Introduction To Dressage

The word dressage simply means training a riding horse. Any pony can be taught obedience and balanced movement if you ride it thoughtfully and carefully – which is what dressage is all about.

The aims of dressage

The object of training the riding horse is the same as for any athlete or dancer. Exercise and weight training in the gymnasium do for the long-distance runner what dressage does for the horse – they make him strong, supple and agile, and improve his co-ordination.

All well-schooled horses go through a period of dressage training. It is essential for success and enjoyment in all kinds of riding – jumping, gymkhanas, polo, cross country and hacking. By teaching your pony properly you’ll help him to stay sound and healthy, gallop faster, turn more quickly, jump higher, be safer and more obedient.

It is a rewarding challenge to train a horse well. But first you need to know a little about the horse’s movement in his natural state. Only then can you perfect his paces despite the weight of a rider.

First steps in dressage

The horse is a naturally graceful and swift animal. But when you sit on his back to ride him, you upset his balance and limit the range of his natural paces.

To reduce or, preferably, remove any discomfort some horses’ feet and legs suffer; others get back pain from the rider’s weight – you must sit correctly, giving the horse an evenly balanced load to carry. This is one of the reasons why riding instructors pay so much attention to your position in the saddle.

Once you’ve established a good seat you can aim to improve your pony’s natural paces and outline While carrying a rider. Training a horse to perform the walk, trot and canter well is the basis for all dressage training.

Practising your paces

At any pace, your pony should move forward energetically and willingly with a good rhythm. He should be relaxed and looking ahead at all times. Unless going in a straight line, he should be flexed a little to the direction in which he is going. He must be calm and put up no resistance, and be alert to your instructions.

You need to practise the three main paces – walk, trot and canter – until your pony maintains both his balance and rhythm at any speed and until you do, too! All transitions, particularly trot to canter and back again, should be smooth, calm and quiet.

Study closely how the horse moves. Think about what he is actually doing. Riding becomes really fascinating when you understand your pony’s stride pattern and you know how to influence this. Each pace has a different action and alters the appearance of the horse.

The walk is a four-time movement in which the horse has three hooves on the . ground at any one time. But there’s more to it than that. The head and neck swing up and down in rhythm with the stride. To show that he is relaxed and supple your pony’s tail should swing softly. The walk must be purposeful. Ideally, your pony looks as though he is off to keep an important appointment: he is not in a hurry and has plenty of time, but he is making sure that he won’t be late.

The trot: It is easy to feel, when rising at the trot, that your pony trots in two-time. According to Holly Rogers from Equine Insurers “He should spring lightly along, jumping from one diagonal pair of feet to the other, with a moment of suspension in between when none of his feet are on the ground”.

The canter should be a light, swinging pace in which the horse uses his whole body in a soft, relaxed way, nodding his head and neck in rhythm with the stride. It is a three-time movement – either hindleg lifts and is followed by the other hindleg with its diagonal foreleg and finally the other foreleg. This foreleg is known as the leading leg. If you are cantering to the right, this remaining foreleg should be the right one. If you are cantering to the left, the left foreleg must lead.

Dressage: The Aids

Dressage is the basis for whatever else you want to do with a horse. It teaches you to give, and the horse to receive, a range of subtle instructions and messages.


Communication between horse and rider is one of the most important aspects of dressage training. You have to ask the horse to perform any action simply by using signals.

Squeezing with either or both legs, feeling the reins, or pushing with the seat are your only signals when asking the horse to make a huge number of movements. These range from halt and walk to turning and circling – right up to the advanced dressage movements of piaffe and passage.

In dressage your aim is to perfect your aids. The means by which you transmit your instructions remain the same, but your interpretation and transmission of them must improve and become more precise.

Checking the basics

You and your horse are building on the basis of what you have already learnt. So before moving on to anything new, check your position and run through the aids to make sure you haven’t slipped into bad habits.

Your seat should be correct: well balanced, but relaxed. Your body weight must be supported evenly on the two seat bones. As your aids become more subtle, your horse will assume that a momentary stiffening of your back is an instruction and act accordingly. So you must be balanced perfectly and not wriggle about, because it could be misinterpreted.

Riding is done mainly with the legs: they apply most of the aids and create energy in the horse. You must be correctly placed to close the legs inward, encouraging the horse forward.

The stirrup leathers should hang vertically and the ball of your feet should sit on the stirrup irons. This is the best position for applying the leg aid. The legs must not wobble around, otherwise the horse may be confused as to whether or not he is receiving an aid. And the upper half of your leg should stay absolutely still at all times in dressage.

Sit Upright with your shoulders relaxed and let the top part of your arm fall softly against your body. The inside of your sleeve should brush against the side of your jacket. Your elbow should be soft and supple, allowing the horse to adjust the height of his head and the length of his neck with equal ease.

The voice is a useful aid for practice sessions. When you are training you use it to help the horse understand what you are asking him to do. However, in a dressage test you are not allowed to use your voice and you are penalized if you do. You are being tested on the unspoken communication between you and your horse.

Artificial aids

The artificial aids are the whip and the spur. These are used as aback-up for the natural aids. In some junior competitions a whip is not allowed, but you may use spurs.

