* The arena is a classroom, not a gymnasium *

My thoughts about riding Part 1 - Dressage

What is dressage

Before the year of 1900, there were no dressage horses. The first dressage competition was held in the end of the 19th century. Before that, no one talked about dressage horses, they talked about the dressage of the horse.

I am not sure about the English language, but in Swedish, we use the word dressage about dog training too. But when we talk about dogs, dressage means to teach the dog to obey. That is how they used the word about horses too in older days.

So what is dressage for me?

First, it is about finding the communication between the rider and the horse. That is often called obedience but since many people find that a negative word I prefer the word communication.

Then, it is to exercise the body of the horse, to make the horse stronger, more balanced, subtle and more mobile.

So dressage is communication and gymnastics. Dressage improves the horse, and it improves every horse. You don't need a special dressage horse to have use of good dressage and good riding. In fact, the not so good horse needs the dressage even more.

Dressage doesn't require dressage horses - Dressage creates dressage horses.

We also have a third level of dressage, and that is when the training is done and the horse can work, no matter if it is a ranch horse, a bull fighter or a show jumper.

The art of pouring water into a barrel

Educating oneself, one's horse or a student, can be likened to filling a barrel with water. We can see the result of our work by how much water is in the barrel. The more we learn, that is, fill the barrel, the more knowledge or capacity, that is, water in the barrel, we should theoretically have.

Sometimes we notice that the level of water in the barrel no longer rises, even though we continue to pour more.

We stand still, at the same level in our knowledge.

It is then so easy to look at the barrel (= current situation) and realize that there are holes in it. Then we have to fix the barrel in the best way.

Of course, we first try to fix the holes that look the worst. However, we often notice that this did not help the water to continue to rise higher in its level in the barrel.

The barrel only holds more water if you find the hole closest to the base, and fix it first.

If we do not progress with our horses, it is often because there has been a hole far down in the barrel, that there is a fairly basic problem that we must correct. It often feels annoying that we have to look so far down in our barrel, when we thought we had finally passed the beginner level with our horse.

As an instructor, we must look for this most basic shortcoming in the team we teach. It can be a lack of understanding on the part of the horse, a lack of communication between the horse and the rider, a lack of the rider in the understanding of the horse, or that the rider has a lack of understanding of what he is trying to do, or of riding in general.

It is not possible here to tell you how to find the hole at the bottom of the barrel, or even where to look. Riding is such a complex construction. With my horses, I often go back to riding forehand turns or other basic exercises. If you allow yourself to go back and ride the basic exercises, you can more easily notice what it is that doesn't work, ie the trust between you and the horse or that he doesn't understand the leg aids.

I used to have a list of three options that I often repeated when I rode myself or when I was looking for an explanation for a student’s issue: Tempo - steering - bending. If you find which of these principles do not work, you will soon get one step closer to the problem.

The horse must follow the track we ask, at the pace we ask and in the shape we ask. If we examine his performance in these areas, we at least know better in where we shall look for the shortcoming.

Introduction to Dressage

Many years from now I held a 5 day clinic in Sweden. When I had some minutes for myself I went out on the balcony to get some sun and relax. Below they had built a number of small pens for the horses. While I stood there a lady came with her very cute American Curl mare and let her out in one of the pens. The mare was only 3 years old and was on the clinic to be broken (horrible word).

When the mare went out in the pen the lady gave her a tap on the neck, closed the gate and went away. I saw how the mare looked up and said “Wow, I am free!” Then she started a show I will never forget. During a few minutes, she made most of the exercises you ride in high level dressage – and more. She did show extended trot, flying changes of lead, she did pirouettes, levades, caprioles, roll backs and also a lot of cute lateral exercises. And she did some sliding stop when she realized that she was heading the fence at to high speed.

And she did it all without contact on the outer rein!

The minutes I stood on that balcony in Älvkarleby and watched the happy mare, changed me. I saw this pretty 3 years old horse do the exercises we tried to get much older horses do during class. I asked myself, if she can do it at age 3 without ever being ridden, what do we actually think we are trying to teach the old horses day out an day in, in the arena?

She did it so beautiful, so fluent, so balanced.

What if we don't have to teach the horse to do all those exercises and schools? What if we just have to inspire them to do it - and stay away while they act so we don't limit their ability? It is hard for a rider not to interfere as the fact that you are riding do interfere, but we have to learn to be an easy burden.

I think every riders goal should be to try to get their horse as beautiful as they are while dancing by themselves in a pen. If the horse looks free when you ride, then you are a good rider.

Classical dressage

I like what Sylvia Loch says about that the classical dressage: "Classical Dressage cannot be reinvented - it is as old as the hills!" She also writes that no one can claim it.

