Training Tip Tuesday - Practical Dressage

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Say the word ‘dressage’ and many riders think only of the specific requirements of the competitive sport of dressage. Others immediately protest that dressage is ‘difficult’, ‘boring’, or ‘irrelevant’ for what I do with my horse. From a practical standpoint, however, dressage is simply a training system that allows a rider to develop any horse for any possible use. And, perhaps more important, systematic training enables riders to identify and fix those inevitable problems that crop up as training progresses. The Old French word ‘dress’ meaning to prepare or drill is the root of the word ‘dressage. From that perspective, dressage IS relevant for any horse whose rider aspires to train and compete in a systematic way. While the Greeks get credit for penning the first works on classical horse training, the Renaissance French developed horse training as a high art practiced by nobility and royalty. In contemporary times, the Germans systematized dressage training principles which enabled the sport of competitive dressage that we know today.

Meredith Manor teaches a 10-step ‘training tree’ based on the German model. Each basic training skill builds on the previously mastered skills. Gradually, the horse develops a foundation that allows him to specialize successfully in whatever sport his rider chooses. Riders master a six-step ‘riding tree’ on their way to being able to successfully influence and train a horse. In an ideal world, a rider would master the riding tree before attempting to train her horse. In reality, riders and their horses often find themselves learning together.

As I said, one of the real advantages of having a system for learning how to train or ride comes when things are not going particularly well. Start at the bottom of each ‘tree’ and ask yourself whether you and your horse have truly mastered the first levels. If the answer is yes, go to the next level and ask the question again. Each time the horse learns a new skill, the rider must make sure the training tree is being followed for that new skill. As soon as you get to a level, for horse or rider, where the truthful answer is ‘not completely’, you have found the root of your problem. Never mind that you paid good money for a clinic where you ‘learned’ how to perform a specific movement for your next dressage test or improve your time around the barrels. If your horse has not mastered the 10-step horse training program or you have not mastered the six-step rider training program, there is the hole in your skill

If you are not balanced, how can your horse be balanced? If you do not know how to coordinate your aids, how can your horse be on the aids? If you cannot use your aids to influence your horse, how can you clearly communicate with your horse when performing a reining pattern or a dressage test or any other competitive adventure?

For example, horses are born crooked by nature, some more than others. If you never help them develop their bodies equally on both sides (become straight), their natural crookedness will eventually limit their progress. If you attempt a spin in a reining pattern and cannot get your horse to set its inside pivot leg dow in one direction or the other or your horse can not canter down the rail without carrying his haunches to the inside, your horse has a straightness problem. Or, the problem may be that you as the rider do not know
how to apply your aids correctly to help the horse stay straight before you ask for the spin or canter. This can sometimes be ‘chicken and egg’ stuff. A good trainer or ground person can help you sort out which it is by helping you figure out where you and your horse are in mastering your basic skill sets. Now look for straightness in each new skill you introduce to your horse.

As another example, it goes without saying that if you attempt a trail class or dressage test on a tense horse, you will not score well. All the drilling on specific movements will not help you if your horse becomes anxious and you do not know how to reestablish relaxation. You may feel resistant about backing way down the training tree until you have solved the problem (and if your horse is not relaxed yet, it is likely because he has not yet established rhythm, either) but until you do, you and your horse will continue to be frustrated.

But, you protest again, I don’t compete. I just like to trail ride. In some ways, riding outdoors in an unstructured environment demands even more from a horse and rider. If a turkey or a deer jumps out of the brush, does your horse understand and respond to the basic aids? (Are you slopping down the road with loose reins or actually paying attention to your riding?) When you want to cross a log or a stream is your horse straight and does he understand moving forward from your leg? Imagine the feeling of cantering rhythmically through a
meadow without your horse speeding up until he is running away. Imagine you and your horse in complete balance as he rocks back on his hindquarters to tackle a steep downhill stretch. That is practical dressage. If your horse has mastered the training tree, he will be a confident and responsive partner no matter what you encounter on a familiar or unfamiliar trail.

Again, in an ideal world every rider would master the riding tree before attempting to take their horse up the training tree. In the real world, horse and rider are likely to be learning together. Seek out riding instructors and trainers who can clearly articulate the system they teach students on their way to mastery. A systematic progression of skills gives you a set of benchmarks. When things are not doing well, those benchmarks will help you find the ‘hole’, master the skill, and kick start your progress.