Christoph Hess: Ride Like a Dressage Professional, Part 2

German master Christoph Hess explains the key elements of a successful training system.

 A leading golf trainer once said that in his sport there are certain things that must be done correctly. To do them only approximately correct is not enough. In training and competition, do not battle against the symptoms. Instead, search for the true causes of the mistakes. I believe the same applies to dressage training, and over the years, I have developed rules that all great dressage riders must live by. 

Uta Gräf uses gymnastic exercises that encourage her horse to think forward and work through his whole body. (Credit: Silke Rottermann)

Last month, I presented you with this list of things that must be done correctly in order to succeed in riding proper dressage work—to ride like a dressage professional. (If you missed it, click here to read it.) They include the balance and seat of the rider, building correct connection in the horse, reading the horse’s body language, proper flexing and straightening, and gymnasticizing the horse. In Part 1, I also outlined the first two goals. Through exercises and further explanation, we will now cover the remaining three ways to ride like a dressage professional.

Reading Body Language

If we do not read the body language of our horse, we cannot ride dressage correctly. A happy dressage horse is one that can work with the dressage rider. In turn, it is the dressage rider’s job to learn when a horse is feeling encouraged in his work. Some of these signs are more obvious, including a swinging tail and soft eyes and ears. Others are not as easy to translate. You have to pay attention to things such as whether or not your horse seems stressed in the walk. Is he calm or bored in his work? Do not underestimate the horse’s ability to tell you his feelings simply with his tail. If you are working on an exercise and he starts to swish it, you know that he is not as happy as he was when it was swinging. The same holds true for his ears, mouth and breathing. Notice how they change as you continue in your work.

At a U.S. clinic, Hess explains the value of reading your horse’s body language in order to confirm whether or not he is happy in his work. (Credit: Carole MacDonald)

I always find it interesting to see how a horse reacts to making mistakes. If you watch his body language, you can usually tell if he has had negative discipline in his training. When I am judging and a horse makes a mistake and the rider uses his aids to give a positive correction that directs the horse to getting back on track, I give high scores and the rider can win the class. I score very low if the horse makes a mistake and the rider’s correction doesn’t result in the horse knowing what is being corrected. For example, if your horse breaks into trot when he should be walking, do not punish him with the whip. Apply the slowing aids to regain the walk. If you punish a horse, you only show him what you do not want. When you correct a horse, you show him what you do and do not want. As a judge, I think it is my responsibility to make sure that the horse is getting rewarded with scores if he and his rider are on the right track.

Para-Dressage is a great example of this type of sensitive riding. A couple of years ago, I was doing a master class at a CDI and there was a Para-Equestrian there that was unbelievable. He rode with harmony and effectiveness and was able to read the body language of the horse. I needed at least 10 minutes to see that he was disabled, and when I learned that this rider was a successful trainer of 3-year-old stallions, I could not believe it. This, I thought, is a great example of what skills you need to be a great dressage rider. While so many people are out there riding their horse with brute strength, special whips and massive spurs, this Para-Equestrian was the one setting the best example of correct dressage. 

Proper Flexing and Straightening

I see a common miscommunication problem when dressage judges write on a test that they want to see “more bending and more flexion” because the rider reads this and it can put him on the wrong track. In an effort to fix the problem, the rider only brings the horse out of balance. That is because correct flexion is the outside ear over the line of the spine in a straight line, where you can just barely see the horse’s inside eye from the saddle. Not more. The neck balances the whole body, so if it is brought in too much on the line of travel, you will lose balance. Correct bending causes the horse to be straight on a curved line so that the hind legs can properly move in the direction of the front legs. It is incorrect and cruel to overflex a horse’s head and neck beyond that line.

Exercise 1: This exercise improves your horse’s sensitivity, bend and flexion, and your coordination and feel.

1. At the walk, ride a box between P, F, K and V. Start on the right rein at P, making sure you are looking in the direction in which you are riding.

2. As you approach F, apply your aids for the shoulder-in. With your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg slightly behind it, softly flex your horse to the inside with your inside rein. Ask for the shoulder-in by bending your horse around your inside leg with your outside aids. This will prepare you to adjust the weight of these aids and correctly execute a quarter-pirouette on the second track so that you will end up facing K.

3. Proceed forward in walk on a straight line toward K. As you ride the quarter-pirouette, remember your inside leg so your horse learns to accept this aid and move around it without falling in.

4. Just before K, so you have room before the edge of the arena, repeat the quarter-pirouette. You will be 90 degrees from your previous line and now forming the third side of your box. Walk a straight line toward V.

5. Repeat the quarter-pirouette just before V and head to P, finishing the final side of your box.

6. Repeat this exercise several times in this and the opposite direction.

This is one of the harder lower-level exercises to ride because it requires you to get a true shoulder-in and quarter-pirouette. As you troubleshoot this exercise, remember that you must ride the bend from that inside supporting leg. Also pay attention to your own asymmetrical strengths that will make certain aspects of this exercise easier to execute in one direction. For example, if you are right-handed, think about how this affects any movements that require you to be more dominant with your left side. It might not be as easy to maintain your inside leg on the left rein or your outside aids on the right rein. However, once you are able to successfully ride this exercise in each direction, you will increase the walk quality and notice that it translates as you return to the trot and canter.

