Develop a Dressage Training Plan to Move Up

An FEI rider explains how you can create a training schedule for a Second Level horse—but the “planning” principles apply to horses of all levels.

A student recently asked me to help her develop a training plan for her 7-year-old, Second Level gelding. She wanted advice on how often she should work her horse and how to keep progressing without inadvertently causing him to lose his enthusiasm.

Regardless of your level, such a plan is the crucial tool that gives you the means to advance in dressage. In this article, I’ll give you guidelines to develop a training plan for the Second Level horse looking toward Third Level, but the general principles apply to the training of a horse at any level. The rider of a Training Level horse can apply this philosophy and substitute easier exercises and movements.

 In general, most horses, regardless of level, progress quite well with three or four days of training per week. Other activities, such as hacking on the trail, cavalletti or quadrille work, add spice to the program and improve fitness. All athletes need diversity and down time even when they love their work.

 Every workout includes three phases: a warm-up phase, a training phase that is the body of the workout and a wrap-up or cooldown phase. Within the training phase, we’ll discuss ways to make your work fun by doing it in ever more surprising and playful combinations that challenge your horse without overfacing him. We’ll also try to be on the alert and grateful for “gifts” from your horse. These are moments when you horse’s upper-level possibilities shine through in an instant of true self-carriage or a time when he gives you a flying change even though you hadn’t asked for it. These gifts are proof of your horse’s effort, and they indicate that you are on the right path. Finally, I’ll show you how to use the movements he is good at to blend greater quality into his weaker movements.

 The training plan for a horse to move up from Second Level into the medium levels and to the FEI levels has to gradually bring an increase in his strength and stamina, which will help him develop collection and self-carriage. In the medium levels, we show our horses how to bend the joints in their haunches for increased collection—through half halts, more developed transitions and the bending/engaging influence of lateral work. At the same time, we aim to preserve and enhance his sense of freedom and pleasure in his own movement.

 The daily plan begins with the warm-up phase.

The Warm-Up

The standard warm-up starts with a relaxing but energetic walk and Training Level work such as large circles, straight lines and transitions within the working gaits to get the horse’s body in motion so he is able to work without injury. Your horse needs to get his cardiovascular system in gear, and you need to get him physically warm by using the muscle groups that will stretch his topline, making him round and ready for engagement.

 Your warm-up may need to contradict your horse’s nature. If he is lethargic, you might ride him in overdrive for part of your warm-up. If you have a nervous, arrhythmic horse, you might ride a meditative type of warm-up. Soothe the savage best and invigorate the uninspired!

 Gradually, your warm-up will progress into the horse’s confirmed level of work so you can find out what’s coming easily and what’s hard—both physically and attitudinally. Naturally, the greater your horse’s repertoire, the longer it takes to “put him through his paces” in warm-up.

 In the end, the warm-up is the time when you evaluate and identify the qualities that are confirmed in your horse and the ones that are missing in order to determine the focus of the training phase of your workout.

The Training Phase

When your horse is physically and mentally in gear and on the aids, your training phase begins. In an ideal world, “on the aids” means your aids influence the entire horse because he is “through.” However, in the practical world, you start the training phase when you get an acceptable response from your basic aids. In this phase, you will put less emphasis on what your horse does and more on how he does it—in other words, you’ll measure your horse’s progress in qualities.

 The fundamental qualities we develop are outlined in the pyramid of training—or the training scale—with its six components: rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection. The pyramid is a wonderful comfort to all of us earnest dressage riders who experience moments of doubt when riding on our own. The pyramid gives us a sense of the prerequisites necessary to work up through the levels: Training Level is about establishing regularity and relaxation in the working gaits and usable contact with which you can communicate and listen. We’ll talk much more about “listening” later.

 When you move on, you develop impulsion—the essence of First Level. Transitions within the gaits coil the joints and release the energy. At First Level, impulsion is developed and tested with lengthenings of stride.

 The essence of Second Level is straightness—which enables collection. The lateral exercises in Second Level give us tools for developing the horse’s strength, straightness and symmetry. At Second Level, we’re always honing the straightness, toying with the next level and playing with collection. Technically, the foundation is complete, but your training from now through Grand Prix will focus on improving the degree of throughness, straightness, collection and self-carriage and enhancing the most basic qualities of relaxation, rhythm and contact at the base of the pyramid.

