Imagine what we ask of the dressage horse! He must develop a musculature that is as fit as the most finely tuned athlete. He must concentrate with the single-minded focus of a tight rope walker so he can decipher and respond to nearly invisible aids. And all the while he must be willing, relaxed, happy and content.
This is no small task, particularly for an animal that was genetically programmed to run wild and free. Yet the life of the dressage horse can be amongst the most joyous in the animal kingdom if we honor his mental, physical and emotional needs.
“Since dressage training primarily aims at developing and regulating the physical forces of the horse, it inevitably also involves its mental capabilities and their perfection. In the long, intimate association with its master, the horse becomes infinitely intelligent and alert. Because it has so much to learn and is continuously asked to observe the slightest hint from it’s rider, the horse exercises its mental powers together with its physical ones, so that it becomes attached and friendlier towards its master to the same degree that it increases in skillfulness in its lessons.” – Gustav Steinbrecht, The Gymnasium of the Horse
At Puterbaugh Dressage Sport we strive to create a training experience that draws forth each horse’s innate desire to perform well and please his rider. Creating this experience is a natural product of consistent practices that are grounded in the language of horses. For example:
As innately hierarchical animals, horses will only willingly submit to those they trust and accept as their leader. In the wild, this is usually the leader of the herd. For the dressage horse, the leader is their rider and trainer.
While a horse’s affection can be elicited with kindness, their respect can only be earned. Horses respect people who train them confidently and well, with a seat that feels harmoniously in tune with the horse’s body; who communicate with peaceful command, and who encourages the horse to develop while never pushing them too far. The resulting effect is immense physical power expressed with supreme grace and accompanied by a relaxed, deeply content horse.
Good trainers will always reflect the above mentioned qualities and, by bestowing a positive experience upon the horse over time, will create optimal conditions for horse and rider to experience the same relationship themselves.
All animals are born with one or both of two primary instinctual responses to stress: fight or flight. Horses are flight animals and so naturally will to flee from loud noises and unusual sites. In addition, the dressage horse must focus with acute concentration on their trainer and rider. For these reasons, during the beginning work quiet and calm environments create the most optimal training conditions.
People naturally think that it is important to familiarize horses with the noises and unusual sites they experience during shows, and there is some truth to that thought. But let us again consider the metaphor of the human athlete. A gymnast at the Olympic games is able to concentrate not so much because they are familiar with the Olympic stadium, but because their focus is so finely developed. It is the supreme refinement of their ability to concentrate that enables them to focus on the work at hand and block out the intimidating environment.
For our horses, we must similarly perfect their ability to and interest in staying keenly tuned into their rider. Then when at a show, the rider remains the trusted primary focal point for the horse and the boisterous show environment fades far more easily into the background.
As with any sensitive living being, excessive criticism or harsh treatment will damage a horse’s trust and sense of well being, resulting in confusion or rebellion or both. A bad prior experience can be undone but it takes commitment and time.
Headstrong horses will assert their independence now and then to test the water, much like children. Remedial horses are quite different from the well made or green horse. Over time and with quality training, the negative behaviors of remedial horses extinguish and they become willing and well behaved, even enthusiastic. Measure progress as steady, incremental improvements.
Photo Philo1Dressage Fitness
“The horse is no machine, its readability no permanent state; it cannot be wound up for use when desired, poorly ridden for days and then put back in the corner. No, it must be schooled in gymnastic exercises every day, its body must be made supple, its attentiveness and obedience must be awakened and checked.”
– Steinbrecht , The Gymnasium of the Horse
Horses can only perform well if they are in peak physical condition and must therefore work out as seriously and regularly as any athlete. Exercises that build dressage musculature should be incrementally introduced. Young horses and those returning to the work sometimes require lunge work as a preparation for further training. As Steinbrecht stated, “Work on the lunge is very advisable as a preparation for under saddle exercises and is indispensable in many cases. (It) . . . makes the green horse more familiar with humans and accustoms it to working, paying attention and being obedient. It gains in flexibility and agility to the extent that it is possible with its natural body carriage . . . for very young or weak horses, this work on the lunge should be continued until they are able to carry the rider’s weight without damage . . .”
During the second phase, gymnastic training exercises are targeted to foster development of the classic training pyramid principles designed by the German Army Riding School in 1912. They are:
· Takt: Rhythm and Tempo,
· Losgelassenheit: Relaxation and Suppleness
· Anlehnung: Rein contact
· Schwung: Impulsion
· Geraderichten: Straightening and Flexing work
· Versammlung: Collection
These are the core attributes that underlie Piaffe, Passage and Tempe work. They also optimize a horse’s conditioning throughout their lifetime.
While we can develop an emotional affection for horses as deep and tender as that for a child, as physical beings horses are more accurately likened a football player or dancer. The muscles of these athletes require vigorous workouts and so do horses. Abuse and overdoing it is always uncalled for but we need not be concerned about sweat or the rhythmic breathing that accompanies the development of cardiovascular strength.