Our columnist believes that we need to spend time on the basics so we create a solid foundation based on clear, consistent standards.
What makes dressage beautiful? My answer to this frequently asked question is a happy horse guided by a quiet rider, who is performing its movements in light self-carriage with expressive, balanced gaits.
Whether we talk about classical or competitive/modern dressage, the principles are the same. High standards, which are clear in the rider’s mind, and therefore clearly and consistently defined for the horse, produce this quality and inspire the top examples in our sport.
Where does this high standard begin?
It begins in the definition and execution of the training principles through which we train our horses each day. It begins with our basics. We have to learn to love our basics and become addicted to getting the details right.
It’s no small task to be consistent, repeatedly accurate in the timing and the quality of our aids, and the answers they produce—it’s something we all have to work for in our riding every day!
Yet, it’s exactly this practice that produces horses that enjoy their work, horses who exemplify what dressage is meant to be.
Speaking In Specifics
Often, riders are accepting a lower standard in the quality of their basics. This situation isn’t necessarily intentional, but it happens because they’re not clear enough in knowing the proper standard they should achieve, and they get caught up in other priorities.
For example, when a rider is satisfied with a contact that’s dull or heavy, or a bend that’s still stiff or challenging, or a response to the leg that is minimal at best, their basic training standard isn’t clear enough yet for the horse.
When I say that the rider is “satisfied,” I can only interpret that measurement by the fact that the rider goes on to ask for a movement or a figure without first doing something to improve his or her basics.
I always try to show the rider that once we’ve improved the horse’s responsiveness to our aids, then we have the right to ask for a movement and expect the horse to be able to perform with quality. Throughout each ride we all must reinforce the quality of our basics—between movements and within movements—so that the horse continues to work or perform with quality and in a contented manner.
In daily work or at the warm-up at competitions, the terms used are too often broad and vague. Horses and riders need specifics.
Let’s take bend as an example. If the horse is very strong when asked to go from straight to the bend, we often see the horse positioned into a bend by the rider pulling the horse or holding or forcing the horse into the bend. For me, this isn’t achieving bend. Instead, it’s holding to the desired direction.
A bend should be easy–the horse following light contact to whatever bend is desired and maintaining lightness throughout the duration of the bend and back again. We must strive for this ideal in the bend.
If the horse struggles to provide a bend that meets this standard, then other exercises are needed that will supple and encourage the horse to produce a bend more easily. We must always go back and improve the quality of our horse’s response to the aids so that our horses learn from the consistency of experience exactly what our standard is.
Let’s also take a closer look at “self-carriage.” This term describes itself very well, and yet it still seems that the term isn’t well understood.
In self-carriage, we should feel the horse’s balance shifted to his hind legs, elevating his forehand and allowing the horse to carry himself from his own impulsion without the use or need of a rider.
We often see horses in this beautiful outline, and the rider thinks he or she has achieved self-carriage, yet if the contact is strong and the horse is being held into the frame, this isn’t self-carriage. Self-carriage should consist of a horse that is on the rider’s seat, carrying himself lightly in the frame, understanding and accepting the boundaries of contact and impulsion, and doing this with ease. The rider should be able to allow and give the reins or release the leg, and the horse should maintain his own impulsion and balance.
Calling For Clarity
Collection is another term that’s overly and poorly used.
A classic example of collection used incorrectly is when I see a horse going around strong in the hand, tight in the back, and energetically taking over in the canter. I then hear the instructor call out “collect him, collect him, collect him!”
Now, the rider is being asked to take this negative energy and bring the horse back, thinking he’s balancing the horse on the hind leg, and yet instead he’s creating a tense horse that’s cantering with a stabbing, up and down hind leg.
The rider then leaves that moment of “compression” and gets an instant light feeling and may be satisfied that this is collection. However, this is simply a stiff, strong canter that’s being compressed and released.
Let’s not be satisfied that we’ve achieved collection when we simply change speed, and the horse is covering less ground with less quality of movement (and perhaps even more tension). Let’s be clear when a horse needs a correction, rather than increasing the demand from a negative starting point.
When we work to develop collection, let’s be sure that the starting point is a positive, well-balanced gait and that the request for collection produces a shift in balance to the hind legs and beautifully elevated, expressive strides without tension.
Lastly, the one term that’s over used, with far too little specificity, is half-halt. If you’re around the warm-up, close your eyes. The single phrase you hear most often is half-halt!
My question is whether a half-halt is being used as a positive reinforcement or more as a correction? If a half-halt is used properly as a preparation for movements then it can be contradictory when a horse is going around, strong and taking over, and someone calls, “half-halt!” This is, in fact, a restriction against negative energy, not a half-halt.
A half-halt should be positive; it cannot be both positive and negative to a horse. If you need to bring the horse back and tell him not to pull, it’s a correction, not a half-halt. Often at these moments, the horse needs a complete halt.
A half-halt should be used when the horse is very nicely in balance to positively influence energy and self-carriage. When the rider is able to make a beautiful, subtle adjustment of balance, which puts the horse’s weight more on the hind leg and enhances his responsiveness before moving onto the next movement, this is a half-halt.
Riders need to understand their basics and the details of the standard they’re working to achieve, so they’re clear when they have achieved it and can further influence their horses in a positive way. Our horses need clarity for their betterment and ongoing development.
Let’s all spend enough time on the basics, creating a foundation based on clear, consistent standards, so that we lead our partners toward a harmonious, beautiful expression of dressage!