What Is "Dressage"?
horseback riding lessons by Centaur Rising at Anchorage Farm
by Kris Cooper
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Dressage means “training”. It is the correct, classical way to train a horse.
By "correct" we mean that the horse is trained while preserving his natural physical abilities, his soundness and his “expressiveness”. Many other types of training seek to render the horse merely obedient, respectful and adequate for the purpose intended.
No form of training other than dressage focuses as much upon flexibility, suspension, elasticity and the connection of the horse between the rider’s aids (seat, legs and hands). Correct dressage endeavors to prolong the useful life of the horse. It strives to create a happy, willing, joyful partner.
As a result of training though dressage, one obtains a centaur-like feeling where the rider and horse operate as of one mind. The rider’s mind directs the horse’s individual body parts as if they were the rider’s own. Sometimes it feels that the human body does nothing as an intermediary between the rider’s mind and the horse’s body. It is as though the human mind directly controls the body of the horse!
Many people say they ride "dressage", when in fact they are missing some of the key elements. It is very difficult to learn these things, because they are not just mechanical. They are not things than one does to the horse. It is not a matter of just riding dressage patterns, or “school figures”.
True dressage requires that the rider take responsibility for his own half of the communication equation and that he listen to what the horse is telling him. Horses love it when we enable them to feel good in their bodies and to feel connected to the rider with their minds.
It is true that dressage utilizes “school figures”, precise geometric patterns designed to develop the horse’s athletic ability. Likewise, dressage employs “movements” often where the horse travels on a diagonal course with his body straight or curved. One might think that just because the rider executes these patterns or movements that he is riding “dressage”.
However, true dressage involves a responsive and elastic connection between the rider’s aids. This can only be accomplished through following the tenets of the “training scale”, also known as the “pyramid of training”. The pyramid of training has been developed over hundreds – if not thousands - of years. It is succinctly described in the German manual, Principles of Riding. The United States Dressage Federation endorses it. The United States Equestrian Federation has developed “tests” that evaluate a horse’s progression along this training scale. The pyramid of training is an international standard.
Many dressage riders are bewildered by their lack of success at dressage shows. They think that one must buy an expensive well-bred horse to become competitive. Indeed, there are horses that have been bred to excel in dressage competitions. However, correct training and riding are far more important than the breeding of the horse (or competitions, for that matter). Any horse can be taught to excel at dressage. Some take more time than others. The training pyramid was designed to improve any horse.
Let me describe below the “Pyramid of Training”, also known as the “training scale” or “die Skala der Ausbildung”.
Rhythm is the first step. There is nothing without rhythm. Rhythm is crucial not just to music and dance but to all athletic development. Rhythm allows for the methodical contraction and relaxation of the muscles. It mirrors other rhythmic functions of the body like breathing and the heartbeat. Rhythm has a calming effect. It’s predictable. It can be mesmerizing. Regardless of what we do with a horse, we must always seek rhythm.
Suppleness is perhaps the most overlooked step on the training scale. Suppleness takes time – both in an individual training session and over the life of the horse. Suppleness is like dynamic stretching for the human athlete. It improves the range of motion and helps prevent injury. There can be no “throughness” without suppleness.
Throughness is what enables the connection of the body parts of the horse. Throughness is what enables the horse to respond immediately without resistance or tension anywhere. A fluid responsive horse is what every rider seeks.
The third step of the training scale is Contact. Some people associate "contact" with the horse being able to accept being "held in a frame" through the use of the rider’s aids. But true contact requires that the horse reach through his body for connection with the rider’s hands. Clearly, true contact cannot be obtained without suppleness and without responsiveness to the aids. True contact, like suppleness, is a misunderstood and hard-to-achieve step. Hence it is skipped over by many people who think they are riding dressage. Contact cannot be obtained without feeling.
Impulsion comes next. Impulsion is when the horse engages his hind legs and pushes forward to maximize the period of suspension when all four legs are off the ground. Impulsion cannot be obtained without true contact. Without contact the horse would be merely running, with more weight on the front legs than on the hind. The horse would be hurling himself through space. Impulsion happens when the horse is connected between the rider’s seat, leg and hand. The rider is able to ask for bigger movement, more expression and more suspension. Impulsion requires that not only must the horse be supple; the rider must be supple, balanced, correct with his aids and the timing of his aids. Impulsion requires "half halts". Yet half halts cannot be accomplished without true contact and a feeling for throughness.
Straightness requires that the horse move the same to the left as he does to the right. This is not natural for the horse. (It’s not natural for the rider either.) It requires deliberate attention, repetition, consistency and feeling from the trainer. Without straightness, it is difficult to influence all the body parts of the horse. A movement to the left cannot be the same as a movement to the right. Without straightness, training cannot advance.
Collection is the ultimate rung on the ladder. Collection is not merely pulling the horse together to put him on the aids. It is created over a long period of time by developing the strength of the hind end of the horse. Collection requires rhythm, suppleness, true contact (from leg and seat to hand), impulsion and straightness.
Dressage can improve any breed of horse for any discipline. It prolongs a horse’s useful life. It causes him to be an utter JOY to ride.
The trainers at Anchorage Farm have been teaching people to train their own horses through dressage since 1967. From the very first lesson, we teach a rider to observe rhythm and rudimentary straightness. We teach the student feeling in the first lesson and build upon this in every lesson thereafter.
If any aspect of the training scale puzzles you, please feel free to e-mail us firstname.lastname@example.org. Come visit us. Ask questions. Observe training. Take riding lessons. We’d love to have you stay as our overnight guest at Anchorage Farm.
Calm your body. Calm your mind. Take riding lessons!