Think dressage is just about riding around in circles while wearing top hats and tails? Think again. What do hunters, jumpers, endurance, and reiners have in common with dressage? Training principles, concepts, and exercises. You may be surprised that whatever your sport, you may be doing dressage.
The original career for horses trained in dressage was war. A horse’s quick response to the rider’s aids allowed the pair to elude and engage the enemy. The airs above the ground were designed as attack and defensive strategies. Shoulder-in, haunches-in, and leg yield allowed horse and rider to live to fight another day. There were no dressage queens on the battlefield. But even during the age of horses in war, there was an art to training. Good trainers have always created a connection with their horses and allowed the horse’s spirit to shine through.
The term “dressage” is a French word defined as training of the horse, but what does that really mean? Dressage is the systematic training that results in the horse becoming more supple, gymnastic, and balanced. When dressage is done well, the horse is happy, confident, and responsive to his rider. Dressage can be invaluable for all of the disciplines. What sport does not require the horse to be elastic and joyful?
Success in the jumper ring requires a horse to have a very adjustable stride. In a split second a horse must be able to shorten or lengthen his frame in response to the slightest aid from his rider. The difference between leaving the rails in the cups and the rails hitting the dirt is often only centimeters.
A great jumper is like an accordion. How does a horse become adjustable? Dressage, or flatwork, as jumper riders like to call it. Exercises such as lengthening and collecting the horse’s stride and transitions between gaits teach a horse to adjust his stride length and be responsive to the aids.
Although hunters and western pleasure horses have completely different job descriptions, they do have something in common. Rhythm. Good hunters have a flowing gait that allows them to jump out of stride. Top western pleasure horses also have a consistent stride that is like a metronome. Guess what? The first element of the training scale in dressage is rhythm. Establishing a rhythm helps relax the horse. The more complex movements are built on rhythm and relaxation.
Another sport that relies heavily on rhythm is endurance. If you plan to ride 50 miles in one day, you must conserve energy. A steady rhythm prevents energy from being wasted.
Whether you are riding on the trail or following the hounds, your horse must be maneuverable. Opening and closing a gate or negotiating a narrow bridge requires that your horse respond to your aids by moving his body. This, of course, is accomplished by teaching the horse leg yield, shoulder-in, haunches-in, and rein back. More dressage.
What do good cross-country jumpers, reiners, western riding horses, and dressage horses have in common? They all must have strong, active hindquarters. This means, the energy must be generated from the hind-end, flow over the back, to the bit, and be recycled to the hind legs.
While galloping cross-country, an eventing horse must be able to shift his weight back onto his hind legs in order to arch over the solid obstacles. For reining and western riding horses to perform clean lead changes, tight circles, or collected jog, they must be balanced over their hind end. For a dressage horse to piaffe, passage, and pirouette, the hind legs must be activated. Of course, not all horses showing in dressage, reining, or western riding demonstrate the highest levels of this principal, but that is the goal.
Whether you participate in hunters, reining, jumpers, trail riding, or dressage, good training is good training. The principles of rhythm, relaxation, responsiveness, and the connection between horse and rider are common to all horse sports. And when horse and rider are in sync, it is magical.