 Your horse can make bits of progress every day if you habitually challenge the status quo. On training days, take your horse to a level of challenge that stresses him just a little. Horses and people learn at different levels of stress, but no stress means no growth.

 Evaluate what level, kind and duration of stress is appropriate for your horse. Some horses thrive on routine—they get easily unbalanced mentally, so they need consistency in their programs. When you give them something new, they react by saying “Oh dear!” and then you need to quickly resolve the tension go back to the routine and say “It’ll be OK.” If you introduce stress in small doses, your horse will soon accept it because those small doses become routine and are always followed by relief and resolution. In contrast, some horses become stale easily and thrive on meeting challenges. I have a horse who is now like a sports car. He loves learning new athletic feats, so I ride him knowing about his enthusiasm for challenges. I can almost hear him squeal in delight at his own power.

 While the training scale tells us how to challenge the horse, it also reminds us when we’ve gone too far. When the base of the pyramid starts to crumble, you know you’re in the realm of deconstructive stress, and you need to take your training back a notch. For example, if there is a loss of rhythm or of connection, let it be an immediate warning that you need to approach the training a little more slowly and carefully. The base of the pyramid must be confirmed with each new challenge.

 Find out what it takes to recover the lost quality: perhaps a kind word, a lightening of the aids, a walk break, a few strides of stretching or a short gallop to unwind. Train long enough for your horse to recognize and partially meet his challenge, but not so long that he cannot recover his equilibrium quickly. If an appropriate, developmental amount of stress is applied and released many times, the horse won’t fear it. He knows he can try to meet the challenge, and he will soon be rewarded for the effort.

 When a concept is still fuzzy in your horse’s mind, repetition can develop anticipation that works for you. Don’t be quick to reprimand an act of anticipation, such as a premature canter depart. Teach him to anticipate but wait for you—gather himself but not execute a movement until he is asked. Horses, like people, get discouraged when they are constantly corrected and told “no.” When you horse guesses what you want, it can only mean that he is enthusiastically in the game.

 Frequent walks within the training phase allow your horse to increase his strength and stamina and avoid working muscles too fatigued to adequately protect the joints. Walking on the aids should not just be preparation for a transition; but is a skill in itself. Walk breaks on a loose or long rein are an opportunity to evaluate what you’ve have done, plan the next phase and rest the body between efforts. Train your horse to walk on the aids during his breaks so he is mentally and physically ready to continue quality work when you pick up the reins. If this habit isn’t established, all is lost between the warm-up arena and the show ring as well. When you make a habit of restarting many times a day, he will go back to work willingly in his training and in the show ring.

Make Learning Playful

Make your work fun by doing it in ever more surprising combinations. When we were kids, we played. We learned to hop on one leg from here to there. Riding can be a game like that for your horse. Leg yield across a bridge while out on a trail ride. Shoulder-in between two poles on the ground and then gallop to the end of the arena. If you ride with a playful attitude, you can do just about anything.

German trainer Conrad Schumacher has stretched the limits of my imagination at times. He once asked me to do canter-rein-back transitions with my horse. No halt. I thought, “Are you nuts?” But the execution required great feel, and the result was extraordinary. Next, we played toward pirouette work by doing halt-canter-halt transitions. When I asked my horse for canter from the halt, he said, “What? I’m leaving.” I said, “No, just canter right here,” and I asked him for that greater degree of collection. Then my horse did an amazing thing: he took his whole body weight, rocked his hips over his hocks and stuck off. The next time I wanted a pirouette, I asked him to put his hips over his hocks, and he sat back and gave me a beautiful pirouette. We’d been working toward that for ages and suddenly it was very clear.

 “Playing” confirms skills and strengthens muscles without monotony. Later, the standard exercises in dressage tests seem easy by contrast. Here’s an example of how you can train your Second Level horse to make a Third Level exercise easy and introduce Fourth Level skills:

 Think of the training of simple changes as an auditory rhythm exercise. Listen for the sound of canter-walk-canter. Da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-BUM-BUM-BUM (walk), da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-BUM-BUM-BUM (walk). Then do simple changes as tempi changes on the diagonal. Canter four strides, walk three steps, canter four strides on the opposite lead and so on. Then do simple changes down the centerline every four strides and maybe even every three strides. It is a great exercise to straighten, engage and sensitize a horse while at the same time confirming simple changes. Play with this until the Third Level exercise of one simple change at X seems laughably easy by comparison.

