You hear more and more often of riders who try to train their horses in record time. Some argue that foals can perform practically all the dressage movements already when they are only a few hours old. They claim that it is only a matter of teaching the horse the “cues” for the movements, and that they can train any horse from zero to Grand Prix in no more than a year and a half (although I’m not sure that anybody has actually done it). What they apparently forget is that the horse at liberty does not have to support the weight of the rider and consequently does not need nearly as much strength to execute the movements.
Other riders are driven by the desire to compete in the FEI young horse classes and to move up the competition levels as quickly as possible. Some people skip levels, not just in their show schedule, but in the training schedule as well. They are driven on the one hand by personal ambition and on the other hand by the prospect of being able to sell the horse for a lot of money, if they can stick to a certain time table. The faster the horse progresses, the higher the price rises.
What they either don’t realize or what they simply don’t care about is that the horse must be mature and strong enough for the demands the rider makes of him. If the rider does not allow enough time for the horse’s mind and muscles to adapt to the demands, the horse will suffer long term damage, either by becoming resentful for being exploited by the rider or through injured tendons, ligaments, and joints. Egon von Neindorff was always concerned with the impact of the work on the horse’s soundness. It was constantly on his mind, and he drilled the same concern into all of his students. Nowadays, this attitude seems to have become quite rare, although it used to be a part of the general riding culture, because in the past horses were a valuable resource that could not be easily replaced, and because it takes a very long time to train a horse. Waldemar Seunig summed it up very concisely: “A dressage training whose final result is not at the same time preservative has no raison d’être and ought not to be attempted at all.”
A big part of the problem is that dressage training is often too movement oriented, instead of being centered around the strengthening and suppling of the musculature. When the rider thinks of dressage merely as teaching the horse a series of movements, instead of systematically looking for stiffness’s and asymmetries, and eliminating them through gymnastic exercises, then the risk of descending into trick training that has no practical or gymnastic value for the horse is immense.
Each horse is different within certain limits, due to its conformation, temperament, and training history. That’s why it is impossible to give a detailed specific training plan that works for every horse. The rider has to choose the right selection of training techniques like longeing, work in hand, riding, long reining, etc. as well as the right combination and the right sequence of turns, transitions, and movements for each horse in each training session.
In spite of the necessary variability, it is possible to give a general outline of the course the training should take, and to make general observations that will help the rider make the right decisions. The old masters divided the training of the horse into three main stages that are reflected for instance in the so-called “Directives” of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna that were written in 1898.
The first stage is the elementary school, where the young horse still carries his weight more on the forehand. It is ridden mainly on straight lines and large circles on a single track. The horse learns to bend and turn, so that his hips and shoulders are aligned on the line of travel, his left legs stay on the left side of the line, his right legs stay on the right side of the line, and his spine forms a segment of the line of travel. Towards the end of this stage, the concept of sidestepping is introduced in its most basic form: the leg yield and the turn on the forehand in motion. This corresponds to today’s Training Level and First Level.
The second stage is called Campagne School. The horse is now able to go in a horizontal balance, where the hind legs carry as much of the load as the front legs. The weight is distributed evenly over all four legs. During this phase the horse learns the lateral movements, the collected, medium and extended gaits. In the canter, the counter canter and flying changes are introduced. The lateral movements are typically introduced in a certain sequence, beginning with those in which the horse bends against the direction of travel and the inside legs cross over the outside legs. This group includes the shoulder-in and counter-shoulder-in. Afterwards, the horse learns those lateral movements in which he bends into the direction of travel and the outside legs cross over the inside legs. This includes the travers, renvers, and half passes. Related to this second class of lateral movements are the turns around the haunches, passade and pirouette. In the past, the Campagne School was sometimes subdivided into lower and higher Campagne School. Nowadays, this corresponds to 2nd Level through approximately 4th Level/Prix St. George.
The third and final stage is the High School stage. The horse is now able to support the combined body mass of horse and rider more with his hind legs than with his front legs, at least some of the time. The school walk, school trot, and school canter represent the highest purity and refinement of the natural gaits, i.e. they have the highest degree of regularity, suppleness, impulsion, and collection. The canter pirouettes, piaffe, and passage belong into this training stage, and of course the airs above the ground. Historically, the advanced canter movements were considered to be high school movements. Some of them are no longer practiced by most advanced riders, such as the redopp, which is a four beat canter in a travers position, where the outside front leg touches down after the inside hind leg, because the front end is so elevated, and the croup crouches so low to the ground that the main diagonal is separated. Another traditional canter related movement is the terre-à-terre, a travers in two beats, where the front legs move together, and the hind legs move together. The mezair is very similar to the terre-à-terre, except that the horse is on a single track and typically advances in a straight line, whereas the terre-à-terre can also be ridden on circles.