The problem is however to find the right name for it. I don't know how you react on the word "classical" outside Sweden, but here it gives a hint that it is a concept that you are not allowed to alter. Even if we never can claim the classical dressage, we must also know that the classical dressage will never be fully discovered. There is always more to find and more to learn about the wonderful ability to play with the horse. If we push to strong on "classical", it will soon be considered as "old fashion dressage". I want a word that makes people understand that it is OK to question, to investigate, to search and to find! "Classical" can sound as you are not allowed to do what the masters have not told you. And we must make clear to everyone that when it comes to pedagogic and didactics, the classical dressage still miss a lot.

The best way to make more horses happy, is to find better ways to explain riding. That is my mission.

We are humans. The language is important for how we understand our world. A word can be good or bad. Same words are good for some and bad for others. Unfortunately we will never find a word good enough to make all people understand. That is a lack of every language.

The problem is what word shall we use to separate right from wrong? The word "classical" is so used and abused. Everyone claims that they ride "classical". I had a discussion on my Swedish Forum about those words and found that some use "classical" for describing "average, normal, standard". They write about "classical riding schools". For them, to learn "the classical way" is to learn the hang and bang riding first ...

This is one of the reasons for all those new terms and "tribes" coming up: We all search a way to separate us from the bad things.

It is also a risk, that people consider "classical riding" as classical music or classical ballet = old fashion weird and boring, for the privileged people only, for those who come not to see but to be seen.

The asymmetric body

The horses, just like us, use their bodies in an asymmetric way. So far everyone will agree, bit when it comes to why and how I am not sure the agreement will last.

We all are, for reasons only God knows, predestined to use our body halves in different ways: We are left- or right handed. That develop different skills for the body halves. We write better with one hand than the other but can not blame any stiff muscles for that. As kids most of us can cart wheel in one direction, often to the left, but don't dare to try to do it the other way as we feel we can not balance and coordinate. And as adult rider, just try to think the thought of mounting the horse from the right. Many of us can't and most of us wouldn't dare. It feels like we would loose our balance while trying.

There is the reason why I think the horses finds it harder to do lateral works to one side that the other: They don't dare to try, they are afraid of losing their balance. And of course: If we never try, or do it more often to one side than the other, we develop more and more asymmetric bodies. I guess that some muscles get shorter and other might get stiffer, but the reason for this is our asymmetric brain and our inability to use the body halves the same way.

So, as far as I concern, the goal of straightness training and lateral work is not to lengthen some muscles and soften up others – it is about encouraging the horse to dare using his body the other way around: carry with the normally pushing leg and push with the carrying one in a way he is not used to coordinate.

This of course gives a more symmetric musculature, but that is a side effect. It is a good side effect, but still a side effect.

The reason for lateral work

We all have friends who lift weights at a gym, do yoga or care about their bodies other ways. Though: No matter how fit and strong and coordinated they get, when they have to jump over a drench in the forest they all do the same: They swing their left leg forward, pushes away with the right foot and land on the left. That's how most of us do. Do it the other way feels uncomfortable, clumsy and maybe scary even if we train a lot. I guess there are a few highly trained gymnasts and dancers that may be comfortable to do it both ways, but they are few.

That is however our goal with the straightness training of our horses: To get them as comfortable as possible to do any exercise in any direction and on any hand. As I tried to explain with above metaphor, it is not enough the make the body strong and subtle, above all it goes about exercising the coordination and encourage the horse to do the exercises in both ways.

So where do we start?

Ask your farrier, and I am sure he'll agree that it is harder to shoe a horse's right hind foot than his left, especially on a young horse. I think this is as the horse is comfortable with balancing (= carry weight) on his right hind hoof. Then it is easy for him to give the left hoof to the farrier. He is not as comfortable to balance on his left hind hoof. That's the one he mostly uses for pushing and “propping” and therefore doesn't have same routine and ability to balance on it. When the farrier shoes his right hind hoof the horse has to work more with his balance and gets tired quicker.

So maybe that's where we shall start our exercises: Not to build muscles by asking him to push more, but to build coordination asking him to carry more often on his left hind leg.

(Yes, of course there are a number of horses that prefer to carry weight on his left n´hind leg, just as there is a number of left handed people.)

Balancing and carrying on a hoof is about putting that hoof under the center of gravity, having it there for a short time and then move away. The most common way to get the hind leg under the center of gravity is to ride lateral exercises. I think that's the most important part of the lateral work: To get a leg under the center of gravity. Lateral work also gives some stretching and some other effects. That is side effects – but good side effects.