Dressage And The Glass Bead Game

Aug 8, 2013 - 8:37 AM
Catherine Haddad Staller conducts free Open Training Days during the winter months in Florida. Photo by Anna Stovall.

Dear Rita,

I don’t think anyone can argue with this universal truth: The basics are everything in dressage. In fact in life in general, learning the basics is what everyone must do in order to achieve any performance goal we set for ourselves. Last week, I had to learn the basics of accounting in order to prepare my tax return. It was painful, and I am not yet good at it.

A first grader starts math with 2 + 2 = 4. 4 + 4= 8. He is not a mathematician yet, but if he wishes to be one later in life, he must begin by learning arithmetic. He learns algebra in middle school and moves on to calculus as soon as he is able.

A musician begins with math. He learns to count before he learns to play. He learns his scales as he learns to read music. Because he practices his scales, the music comes more easily to him as it becomes more complicated. Maybe one day he will develop an understanding of the deeper meaning of music.

Do you remember the Music Master from The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse? His pupil (who happens to be a prodigy) begs the master to teach him the deeper meaning of music. The master responds with, “I can only teach you to count.”

This is the same for teachers in dressage. We can only teach our students to count. The true wonder of dressage, the deeper meaning, comes later.

This is how I begin basic training.

If a rank beginner (amateur or professional—competitive status does not define riding ability) comes to me for training, I begin by teaching him to sit the trot, before anything else. A good, balanced seat is the 2 + 2 = 4 of dressage. My students have learned to sit without stirrups and without reins on the longe line (in properly conducted longe lessons with the right horse and the right equipment) before they learn to hold the reins.

For a fearless, athletic young person of 6-20 yrs, the development of a balanced, elastic, rhythmical seat that can follow and mimic the motion of a horse’s back in all three gaits, takes anywhere from 10 minutes to two weeks. (Eat your heart out, Rita.) A mature person, who has already recognized her own mortality and learned to perform physical tasks with strength rather than balance, may take a lot longer—four weeks to six months. A stiff rider without a lot of natural balance may take longer. But on average, a decent balanced seat should be achieved in less than half a year.

Now Rita, I put my students on the longe line for the first 10-30 minutes of their lesson and let them pick up the reins and ride around the track without stirrups for the rest of the lesson when they are capable of doing so. This gives them a way to practice sitting on their own which is a very important tool for every rider to develop. I want my students to be able to improve even when I am not looking at them, and I give them the tools to do so. Don’t forget to teach your students to sit the canter as well as the trot. Most of us fake it there.

Only after a good basic seat has been developed, can a rider be trusted with the reins. That means trusted enough to pick up the reins, make elastic contact, and learn how to carry the bit in the horse’s mouth in a quiet and responsible way. Balancing the bit in the horse’s mouth while keeping the single joint centered over the tongue is an art in itself. I like to teach this in the walk before adding the sitting trot and the canter. After this, I teach people to rise to the trot and get the horse truly in front of their leg, working from behind into the contact.

Under no circumstances (except to save your life) is see-sawing on the bit ever allowed. Nor is sneaky jiggling. The bit should only be moved by the chewing action of the horse.

Is this an oversimplification? Not really. This takes MONTHS. It takes the right horse, the right equipment and patience from both the rider and the trainer. It takes perseverance and often a leap of faith when other riders in the same stable are cantering around training pirouettes, piaffe and passage.

However, I can honestly say that anyone who has dedicated themselves to this path in my system of riding has never been disappointed after developing that basic seat because it makes basic riding easy. And it allows you to go anywhere, ride for anyone, and learn from other people. It might also give you the key to developing yourself as a worthy and effective professional if you choose that path.

In my life I have failed to teach a dedicated student to sit the trot exactly three times. But I have trained so many people to do it correctly that I cannot even begin to list them all. I know that I am batting close to 1000.

Now Rita, I am not a genius. What I teach is simple stuff and usually one thing at a time. I had good teachers to show me the path.

I learned how to properly longe a horse from a British Horse Society school (Moat House in Beneden, Kent, U.K.—now closed) for instructors in 1985. I learned how to longe a rider safely during lessons. I learned to jump with and without my stirrups and reins. I sat the trot without my stirrups for months. I also learned how to fit bridles, saddles, boots, blankets and all sundry tack used by jumping, eventing, hunting and dressage horses. I learned equine nutrition, anatomy and correct grooming. I learned to bandage for the stable, transport and exercise. The list goes on…. 

Over the next 30 years back in the United States and later in Germany, I learned basic dressage movements from Jan Macafee and Maryal Barnett. I learned to develop my seat and contact from Bodo Hangen. I learned to ride a horse through from behind from Willi Schultheis. I learned to show an international Grand Prix from Rudolf Zeilinger. I am still learning how to make my training kinder, more effective and world class from Morten Thomsen.

Without the BHS, Jan Macafee and Maryal Barnett, I would never have been able to learn from Bodo, Willi, Rudolf and Morten. Because you cannot do calculus until you have learned your maths.

Here is some interesting food for thought. Back in the ’90s I used to teach regular clinics in Michigan. Nearly always the same 20-30 riders of all levels in various locations. The young girls all learned to sit the trot on the same Morgans (great longe line horses, these) before moving on to schoolmasters to learn the movements. The adult amateurs also worked on their seats all the time while learning to ride whatever level their horses were capable of. What was different about this clinic is that everyone sat and watched all the rides, and when I was back in Germany they helped each other. They were able to do this because they were all learning the same thing the same way at different levels—the basics.

To this day, my best clinics are those organized by the professionals that emerged from that period and there are many of them. They live all over the United States now, but wherever they have gone, their students have learned to ride. And because they have learned to ride, I can teach them how to school flying changes on a green horse, collection for half pass, speed up piaffe steps and make the pirouettes more balanced.

I would love to recreate this wonderful “pipeline” effect many more times before I’m too old to ride and teach dressage. And I would like to see to see my students change the shape of the entire sport in this country by teaching everyone around them to ride. It requires a group effort. Let’s train trainers.

I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m sayin’ it like it is from Gladstone, N.J.

Training Tip of the Day: Learn to sit before you learn to hold the reins. You will never regret it.



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