The Art of Dressage

Dressage is the art of improving one's horse beyond the stage of plain usefulness. It's focus is to create a horse who can carry its rider with ease, is balanced, easier to control, supple, pleasanter to ride, correctly muscled, more graceful in his bearing, eager and responsive to its riders most subtle command.

Success in every art depends upon a measure of talent, enthusiasm, discipline, hard work, perseverance, consistency of purpose and of course good knowledge of that art.

Good knowledge is mentioned last because it is gained last as the result of much milage and experience in that art.

Dressage it is no different, and here also it is experience alone that can ultimately lead to knowledge. The road to experience is an arduous journey and some would say a never-ending one.

To the true enthusiast even the most advanced horse can be improved, even a little bit each day, or every week to come just a shade closer to the absolute ideal, which, because it is not achievable is never achieved.

But the pursuit of the ideal is a passionate quest in itself, full of reward in to his rider in the constant discovery of newer and ever more subtle harmony between horse and rider.

It is only in this constant striving for that very harmony, that the full object of dressage can be approached and expressed in that degree of "lightness" which distinguishes above all else the finely schooled horse.

Above all else because true lightness includes all else, balance grace and action.

Certainly, the attainment of these greatest heights lies well beyond the realms of ordinary, practical horsemanship and the number of riders prepared and able to devote a lifetime in it's pursuit will always be small.

Dressage in its higher forms in a specialty is a never ending study of the finer and of the finest points of riding. It is the University, the true High School of learning.

The advanced dressage horse has to be a perfect athlete, supple and strong in every muscle, nerve and sinew.

However gifted by nature with all essential qualities. No horse or man can become a successful athlete without a great deal of focused training.

Every horse or pony must proceed from the bottom as in any discipline. No person will ever advance forward in the art of riding unless he has acquired an understanding of the basic steps involved.

This can only be done by taking one's horses through every stage of learning and schooling themselves.

Let us therefore take a horse through the first stages of his work. Almost from the beginning, assuming that we are dealing with a colt which has been halter broken and is quiet to handle.

In that way we may then discuss the finer points of riding as they arise from the beginning and follow the general development of their application.

Our first job is to teach our colt to lead well. Our equipment consists of nothing more than a head collar, a leading rein about eight feet long and a polo whip or a stick about four feet long.

Immediately we start working with this colt we are faced with a number of basic principles of horsemanship in their most elementary form.

The first principle is "impulsion" : the horse is to go forward freely whenever we require him to. It also happen's to be the horse's own natual inclination, so there is little or no difficulty in getting him to do so.

The young horse, who has been well and kindly handled will always follow his human leader easily enough.

But now, to lead well, we require just a little more. We wish the horse to go "in front of us". We do not want him to drag behind. The leaders place is beside the horse's shoulder, with the horse leading the way boldly.

To create more impulsion, we have two aids at our disposal. The first aid is the voice. It is a most important aid in all our work with horses.

The horse's hearing is both sensitive and acute, so we should always speak softly and calmly. No matter whether we are just teaching, approving or reproving, loudness never does any good and reflects a lack of horsemanship.

Use the same words and phrases and always in the same context. Talk to them often because its a great help in pacifying or encouraging a highly strung or nervous horse and creates a solid bond of understanding, confidence and friendship.

The second aid to help create impulsion is the whip.

The whip, used as an aid, is an extension of the arm and hand, which enables us to touch, and so to control, the horse in places which the hand can not reach. It is in effect, the rider's "third hand".

It provides the trainer with a very long arm; standing quietly by the horse's head or shoulder, he is able to touch the animal's quarter's without difficulty.

The good trainer will work by himself, in accordance with the principle "one man to one horse", and he will certainly not allow any assistant or other person to occupy any position behind the animal, than which nothing is more certain to distract the horse's attention.

If the horse is touched, he knows at once that the action comes from the very same man who stands quietly by his head. It makes a deep impression on him; he feels controlled at both ends by one human being. He will never forget that basic element of all equitation.

Providing of course, that the whip is used correctly, sensibly and quietly as an aid and not, and never, as an instrument of punishment.

To motivate the horse to go forward, we lift our hand, carrying the whip, quietly and methodically and so that the horse can see our action and tap him gently on top or rather just beyond the top of his quarters. We tap him just once, gently. In fact so gently that in all probability he will take no notice or action whatever which, showing confidence is an excellent beginning.

Horse training does one thing at a time methodically. Give the horse time to understand. It's the very essence of the trainer's art. Make sure the horse does not fear the whip and is confident to proceed.

Thus, when the whip is brought into action, the trainer will use at the same time his chosen word of command for the movement required. The trainer's object is the establishment of clear language between himself and the horse and to perfect this more and more as time goes on.

Every step in the horse's training should be a step of progress on the road to ultimate success. It is the trainer's art to bring him along, carefully and patiently.

This is just the beginning of the long road to the Art of Dressage.