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Harmony is born out of a genuine empathy for the horse and a compassionate awareness of the mental and physical impact of the work on the horse.

Gimmicks of Force

“Not by strength nor by might but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6)

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 active gaits.

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.

Over 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” -- rhythm/tempo, relaxation, contact, straightness, impulsion and collection the horse could best be displayed in his full natural free beauty.

When a 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.

In 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.

This 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 natural means.

Some 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.

There 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. Artificially placing 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.

Working 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.

When the 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. Stiffness and 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.


The front 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 downward.
Like the 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.
This 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 his back is raised behind the saddle. The energy is going forward and upward.
This 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 is raised. 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

The 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.

With 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 recognize this. 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. It is because when we truly 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.

Dressage is 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 'styles' 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 mass-production of dressage, 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.

Many 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.

2000 - 2008 © Tonja Dausend  - Terms of Use

last updated June, 2009