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Dressage For All Disciplines
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Dressage For All Disciplines

The rise and rise of British dressage over the past 10 years culminated in multiple gold medal winning performances at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. As a result of this unprecedented achievement, dressage has seen a sudden increase in popularity here in the UK.

The term 'dressage' is French and literally means 'training'. Dressage in its earliest form was reputedly first developed by the Greek philosopher, historian and cavalry officer, Xenophon. Xenophon realised that if the horse was rewarded for good work rather than punished for poor work, the more trust he would have in his rider. As a consequence the horse would learn to perform in harmony with his rider and would enjoy his work without tension and the fear of retribution if he fell short of expectations.

Adopting this principle, Cavalry horses were trained to become supple, balanced and light in the forehand and to respond instantly to their riders' most subtle requests. If a horse could move nimbly and instantly backwards, sideways and forwards in perfect balance the more efficient he would be on the battlefield. Movements performed naturally by horses at liberty were harnessed for use in defence and evasion; half pass, capriole and pirouettes, for example.

Modern competitive dressage does not see the more extreme movements demanded of those war horses although these may still be seen performed by the Classical Schools such as the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and others.

Today's dressage horse is educated using basic scales of training which form the foundations of his work through from Preliminary level all the way up to Grand Prix, should he progress that far. All horses can be trained using this framework no matter what discipline they will ultimately specialise in.

The scales of training are divided into six key elements, each being linked to the next in a series of connecting, progressive stages.

Rhythm: The horse's rhythm should be regular; that is to say correct for each pace: four-time in walk; two-time in trot and three-time in canter. The horse's legs should move in the correct sequence and show clear moments of suspension in the trot and canter. The tempo (speed) of the rhythm should remain the same and have a clear beat to it.

Suppleness:  The horse's muscles should be toned, relaxed and free from resistance. His joints are loose and he does not tighten or hold himself against the rider's aids. As he moves, the muscles over his back and topline right through to his poll should be elastic and swinging under the rider, not hollowed or tightened against her.

Contact: The rider's contact on the horse's mouth should be light, even and elastic. This is achieved by the rider's leg and seat, never their hands. The leg aid drives the horse forward so that he steps underneath his rider's weight and works forward, through and over his back, neck and poll. The rider then captures this energy in her hand.

Impulsion: This refers to the contained power of the horse originating in the hindquarters and controlled by the rider's hand. Any tension, resistance or hollowing of the horse's back will prevent that connection from being established.

Straightness: Like humans, horses tend to favour one side more than the other and move with their bodies slightly curved. If the rider sits to one side or has a stronger contact on one rein than the other, the horse's crookedness will become worse making it more difficult for him to remain in balance. Any impulsion the rider has created will be blocked if the horse is crooked. The horse's hind legs should step into the tracks of the forelegs both on straight lines and around circles.

Collection: As his training progresses, the horse is taught to carry more and more weight on his hindquarters, lightening his forehand and allowing him to become more athletic and easier to ride. Over time the horse will develop his musculature and strength so that he is able to do this with relative ease.

In short, dressage makes the horse a better ride.  He becomes easier to manoeuvre, more powerful and responsive to his rider, better balanced and more obedient.

Top show jumpers invest more time in training their horses on the flat than over fences. If the horse is balanced, obedient and able to turn on a sixpence, how much quicker will he be against the clock in a jump-off? And he is far more likely to clear the fences if he is light in his shoulders, muscular and powerful in his quarters, straight and relaxed allowing his rider to lengthen or shorten his stride on the approach to fences as required.

A well trained horse is much more pleasurable to hack out on too. Opening gates is so much easier if your horse has been taught to step sideways and backwards and to stand obediently as you open and close the gate.

In some showing classes, the judge rides the horses as part of their assessment of him. How much more pleasurable it must be to ride something obedient, light in the hand, balanced, supple and straight than to sit on a horse which falls around every corner, barges against the bridle, and ploughs along on its forehand before falling in a disorganised heap as he halts.

