None of us want to keep going back in our training of the horse, so why does it happen? How can you go about making your riding sessions the most productive they can be? What can you do to ensure that you will reach your goals? What are the goals of dressage?
The goal of dressage is to develop a horse to his highest potential. A correctly trained dressage horse should be a vision of contained power. He should move with great elasticity and expression. We are like the personal trainers of a horse. We use a program of exercises that become progressively challenging to the horse in order to train that horse. What we are really doing, rather than training, is developing the horse. Dressage is unlike dog training in that a horse doesn’t learn a trick and then proceed to learn other tricks. Through dressage the horse simply becomes stronger and more supple. Each exercise in dressage training is designed to take the horse’s weight off his forehand so the horse must be developed over his back and hindquarters in order to achieve this lightness of the forehand. It is only when the horse becomes free through his shoulders that he becomes expressive in his gaits and is transformed into a dancer.
The on-going problem facing the trainer is the simple fact that horses were not designed to carry their weight on their hindquarters. It is not natural, except in moments of fight when the horse rears to use his back to lift his forehand. The training, therefore, should be such that the horse develops the ability to step underneath himself. Since the length of a horse’s stride is determined by the length of the individual horse’s leg, and, therefore the horse cannot extend the length of his step, the only way a horse can step more under is by changing the angle of his pelvis. As the angle of the pelvis changes (through contraction of the belly muscles) so the back is stretched. This stretch should be limited by the amount of conditioning the horse has had for if the back is stretched too fast and held for too much time, serious damage can be done to the back muscles.
Trainers must also realize that unlike people, horses don’t prepare for their work outs by doing unsupervised warm up exercises. It is up to the trainer, then, to use suitable exercises for the horse’s warm up. I possess a devotion to lunging for the warm up, but that's for another post so I won’t go into that except to say that the side rein portion of the lunging should be designed to benefit each particular individual’s balance and suppleness.
Once I get on, I walk on a loose rein to stretch my legs out and to give the horse time to adjust to carrying a rider. Then I almost always do leg yield. Leg-yield is a good way to loosen the hindquarters and to get the horse stepping under. (It should be emphasized that the purpose of leg-yield is not to go sideways. Leg-yield should cause the horse to step forward and under his body. It is a beginning exercise designed to give the horse brief moments of carrying himself.)
I then work to loosen the neck and the shoulder area. In the first stages of training, I do neck suppling. Later, as the horse progresses, I do suppling half circles on the centerline. When the horse is ready, I do shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass. All of this is done at the walk. Once I am satisfied with this work, I begin the real work of the session. I usually have in mind what I want to accomplish, but this plan is open to modification, depending on what I find going on in the horse that particular day.
With a more advanced horse, I might do walk/ walk transitions: collected walk to extended walk to collected walk to a few steps of piaffe. Then I usually do a lot of work at the canter.
With the less advanced horse I do halt/trot/halt transitions to ensure they are in front of my leg. Then turns on the forehand from the walk but moving promptly into trot after the turn. When I can't get him to step properly in the turn, I know he is on his forehand, so I do some shoulder swings into trot to get him up. When in trot, I let him come out to the bit and let him find his headset. As he gets stronger, his headset became rounder on its own. If the turns on the forehand have failed, I return to them after the shoulder swings to see where he was. If he fails to step promptly to my leg, I get off and do some turns in hand, then remounted to see where we are.
If everything checks out, I do some leg-yield at trot and some suppling circles, usually making transitions from walk to trot and from trot to walk on the curved line, making sure he keeps stepping forward in the transitions while shifting his weight to the new outside shoulder. If he doesn’t step forward in the transition, I go back to trot/halts and then to trot/walks. We stay at the trot/ halts until the horse steps promptly into trot. Once that happens, we do trot/walks. If the horse loses tempo in the downward transition, I drive him forward during the transition by displacing the haunches in and attacking the outside hind during the transition. And so forth and so on.
I do very little canter with the less advanced horse but when I do, the horse must bring the inside hind forward simultaneously to my leg. If he doesn’t, then we go back to walking and tapping the inside hind forward into trot. When he brings his inside hind forward with one tap, I again try the canter. There is much more to be said, but I don’t want to write a book this afternoon.
If the horse's leg-yields are sluggish, you should do nothing else until you get the horse going. A horse will never do collection if you cannot manage to get them to step forward! You really must take care to review the details everyday so that you can start building and stop having to go back.
When you come into the ring with your horse, have a thoughtful ride, keep in mind the basics of the work. We just cannot keep going back to where we were yesterday, and to avoid that, you must follow through with the things we discover and to stay alert as to whether or not the horse is prompt to the leg or to the whip.