For centuries, the gymnastic training system of dressage has proven highly effective for both starting young horses and schooling up through Grand Prix. It works for creatures of habit, like the horse, because it allows them to know what is expected and is very regimented. This is because everything you begin at Training Level is the first step on the journey to upper-level work. It’s systematic, meaning that nothing ever really changes—the aids are always the same through each level of training. For example, the aids for a well-ridden 20-meter circle are almost the same as the aids for a canter pirouette. The only difference is that, at the higher levels, the horse is stronger because the rider has incorporated all the other elements of the training scale—rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection.
Over the years, I have found that this systematic training works for all horses, regardless of their breed. I have also learned the importance of incorporating certain factors into my dressage training and I would like to share these with you.
Training Philosophy—Understanding the Horse
When training, it is important to keep in mind:
1. The horse’s talent level (his strength and ability)
2. The rider’s ability to listen to the horse and recognize when and how the training should proceed
3. The rider’s belief in the training.
Recognizing your horse’s physical and mental capabilities is a very important part of his training. For example, you can’t take a 4-year-old and ask him to do 15 steps of piaffe like a Grand Prix horse. He’s not strong, supple, collected or balanced enough to do it. Plus, he doesn’t have the head for it yet. You have to build up your horse’s mental ability and physical fitness through systematic gymnastic exercises. You start out small and increase as his fitness and strength grow.
Some people make the mistake of riding their young or green horse twice a week to go easy on him. That’s the worst way to approach his training because it’s not systematic. A lot of time and energy are wasted because he comes out fresh and disobedient and doesn’t remember much from the last time he was ridden.
The better plan is to ride for 20 minutes six days a week. That consistency will build his physical and mental fitness. Start off by doing basic exercises in walk, trot and canter. He should be able to do all the upward and downward transitions easily without throwing his head or kicking at your leg aids, and he should be willing to take contact easily.
As the horse matures and gets stronger, you can start to introduce big circles and big serpentines, shoulder-in and travers. He should be able to do 20-meter, 12-meter and 10-meter circles consistently, in balance with good tempo.
This is a much better approach when starting a green horse. Riding him consistently, fairly and gymnastically will set him up physically and mentally. He will have a good basic foundation for further training by the end of this first year.
Your horse will tell you when he’s ready to learn something new when he responds to the aids more readily. He will be able to do that once his physical conditioning improves and the work gets easier for him. Don’t make the mistake of trying to advance him before he is ready. You can’t approach the training by thinking, Today is the day I’m going to do half pass. If your horse isn’t ready, he will resist and the whole system breaks down. If he’s unhappy in his work, he’s telling you something. Perhaps you are pushing before he’s ready. Is he balanced enough to do what you’re asking of him? Is he physically and mentally ready to do what you want?
Be sure to watch for these signs and listen to your horse all the time. You may have to go back a few steps and work on the basics through systematic gymnastic exercises. And keep in mind that what you don’t get today, you’ll get later.
Set Up Your Gymnastic Program
If you stick to a program, your horse is going to be better and you are going to be a better rider. Consistent work makes training kinder because riders are clearer about what they are asking for and horses are fit enough to do what is asked of them. So dressage training becomes more understandable to both horse and rider. There are many gymnastic exercises to choose from. As you ride these sample exercises, keep these tips in mind and practice them every day:
• Ride figures correctly and accurately. For example, 20-meter circles should be round and ridden from letter to letter; three- or four-loop serpentines should be ridden with even, accurate loops.
• Keep an even contact with the reins with steady, quiet hands. Keep the same weight balanced on both sides of your horse’s mouth.
• Think forward energy, keeping your horse in front of your leg and on the aids by driving with your seat.
Warming up. Every systematic program begins with warming up. Most people don’t spend enough time warming up at the beginning of each ride, and it’s really important. The idea is to get the horse loose and supple (bending left and right, longitudinally and laterally) and then moving straight (hind hooves steady). Try to maintain a natural tempo, not too fast, keeping your horse straight, especially down the long side between the letters. Keep your outside hand down and your inside leg on, pushing to the outside aid. Keep your hands quiet and try to maintain really consistent contact. Remember to always ride from track to track and be very accurate. When you finish your circle at C, change rein across the diagonal, keeping the same 1–2, 1–2 tempo like a metronome. Ride your corner properly because it is a suppling exercise in and of itself.
Ride trot–canter transitions. Begin at C sitting trot, transition to canter on the left lead and ride straight down the long side in a slight shoulder-fore position. At F, transition to trot and cross the diagonal, keeping your horse nice and straight. At C, transition to canter right lead. Try to feel the jump in the canter, riding him forward with lots of energy from the back end to the front end.
