Even though two of three phases at a horse trials involve jumping, the fact is that to be competitive you must be good at dressage. It used to be that an accurate, steady test would be enough to put you in the top six after dressage, but now that same performance will usually leave you down the leaderboard, behind those riders who have really learned to embrace the Training Pyramid (and/or who have a better mover than yours, sorry to say).
Another important observation is that if you want to be safe on cross country and to leave the rails up in show jumping, you must be able to rider your horse’s canter. And to do that, the rider must first understand what kind of canter she is looking for and to teach the horse to work in that place. Essentially, the canter must be adjustable. This means that the horse both understands how and is willing to move powerfully forward in a longer stride while maintaining balance and also is able to compress and engage without losing power. This is not a skill you teach a horse by jumping a million jumps. This is a skill you teach a horse by riding a million tiny transitions. ON THE FLAT.
While I haven’t yet put away my jumping saddle for good, I will freely admit to the fact that I actually ENJOY riding dressage. However, I know that for many jumping riders, the “d” word (dressage) is just as much of a swear as some others and they work in the sandbox only under duress. But the fact is that if you want to be a better jumping rider, you need to also better your dressage skills. As Denny says, most horses don’t have a jumping problem, they have a canter problem.
Here at Tamarack, we have touched on many different themes during our dressage lessons. Below is a brief summary of several of them.
Warm Up is the Most Important Part of the Ride
Denny attended a clinic with famed international coach Klaus Balkenhol, where he audited the sessions. One of the messages he heard there which has stuck with him is that most riders hurry their horse’s warm up. This is especially true in the dressage, but is also relevant to jumping. The rider gets on, walks a lap or two of the ring, and then will start to pick up the reins and fuss and fiddle with their horse. Balkenhol remarked that the warm up is the most important part of the ride, as it confirms that a horse’s muscles are supple and loose and ready for the day’s work.
Most horses living in the northeastern states do not have access to unlimited turnout. Yet this is a species which has evolved to take thousands of steps per day. Being stall bound is a necessary evil for many horses, but it is counter to the needs of equine physical and mental health. When we as riders are overly earnest, thinking about an upcoming competition or even just what we want to accomplish in our day’s ride, we do our horses no favors by forcing them into a connection when they are not yet ready.
Here at Tamarack, it is expected that you will walk your horse on a loose rein for about ten minutes before beginning to ask them to connect and work at a stronger pace. Often times, this “walking warmup” can occur outside of the arena, by going on a short hack. Once the rider begins her work, it is important to still take time as the horse’s muscles begin to warm up. For example, Denny often warms up in the canter in a light seat, even when in a dressage saddle, to allow the topline time to loosen.
Don’t think of the warm up as just something to get through. If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, then your warm up is the most important part of your ride. Just as we do not expect a child to focus in school when they have not been properly fueled, it is only when the horse’s muscles and mind are properly prepared for the work head of them can we expect their best effort.
Do Not Over Do
The challenge in developing dressage skills comes from finding a balance between asking the horse to push a little harder, engage a little more, be a little bit rounder or more supple, etc., without drilling. Riders who specialize in dressage are stereotyped to have, shall we say, a bit of an “attention for detail” and this can lead to a habit of drilling movements on their horses. Horses that associate the dressage arena with dull repetition and unrelenting demands are unlikely to be able to demonstrate the mental and physical relaxation that leads to supple, loose muscles, free forward movement and ultimately schwung, cadence and expression.
Denny compares the work in the dressage arena to body building at the gym. If you are looking to “bulk up” your muscles, you will need to start with weights that are just a little bit hard to lift, and do enough repetitions to cause stress but not so many as to cause strain. From there, you build, slowly and gradually, as the body adapts to the increased demands. You also don’t usually work the same muscle groups day in and day out—muscles need rest periods in order to repair and grow stronger.
If you use this same philosophy in your dressage work, you will be able to condition your horse’s muscles, tendons and ligaments to be able to handle increased demands and pressure. The growth will occur in a systematic manner, and the horse should never get to the point of feeling fried.
Put yourself back in the gym again. Imagine your least favorite machine or exercise. Now imagine that, no matter how hard you have pushed, how many reps you have done, or how much your muscles are screaming for a break, your trainer kept demanding more and more and more, well beyond what you were capable of doing that day. How will your body feel afterwards? How likely are you to return to that trainer and that gym? Realistically, you will be miserably sore and the next time you have a notion to go to the gym, you will likely hit the couch instead.
It seems so obvious that this approach is not the best way to improve strength and fitness, yet well intentioned riders do this exact thing to their horses every day by over-doing, repeating exercises too many times, and drilling on movements.
