True progress in riding can only come from an improvement of the basic skills of both the horse and the rider. Any training approach that tries to find solutions to problems without addressing the shortcomings or imperfections in the basics that every horse and every rider have, is doomed to fail. Unfortunately, many riders and many trainers still try to go the route of applying stronger aids and more tack, or different tack, when the real issue lies elsewhere. Conversely, a rider who works honestly and diligently on improving his and his horse’s basic skills every day, can eventually become a grand prix rider, and his horse will eventually fulfill its athletic potential. It’s an unspectacular journey, and it may seem long and tedious at times, but it is still the relatively fastest and smoothest way to the goal. It is in many ways similar to the work of a goldsmith who polishes a piece of precious metal until it shines. Shortcuts and quick fixes always end up leading into dead ends, and it takes much longer to backtrack and fill in the holes that were left than to do things right the first time.
The Rider’s Basic Skills
The basic skills that the rider has to master in order to be able to communicate effectively with his horse, without interfering and without confusing it, include the balanced, independent, supple seat; a clear understanding of biomechanics and training principles; the ability to feel what the horse is thinking and feeling at any given moment; the ability to feel the right moment for each aid, as well as the ability to apply each aid at the right time, with the right intensity and duration, and in the right context of other aids.
The Horse’s Basic Skills
The horse’s basic skills include giving the rider its undivided attention, thinking along with the rider, and responding instantaneously to each request of the rider. There are basic physical skills as well. They can be grouped into two main categories.
In one category, there are six elementary operations that the horse has to be able to execute:
• Going forward
• Backing up
From the first day of training all the way to Grand Prix or even High School, even the most advanced and most complicated exercises can be broken down into these six basic demands. That’s really all the horse ever has to do.
In the other category of basic physical skills are transitions that the horse has to learn to execute smoothly and effortlessly, without losing its balance, i.e. without losing its tempo or the alignment of its hips and shoulders on the line of travel, and without stiffening or bracing with any part of its body. All exercises that the horse is ever asked to do are combinations of these transitions and the six elementary operations above.
• Between gaits
• Within gaits
• From a straight line to a curved line and vice versa
• From a left bend to a right bend and vice versa
• From a large circle to a small circle and vice versa
• From a single track to a lateral movement and vice versa
• Between lateral movements
• From the rising trot to the sitting trot and vice versa
• Between balance on the forehand, horizontal balance and balance on the haunches
Each transition requires a change of balance of the horse. It is very often these transitions from one posture to another, one state of balance to another, that are difficult for the horse, because it has to switch from one set of muscles to another without skipping a beat. That’s why transitions are the places in which most mistakes occur. The horse should remain on the bit, on the seat, and in front of the legs during all transitions. The tempo, stride length, and energy level must remain exactly the same, except for the transitions within the gait, where the stride length has to change.
Common Mistakes that Occur
• Speeding up before up transitions
• Slowing down before down transitions
• Speeding up in medium and extended gaits
• Slowing down for the collected gaits
• Slowing down in corners and other turns
• Speeding up after corners and other turns
• Slowing down in lateral movements
• Speeding up after lateral movements
• Coming above the bit and inverting
• Getting crooked, i.e. losing the alignment of hips and shoulders
• Leaving the designated line of travel by drifting in or out
• Slowing down in the transition from rising to sitting trot
• Speeding up in the transition from sitting to rising trot
• Losing the bend and leaning onto one of the shoulders
The loss of the regularity of the tempo is indicative of a loss of the longitudinal balance: the horse falls onto the forehand. A loss of the alignment of hips and shoulders, or a loss of the line of travel is indicative of a lateral loss of balance, i.e. the horse falls onto the left side, if he drifts to the left. A lateral loss of balance usually entails a loss of the longitudinal balance as well, which means that if the horse drifts toward the left, he will lean onto his left shoulder. If the haunches drift towards the right, he also leans onto the left shoulder.
If the horse inverts, it can be caused either by crookedness, or by a loss of balance, or because the rider interferes in some way through stiffness or crookedness/imbalance in his seat. If the horse counterbends unintentionally, it means that he is leaning onto his inside shoulder. In other words, it is also a sign of an imbalance. As soon as the rider distributes the weight evenly over all four legs, the horse will be able to bend correctly.
