Levels training through second mark the period of the basic training of the horse. If this foundation is correct and complete, the progression into the medium levels of third and fourth is smooth and “painless.” The trainer “reaps the rewards,” so to speak, of the correct foundation, and the continued development of his horse is insured. If, however, either through haste or lack of knowledge of what exactly the correct foundation is and how to achieve it, the trainer attempts to go on without it, he is in effect trying to build a house on a faulty foundation, and the result, at best, will be incorrect. At worst, he will have created a “monster,” a real disaster, useless for anything.
A look at Lower Levels
It may seem nit-picky and needless to develop in the horse and to confirm gymnastically the correct performance of the working paces. Everyone is so eager to get into the more “exciting” lateral movements and collection. It’s not as interesting, to the novice, to spend time developing the straightness of his horse; time to develop and confirm without fail the powerful push and carrying ability of the hindquarters; time to progressively move the horse’s center of balance more toward the hindquarters; time to build an elastic and supple connection between the energetic hindquarters and the soft, yielding and accepting mouth; and time to develop the frame of the horse in order to allow all these other things to happen. It may seem like a lot, and it is – but without this basis nothing can develop correctly. The time that all of this takes depends upon the expertise of the trainer and the ability of the horse, but it is safe to say that since the development is physical as well as mental, one should think in terms of months and years – not days and weeks. However, merely spending a long time at these levels in no way insures success if the foundation is not correct. The trainer may be unknowingly confirming the horse’s balance on the forehand, or confirming weak paces by not insisting that the horse push from the hindquarters. Thus, though it does take time, time alone is not the answer.
The only solution is to know what you are looking for and how to go about getting it. Volumes have been written on the subject and people have devoted their lives trying to work it all out. Just because the lower tests may appear simple to execute, don’t be fooled into thinking it is easy to prepare the horse for them. It is not what the horse does (how accurate and obedient he is), but the way he is moving at this stage that determines the success of his training. And this, in a sense, makes it more difficult to prepare a horse for the primary levels and to judge them, than the upper levels where the criteria for the prescribed movements are more established. In other words, it is far easier to see the flaws in a flying change than the flaws in the canter, unless you are very knowledgeable. But with flaws in the canter, the flying change will never be good, so there you are. There is growing insistence that we secure good, competent judges for the lower levels, as this is where it is really the most difficult to see the training and advise the rider – and yet, this is where people are going wrong and need sound advice so badly.
Correct Balance is Everything
I find that where people most often go wrong in this stage is in the development of the balance of the horse. In a clinic I gave, I asked a group of six riders to tell me their problems with their horse. They were all different answers, ranging from: “My horse’s head is too high”’, “My horse won’t bend”, “My horse is heavy on the forehand”, “My horse won’t move forward and is sluggish”, “My horse tilts his head and pulls on my hands” and “My horse won’t lengthen his stride.” Quite an assortment of symptoms, but they all had the same problem – incorrect balance, and thus the inability to develop correctly. There seems to be a basic misunderstanding that is when you ride a horse “down” into an arched frame, you let the horse go to his forehand for balance. The appearance of the horse in the first stage of going on the bit has been imitated without the proper feel, and it is a dead-end road; for where can you go from there? The horse’s balance must be centralized at this stage and then he must be ridden energetically forward from the hind leg (without losing his balance) until he seeks a rounded frame and stretches onto the bit. If one attempts to ride the horse forward without balancing him first, the head may raise and the lower neck bulge, because the support of the horse is being pushed forward on the shoulders. The horse may raise his head (giving a “llama” appearance), drop behind the bit to avoid the issue, or present his rider with countless other resistances. He cannot move forward correctly if balanced on the forehand.
It would be an over-simplification to say that correct balance is everything (it is really only the beginning), but it is safe to say that without it, nothing else can occur. The horse cannot move forward and develop the thrust and carrying power of the haunches that leads to engagement (instead of just pushing the body along like a wheelbarrow); the horse cannot be truly supple (he is unable to bend through his rib cage), and therefore will not be straight; the horse essentially and simply is not on the bit. Problems that may not have been apparent to the novice trainer become magnified as the training proceeds because the rider is asking for more energy and making new demands on the horse. The horse, physically unprepared to react correctly, either finds an evasion or exhibits resistance. As you can imagine, if the easier work is not done correctly, the harder work will certainly not succeed. Then, one finds that re-training is in order, for no matter how many “things” the horse can do, if he is not correctly on the bit, he cannot proceed towards the ultimate goal in dressage. Enlarging his repertoire of movements only insures that they, too, will be faulty. Even going back to the beginning with such a horse at this point is risky, for one cannot erase the learning (good or bad) that has already taken place. The more one sees these problems at the upper levels, the more one has to agree to the essential nature of the correctness of the lower levels, and doing them right in the first place!
As I have stated, it is difficult to see the flaws in training – one only sees that things are not right and that the horse is not attractive. Correct training should make the horse more beautiful, both in his physical conformation (like a gymnast who develops the right muscles), and the way he moves (he should become more fluid, cadenced and powerful). The horse, when ridden correctly, becomes obviously and dramatically beautiful. Any horse, no matter what the conformation, can be more attractive and move better with correct training. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true, and this is sad to see. A long, hard look at the lower levels should convince you that herein lay the answers to the vexing problems in dressage.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR ARLENE RIGDON