Denny says that if you think of dressage work as body building for your horse, you will be less likely to overdo the work. The horse must know that the end is in sight and that the goals are attainable. Work your horse in short sets with rest breaks. Change directions regularly. Be happy with little and reward often.
Use the Canter to Improve the Trot
Denny says that a common mistake that many riders fall into when practicing dressage is to spend a disproportionate amount of time working in the trot, while disregarding the canter. If you want your horse to become more adjustable for the jumping work, well, then you need to practice the canter on the flat.
Denny uses the “hoof print game” in his canter work on the flat (as well as when warming up for jumping). Pick a point out ahead of you and ride actively towards it; Denny suggests using one of the doubtless hundreds of hoof prints in the footing. Practice getting to that point with a count of 3, 2, 1. Doing this will cause you to activate the horse’s canter with your leg and also to create balance in the canter by using your seat and upper body.
In addition to the benefit this will give you in terms of your horse’s overall adjustability, when the canter becomes connected and energetic, this will transfer over into the trot work. All horses which demonstrate a true, two beat trot have a moment of suspension in every stride, when the diagonal pairs of legs switch positions. With increased thrust from the hindquarters and swing in the topline, this moment of suspension becomes slightly longer. This increased engagement and thrust creates a better quality of gait. Of the basic gaits of the horse (walk, trot and canter), it is the trot which is most able to be improved upon. Use your canter work to create the energy you need for better trot work.
If you Want Your Horse to Move Like a Jaguar….
In dressage, it is easy to become overly focused on what the horse’s body is doing, when the reality is that how they move is often a reflection of how the rider is (or isn’t) moving. I teach my students that in the free walk, the horse should be moving like a jungle cat—supple, loose, slinky. The challenge is to then take that feeling of losgelassenheit into the rest of the gaits. But we can always come back to that jungle cat imagery.
Many times, if we as the rider imagine a feeling in our body, it is possible to steer our horses towards replicating that movement in theirs. For example, if you want the horse to move in a specific tempo, that tempo should become your posting beat.
Sometimes the harder we try as riders, the more we impede our horse’s performance. It is essential that the rider works to create elasticity and suppleness in her own body, in every joint (elbows, shoulders, and hips, especially), while not going to the extreme of being a floppy rag doll.
“If you want your horse to move like a jaguar…then you need to move like a jaguar,” says Denny.
In order to develop this suppleness, riders must also cultivate strength. Why is it so hard to sit to the trot? Well, it is a symmetrical gait with a moment of suspension, and the mechanics of its movement cause the horse’s topline to rise and fall with that rhythm. To appear still on a moving object, in this case the horse, the rider must move their body in perfect coordination with the horse’s body. Watch a dressage rider sometime—even though they appear to be immobile, look at their joints, and you will see movement. There is a unique push and pull required between suppleness and strength. This is not easy to master.
The other piece here is that riders must learn to think of themselves as athletes. Athletes, by definition, are fit. Denny isn’t saying that someone needs to be rail thin skinny to be fit—he points out that 300 pound football players are athletes while someone else might be 100 pounds and bedridden. Riding is an athletic endeavor. You cannot expect your horse to be an athlete if you are not one yourself.
The “A-Ha” Moment
Just this past week, I had one of my biggest “a-ha” moments on Anna in terms of developing her work on the flat. Anna gets a lot of points for being “cute” and is the queen of the balanced, steady test—we generally receive comments along the lines of “needs more forward energy” and “needs more suppleness/bend”.
Denny has remarked several times this summer that there are two horses in Anna; one who moves in little pony gaits and another which can move in a more elastic and fancy manner. He says that I need to become more assertive with my aids, in particular the outside rein, in order to keep her working more honestly over and through her topline. She has a tendency to bulge her shoulder and push her nose out, just a little bit, and therefore escapes being truly round and connected.
Denny has actually gotten on Anna a few times, and within fairly short order, I see her transform into the fancy mover. But somehow, when I have gone to work Anna on my own, I am not quite so quick to find this version of my horse. Instead, she has been resistant, as in my efforts to be more assertive with the outside rein instead I had become restrictive.
The “a-ha” moment came when Denny rode alongside me and said (again) that I needed to have her more onto the outside aids, and to use my ring finger to give the aid. Hold the presses. He has said this same thing countless times before, but for whatever reason, at that moment, I realized that instead of using primarily the ring finger, I had tensed my pointer and middle fingers as well. This had created a pulling pressure on my horse; once I noticed that I was holding too much with all of these fingers, I also noticed that my wrist was locked and forearm muscles tense. As I released all of this restriction, there came my horse onto the outside rein. Magic.
This experience only serves as an excellent reminder that our bodies do things all the time that we are not aware of, and which impact our horses in a negative way. It only shows that we riders really DO need to be athletes so that we can continue to develop precise and specific control of our body’s movements.