“Take a seat!” rang out repeatedly across the Mount Holyoke College indoor arena on Oct. 19-20 during the New England Dressage Association Fall Symposium, held in South Hadley, Massachusetts. And it was not directed at the spectators. German Olympic gold medalist Dorothee Schneider drilled the basics across six lessons of rider-and-horse pairs ranging from 4- and 5-year-olds up to Grand Prix, emphasizing the importance of a strong seat for correct dressage training at every level.
However, emphasis on disciplined basics—correct use of the seat to establish a rhythm and create a straight connection from your hips to the bridle—underlies the Schneider’s training philosophy. She emphasized the importance of treating each horse as an individual in every aspect of training: riding, health and management.
Throughout each lesson, Schneider highlighted the importance of positive feedback in the form of pats to help keep the horses motivated to work with the rider. She wants the horses to understand when they are right, rather than just correcting when they are wrong. She repeatedly asked riders to “manage” their horses rather than “correct” or “fix” mistakes in the connection, rhythm or straightness.
Address The Horse’s Mental Situation First
Schneider challenged riders to address their horse’s mental state during warm-up, ensuring they were relaxed before asking for more collection. There was a lot of atmosphere, and Schneider emphasized patience, telling riders to “stabilize the mental situation first by giving the horse pats and stretching them to relax.” She encouraged everyone to begin their work in the rising trot, asking their horses to stretch forward and down and asked them to “try to make it feel like home for your horse.”
She reminded riders to lower their hands and bring them forward to “show the horse to the way of stretching.” If the connection was not stable or if the horses were behind the bit, she had them bring their reins sideways to stabilize the connection for a few strides before pushing their hands forward and down to encourage horses to open their polls and stretch forward.
For especially spooky horses, Schneider had riders walk their horse into each corner and allow them to look around. “Try to show the horse all four corners,” she said. “Let them look around now, early in the work, so that they can concentrate later.” When riders paused in the corners, she encouraged them to give their horse a quick, reassuring pat.
She explained that this strategy could be used in a test setting as well. “Let your horse pause in each corner as you go around so that your horse will be more concentrated on you in your test since they have already looked in the corner,” she said.
Schneider started each group with a similar warm-up, underscoring that, “the warm-up time is for the work later. You use it to establish correct contact, rhythm, straightness and consistency.” Schneider was not afraid to spend the majority of the lesson drilling the basics in the warm-up, and she walked each combination through a series of changes of rein in the rising trot to stretch the horses down and forward. She encouraged riders to use this time to find the swing in the horse’s back and to check in on the horse’s rhythm and straightness.
She asked riders to ride down the quarter line to feel for straightness. “This allows riders to feel the balance from both legs, the straightness of the horse, and to ensure that the hind legs are under,” she said. “This exercise helps the horse learn to carry themselves and establish contact.”
Keys To Good Transitions
Once the horses were swinging over their backs, she asked riders to move onto trot-canter transitions. Schneider uses trot to canter transitions to check in with the horse’s hind end and straightness as the transitions give riders “a mirror to the back of the horse.”
She emphasized the importance of riding your transitions on a curved line. “Transitions on a bent line tell you more about your horse,” she said. “When you ask for a trot to canter transition on a bent line, the horse’s hind legs are more active because riders use more outside rein to bring both shoulders in, which drives the horse’s hind legs under.”
Additionally, she emphasized the importance of taking the outside shoulder with you in the transition in a shoulder-in position.
Shoulder-Ins Are King
Scheinder used shoulder-ins at varying degrees to improve straightness, flexion, activity and to improve the horses stepping into the outside rein. She stressed that a shoulder-in really means that “the outside shoulder comes inside of the horse’s inside hind leg rather than the horse bending more to the inside.”
For the young horses, Schneider had riders pick up the canter on a circle, establish a canter rhythm, and proceed down the quarter line in a slight shoulder-in. This helped improve balance and straightness and allowed the horse to step up into the outside rein. Schneider emphasized that riders should not over bend the horses towards the inside during this exercise. She explained that for young horses, shoulder-ins, small circles and transitions are great tools to help riders manage their horse’s stronger side.
In the upper-level horses, Schneider used shoulder-ins to improve the half-pass and flying changes as she feels that the shoulder-in is the best preparation for a half-pass. She had riders perform a shoulder-in on the quarter line, then a few steps of half-pass, and then back into shoulder-in, repeating this a few times. She instructed them to first move the shoulders over before bringing the hind legs with their seats to begin the half-pass. Schneider prefers to end the movement in shoulder-in because it improves balance and bend and helps keep the horse between both reins in the lateral work. She added that shoulder-ins are helpful to prepare for a flying change after extending the canter across the diagonal.
“Make A Rhythm With Your Hips”
Rhythm was the single most repeated word during the symposium and was a theme in everything from warm-up exercises to schooling upper-level movements. “Every horse has its own rhythm, and it is up to the rider to find that rhythm and maintain it,” said Schneider.
Once riders found their horse’s rhythm, Schneider encouraged them to maintain it throughout every exercise—stretching, extending, lateral work—the rhythm should never change.
Schneider stressed that rhythm is established by the rider’s seat. “You must show your horse the rhythm with your hips.” She encouraged riders to “take the hind leg with you when rise in the trot to establish a good rhythm.”
In the canter she asked riders to use their hips to establish a three-beat rhythm from the first step of the canter. “Take a seat!” she said. “Do not wait. You make the rhythm with your seat. Use your hip to ride your rhythm forward to create a contact in the bridle.”
- “Our goal target as riders is to shorten the hind end and to lengthen the neck and front of the horse.”
- Generally, ask what is the problem and what do I need to do to manage it?
- Use counter-canter to improve the canter rhythm.
- End your ride with stretchy trot so the horses end on a good note with a nice feeling and are happy.
- Schneider starts introducing the double bridle at 6 or 7 years old, but it depends on how well the horse is established in the connection from the hind end to the bit in the snaffle. The horse needs to have established positive contact and be going well from the hind end to the bridle.
- The walk is the most difficult to ride because it has no swing like the trot or canter. You must be able to let the neck swing so that the shoulder goes forward. If you shorten the neck too much, you have problems with maintaining rhythm.