Don't Rush the Basics in Dressage

Courtney King-Dye Explains Why
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Some people rush “the basics” in dressage training. Myth is a perfect example of why it’s important to focus on them. (Mythilus was her partner at the 2008 Olympic Games.) He came to me having shown Grand Prix twice for a 63 and 64 percent, but when I got on him, I couldn’t do a single flying change. Heck, I couldn’t even do a good trot-to-canter.

Every day for the first six months, I cried because I felt so incompetent. In all of my sessions, I did about a million and 10 trot–walk transitions. Lendon [Gray, Olympian and mentor] was wondering why I did these endlessly, and she eventually got on and took it down to walk–halt transitions. It took me a year to be able to do a sequence. Even though Myth knew the movements, he could only do them if I held him together, which greatly minimized the quality. By focusing on getting him to listen to me and carry himself and by never doing the movements holding him together in any way (even if the best I could do was a turn on the forehand and a walk–halt), in two years we were at the Olympics. To make this happen, I had to go back and work on the basics. The basics allow the horse to move on his own 100 percent and to maximize athleticism.

“Go, stop and steer” are the fundamental basics that need to be easy in order to do anything well. Myth’s problem was stopping, but all three have to be trustworthy; if one is lacking in perfection, the quality is lost. The basics begin before the horse is mounted: respect, paying attention to space, listening to body language. Training for Grand Prix starts the moment we get on their back. When they’re 3, the transition from trot to canter must be immediate and off a light aid. How can we expect a horse to eventually do one-time changes if it takes four strides to go from trot to canter and you have to flail your legs and pull his head down? 

The problem I see is that horses are treated like babies until they’re 6 or 7. Then they’re expected to be grown up and really work. There should be no change. The horse is just gradually asked to do more. If he is asked to do simple things, they still have to be good. Don’t make the mistake some people do when they have an “easy day.” This doesn’t mean that you are lax on perfection or obedience; easy days just means you reduce what you ask. You don’t challenge the horse’s body, but you are equally as focused on doing everything you do well; the quality remains the same. 

When the horse is a baby, he learns go, stop and steer simplistically. These fundamentals never cease being important, and we must never lose sight that pirouettes, passage, extensions and everything advanced can be broken down into these three basic elements. If you are having a problem, go back and make sure each element is easy. You’ll probably find one that needs perfecting.

Courtney King-Dye represented the United States in the 2008 Olympic Games riding Harmony’s Mythilus and at the 2007 and 2008 World Cups aboard Idocus. She is a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Certified Instructor through Fourth Level and USDF gold medalist. For six years, she was assistant trainer to Olympian Lendon Gray (ckddressage.com). 

King-Dye, Gray and six-time Olympian Robert Dover have launched the Emerging Athlete Program to find and help educate and develop talented youth to become the international riders and trainers of the future. The program organizes regional clinics in the United States, and participants will be selected for national clinics. Find out more at dressage4kids.com.

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