 When simple changes are schooled this well, the groundwork for pirouettes is laid. The ideal simple change requires that the horse load the hind leg such that he could canter on the spot—the hard part of pirouettes. Turning is relatively easy. So when the simple change feels ideal, introduce a quarter pirouette in place of the transition to walk. This is how you can play at pirouettes long before you need them. Show your horse that they are just an extension of what he can already do well.

Listening for Gifts

I’m very much a purist because I believe one thing follows the next as in the training scale, but horses give us gifts. As I’ve grown more experienced, I’ve learned to take advantage if these gifts—such as a gathering toward piaffe when anticipating a walk-canter transition or a flying change offered innocently when schooling counter canter. Whereas one could see these as evasions and ignore or even reprimand for them, I see them as gifts and say, “Oh! Aren’t you clever! Thank you very much!” I know we can sort out the misunderstanding later. The important part is to reward the effort. What sets the experienced rider apart is that he is listening for the distant sound or feel of the FEI horse within the young horse. He tells the young horse when he hears the right feeling, “Yeah! You’re getting warmer! That’s the idea!” This rider gives the horse that “bliss feeling” of being in harmony whenever he offers something that feels a bit like the ultimate goal. This is why the listening aspect of your aids is so important—so we can say, “Yes!”

Learning to say “Yes!”

How does rthe horse know when he’s doing it right? You let him know. But to let him know, you need to have the skills. And just like your horse has a training scale that guides his development, you, as a rider, follow a similar pattern:

•First you develop flow so you can harmonize or follow the movement of your horse underneath you. Ideally, you may learn this on the longe line.

•Next, you can develop independence so you can stabilize your position regardless of the movement underneath you—no matter what your horse does. You learn this best on the longe line also.

•Then you develop influence, so you can stabilize and act at the same time.

•Then you develop your listening aids, so you can notice when your horse is drifting away from you.

•Then you can choose to be intentionally out of harmony with your horse and ask him to join you on the other side.

•Finally, when your horse joins you, you go into the ultimate harmony with him—which he perceives as, “Yes!”—whether it is for a few strides or more.

 The point is that our horses enjoy this harmony as much as we do, and they develop the thinking: “This isn’t harmonious. Let me go find her.” And the rider’s harmonious bodily response says “Yeah!” Riders who ride this way open up something special that brings them back to why they started riding in the first place. Getting your horse to start looking for the “yes” strides is how you can bring them along without “telling” them all the time: “Do this, do that. …” You develop two-way communication. You say, “I’m over here! Come on over!”

 Eventually through the process of disharmony-harmony, yes-no, hot-warm-cold kind of riding, the horse looks for harmony and likes it. It’s as much fun for him as it is for you—being in sync and being free within the circles of the aids.

Cooldown Phase

After challenging your horse with work at the edges of his abilities, it is important to finish with a few things that he can do easily and then cool down in the walk. If the rider pays special attention to this phase, the horse psychologically knows that the difficult work will always be followed by easy work, and he likes it. If the rider always stops after the peak of the difficult work, the horse will ask “Can we quit yet?” instead of looking forward to the easy work in the cooldown phase. This winding down work allows him to finish his day feeling, “This is just so easy! I’m so great!”

 Depending on the difficulty of the training phase, the cooldown phase may be between 10 and 20 minutes. It is as important to your horse’s happiness and health as his warm-up. The cooling off walk allows the heart to slow its pumping and let the footfalls pump the fluid back out of the extremities before he goes to his stall. If time isn’t allowed for this, many circulatory soundness problems can be established or aggravated.

 If your horse is correct in his Second Level skills and has a healthy ego to preserve and enhance, you’re off to a great start. Two things naturally motivate horses to move beautifully: playing and showing off. To preserve your horse’s enthusiasm, present him with a variety of challenging exercises and play. Catch him doing something right as often as possible so you can give him as many “yes” strides as possible.

 Show your horse where he is confident and confirmed. Continue training and exploring one or two levels above his competition level. This way, your horse is never overfaced by the stress of showing. He is not just ready to show. He is ready to show off!

From San Ramon in northern California, Rachel Saavedra trains at La Jolla Equestrian Center in Pleasanton, California. She is on the faculty of the U.S. Dressage Federation Certified Instructor Program.

This article first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Dressage Today.






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