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Unlocking the Secrets of Dressage

horseback riding lessons at Anchorage Farm

by Kris Cooper

I often volunteer to be a “scribe” for United States Equestrian Federation-certified judges.  A scribe writes a judge’s comments to be later read by the exhibitor.  The phrases I write over and over are “needs more suppleness”, “needs to be more forward” and “needs better connection”.

Many of the horse I observe do not look like dressage horses.  They look obedient.  They look trouble free.  But they don’t look supple, elastic or connected between the aids.  They look like they are “put into a frame” and asked to go.  This is not dressage.  Horses ridden this way are no different than those exhibited in a breed show.  They may get scores in the 60's, but never 70's.

In my mind’s eye, I can see what the majority of these horse-rider teams need.  I teach these things every day to our ongoing students and to our guests who come here for learning vacations.

CamelotHow does one develop suppleness?  I think leg yielding is indispensable.  Leg yielding requires that the horse cross both front and hind legs as he moves diagonally - forward and sideways.  This crossing stretches the muscles of both chest and hindquarters.

Leg yielding has an added benefit of teaching the rider the coordination of his aids.  The horse must listen to the rhythmical driving of the rider’s leg.  He must accept this driving from the rider’s leg into the rider’s opposite hand.  This is one way that the rider develops "feeling".

Work in hand accomplishes the same thing.  It helps warm the horse up before riding.  So does lunging.  I think a lot of the problems with suppleness (and with injuries and premature joint deterioration in horses) are due to a horse not being warmed up before advancing his training.  The horse needs an appropriate twenty-minute warm up phase before he is ready to work.

There are two types of suppleness: lateral and longitudinal.  Lateral suppleness occurs through bending the horse through the length of his spine.  Longitudinal suppleness involves stretching over the horse’s back from tail to poll.

Lateral suppleness can be accomplished through circles, turns and half circles.  It can also be developed through lunging.  When one lunges a horse, he can see the inter-relationship of lateral and longitudinal suppleness.  If the horse bends on the circle line, he is more apt to stretch his frame (as in a free walk or a “stretchy, chewy” circle at the trot).  Likewise if the horse is able to stretch longitudinally it is easier for him to bend laterally.

Allowing the horse to occasionally stretch out to the hand is important.  Our German trainer used to say, “Always feel that you could push the reins a little away from you, and the horse will reach for contact.”  The free walk and the stretchy chewy circle are demonstrations of longitudinal suppleness.  Yet longitudinal suppleness is obtained through small but persistent requests of the horse to stretch to the rider’s hand.

I personally do a lot of "over the back" work at all three gaits.  Only this work, accoridng to Gerd Heuschmann, can develop the longissimus dorsi (back) muscles that Dr. Heuschmann calls the "strongest muscles of the horse's body".

WeltmannHow does one develop connection?  This stretching to the hand demonstrates true contact.  It demonstrates that the horse seeks the rider’s hand.  In all of the horses I observed as a scribe, longitudinal suppleness and true contact were very rarely seen.

Another very important component of suppleness in the horse is the balance and suppleness of the rider.  If a rider careens around, grabbing the reins for balance, all suppleness in the horse is soon lost.  If the rider bounces at the sitting trot, it is very difficult for the horse to maintain an elastic connection with the bit and a back that enables the rider to sit.  One of the most challenging – and humbling – aspects of dressage is that it requires the rider to be fit, strong and flexible himself.  Seat lessons are indispensable.

The rider must learn to be patient to feel when the horse seeks his hand.  I do this through different school figures:  half circles, halts, serpentines, figure eights, progressive circles and leg yields.  Through these exercises the rider learns the feeling of the energy of the horse going diagonally through his body to the opposite rein.

More forward?  A rider is better able to respond to the instructor’s command to go “more forward” if he/she has spent many hours on the lunge line.  Many dressage riders seek the sport because they think it is controlled.  They don’t want to lose control.  Yet seat lessons require that a rider abandon his reins.  Seat lessons enable the rider to develop core body strength, which in turn enables the rider not just to ride the big movements but to survive bucks, spooks and other potential loss of control as well.  Seat lessons enable the rider to allow the horse freedom of movement, so crucial in dressage.

DonntanoAnother problem I see in the show arena is that a horse is not sufficiently obedient to either leg or hand.  [See Kyra Kyrkland in the 1995 USDF National Dressage Symposium.]  When I am training my own horses, I expect immediate obedience to my aids to go forward.  I also expect obedience to my hand that the horse not lean unresponsively on the rider’s hand or plow merrily through the hand.  A horse that is obedient to the leg and the hand is also a big confidence-builder.  No one wants to ride a horse that won’t go, or one that won’t stop when you want him to.  It is impossible to effect a half halt if a horse is not obedient to your aids.

How do I develop this obedience?  It starts with walk/halt.  So many horse and rider teams blunder through the halt and stagger off absent-mindedly when asked to go forward.  I want a horse that stops immediately and squarely and that promptly and energetically moves forward from my aids.  This is a horse that can be made more supple as well.  He respects the connection, whether it is on a short rein or a long one.

Lessons at Anchorage Farm will help you to learn more about and address the above pitfalls.  We will help unlock for you the "secrets of dressage".  The result will mean not only more success in the show ring.  It will mean a happier, more responsive partner.  It will give you the foundation to advance higher-level movements.  It will give you tools to make ANY HORSE better.

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Calm your body.  Calm your mind.  Take riding lessons!


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