The Solid Base
Half pass, pirouette, piaffe, passage, and all the rest seem like every aspiring dressage rider’s dream. Even as we trot a 20 meter circle in a Training (Preliminary) level test, we dream that one day we could half-pass across the diagonal in passage. But if you have been riding at Training level for the past five years and feel your dreams are not meant to be, I ask you to reconsider, because you just might discover the path to the upper levels through this series. I believe you will discover the dressage is, after all, quite simple!
Dressage requires knowledge, tact, intelligence, and patience. Intelligence and patience are character traits. Tact is acquired through experience. Knowledge, however, is a never-ending journey. Whether you just started riding lessons or you are a two-time Olympic champion, you are always a student. The best trainers are also good students, eagerly opening their mind to different opinions and approaches (not necessarily adopting every technique presented, but merely analyzing and understanding it). Acknowledging that there is always more to learn is the first step towards improving your skills.
That done, let us take a look how we can broaden our horizons. Lessons with good trainers are a great way to constantly improve our riding and our horses, but you can only learn so much in a 45-minute lesson. Instructors cannot provide much theory during an exercise session because they focus on practical application, solving problems as they arise, etc. You will gain a few insights, of course, but certainly not enough to arm you with the tools to progress to far and beyond. So what should you do?
There’s nothing like reading. Read like your life depends on it. In the past decade, my library grew from a few hefty paperbacks to over sixty hardbound volumes, all focused on dressage, training, psychology, natural horsemanship, and other equine-related subjects. My library is still growing, assisted by my several magazine subscriptions that are constantly adding to my wealth of 300+ issues. These are not just decorations on my shelves; they are a treasure that continues to shape me as a rider and trainer. Start reading now, and I guarantee you will come across many, many revelations, regardless of your level.
Acknowledge Your Horse’s Level
Knowing where you stand is vital to progress. Look back and see what you have achieved with your horse, then look ahead and visualize what you would like to further achieve. For example, you bought your horse as a 4-year-old two years ago, and now you’re competing First (Novice) level, but would like to carry on to Second Level and higher. Or you could say, “I’ve taught my 3-year-old how to lunge and accept contact, and how to carry a rider and understand the basic aids to walk, trot, and canter. Now, I want to build on that and move on to the next step.”
It is also important to acknowledge the training obstacles you are facing, like for your example, your horse loses regularity in trot lengthening, or goes above the bit in canter departs. Beware, however, that you cannot consider the inability of your 3-year-old horse to do shoulder-in a problem or obstacle. Common problems at the beginning of training are: tension, rushing, stiffness, resisting contact by going above the bit, loss of balance, falling in and out through shoulders or quarters, running away from the leg, lack of response to the leg, inability to maintain canter, nervousness, etc. These and a handful of others are potential problems you might encounter at the basic level of training. Of course, you might encounter similar problems at higher levels, such as irregularity while teaching passage, but if these problems are addressed and solved in the horse’s early training, it will be always much easier to avoid or deal with them at any stage. In other words, if the base is solid, the layers that are built over it will not collapse. Like a great painting that starts with a base color upon which other layers of colors are added to create a masterpiece, dressage is the same.
One Layer Upon Another
A good rider or trainer understands how layering works in dressage. Just as a kindergarten student learns his ABC’s before learning how to spell and compile sentences, a young or novice horse must learn his basics before learning lateral work, collection, etc. The keyword here is ‘basics’. So what are those basics? How are they established? When do you know that you can move on to the next level? Fortunately, due to their centuries of experience, the Germans have given us a very simple guideline that we can work by. That guideline is called ‘the Training Scale’. Training in accordance to the Training Scale takes the mystery and frustration right out of dressage. It provides an easy reference to where you are in your training, what you need to work on, and what the next step would be. That way, you would always be sure that your base is solid, and you are building your horse’s training one layer upon another. The next article introduces the elements of the Training Scale and how they are implemented in the horse’s training.