Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Wednesday, September 14, 2022 07:57 PM
Moving up the levels in dressage is a journey of discoveries of how many mistakes you make alone the way! :D Those mistakes are made in basics, movements can only have value if ridden with great attention to correct basics! This is hard to know at the start of the journey even though every book says that! :) Correcting mistakes made in basics are much harder later in training when the horse has been allowed to think one way and now has to change it's understanding of simple things like truly and honestly be in front of the leg. This is one of the most fundamental principles to adhere to in order to move up the levels. From the very beginning the desire to go forward must be cherished, cultivated and shaped but not distinguished or dialed down. Those of us who hack in fields know how lovely and forward horses are out there. They are forward by themselves without us pushing them. Such attitude must be developed in the arena! It is not an easy task, can stretch rider's comfort zone, can create unwanted behavior and simply make a mess.
Being in front of the leg is not about speed and running horses off their feet. This is about their reaction to the leg! How instant it is? How strong or full? How honest? What kind of attitude a horse puts into that reaction? If you read classical and modern books on training they all agree riding naturally forward horses are easier and more pleasant. Naturally lazy horses do not make it high up the levels, too much work. Lazy horse is more distracted then forward one, less honest then forward one, has more energy at his disposal. So, making your horse more forward is not only important for training but also for safety.
From my own experience with Santo I can tell you he intimidated me when he was 5 years old. He was reactive, opinionated and unruly at times. This made me quick to put the breaks on. Which in the long run not allowed me to reshape his forwardness. I simply tried to cancel it. Now, he is 15, trained, lovely, amazing partner to work with, schooling Grand Prix. I think I am starting to realize how, by canceling his strong go regularly, I convinced him not to put a good effort into work. Then, I didn't want his reactivity, his explosiveness. I want it now but it may be too late to bring it back.
One of the very important aspects of being able to ride more forward is your own fitness. Even if you are not riding 17 hands horse but a 14.3 one you still need to be fit, with strong core, upper back, strong legs and cardio. It is simply unfair to ask them work hard and not meet them half way. The bigger the horse the fitter you need to be.
If you compare dressage to ballroom dancing where rhythm, fluidity, balance and grace are of paramount importance, you can also notice how incredibly fit the dancers are, how they display amazing energy even in smooth and elegant dance styles like waltz. That is what we want from our horses. Which can be very challenging at first when they are young and can be explosive. Watching my yearling run with us in the field when he is full of it makes me admire and wonder at the same time - what a challenge to channel such energy where I want it to go and not to "break the desire" in the process!
Thinking Forward - The question is what are the important aspects to develop "thinking forward" attitude in a horse?
  • One of the very first and important rules are not to confuse a horse with go and stop buttons applied at the same time. When a leg is asking something hands are quiet, passive, placed, may be yielding may be not so much but not actively half-halting or even worse pulling backwards. If a correction with a whip required then hands must yield no matter what! Even big explosive response must be first allowed then reshaped back into work, most likely normal aid will work now. Whip is a correction not an aid!
  • Absolutely pay strict attention that your own attitude is forward going. You want your horse to take you "places" even if it is just letter to letter in a dressage arena.
  • No nagging with leg/seat aids! Two same aids with no results is one too many!
  • Be very mindful about too much emphasis on rein aids. Most of the time they are framing, quiet, almost passive aids. Ride with a strap attached to front rings of the saddle. Hook your thumbs on it and ride your horse forward paying attention to his responses and effects such quiet hand/s creates.
  • Be very careful to reprimand forward response of a young horse even if it was made by mistake. I am not talking about bolting (when a horse bolts there is no thinking on his part, only fear and instinct to escape). For example, you asked for bigger trot and got canter. Calmly make transition back to trot, reassess your seat, balance/alignment of your horse and try again.
  • Hindquarters are ALWAYS active! They create energy, they sustain it!
  • One of the very effective exercises to avoid slowing down a horse by pulling on the reins is to ask for a shoulder-in on a circle or a feel of a turn on the forehand. This way the energy is not canceled, it is reshaped.
Happy riding...
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My blog is about teaching, riding and training. I share what is important to me in my work with horses and riders. The writing helps me to think things over and have a better understanding of training ideas and priciples.
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