Good Basics I
To ride at Training or First (Preliminary or Novice) Level for years on end is something many aspiring dressage riders do. Somehow, as they work on Second or Third (Elementary or Medium) Level movements, their horses just don’t perform adequately enough for competition. In most cases, the problem is in the basics measured through a Training Level test. The continental training scale helps us understand the progression of the horse’s training, but how do you know if your basics are concrete enough for you to progress to the next level? This article provides a simple system to measure your progress, identify your horse’s level, solve some basic problems, and offers ‘prerequisites’ to certain movements.
1-The Core of All Training
Relax your horse. If your horse is not relaxed, he will not learn. Tension in his body will prevent him from moving properly, while tension in his mind will result in lack of cooperation. For the horse to be educated, he should be in a mental and physical state that allows education. I believe a horse is like a child who would rather play than study, but a clever teacher will introduce learning through play. If you can get the horse on your side, you might be surprised at how much he is willing to cooperate. When he is on your side, he will relax to your aids, bend and go where you want, and remain alert, ‘puffed up’, waiting for your requests. Observe the performance of high level dressage horses…their backs are raised, indicating acceptance of the rider’s seat, their ribs puffed out, indicating acceptance of the rider’s legs, their necks are rounded and enlarged at the top with ultimate looseness of the poll and jaw, indicating acceptance of the rider’s hands. As a whole, it is a picture of total relaxation. Without relaxation, the horse will withdraw from the rider, contract his muscles, and will not cooperate to his full potential. It’s as simple as that.
If the horse comes out of the stable already tense, consider his diet, how long he has been in confinement, or the environment in which you will work him. You could be over-feeding him and keeping him in the stable all day, which causes him to tense up as a way to relieve the extra energy. Maybe he’s not ready to cope with loud noises or strange sights outside your arena. There could be other factors leading to tension, such as pain in his mouth due to teeth problems, or back pain from the saddle. If you are at all suspicious, please have those checked.
A very tense or fresh horse is best relaxed on the lunge. Lunge the horse in side-reins for ten or fifteen minutes before you get on him. My personal preference is to allow the horse some play in the paddock early in the morning. Turnout is extremely essential to the horse’s wellbeing, but sadly often neglected. Regular turnout, if even for twenty minutes a day, makes a horse happy and willing.
Once is the horse is physically and mentally relaxed, he is ready to learn. Relaxation and looseness allow the natural rhythm of the gaits to come through. If you are able to walk, trot, and canter in clock-like true rhythm with the horse fairly relaxed and cooperative, you have established the core of all training.
The ABC’s of aids to the green or young horse are: legs mean go, hands mean stop. From there on, the aids are refined and branched out to give all sorts of signals to the horse. We teach the horse that a very light leg means walk, slightly heavier means trot, a combination of inside weight with outside leg back means canter, and a mild restraining hand mean slow down. Also, the horse learns to step laterally away from the outside leg, and bend around the inside leg. It is important to be able to control the shoulders through turn on the haunches, and the quarters through turn on the forehand at the walk. As the horse gets used to the rider’s weight, the seat aids can be introduced in the form of weight aids and half-halts (although the half-halt is not yet perfected at this stage). If your horse goes forward to a light leg, soft enough in the mouth to accept your hand when asking to slow down, canters immediately on cue on both reins, is able to skip a gait in an upward or downward transition, such as walk to canter or trot to halt, respects your outside leg by stepping away from it, and accepts your inside leg by bending around it, then this stage is established in your horse’s training, and you are ready to move on.
Once relaxation, rhythm and response to the aids are confirmed, it is time to teach your horse to accept contact. From previous articles, contact is described as the horse’s acceptance and response to your seat, legs, and hands. It is a raised back, relaxed ribcage, firm abdominals, round neck, supple poll, and soft mouth. The horse is not born with this knowledge like he is born with rhythm already innate; it is taught to him. Before you can progress anywhere, even before a Training Level test, the horse should be confirmed in his acceptance of contact. Submission to the rider seat, legs, and hands should be present from the very beginning, as evident in the Collective Marks at the bottom of any dressage score sheet. The degree of compression differs (i.e. length of frame from tail to poll), of course, from Training to Grand Prix. At all stages, the neck should be round (not straight and flat), the poll at the highest point, and the nose very slightly in front of the vertical. In collection, the nose comes almost to the vertical, but coming behind is a fault.
Your horse will be established in his contact if you can walk, trot, and canter on the bit. Horses that are not very established tend to hollow up on straight lines. Check that your horse is able to stay on the bit at all times: on circles and voltes, straight lines (on the track, on the quarterline, and on the centerline), and on other school figures such as serpentines, loops, etc. It is also important that he remains on the bit during upward and downward transitions, especially the canter depart, where many horses have wrongfully learnt to throw their head up. When contact is confirmed, congratulations, as you have achieved one of the biggest challenges of dressage training! You are ready to move on.
Paramount to the success of your training is the ability to put your horse in any frame, including long and low. Riding in a long and low position can be used to relax a tense horse, to supple the neck and back through stretching, to engage the hindquarters, and to teach the horse self-carriage. Stretching at the walk, trot, and canter for the first ten minutes of every workout is super to loosen the horse before serious work begins. Stretching halfway during the session can revive the horse and loosen any knots in his muscles, while stretching at the end is important to relax and supple the horse, and to finish on a good note.
A green horse is best started on steady contact to confirm submission, then stretched down to allow him to use his back and neck, as well as to relax and loosen. You know your horse is at this stage when he lowers his neck as you give the reins by increments. If he snatches the reins or pulls upwards, then you need to work on contact and submission a little more. However, if you can easily stretch your horse and pick up contact again without a struggle, you are ready to take another step forward.