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The word “Dressage” conjures up all kinds of images, doesn’t it? And you wonder if you could ride in this elite discipline. Or maybe you think it’s too difficult for you and your horse, but it’s not!

“Dressage” is a fancy word for training, that’s all. It is derived from the French word “Dresseur” and just hearing it brings to mind images of dancing horses so in tune with their riders, they seem to float. For me, it is balance and strength—the ability of both horse and rider to function both separately and yet together.

Getting started in dressage is easy; just keep in mind that dressage is training and training is subjective to each horse/rider team. By simultaneously looking at dressage as both the beginning phase of training and the goal phase of riding, it’s easy to see that both horse and rider must be as balanced physically, mentally and emotionally, and that dressage is the means to that end, no matter the riding discipline. 

Physical: Think of it as if you are teaching your horse to be your dance partner, and he must do the heavy lifting. If he’s not in shape and is lacking muscle tone, helping him become more toned and working toward a better physique will help him become capable sooner. 

Mental: If his mentality is off a little and he is reluctant or robotic, help him learn to think better and respond out of desire, not rote memorization. It’s the engagement of the mind that will help engage the body and trust me, you need both to achieve balance in your horse. 

Emotional: Emotionally, if the horse is scattered, with discordant energy, begin by helping him see his own self-worth, self-confidence and encourage him to learn to harness his own emotions in a way that you both are comfortable and safe.

These three components are never isolated from each other and remember to add your own physicality, mentality and emotional state into the mix. Because of this, it’s imperative to get you both fit and able to do the rigorous physical tasks required to ride in a balanced frame. Forget about all the “rules” and odd phrases and ride with focus, balance and strength, with the goal of learning more when both of you are ready.

It’s not imperative to stay in the arena to achieve this goal. Trail ride the hills and forests or plains and deserts where you live. Challenge your horse to begin using his hind quarters for impulsion by putting him in an area he absolutely must use his hindquarters. Even a small hill or rise works; vary the path and the pace. If you live in the desert, go to the washes and use the sand there, but only if it’s not too deep and will not harm his tendons. If you live in a level forested area, trot him over some fallen trees if it’s safe. If you live where you can swim with him, do that if he’s able. Don’t do anything too soon or for too long, and build up to the exercises. Work on your cues and aids and his increased willingness and responsiveness in each scenario. Be creative, make it fun and you’ll begin teaching the most important aspects of dressage without him even knowing it!

In the arena, use ground poles, but not always set at the perfect distances as you normally might. Instead, play “pickup sticks” and place scattered ground poles so he must think and look to you for direction. This works beautifully to engage his mind and help him mentally begin thinking on his own, but also to ask for your input. It also works to get you each listening to the other.

Now, you may be wondering why, if this is an article on dressage, I’m blathering on about things that seemingly have nothing to do with 20 meter circles or letters in the arena, and the answer is dressage is training. Training encompasses all things physical, mental and emotional for both you and your horse. Start there, work getting balance in all three areas and along the way, your equitation and self-carriage increases as does your horse’s. 

3 Exercises to work on when beginning your path into the world of dressage:

1.) Balance. Yours first, both on and off the horse. Do not use your shoulders or arms, learn to shift your center down into your pelvis. Work on your core and strengthen your legs. 

Your horse’s balance also needs to be tuned up, so begin by teaching him to shift his “motor” into his hindquarters. Forget about headset and do not use any artificial aids such as side reins or draw rein; and do this casually, on the trail or in hand. Ride forward at a walk, stop, back three or four steps. Release him between each step and praise for holding that frame. It’s amazing how well this works and is a nice short cut. 

Work on lateral movements like slide passing either in hand or under saddle. Getting him to use his body correctly is the goal, nothing more.

2.) Strength and fitness. Yours first, so build up your core, inner thigh muscles and learn to hold yourself in frame while staying soft. Fit is never a bad idea! Your strength helps your horse’s ability because you’ll also develop better balance as you become stronger. 

Ride him on ever-longer rides with lots of trotting as he builds muscle. For example, say you ride one hour; 45 minutes will be spent walking and 10 minutes trotting, 5 cantering or loping. You’ll increase trotting time as he and you become better fit. 

Don’t just throw him away and bounce along like a sack of potatoes; be mindful of his strides, his impulsion and his cadence. Count, sing, or imagine a metronome you can adjust. Shorten and then lengthen the strides using cones or rails to help you understand what he’s doing. Work on how he feels as he moves beneath you. You’re learning how to move together!

During trot work, post and do so correctly, letting his impulsion push you out of the saddle. Do not stand in your stirrups, and in fact, do not use stirrups. You should find the rhythm and be able to post effortlessly, without stirrups for an hour at a time. 

3.) Focus. Learn where each of his feet are at all times, as if you are the one with four feet, not him. Learn to plan your turns and halts before executing them. Take your time on each movement and then doing each task with an intention and focus that you’ve not done in the past. Be in tune with your breathing and with your horse’s. When does he increase or decrease his breaths and why? 

The focus ties you back into the mental and emotional aspects and helps you guide the physical.  If you try to make every aid you give your horse invisible, you’ll find your focus increases as does his. Dressage is riding with intent and a purpose. It’s the energy you put into each ride that allows you to do more in less time and become great dance partners. 

Keep riding, make it fun and enjoy your horse, Happily Ever After!

~Tanya Buck

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Tanya Buck
Published on 08-06-2020
Tanya Buck is an equine advocate, an author (101 Ways to Die with a Horse or Live Happily Ever After and White Horse, A Novel), horse trainer, coach and riding instructor. And if that list isn't long enough, she is also a member of the Front Range Animal Evacuation Team in Colorado and founder of the Horses Happily Ever After Project. Tanya believes that a holistic approach incorporating the horse's physical, mental and emotional state combined with reciprocal communication is most beneficial in creating the bond of champions. Her ongoing work to better the world for the horse drives her to keep doing what she does!