As a general rule, we can say that the horse should be able to execute any one of these transitions at any time, and it should allow the rider to touch it with any aid at any time. When horse and rider have mastered the basic skills to perfection and fulfill these basic requirements, they are both fully trained, a Grand Prix horse and a Grand Prix rider. In this sense, we can say that the Basics are at the same time prerequisites and final goals, a starting point for the training as well as an end result. They are the “meat” of each training session. They are diagnostic tools, as well as therapeutic tools. The way the horse executes the six basic demands and the basic transitions tell the rider a great deal about which muscle groups are weak, which muscle groups are stiff, which joints are not moving with the optimal range of motion, etc. In other words, the quality of the execution will show you what you need to work on. One of my teachers used to say: “We don’t need to practice the things we do well. We need to practice the things that we don’t do well.”
Trouble Shooting Strategies
The way this works in practice is that the rider designs an exercise which touches on one or more of these six basic demands and basic transitions and rides it a few times, first at the walk, in order to give the horse a chance to familiarize itself with it. This also gives the rider the opportunity to find out where the challenges are, which parts of the exercise are the most difficult ones. This is somewhat similar to the process a musician goes through when he or she is studying a new piece of music. At first, you play it very slowly to figure out which finger goes where on the instrument, especially during the difficult parts of the piece. Then you practice it until you can play it perfectly at a slow tempo, and only then do you start to play it a little faster, until you can play it in the tempo in which it was intended to be played. By the same token, you ride the exercise with all its movements, turns and transitions at the walk, and you try to find out how you need to aid and guide the horse through all the individual parts; so that it flows seamlessly and effortlessly. When you have figured out the technique behind the exercise, you practice it, first at the walk, then at the trot, and eventually at the canter, if the exercise lends itself to the canter. Some exercises are better done in the trot, while others can be ridden in all three gaits.
The rider’s mindset throughout the ride should be: “What can I do to help the horse? How can I guide the horse so that the exercise is as easy as possible for him?” This practice will reveal weaknesses and stiffnesses in the horse. They will also reveal shortcomings in the rider’s seat and aids. Sometimes it is necessary to break the exercise down into smaller, easier pieces. Sometimes it is necessary to interrupt the exercise to ride another exercise that serves to explain a certain part of the original exercise to the horse, before returning to the original one.
This approach to dressage also means that we don’t drill movements, i.e. we don’t try to improve a poorly executed movement by repeating it endlessly. We may repeat the movement once or twice for trouble shooting purposes, in order to find out which part of the exercise is the most difficult one, and which basic skill is lacking and preventing the horse from executing the movement correctly. Once we have determined the source of the problem, we repair it with additional exercises that are designed to improve the flexibility or strength of the muscle group we have identified. When we think that we have made progress in this area, we repeat the original movement or exercise to test our hypothesis. If we were right, we should see at least an improvement in the execution of the movement. We may have to run through this cycle several times and use a number of different exercises to improve the basic skills until the horse can execute the movement perfectly.
This article is just a very brief overview over the basic skills that horse and rider have to master on their journey from novice to Grand Prix. No matter how good and accomplished horse and rider are, the journey really never ends. Perfection is impossible to attain. There are always areas in which the basic skills can be improved. It is important not to get discouraged by this, but rather to take some comfort from it. If we put one foot in front of the other and refine the basics that I enumerated above, success will be inevitable, and we and our horses will continue to improve all the time. If we seem stuck in our riding, or if a horse seems to be stuck in his training, it probably means that we have not yet identified all the basic areas in which we need to make improvements – or that the horse needs more time to develop the strength and agility that is required for the next level of training.
The journey of learning can be described as a circle. We start out by practicing the basic skills in order to create a foundation on which progress can be made and training can take place. But at the same time, perfecting these basic skills is the goal and the end result of the training. Riding a perfect test with perfectly executed movements is then literally a test for how far horse and rider have come in perfecting the basic skills.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR: DR. THOMAS RITTER