"No matter what level of riding we're talking about, we are all having the same problems," said Olympic gold medalist Hubertus Schmidt, to clinic participants in March 2005 at Dr. Cesar Parra's Piaffe Performance Farm in Jupiter, Fla. "And all of those problems have the same simple solution: more focus on the basics." A critical element of basic dressage riding, said Schmidt, is the warm-up and keeping the horse loose and relaxed in all of his work, whether it is working trot or pirouette canter.
According to Schmidt, a warm-up should start with the working trot and lots of stretching. "Every athlete should do a warm-up with stretching and exercises before they start working. It's very important to get them up in the back and following the rein, always with a steady contact, loose and long in the neck with lots of flexion and bending," he said. "If a horse cannot stretch, he can't be loose into the bend. A horse must be able to stretch in order to do piaffe and pirouette. The horse has to be loose and supple in order to be collected, especially a young horse that needs longer to get into collected work. You want him deeper behind, more uphill, swinging in the back, which gives him the right natural balance."
In addition, Schmidt noted, it's much easier to get a horse collected once he's stretched out and loose. When he's stretched out properly, all you have to do is sit heavier and push a little to collect them.
After the horse is relaxed and loose in the back, the warm-up should expand to include trot and canter transitions on a big circle. "This sounds easy," warned Schmidt, "but to do it from a nice working trot to a nice working canter without the horse getting quicker, hollowed in the back or too deep, is not easy. And it's also very important to do transitions from working canter to working trot."
The amount of time you take in the warm-up is also an important consideration and depends on the condition and the age of the horse. With a young horse, Schmidt says, sometimes you might spend an entire ride in working trot and working canter to get him really loose and steady. With an older horse, the warm-up might take only 5-10 minutes. In another case, you might take longer if you're at a show and your horse is really nervous. Overall, you should make the warm-up as short as possible to avoid tiring the horse needlessly.
Once the horse is warmed up, loose, supple and swinging in the back, don't make him tense when you try to put him together, Schmidt warned. If you lose the swinging in the back, the active behind or the impulsion, go back to your warm-up.
"On a young horse, when you want to collect the horse, first make the working trot more swinging and active, and then try to make the horse shorter, but carefully," he said. "It's better for the horse to be a little too free and forward than too short. A very good swinging horse is easily brought back to piaffe or passage. But you can never get nice piaffe or passage without a loose horse with a nice swinging back."
It's also important not to lose the flexion and bending. "You often see horses moving correctly on a straight line, but they have a difficult time on a bending line," Schmidt said. "In order to achieve better flexion and bending, you have to make a half halt on the outside rein. You don't want to do a half halt on the inside because the inside rein stops the inside hind leg from moving forward. It sounds very easy, but most riders are unable to do the half halt on the outside rein because they don't get them loose to the inside. For instance, the half pass only works correctly when the rider is able to have the horse loose inside and against the outside rein. I see a lot of riders use the corners as a tool to get the horse loose on the inside rein--to get back the flexion, bending and the swinging."
End on a Positive Note
The best way to cool down is to finish with a movement that's very different from whatever you've been working on. And it has to be something that the horse is very good at and relaxed about. For example, said Schmidt, "if I'm working on passage, and the horse has gotten hot and a little tense, then it's a good idea to end with something simple like posting trot, and then he can get relaxed again."
Read more about the clinic and why dressage riders flock south to Florida during the winter show season in "Wellington: Horse City USA" in the December 2005 issue of Dressage Today magazine.