Updated: Mar 31
There is a tendency that I have noticed with some Dressage riders today to be resigned to be stuck in low levels for a very long time, and yet they have little experience of progressive developmental training exercises. I have heard a few new students say, 'I figured I was years away from that exercise'. Many riders I meet are unaware of the very manège exercises that are necessary to support proper development of the horse. In fact, it seems that the exercises have been almost 'mystified'. There seems to be a conception among lower level riders that they must wait until higher levels to begin working on the very exercises needed for development. How do we arrive at the higher levels if we avoid the exercises to get there? The gymnastic exercises are essential to supple, balance, strengthen and flex the horse and through which riders can find proper connection. To me, we get the benefit from them by doing them. Waiting to begin fundamental training exercises because your horse is 'not there yet' is like saying:
'I'll lift weights when I'm strong'
'I'll do Yoga when I'm more flexible'
'I'll learn to punch when I'm a blackbelt'
My way of thinking: 'Find someone who can teach you and take you through these exercises'
The progressive manège exercises in Dressage are necessary for the development of the horse in strength and flexibility, so that it can carry the rider, with the least amount of stress to its body. That's the whole point of the exercises. Shoulder in and haunches in are not end goals - they are the means to the end goal of self carriage. They should not be 'out of reach' to lower level riders. If the horse is carrying a rider - it needs to be doing these exercises.
Starting at the walk, arena patterns and maneuvers gradually - and over a period of time, encourage mobility, help the horse to step deeper underneath itself, to carry more weight on the haunches so that the back is lifted, and to develop the supporting musculature, undercarriage, so he is rounded. The exercises also teach the rider the proper aids and execution to communicate to the horse. The riding Masters understood this. You must develop the horse to support its rider/ and the rider to support the horse.
Development means 'a progressive program of exercises'. You have to do the work. For any sport athletes are prepared through exercises, to be able excel at the necessary skills needed for that sport. Success is not magic. Any rider wanting results should be investing in an informed, proven program that delivers.
We don't say, 'avoid taking a slapshot until you have a perfect slapshot'
We practice technique, first slowly, then adding intensity and power. And we practice often.
For Dressage, the desired outcome is flexibility, a strong back ,suppleness, balance, grace and a seamless partnership, confidence and unity with the rider - and so the training program must be designed to bring about this result. Exercises, tools or techniques that cause a result not in line with the objective of the sport should not be included in the training.
I am constantly amazed when I see riders, who although riding dressage for a number of years lack the skill or awareness to maneuver shoulders or haunches, which is a basic skill.
Riders and horses need to learn and ride the exercises, not wait forever to experience them. If riders and horses are forever navigating straight lines, walk/trot/canter on weak-backed, unbalanced, collapsed horses, and avoiding exercises that promote bend and maneuverability - they will never reach their goal. This causes fatigue and discouragement in both riders and horses.
Here's the thing - a system already exists. It is academically studied, documented, published and field-tested for over 500 years. In fact, longer -all the way back to ancient Greece! Open any book in Classical Dressage and you will find detailed a system of progressive exercises for training. Yet still many programs today are not employing these exercises in their daily training. And so, many horses and riders are not developing.
I find myself asking, 'Why are modern programs not employing or even avoiding this proven method of development of the riding horse?' Here are a few proposed answers.
An abandonment from history for the sake of re-branding or 're-invention'?
Lack of understanding resulting in assumptions / dismissal of technique
A growing industry of money-focused, quick-fix saleable gadgets offering 'results' to the uneducated consumer
A growing population that lacks ability to sustain attention / process information - preferring tidbits of information here and there instead of investing in the time in learning / development
Loyalty to a coach or program even if there is no progress
Coaches and trainers not having education or experience
Knowledgeable/experienced coaches are unable to convey or teach concepts
Quality instruction becoming elite
Equally a conundrum for me is the rapidly growing industry of tack, remedies and therapies designed to treat horses with sorenesses and stress injuries resulting from their work as riding horses. Yet there seems to be a glaring omission to bring question to the ongoing, unproductive poor riding that is contributing to the problem. Is it possible that much of this could be due to a lack of proper development and preparation for the horse, before it is asked to carry a load - and maneuver at speeds? What sport, human or other, would we expect any athlete to perform without the developmental training? Also, if a horse is perpetually too sore to engage in the very exercises that develop strength, then perhaps it's not advisable to be riding that horse? The damage caused by adding force to a weak, under-developed, unprepared back can not be justified by the ongoing remedies to address the damage. Riders need to focus for not only modalities to address the stresses, but equally on a proper conditioning program to support and sustain the horse for its function.
Coaches and riders should be actively pursuing proven systems of training for their sport, (which by the way, classical systems have a history of success far longer than any modern sport today). Any rider hoping to progress should be asking questions. It's a red flag if riders are doing the same exercises for years and not advancing. It should not take 5 years to do 'shoulder in'. It is a fundamental 'bread and butter' exercise to develop carriage and engagement, and there are many such exercises used in progression to develop horses and riders.
Riders wishing to advance, should inform themselves, reflect often on progress, ask questions, undertake study of the Masters works, and seek clarity and guidance from coaches and trainers who have knowledge (information + experience) and can provide guidance.
Going to clinics is a great way to see teaching and training in action and to see a variety of expert eyes on riders / horses. This is great education for riders and coaches. It can inform programs. But, clinics only provide a window. It's important to understand that a clinic does not give the progression of exercises. It's a first step that might enlighten riders on technique and might assist in networking with a community of engaged learners. For riders looking to progress themselves and their horse - you need a program.
If you want to teach your horse to carry itself (and you) sustainably, over a number of years, in proper strength and balance, and to enjoy its partnership with you, then you need to find the right program for your goals.
In the words of Nuno Oliveira 'the horse is the best judge of the rider' so if we are doing things right, our horses should be balanced, strong, relaxed and happy in their work and progressing towards their goal.