Dressage In Terms of Dance

How to turn dressage into a fluid art by developing collection.
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Credit: Dancers photo courtesy, Patricia Becker Opposite: Patricia Becker and Leoluigi at the 2012 U.S. Equestrian Federation Intermediaire I Championships.

Credit: Dancers photo courtesy, Patricia Becker Opposite: Patricia Becker and Leoluigi at the 2012 U.S. Equestrian Federation Intermediaire I Championships.

This page: Vlad Musteata and Patricia cha-cha at a competition in Florida.

I have two passions that involve dancing with a partner: I am a dressage trainer and a professional Latin ballroom dancer. My boyfriend, Vladimir Velev, is a professional ballroom dancer, so I began taking classes when I wasn’t riding horses. Little did I know how much dance would improve my dressage.

When I first started dancing, it became obvious that discipline led to success. I needed repetition to practice effectively, and going to class once a month simply wouldn’t get me to my goals. The harder I worked, the more I connected with my partner. My strength, flexibility and stamina increased and things became easier because I was training enough to achieve my goals. The same holds true for dressage: discipline leads to success. The more you work with your horse, the more connected you will become as a pair. The more time you spend in the saddle, the stronger you and he will become. That is the only way to reach your goals on the dance floor and in the dressage arena. 

As I put this time into dancing, I learned just how hard it can be to communicate with a dance partner. People have different personalities and communication styles, and no one wants to be bossed around. It gave me a new respect for my dressage partner, who does not speak or understand 100 percent of what I try to get him to do. I vowed never to be a dictator to my horses, and instead work with them as partners. When I ride, I take charge and make the decisions as the gentleman does in dancing. I remember to be extremely clear. That is our job as the rider.

Once I recognized how important a 50-50 partnership was with my horse, I started to look for even more ways to support him. I learned on the dance floor that stamina is essential so your partner isn’t carrying you around when you are tired. This is easier to notice when you are standing on your own two feet, but just as important when you are in the saddle. When I am tired, I make it a point not to expect my horse to carry me around. I work on my stamina so I can support him as much as he supports me. 

With stamina comes core strength and flexibility. This is one of the most obvious benefits I felt. I found my ability to maintain my position without being stiff was important in both dance and dressage. I went so far as to take dance lessons on my horses. Once my dance instructor was on the same page about the basics of dressage, he was tremendously helpful in teaching me how to maintain my posture in the saddle with translatable tips and techniques for proper position and core engagement. 

Once I was able to see these connections, I thought it would be interesting to think of dressage in terms of dance. One day, I was watching a horse in piaffe, legs and shoulders down and butt in the air. I thought, This isn’t beautiful, he is just performing a trick. I learned that many horses can perform movements, but they aren’t doing them in a balanced and fluid way—they aren’t dancing. What that piaffing horse and many like him were missing was collection. It is what creates the smoothness, beauty and power in each movement. It is what allows you and your horse to dance.

Collection is the increase in articulation of the horse’s hind-leg joints so they can take more weight and push more. Picture a person doing a squat, then using impulsion to propel out of it. You know you have collection when a ground person can see more articulation in your horse’s joints. If he watches the hocks and elevation of the shoulder in true collection, he will see that the horse’s shoulder comes up and the hocks start to bend more. He will also start to see more suspension. If you are riding, you will feel a development of suspension and cadence. This definition of collection is not particularly elegant, considering it helps to create the image of dancing when the horse works. So it might be better to simply imagine a gorgeous, lofty passage. That ideal picture is what you want to think of as you ride every day.


Preparing to Dance

As with anything in dressage, too much or too soon is not smart, so start slow. First, your horse must go confidently forward in a balanced way. He must be on the aids so that he is clearly responsive to both the forward and slowing aids. This is essential because the collecting aids require you to use a variation of them. 

The correct slowing aid must come from your seat. You are allowed to use a bit of reinforcing hand to explain the seat aid, but the slowing should come from your seat. This is where control of your core is important. To give the slowing-down aid, you must decrease the amount of movement you allow in your seat by tightening your core muscles.

The forward aid should come from a light touch of your leg, not a huge kick or constant squeezing. When the horse is attentive and responsive to these slowing and forward aids, he is ready to begin collection. Obviously, you will have to make corrections in order to reinforce these aids each day in your riding, but if the horse is reasonably responsive on a fairly consistent basis, he is ready. 


The Basic Steps 

Once you have confirmed your horse’s responsiveness to the slowing and forward aids, you can introduce further collection. Remember, every horse is different—some might be mature and be ready for more collected work earlier in training while others may need some time to get stronger. 

It is common for people to misunderstand the idea of collection. Because it is hard to ride the horse from back to front with power in the hind end, people make the mistake of asking for collection by slowing the horse down. This causes him to lose the articulation in his joints and his carrying power. You are headed in the wrong direction if the steps become smaller or the hind legs become stiffer. Here are some great exercises to do with your horse to prevent this: 

Chasse exercise—Enlarging the circle: By asking your horse to move out for a few strides on a circle, you are asking him to work in a way that is similar to the chasse that a dancer would find in cha-cha. The chasse is a step that shows hip action and emphasizes correct foot placement as the dancer moves sideways in three steps. Here is how to chasse with your horse:

1. Ride a 20-meter circle in trot. 

2. Check that your outside rein and leg aids are preventing his shoulder from popping out, causing him to fall out on the circle. 