As you feel more comfortable with your horse’s responsiveness to the aids, ride with a slight flexion and slight shoulder-fore in order to have a truly straight horse. Then you are able to ride the horse in a way that allows him to be obedient, and you can produce a horse that is in front of your driving aids and going correctly.

Gymnasticizing the Horse

When I talk about the gymnastics of the horse, I am referring to exercises that require him to be working through his body. In these exercises, the horse must be responsive to the aids. A rider can prove that he is working in the right direction when he can ride accurate transitions between and within the gaits at any moment. A horse that is not responsive to his rider because he is anxious, distracted or otherwise preoccupied, cannot do correct gymnastic work. In those moments, your goal must first be to get him easily in front of your driving aids before adding anything else. Do not do this by using the whip or spurs in the wrong way. Instead, find a way to say to the horse, “Go. Go forward.” This is the only successful way to ride. For example, if the horse doesn’t accept the driving aids in the trot, then try riding forward into canter.

The following gymnastic exercises develop the previous goal of proper bend and flexion as well as introduce the beginning of collection. They are great exercises to get the horse gymnasticized (working through his body).

When I judge, I notice that many riders do not ride the corners properly either because they are not using their inside leg to outside rein to bend the horse through the corner or the horse is simply ignoring the aids. Correct corners are a great opportunity to test that your horse accepts the inside leg aid and outside rein aids whether you are schooling or competing in a dressage test.

Exercise 2: Every arena and every test have countless opportunities to ride corners, so let us practice our gymnasticizing by riding voltes in the corners. This will also be a great way to solidify our horse’s bending and flexing skills we started to work on in the previous exercise.

1. At the trot on the left rein, ride a 10-meter volte in each corner to develop the proper bend and flexion in the corners. It is essential as you ride into the corner that you use your inside leg aid to support the bend.

2. Change onto the right rein and repeat the exercise. If this side is harder, it means the horse needs more improvement in this direction. As you troubleshoot this, have a trainer check that you are not sitting crooked or doing something that causes the horse to have a problem on that side.

3. Ride this same exercise in canter on the right and left leads.

Exercise 3: Once you are able to ride the volte exercise in trot and canter, you are ready to add transitions between trot and canter.

1. Repeat the previous trot exercise on the left rein. Again, ride a 10-meter volte in the first corner.

2. Transition to canter before completing the volte.

3. Proceed down the long side with a shoulder-fore tendency and ride another volte in the next corner. Then ride straight ahead in a slight shoulder-fore.

4. On the long side, transition to trot. As you do this, think that you are starting the trot, not ending the canter, to keep your horse’s forward tendency.
Your horse should start to carry more weight with his hind legs as a result of these exercises, and he will develop more self-carriage.

Exercise 4: As you are developing the bend, flexion and self-carriage, here is another great exercise that really gymnasticizes your horse. It is also a great way to cool down at the end of a work session.

1. On the 20-meter circle, ride quick transitions from trot to canter and then back to trot. Make sure to control the aids, especially when you are on the open side of the circle. The outside aids keep him from getting wide.

2. After you ride these transitions, switch directions and repeat. Make
sure your tempo is not rushed so that your horse has time to swing with his whole body. Make sure you are riding with your body and not balancing with your reins.

3. Once you have ridden several transitions in and out of the canter, ride around the whole arena.

4. Take your reins in one hand, pat your horse and transition to trot and ride forward.

5. Give a bit with the reins and bring your shoulders more together to make your body a bit taller in the saddle. This will signal your horse to reduce the speed without you feeling the need to take the reins back into both hands and pull to slow down. If you have a hard time with the downward transition, use your voice if you need to.

6. Now pick up the reins with both hands and shorten them as they were in the volte exercise.

7. Change direction across the diagonal and ask for canter in this new lead.

8. Take the reins in one hand and pat your horse. Lengthen your reins again. See that your horse is relaxed by asking him to stretch down and out in the frame as you do in the trot-stretch circle in a dressage test. As long as you can control the tempo and balance of your horse, don’t be afraid to give the reins as long as possible, and with your body, ask for a transition to trot.

9. Change direction and canter with the same long rein. Pat your horse. When I see a horse-and-rider combination that can achieve this exercise, it says to me that this is the body language of a happy horse. He is showing that he and his rider can maintain their balance without the rider hanging on
his mouth.

As you work on these final three goals, I want you to remember what I pointed out in the first article: What is more important than natural talent is being focused on the things you are doing with the highest motivation. Those riders that pay attention to these five goals I have highlighted will be better off. Remember that you only ace a test by doing your homework, not just by being smart. I hope this two-part article has helped you continue your path to success in dressage through correctness in your training.

If you missed Part 1, click here to read it.

Christoph Hess is the former director of training for the German Olympic Committee for Equestrian Sports and is a Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) “I” judge in both dressage and eventing. Hess has been employed by the German Equestrian Federation (the equivalent of the U.S. Equestrian Federation) since 1978. In February 2012, he became the ambassador of training and education, having recently moved from the position of head of instruction and head of the personal members department. He spends the majority of his time teaching clinics for judges, trainers and riders around the world, including the FEI Trainers’ Conference in Wellington, Florida.   

This article first appeared in the July 2012 issue of Dressage Today. 






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