No matter whether you’re practicing piaffe and passage or perfecting your 20-meter circle, dressage always comes back to fundamentals.
As the 2021 U.S. Equestrian Robert Dover Horsemanship Clinic Week kicked off, Dover took the time to remind participants of these basic tenets of the sport.
1. Our job is not to make the horse think like us. Our job is to try to think like them.
“Every horse is different, just like all of us are different,” Dover said. “Each should be treated differently, like a person. Each should be treated with love and compassion while giving them an understanding of life within the boundaries that we’re trying to create for them. By thinking like them, understanding them, [we] figure out what makes them react the way they’re reacting, and then through a systematic training program [we] create that belief system.”
2. There are four boundaries all riders must own.
– Rhythm, the rhythm of the horse’s footfalls in each gait, the four-beat walk, the two-beat trot, the three-beat canter, how fast or slow the rhythm of those footfalls are.
– Tempo, how fast or slow within each gait the horse is going over every meter of ground.
– Frame, how high, how low, how long, how short the horse’s frame is from nose to tail.
– Length of stride, how long, how short the horse’s strides are.
“When you own those four things from half-halt to half-halt within your daily riding, you pretty well own everything,” said Dover.
3. Every touch becomes training.
When Kayla Kadlubek touched Perfect Step with her spur at the walk, and he didn’t even twitch an ear, Dover took the opportunity to reiterate a basic training lesson. “If a fly touched his side, and he never twitched anymore, he’d be eaten with flies and bitten up,” said Dover. “The fly touches him, and he twitches it off his side. If you touch his side, and you think it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t go more forward or react, he’s going to always require that you do more than that to make him do more than what he’s doing.
“The spur is a refinement, and it’s a tool,” Dover continued. “If they don’t listen to the lightest possible aid, the more you use it, the more problematic it is unless you’re getting what you actually want.”
4. Don’t work so hard.
As Dover watched Kadlubek make a visible effort to get Perfect Step to do each movement, he encouraged her to put some of the responsibility back on her mount. “His job is to stay beautifully connected,” said Dover. “Don’t feel like you have to power through it all. If you keep after it using your strength, it’s tiring. [Tell him,] ‘Good boy! Now keep doing it yourself. Keep being motivated, so I don’t have to work so hard.’
“If you believe the only way he can keep that beautiful connection and keep lively in front of you is by working that hard, he’s going to think that’s what life is like,” continued Dover. ” ‘She works hard; I keep going. She stops working; I fall apart.’ You don’t believe that he’ll keep going. Test by doing the half-halt and then saying, ‘Good boy, now you keep going on your own, and if you don’t, Mama’s going to wake you up, and then I’m going to sit real still again.’ ”
5. The half-halt is the doorway from one movement to the next.
When Dover asked Lexie Kment to transition to walk for two steps from the trot, she initially allowed Montagny von der Heide to take five steps before he returned to trot. While she quickly corrected that mistake, it gave Dover the opportunity to discuss how we use half-halts to prepare for everything.
“When the horse’s nose arrives at each letter is the beginning,” he said. “So then you think, ‘I breathe in, close legs, close fists.’ As you’re going over the next letter, your horse is taking on that new beautiful balance, that new beautiful shape, that posture that allows you the exhale, to breathe out. As the horse is rounding the corner, his nose is arriving there, you breathe in, you bring your aids on, you say this is where you’re going now, you breathe out on the third stride, and you go there.”
Half-halts are how you communicate to your horse that something is about to happen. “[They provide] attention and balance that creates the doorway into the new movement, the new whatever, the new balance, the new bend,” said Dover. “You can’t go from one to the other without saying, ‘Hey buddy, we’re going to do a half-halt.’ ”
6. See a vision.
“If you don’t see a vision, how do you make him do what you want him to do?” asked Dover after suggesting Kment imagine Valegro in her mind as she came across the diagonal in extended trot.
He explained that dressage is an art, and if you ask an artist to reproduce something, the first thing they do is look at a model or an example. “If you don’t see the vision of ‘Monty’ in the fraction of the second before you’re about to half-halt, and you say, ‘I’m going to do this half-halt, and I’m going to create this new thing in this doorway of the half-halt,’ if that vision is not clear, how do you paint exactly that picture?” Dover asked. “The clearer your vision becomes of what it is that you desire from Monty and from half-halt to half-halt, and the more brilliant and beautiful and harmonious and excellent that vision is in your mind, the more you will see that he will give you only that which is your vision.
“You’re like the pilot of the plane,” Dover continued. “He’s the plane. He says, ‘Am I flying myself?’ If your vision isn’t clear, how is he supposed to know what you want?”
7. “Don’t forget to tell him when he’s a good boy.”
Those oft-repeated words from Dover reminded all the clinic participants that training only works if there is a release of pressure and praise to reward your horse for doing what you desire.
The 2021 U.S. Equestrian Robert Dover Horsemanship Clinic Week runs from Jan. 7 – 10 in Wellington, Florida. Many of the sessions are streaming online for free on USEF Network.