3. On the open side of the circle, apply your inside leg aid, as in leg yield. Because you are off the wall, you have space to enlarge the circle into an oval by asking him to step farther under his body with his inside, hind leg.

4. Release your inside leg aid when you feel your horse’s inside hind leg become active (step under and forward). 

5. Spiral back to a 20-meter circle, confirming again that you have your outside guarding aids working. 

6. Repeat the inside leg aid to activate the inside hind again.

Rock Step exercise—Enlarging the circle plus quick trot–walk–trot transitions: This is like adding a rock step to your chasse in a dance. A rock step is when the dancer steps back with one foot and then immediately steps forward again. Once you have confirmed the chasse exercise, you can rock step with your horse by adding quick trot– walk–trot transitions to your chasse exercise. Just as when a dancer puts these two steps together and has the basic chacha step, now you will truly be starting to dance with your horse. Here is how to rock step with your horse: 

1. Spiral back to the 20-meter circle. 

2. Apply your walk aids and transition down to walk. 

3. Ride five strides of walk. For an older/stronger horse, ride only three or four strides of walk.

4. Apply your forward aids and trot. 

5. Move on to your enlarging movement before spiraling back and repeating this whole exercise. 

Instead of moving the hind end laterally as you did in the enlarging-the-circle exercise, the transitions are encouraging your horse to track up in a more front-to-back way. The combination will give you a twofold approach to encouraging him to step and bend his hind legs correctly.

Developing the Dance

Every horse should be introduced to collection by the time he is working on First Level because you cannot show Second Level until you can maintain true collection during the test. Here is a great exercise to build upon the collection you started to introduce in the previous exercises: 

Rumba exercise—10-meter volte with almost-walk transitions: Unlike the walk transitions in the earlier exercise, riding almost-walk transitions in the trot allows your horse to adjust his pace within the gait and become more flexible in collection. This helps him become more fluid, much like the basic principles of rumba, a slower dance where a controlled form of relaxation is present. Here is how to rumba with your horse: 

1. Ride a 10-meter volte in trot. 

2. As you head back toward the wall of the arena, apply your slowing aid just enough to almost get to walk. 

3. Before your horse transitions to walk, release your aid and ride forward, back to the trot. 

By riding this exercise, you will not only develop your horse’s flexibility in the trot but also begin to introduce the combination of slowing and forward aids that are required to ask for collection in any movement. Additionally, the 10-meter volte will start to collect your horse more than the 20-meter circle in the previous exercise by asking him to step under more in the turn. Remember to always stay in trot.

Advanced Steps 

Teaching collection during his First- to Third-Level years is essential because by the time a horse is at Third Level he must be established in the idea of collection. After that, you are only confirming and developing the degree of collection. That is why once you have basic collection, you are ready to begin the movements that put you on the road to developing an upper-level horse. 

Here is a great exercise for a horse that is confirmed in basic collection and ready to develop more:

The Fan Step exercise—Add angled turns: Asking your horse to make 90-degree turns is like completing a fan step in the rumba. The fan step requires the dancer to turn on the spot, changing the direction of movement. This is another exercise that encourages your horse to bend his hind legs and push off. It discourages him from incorrectly shortening his stride and slowing. Here is how to fan step with your horse: 

1. Ride a left lead collected canter on the track.

2. At B, ride an angled turn. Bring your horse’s shoulder around with your outside turning aids so that you are facing E. This turn will form a 90-degree angle rather than the bending line of a circle or corner. 

3. Continue forward and completely straight in collected canter. 

4. Before E, ride another angled turn onto the second quarterline.

5. Ride forward and straight. 

As you ask for the angled turns, you are asking your horse to take enough weight onto his hind leg to freely move his shoulders around in the turn. The bend in the hock to achieve the turn and the release of energy to ride forward into the collected canter are exactly the work you need to develop collection. Add difficulty by riding your turns more frequently so you begin on the first quarterline and turn at the next. 

Hopefully, these exercises will put you on the road to developing correct dressage work and give you a better understanding of your end goal.

Remember that if you have proper collection in the canter, you are not cantering in a slow canter that has limited articulation in the joints. Your horse has to be balanced, floating and tracking up. Say goodbye to stiff joints and small steps. Ride with power and flexibility. Ride to dance!

Patti Becker is the head dressage trainer at Fireside Farm and a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) bronze, silver and gold medalist. In addition to her success as a professional ballroom dancer, she has multiple USDF Region 2 Championship wins. These include 2007 Open Prix St. Georges Champion, as well as 2009 Open Grand Prix Champion and Open Intermediare 2 Reserve Champion. Patti has also qualified for the U.S. Equestrian Federation National Intermediaire I Championship on several occasions, including this year with Leoluigi, owned by Lezlie Rehagen. At the Markel National 5-Year-Old Championships, Patti piloted Anne Ramsay’s Freedom to the highest placing for U.S.-bred horses with a third place. She is based in Camp Lake, Wisconsin, and Wellington, Florida during the winter (thefiresidefarm.com).

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