“Not by strength nor by might but by My spirit, says the Lord of
There are few things more fun to
watch than a horse playing
freely in a field, showing off in high spirits.
It’s easy to get caught up in the exhilaration as he
exhibits energy, balance, suppleness, and beautiful
Dressage is a humane form of communication with the
horse, which aims to restore the horse’s natural beauty
under the added burden of a rider. The horse’s balance
must be restored and improved upon in order for the
horse to regain his natural agility. Humane
training methods are
used to encourage the horse’s willing participation in
the work. The use of
gymnastic exercises helps to preserve the horse’s
long-term soundness, making the horse’s overall life
experience more enjoyable.
time horsemen discovered that the horse’s natural
qualities were best developed by means that were
harmonious with his nature. They discovered that by
refining key elements of training, what we call today,
“the basics” --
relaxation, contact, straightness, impulsion and
collection the horse could best be displayed in his full
natural free beauty.
horse is out of balance he carries a greater amount of
weight on his front end. His head is naturally up, his
spine is hollow and his hid legs are out behind him.
Because he pushes his front end along, his gaits are
relatively jarring, increasing the damaging effects of
concussion on the horse’s legs.
contrast, when a horse is relaxed, moving freely,
accepting the work, actively using his haunches to step
through his back and carrying himself in balance, with a
rider who is in harmony with that balance, the horse
takes on a more beautiful posture and supplely offers to
reach forward with his head and neck for a soft rein
contact. The horse’s spine arches from tail to poll with
the poll being the highest point. He becomes more agile
and his gaits soften, lessening the damaging effects of
concussion. His face is in front of the vertical,
naturally displaying a beautiful head carriage. This
beautiful poise with its reaching qualities is a result
of the horse using his haunches correctly, and it
indicates that the work has therapeutic gymnastic value.
This holds true for all riding horses.
posture is considered highly desirable because of its
significant meaning. It goes to follow that many riders
will resort to imitating it if they can’t get it by
riders do not understand how to help the horse relax and
find its balance, so they resort to force of one form or
another to manually get the horse’s head down. It has
recently become a common belief that actively putting
the horse’s head down helps to get the horse’s back up.
There is even a popular system today that is built
around this idea. It prides itself in being able to
actively “place the horse’s head anywhere”, behind the
vertical or even in the ‘correct’ position. When force
is used to place the head, the reaching quality that the
horse offers is lost. The contact reflects the loss of
the reaching quality. This is known as front to back
riding. While this kind of riding may change the
appearance of some of the back muscles, it does not
strengthen muscles required for engagement and increased
loading of the haunches.
are some riders who are not interested in correct work.
They know better but
for whatever reason - maybe in a hurry to impress
someone (a buyer, an owner, judge, $$$, etc…) - are
satisfied with an imitation of a balanced, relaxed
horse. In many cases,
aids that are imperceptible to the onlooker, relaxation,
pure gaits, freedom of
movement and balance
are given less importance than the ‘wow’ factor of the
horse’s God-given movement (as long as the horse’s head
is kept down).
Some riders don’t feel they
have to worry about correctness if they can just
suppress the horse’s expression
of resistance. To many
onlookers an artificial
head position can cover up
training problems stemming
from gaps in the basics.
the horse’s head with an active hand has been extremely
successful in the competition ring, to the point where
now days at many shows and training arenas significant
numbers of horses are ridden behind the vertical and on
the forehand. Top judges appear to be placing it, so
naturally people who want to win are will follow suit.
It’s even hard to find sales ads for
dressage horses that are not portrayed behind the
vertical. This system of training may consistently
produce ‘winning’ results and sell horses.
behind the vertical is an unnatural position for the
horse, yet many riders are actually being taught that
the way the horse moves in this artificial frame ‘feels
right’. It is so insidious because once the feel of
actively placing the horse’s head is hardwired into the
subconscious of the rider it becomes an incredibly hard
habit to break.
horse is forced into a position that has no relationship
to its natural balance, the gaits become restricted and
distorted. The horse becomes tense and hollow. The legs
flip and fling instead of reach, as they would otherwise
do in nature. This
tension interferes with absorption of concussion,
causing unnecessary strain on both the horse and rider.
resistance interfere with efficient energy flow
throughout the horse, which can eventually lead to
physical damage. It
would be better to let the horse doodle around in a
natural hollow position than to force him into an
unnatural frame. At least in an unrestricted carriage he
can somewhat take care of himself.
leg has hyper-extended and the hoof is
flipping upward. The hind toe is flipping
backward instead of recoiling up toward the
horse’s body. The front end is still
grounded while the hind end has already
lifted off (a natural consequence of DAP).