Take walk breaks and let the horse stretch his neck and relax during and after the warm-up. You can begin the next phase of your gymnastic program, which might include exercises such as these:
Change the pace within the gait.
As you proceed with this exercise, remember to always ride with a slight shoulder-in to bring the horse’s shoulder off the track and keep him straight throughout the exercise. It’s the lengthening and shortening of the canter stride that makes this exercise gymnastic. For example, go from collected to working and back to collected canter within each circle and down the long side.
1. Pick up a canter on the long side.
2. At the corner, collect (use your half halts to help him rebalance), keeping a slight shoulder-in. A horse’s shoulder is narrower than his hind so they have to be slightly in for him to be straight.
3. Go down the next long side in medium canter.
4. Circle at E in working canter and then collect.
5. Ride working canter straight down the long side and then collect again in the corner.
6. Go across the diagonal and repeat on the other lead.
Ride 10-meter circles with simple changes at the end of each:
1. From a collected walk, pick up canter left lead at C.
2. Ride three 10-meter circles down the long side with a transition to walk at the end of each circle. Collect before asking for the walk transitions and make sure your geometry is accurate.
3. Keep your horse slightly bent in the jowl to the inside and balanced on the outside rein. Think about riding forward into the walk, not pulling back.
4. If needed, give him a kick to create the energy from behind, and then relax your leg so you’re not carrying him; rather, he’s carrying you.
Serpentine of three loops at trot:
1. Begin a three-loop serpentine from C to A going from wall-to-wall with three even loops.
2. Keep your shoulders back and parallel to your horse’s shoulders.
3. Keep the horse slightly bent to the inside with an even contact on the outside rein with every new bend. Use your inside leg to push him out to the new outside rein, too.
4. Finish each loop at the track. Be accurate and round out your corners.
5. After the serpentine, ride into the corner and change rein across the diagonal line in the same rhythm.
Serpentine of three loops at canter (with simple or flying changes). In this exercise, your horse has to change on your aid, but if he gets ahead of you and starts anticipating the change, bring him back to walk. When you correct him, don’t kick and pull him at the same time. That’s a conflicting aid and unfair. Collect and transition to canter on a10-meter circle and pick up the pattern again, and this time do the changes through walk. When he’s listening to you, pick up the canter again and get back on your serpentine but don’t try a change until you’ve got his rhythm and tempo back. Keep the energy forward because if he doesn’t stay active enough and slows down his changes, he will have a tendency to be late behind.
1. Start a three-loop serpentine from C to A. Go from wall to wall with three, even loops, each 20 meters in width.
2. When you cross centerline, ask for a change of lead and continue in canter.
3. As you cross centerline again, ask for another change of lead back to true canter. In the next loop, ask for a change of lead when you cross the centerline.
4. Stay in canter around the corner and then repeat the serpentine
Positive Gymnastic Training
Systematic gymnastic dressage training is proactive because it’s about positive reinforcement. Never turn down or reprimand your young horse when he offers something to you. It may not be what you want, but don’t discourage him from doing something that you’re going to ask for later on. For example, if you ask for the canter and he picks up the wrong lead, don’t treat it as a mistake. You will be training counter-canter eventually, so be proactive. Make the exercise gymnastic by staying in the counter-canter for a few strides before going back to the walk. Keep him relaxed and repeat the aid for true canter again.
One of the biggest faults in dressage training is that people don’t spend enough time on the basics—rhythm, suppleness and contact. The tricks in this sport are really not that tough. The one-tempi, pirouette, piaffe and passage are not so difficult. But getting the horse loose, getting the contact right and having a horse that wants to perform for you is difficult and more important to achieve. You just have to sit there like you’re in halt and let the horse do his job underneath you. As soon as you start clamping and forcing, you create tension, which doesn’t work.
A systematic gymnastic approach simplifies the training, which allows the horse and rider to keep a positive attitude. It is regimented, so it builds up confidence in both horse and rider because they know what is expected of them. It’s consistent, which provides a clear understanding of how to apply and build on the aids throughout the levels. And it makes training kinder because it builds on the physical and mental fitness of your horse so that he is ready, willing and able to perform what is asked of him. Good race horses love to run, good jumpers love to jump and good dressage horses love to train. They’re amazing animals and what they do for us is amazing. We’ve got to be careful we don’t lose that. We must remember that it’s not about us or what they can do for us. It’s about what we can do to bring out the best in them.