“Pretending to train him in a short period of time, giving a specific time to teach a certain movement, and passing successively through all of its different degrees, hoping to lead all horses to the same point: that is to be ignorant of art and nature.”
DuPaty de Clam (1777, translation: TR).
In modern terms, the transition between the Campagne School and High School lies somewhere between Prix St.George and Intermediaire. The dividing line is not very clear-cut, because the competitive levels originate in 19th century military equitation, which did not really go beyond the Campagne School stage. That’s why we find some High School movements in Intermediaire and Grand Prix, but not others.
This outline of the training progression will be safe to follow with all horses. There are a few additional general principles that the rider should observe, which I would like to touch on briefly.
The horse determines the speed of the training. It is important to confirm each step before moving on to the next one. If one moves too quickly and introduces too many new elements in too short a time frame, a talented and good natured horse will go along with it for a while, but sooner or later the horse will refuse to continue and the whole training will collapse like a house of cards, when the horse’s brain is overloaded or when his body breaks down under the stress.
On the other hand, sometimes an exercise of the next higher level can help to perfect and confirm the exercises of the previous level.
Progress is usually very gradual, with small improvements from day to day, and week to week. If the horse seems to take a big leap forward one day, one should not assume that this is the way the horse is going to be every day from now on, or that he will continue to progress in these big leaps. It’s rather like a preview of the future. After a big step forward, the new knowledge often has to settle and consolidate first, which may feel like the horse is stagnating or even backsliding a little. But in the following days and weeks the horse will typically progress in smaller steps to the level of the earlier big leap and beyond.
The training typically proceeds in spurts and plateaus. The spurts are exciting, because they show measurable progress, which makes us feel good. However, the plateaus are at least as important, because that’s where the digestion and consolidation takes place. This is where the new information is processed and new skills are made reliable.
It is important not to drill movements. If you repeat the same movement too many times, the horse may at some point get fed up and refuse to cooperate, because he feels exploited by the rider.
Along the same lines, one should not draw the warm-up out excessively. The horse needs to be physically and mentally fresh to execute difficult demands. Once the horse is tired, it is impossible to do high quality work. Many of the old masters emphasize that horses learn better and progress faster with frequent short lessons than with fewer, but very long lessons.
When the horse finds a certain exercise or movement difficult, it will not improve through repetition. Instead, the rider has to analyze where the problem is coming from. Which part of the exercise is causing the horse the biggest problems? Which muscle groups are not working properly? Which joints are not moving with the full range of motion? Once you have identified the probable source of the problem, you design exercises that eliminate the stiffness or weakness. When you think that you have made an improvement in this area, you attempt the movement again to compare if it has improved.
The hang-ups are always in the basics, regardless of whether the challenging movement is elementary or advanced. You can always trace the problems back to a hole or a deficit in a basic skill, such as a stiffness in a certain muscle group which makes it difficult for the horse to bend a certain joint, or a slow reaction time, a lack of balance, a lack of straightness, etc. That’s where the correction has to start. The real improvement takes place when the hole in the basics is identified and filled. Riding the movement then serves as a test for how much progress the rider has made in this respect.
Even with advanced horses, the rider has to go over the basics of turning, bending, moving forward from the leg and whip, stopping, sidestepping, and backing, in every ride, trying to improve and fine-tune these basic skills. Progress in training and “moving up the levels” will come as a result of improving the basics. You could say that from day one through Grand Prix, we always work on the same basic concepts and issues. What changes is the level of refinement and complexity.
An advanced horse still needs to be able to work in a lower level frame like a young horse. In other words, as the horse learns new skills and a more uphill balance, they should not forget the early lessons. In fact, it is beneficial for the training to revisit and polish lower level exercises like the turn on the forehand in motion and chewing the reins forward-downward out of the rider’s hands.
To sum up the principles I mentioned in this article, the rider cannot skip steps or levels in the training without paying a price. This price can come in the form of the horse’s nervousness and tension that is created by the insecurity of not having sufficiently mastered the skills that the rider is demanding of the horse. It can come in the form of the horse topping out much earlier than it should. It can come in the form of an unreliable and faulty execution of the movements. It can take the form of a poor quality of the purity of the natural gaits, due to stiffness, poor balance, lack of straightness, lack of impulsion, and lack of collection. It can also take the form of premature unsoundness. For instance, it is a myth that dressage is hard on the horse’s hocks. This belief is rather widespread these days, but it is only true if the quality of the training is poor, in other words, if the rider does not develop the horse’s musculature and natural gaits systematically step by step through refining the basic gymnastic skills.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR: DR. THOMAS RITTER