There is so much more to dressage than just trotting around in boring circles and no matter what sphere you choose to compete in, the time you invest in schooling your horse is sure to repay you with interest!

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  1. PonyGirl
    I really enjoyed your post, today. My pony horses will all half pass, side pass, shoulder-in and shoulder-out in the course of our work. They definitely need to work off their hocks, putting their weight in their hind ends, since they must be ready to move quickly in any direction. They must be able to collect and extend at any gait in response to what my race horse is doing. I think the 2 biggest differences between dressage and a western using horse (reining, cutting, ponying, etc) is that a good western horse should go on a loose rein without direct contact, and instead of a piroutte they do roll backs, in which the inside back leg never leaves the ground. But as I said before, I completely credit the small amount of dressage training I took for allowing me to get the utmost from all my horses. I would like to write a blog on how dressage helped me with my western horses as you suggested earlier, and your article has helped clarify some of my thoughts. After I get a little more experience, writing on simple subjects, I'll give that a try. Thanks for the article and for the suggestion also..
    1. autumnap
      Thank you. I'll look forward to reading your blog. Meanwhile, I'm thinking about what other dressagey stuff might be of interest to people ... x
  2. Michelle Jane
    Michelle Jane
    Awesome! I do believe dressage is for everyone!
    1. autumnap
      Thank you! x
  3. jst4horses
    I too enjoyed this article. We no longer do competition, only exhibition and tournaments. In tournaments the horse and rider are competing against their own performance at the last event. Many professional circuit show and rodeo people come and exhibit in our tournaments, which are fundraisers for National Homes for Heroes/Spirit Horse II and showcase what we do in our programs for veterans, first responders and their families, and high risk youth and teens. They tell us it is so much FUN, to come and talk and share and not have stress. The horses too seem to enjoy just standing around yakking and watching others. Our tournaments are a good place for starting a horse that has not shown before it goes to professional competition. The people, noise, confusion are good for schooling! The first tournament we did was because the area big arenas (there are two main ones in our area for public use) had problems with the different types of riders. We wanted them to stop fighting. It was amazing and has continued to be that the different types of riders, eating pizza, or tacos, or hamburgers and hot dogs as we have decided for the event, see each other, talk to each other, and realize that most of the English riders are NOT just fooh, fooh people, but actually do train and manage their horses without all that YAH HOOO and kick em, sock em, hit em, and the English riders realized rodeo horses are for the most part not hit, kicked, socked, whipped either. The guys who did quite a bit of hit em, sock em, whip em.........could not believe how high stepping, controlled, and NOT dangerous the horses trained in Natural Horsemanship are. A lot has changed. Riders share the arenas, the hate is a lot toned down, and the few people who are still a pest to other riders are not so much a pest because we ALL have talked to them, and we ALL have learned to share without the anger and criticism that had sparked so much of the fighting. Loved the Dressage. I learned Austrian Calvary young, and as I live here in California, was even lucky enough to go and watch the training of the beautiful Lippizaners brought in from Europe by the original founder of the dinner houses that featured them, which is now the Medieval Times Restaurant chain. AND I got to go backstage and watch Lippizan America train. How fun. I had a huge Polish Arabian, I trained him in the methods and he was so awesome. He was stolen and injured and had to be put down, but I still miss him horribly. He was my last personal mount that I trained in Dressage.
    1. autumnap
      I just love this community! It's so interesting to hear about other people's experiences in other countries. It's true that there is a bit of 'looking down noses' at other folk's disciplines but I do believe that we can learn a lot from each other. Sometimes a different way of looking at things can really help solve problems and that can only be good for the horses. x
  4. shumes
    Great post! Voted up :)
    1. autumnap
      Thank you kindly! x
  5. arabobsession
    I got a lot from your post. We are trying to organize an adult riders club here, that allows all the different disciplines, ideas and good old common , have you tried this, can be discussed, events held where you don't have a 9yr old telling you your horse is dumb cause it can't get on the right lead, and have lessons with different coaches. Can you please write a post on the very beginnings of learning dressage for those of us who are just starting out on the road to competitive dressage. Am out of votes, but will come back latter

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