Our first goal is that he responds to your leg aid so you have an active walk. Don’t worry about anything else.

2. If he doesn’t listen to that leg aid and walk in an active way, tap his shoulder with the whip (see “The Artificial Aids,” below). If your horse continues to ignore the leg aid forward, transition into canter and ride the whole arena: Put your leg aid on, followed by a reinforcing tap of the whip and ride in a half seat. In this case, keep the whip in the inside hand, using it at the shoulder.

3. Ride a forward canter like an event rider: Ride medium canter down the long side so that your horse moves by himself. Just get him to the point that when he knows your leg is coming, the whip will be there, too, if he does not listen. Get your horse forward so that when you put your leg on, you can ride into a forward canter. When you drive the horse into a transition, you have to swing into the movement a bit more with the idea of a light seat. When you sit too heavy, you work against your horse. Think of a swinging seat in this case, as many people incorrectly think the word “driving” means sitting harder into the saddle.

4. With a quick, clear leg aid, transition to an active trot on a long rein. When you do these walk-trot transitions, again pay attention that he goes into the transition promptly. Maybe he is prompt to slow, but we also need him to be prompt to the trot as well.

5. Still on a long rein, promptly transition to an active, marching walk.

6. Repeat the transitions to trot and then walk on a long rein. As you continue them, make sure you are still giving in the rein and not kicking, kicking, kicking, when you use your leg aid, don’t worry about the contact. Many people think that if they put the leg on, they have to control the head, and this is a step in the wrong direction. A horse must learn to balance his body and move by himself. Only when your horse is off the leg and can move forward by himself, can you worry about the contact. If you take the contact too early, you cannot give him the stretching feeling. Remember to keep the forward, open feeling, especially in the corners—keep the tempo and the balance in the corners. Only then have you completed this exercise and the horse can swing his back in the walk, on the longest rein possible, for his walk break.

The Artificial Aids

The whip: A one-meter whip allows you to use it in three positions. You cannot use the whip on the hind end as people often do when a horse is behind the leg, because it will only reinforce the tendency of the hind legs to go out behind more and the horse will only get more irritated with you. Instead, tap the whip on the horse’s shoulder (1). The shoulder is not as sensitive as the hind end and you don’t have to worry about tapping it at a precise moment. You can use the whip at the shoulder whenever you need to.

Another place to use the whip is right behind your leg (2). Tapping the horse here makes him more aware of the forward and sideways meaning of your leg aid.

Finally, when you feel the horse is easily in front of your driving aids, you can use the dressage whip on the hind leg (3). The whip at the hind leg gives more cadence when used properly. You must only tap as the leg comes off the ground, otherwise, it is the wrong time.

The spur: Please do not use spurs all the time throughout the season. I want to see people able to ride the horse without the spur. I think you will agree that horses often hate spurs, especially when the rider rides with high heels and the spurs are there all the time.

Another way to say this is that the horse has a reaction where he slows down and the spur works against the driving aids of the rider. That is why I am happy to see someone without spurs, but don’t be afraid to shorten the stirrups. Do not ride with such long stirrups that your heels have to be up to touch the horse. That is not right. Also, if you have a horse with mental tension and maybe tight in the back, think about how you can relieve that. In one case, it might be that the removal of the spurs for a period of time helps the horse relax the tightness in his back. 

Remember to ride the small things every day, starting with proper transitions: forward, straight and balanced as a result of your horse accepting the aids. Every day, do your transitions from canter to trot and don’t just finish the canter, start the trot. When you finish something you use your reins and you ride backward and your horse starts to fight you and the work. Ride proper transitions! It is easy to say, but hard to do. If you don’t have them under control, you can never be a top-class rider. You can maybe buy a good piaffe, but that doesn’t make you good. Do thousands of transitions with each horse, and when you compete, you have what you will need in your test because though you don’t see most transitions within the gaits and adjustments, all are necessary and can only improve your ride.

Now that we have a horse that is accepting of the forward and slowing aids, it is time to talk about using your rein aids without “closing the door.” What I mean by this is incorrectly using your reins to get your horse round or to stop him. A horse does not become round or stop correctly because we pull on the reins. Even the best riders must remind themselves of this, as we are humans, so we use our hands all the time. On the other hand, horses have a natural desire to run away and escape, especially when something is happening. In the case of riding, when something happens the rider’s natural tendency is to use the hands and close the horse’s door with a tight rein. We are saying, “I control everything and I decide!”

But we cannot react when using our hands when the horse wants to escape. Instead, give the horse a proper chance to feel that he can run away, whether you are riding the halt, piaffe, pirouettes or any other movement. Remember that in the wild, when horses fight, they fight for a second and then go away. Then it is clear who is in charge. They never kick for a long period of time. When we ride our horses, if we fight them for the whole lesson without that chance to escape, that is against their nature. Give the horse the feeling that he could escape or run away, and he will be happier and you will create a situation where he is motivated to work with you. When you close the reins or use some special bit, you make the horse closed in front and that is the opposite of harmony. In that case, he will only fight against you.

Instead of closing the door, we must open it by using the bridle properly. When you have a moment, put your double bridle with the bits against your leg and see how much it hurts when you pull the reins. Going side to side with your reins hurts your horse and only causes him to get worse. This is so important: Only use a double bridle to make the horse a little more sensitive once you have him under control. Never use it to make the neck a little shorter. The more you do this, the more you close the door and this is cruel. Since the curb bit is not broken in the middle and applying pressure to only one hand simply makes the bit pressure uneven, place one snaffle rein in the right hand, then all three remaining reins in the left hand. If you at least do this from time to time, I will be happy. This is easy to do, especially in the off season.

All of these things are ways for you to think of how you can bring your horse back to a natural way of being. Another example would be how horses also like to be in a group. If you are having problems with your horse, put him in a group as a way to fix it. The more feeling we have for natural situations, the better we can school our horses. In a special way, we have the ability to be natural horsemen, and the more we work on this, the more natural our feeling will become.

As you work on these first goals, I want you to remember that what is more important than natural talent is being focused on the things you are doing with the highest motivation. Those riders are the best, not the ones with the best talent. Success comes from doing your homework and only then can you ace the test. A leading golf trainer once said that there are certain things that must be done correctly. To do them only approximately correct is not enough. I hope this article has helped you continue your path to success in dressage through correctness in your training. Next month, I will talk about the three remaining goals: gymnastics of the horse, reading his body language and proper flexing and straightening.

Click here to continue reading Part 2. 

This article was originally included in the June 2012 issue of Dressage Today. Part two was included in the July 2012 issue of the magazine.






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