My recent dressage lesson video prompted some interesting comments. Many thanks to those who take the time to write in. I read every comment, even if I don't always have the time to respond.
Friday, July 31, 2009
I wanted to write up my thoughts about how I train my horse in the discipline of dressage. I should note that these are my opinions and thoughts and I do not actually have the skills or body control to ride as perfectly as I would like. Furthermore, I realize that much of what I believe is currently unpopular with the competitive dressage set. But there are some principles that echo throughout all my training. Despite my best efforts to confuse and befuddle, Brego very much is the product of my training. The happiness in his work and his willingness are cultivated very carefully. I cannot take credit for his talent, but I can take credit for his everyday work ethic and his progress through the exercises.
It is no secret that I fancy training methods that improve the movement and gait of my particular type of horse. I ride a horse that has a natural carriage very much on his forehand. I am not so lucky to buy a horse that was born half trained with an uphill, floaty trot. But that does not mean we are doomed to plod around on the forehand. I have done extensive reading, watching of videos, and, dare I say, experimentation on my own forgiving horse to see what works best for him to help him carry himself.
A horse Brego's size, when asked to do the heavy work of dressage or jumping, should be encouraged to unweight the front end, to free his shoulder and allow maximum shock absorbency on his front legs. His obviously powerful hind end should be slowly and carefully built up to carry more of his weight in balance, to give him more power through his back, and increase his agility. To be light and nimble, he must have his weight back.
To this end, I have been most successful in practicing principles esposed by the "classical masters" of dressage, namely Baucher, La Guérinière, Oliveira as translated and executed by Phillippe Karl. I find his teaching style very approachable and his examples clearly illustrate some of the physiological issues about how and why horses move through their gaits.
I ride Brego in plain nose cavesons, loose enough for him to graze in his bridle. I use french-link or double-jointed snaffles for everything but cross-country or foxhunting. I will not use a flash, crank, or figure-eight nose band. My goal is to make Brego's mouth comfortable and relaxed in his work and if he is gaping, gnashing or lolling his tongue, then it is a training issue for this particular horse (knowing he does not have a physical condition) I must correct, not mask through equipment.
I do not punish anticipation. I have heard in many dressage circles that the horse must not anticipate the next movement. If I am schooling simple changes on a figure eight and Brego anticipates the change in bend in the middle and perhaps changes early or lightens in the bridle in anticipation of the transition, to me it is because he is mentally engaged. He is thinking about the problem, the intent of the exercise, and he is showing initiative and a willingness to please. Good!!! Brego is not a robot, and especially while hunting or cross country, I want him a thinking, eager equal. I need him to be there helping to keep us safe.
I do not school perfect 20 m circles. I introduce lateral questions early and often. Why is a shoulder in a 3rd level move??? It is critical to strengthening the inside hind and moving the shoulders. How can you achieve straightness, one of the most critical dressage tenants, while trotting 20 m circles without lateral exercises? Perhaps Brego is just not that talented of a horse, but until I taught shoulders- and haunches-in, there was no hope for straightness. He has strengthened through the lateral work and with his strength, comes his ability to move straight. Does he do the lateral movements to perfection? No, but rebalancing and strengthening is still gained through the attempt.
I do not keep my hands low and fixed. I agree greatly with Phillipe Karl's write up on the critical roll of the hands to communicate and encourage the correct weighting and bend. Modern dressage confuses the end with the means. Yes, a schooled horse should be presented (FEI level) with a fixed and low hand showing his or her understanding of the questions, self carriage, and light response to aids. Keeping my hands fixed and driving Brego into them would not invite any suppleness through the poll or the throat, instead he would learn to lean on them, a weight I am unprepared to carry.
In the same vein, I do not drive with my seat. I do not pump. The ultimate goal is to lighten Brego's front end. Driving with the seat is riding "down" not riding "up". A nicely balanced horse is a "nice place to sit" with a gait and cadence that "carries" you. The rider should not be compelled to push the seatbones down and forward, which invites the horse to hollow the back to evade. Certainly, it does not raise the back to carry you. I have been guilty, once or twice, of fixing my hands, leaning back, and driving with my seat and the response was immediate and drastic. He rounded his neck and went immediately behind the bit, dropping his back. In shame, I must admit that I did the move almost as a punishment, a "Hey, listen to me!" move when he was blowing off my aids. Paul Belasik describes using his seat as a weapon until the poor horse he was riding reared in protest and collapsed in an exhausted heap on the ground. That is not to say that one should not have a following seat, but a driving seat pushes a horse and does not lighten a horse.
I strive always to lighten my horse which is why I do not increase leg pressure, I train him to respond to less and less pressure. I also do not school in spurs. I will wear nubbin spurs at shows to get a little extra attention from him, but I do not school in them. People use them with great success, but I personally do not have the leg control to not deaden my horse to the aid with them. I realize this about myself and so I make the choice appropriately. In fact, the last few months, we've worked almost exclusively on lightening the aids, until at the last lesson, I squeezed lightly and he bounded into a trot, or rolled into a canter departure. This is the ultimate goal. Riding a well schooled horse should take very few muscles. :)
Finally, I do not force a head set. I don't use draw reins. I don't see-saw on my horse's mouth to get him to tuck his nose. I ask for softening, I ask for a mobile jaw, and I release. I ask for him to push from behind and he carries himself.
I am not a particularly talented rider and I am certainly not a dressage expert. I am a training-level rider on a training-level draft horse so everything said herein should be evaluated with a healthy dose of skepticism. But I start with the premise of "do no harm" and everything I do is geared towards the longevity of my mount. A light, responsive, happy horse is a good mount. It's worth taking the time to get him there.
Luckily, I have found a talented dressage trainer who agrees with my principles and is happy to guide me on my path. Measure progress, not perfection.