The hind end cannot help carry this position
because the horse is on the forehand and his
back is hollow, as can be seen behind the
saddle. The haunches are not engaged. The
horse’s energy is going forward and
first horse, the front leg of this horse is
braced and the hoof is flipping upward to
some degree. The front end is still heavily
grounded while the hind end is about to lift
of off, putting the horse on the forehand.
The haunches are not engaged. In fact, this
horse looks like it’s tip-toeing behind.
Again, the horse’s back is hollow behind the
saddle and the horse’s energy is going
forward and downward.
horse has the natural freedom of his head
and neck that allows for engagement behind.
Notice how the hind leg is in position to
help lighten the front end and lift the
horse forward. Notice the freedom he has to
reach with his neck and shoulder and that
behind the saddle. The energy is
going forward and upward.
horse shows no flipping feet or distorted
gaits. There is natural freedom of his head
and neck that allows for engagement behind.
Notice the freedom he has to reach with his
neck and shoulder and that his back
The energy is going forward and
somewhat upward. The horse has a relaxed,
easy, swinging quality to his strides.
Forced Head Set
compared to Natural Head Position
beauty of the art of dressage is in the absence of
coercion. It was the
refinement of the basics that eventually made
artificial methods that forced the horse’s cooperation
and restricted his freedom of movement obsolete.
some horses it seems like you can get the basics only
close to correct and the horse will go beautifully. With
others, an element of the basics can be off by only a
fraction of a degree and the horse will go horribly.
When the basics are
truly correct but just not working, the problem is
usually that the horse has a painful physical issue.
Unfortunately for the horses, many people don’t
Understanding, feel and coordination are essential to
success. A certain amount of
skill is required to ride effectively.
There is just no way around that. But a solid
understanding of the basics, and a grasp of basic skills
are not out of reach of the average rider!
Classical dressage is a pursuit of perfection: perfect
communication, perfect balance, perfect coordination,
perfect feel, perfect timing, and perfect harmony. We
relentlessly strive to improve our skill and
understanding, and raise the bar, yet are never
satisfied that we, as riders, have truly achieved
perfection on our part. We can always be more subtle in
our aiding. We can always have more feel. However, this
striving for perfection is not just so we can pat
ourselves on the back, thinking we’re somehow superior.
because when we
strive to ride better, it’s
better for the horse. The underlying purpose behind
classical dressage is to improve the life experience for
the horse, strengthening him with the use of thoughtful
aids to give him as many pain free years as possible.
not intuitive. It is an intricate art, which is best
learned from someone who has had the time, patience and
skill to really master it.
A vacuum was created when the
popularity of dressage grew
faster than the classical
masters were able to train a sufficient numbers of
qualified instructors. Inevitably various
of dressage emerged to
meet the public’s demand. The information that did come
forward became so diluted down and distorted (as happens
in the game of ‘Telephone’) to the point that much of
what is out there now is just a façade. Due to the
the influence of special interests and the numerous
'styles' now being taught, judges (the people who should
know) seem to be strongly disagreeing on what is
correct. It’s no
surprise that working the horse within its nature,
preserving purity of gaits and other core classical
principals that were once ‘no-brainers’ in the dressage
community have now become frequent topics of debate.
people have written classical dressage off as a silly
myth for dewy-eyed romanticists because the real thing
is so rare and can be so hard to find.
We are trying to master in a
lifetime the knowledge and skill that many, many
horsemen built on over many, many lifetimes. It’s a task
that’s impossible to accomplish when we have very
limited exposure to those who have been thoroughly
trained in the correct classical methods, and we end up
trying to reinvent the wheel on our own. But solid
classical teaching is still available. There is no
riding more beautiful to watch than a rider who creates
balance and natural harmony with the (seemingly) simple
mastery of the basics.