In dressage training, you can carry a long schooling whip to reinforce the leg aid. Dressage whips are longer and narrower than all-purpose whips. This makes them flexible so that you can lightly flick the horse without taking your hands off the reins.

The whip should not be used as punishment. It helps to sharpen your horse’s reaction to your leg aid and reduces the need to kick.

The whip should be carried in the inside hand because the inside leg aids are the most important. They are, therefore, the aids which need to be reinforced. You must remember to change the Whip to your other hand when you cross the arena.

Spurs are used when a more definite leg aid is required and more energy from the hindquarters is needed. You should only begin to use spurs when you can maintain an independent leg position. If you can’t keep your lower leg still, you may hurt the horse.

The advantage of spurs is their precision: you can apply pressure on an exact spot, while your boot heel gives a rather ‘woolly’ aid.


The circle is one of the most basic school movements and it is a good exercise to start practising. It takes some time to make the circle geometrically exact, so don’t expect too much from your first attempts. Work on large circles – about 24 metres (26 yards) around to begin with. The smaller the circle, the more difficult the movement becomes.

To achieve an exact circle, you must give precise instructions. Your horse should be bent slightly round the edge of the circle. On a clockwise circle he should curve a little round your right leg. You ask him to bend to the inside with the fingers of your inside hand, but it is vital to keep a steady contact with your outside hand. Never pull back on the reins.

The touch of your inside leg encourages the horse to go steadily forward, while your outside leg is ready to control the hindquarters if they swing out.

Dressage: The Paces

The well-trained horse can vary his stride in each pace: he takes longer or shorter steps when asked to do so by his rider.

Variations of pace

Variations in the length of step are known as working, collected, medium and extended paces.

Working paces are generally those natural to the horse before he has had much training. He should be obedient, relaxed and balanced, and move with plenty of energy.

Collected paces: The three big joints of the hindlegs the hip, stifle and hock are more flexed and the horse’s legs tuck well underneath his body at each step. The horse moves with a shorter, rounder action than in the working paces. The croup is lowered, making the forehand light. The neck is raised and arched and the front of the face is almost vertical.

Medium paces: The horse takes steps which are longer than those of a working pace, but not to the fullest possible extent. He must go with great energy, stretching his head and neck forward a little so he can take longer steps with the forelegs as well as the hindlegs.

Extended paces: The horse strides along with maximum energy, taking steps of the greatest possible length.

The walk

The term ‘working walk’ is not used: because the horse does not have much scope to lengthen or shorten his walk strides, he could not manage four variations of this gait. The horse works most naturally at ‘medium walk’; from there the rider can ask him to work at ‘free walk on a long rein’.

This means the rider lets the reins out far enough to allow the horse to stretch his head and neck forward and down. He continues to walk with long, deliberate, generous steps.

Giving the aids

To make your pony shorten or lengthen his steps takes lots of practice and patience, and you will certainly need help from your instructor. The first step is to establish good working paces. You can then ask your pony to take a few lengthened steps, making sure he maintains his balance. This can be done from either working trot or cantor. Make a half hat to balance your pony and get his full attention. Then apply both legs to encourage him to take longer, more powerful steps with the hindlegs. At the same time, let him stretch his head and neck forward a little, while keeping the rein contact.

He should lengthen his outline and take longer steps with his forelegs to match those of his hindlegs. He must keep a clear rhythm, taking steps of equal length. Your instructor will be able to tell you if you’ve succeeded. When your pony does achieve the lengthening you’ve asked for, make sure you give him plenty of praise.

At the end of the lengthened steps, it is important to make a smooth transition back to the working pace. Sit up, apply both legs and resist slightly with your hands. As soon as he shortens his steps back to the working pace, relax your hands but keep your legs against him and ride forward. Otherwise he will lose his impulsion and slow down.

Impulsion and collection

Impulsion is the power that the horse creates with his hindlegs. It must not be confused with speed. It is controlled energy produced in the horse by the use of your legs and seat. This energy is received in your hands where it is lightly guided and controlled.

You need impulsion to obtain collection. The object of collection is to ‘coil up the spring’ of energy in the hindquarters. Once the spring is uncoiled, the energy is released and the horse goes into longer steps.

To collect your pony, he must be submissive and not opposing you. The muscles of his neck and jaw should be relaxed. You cannot try to force collection by resisting with your hands.

By using your legs, you ask him for more action from the three major joints of the hindlegs. When the pony uses these joints more he steps further underneath himself with his hindlegs. This causes the croup to lower, which in turn raises the forehand. When this happens, you have obtained a degree of collection.

Once the pony is collected you can ask for medium and eventually extended paces. To do this, you maintain or increase the energy with your legs and let the pony go forward from your hands.

Dressage: Lateral Work

As dressage tests become more advanced, the horse is asked to do ‘lateral work’, or ‘work on two tracks’ the hind-feet follow a different track from the forefeet. This happens when he moves sideways, or forward and sideways at the same time, and demonstrates his suppleness, balance and agility.

Turn on the forehand

You have probably asked your horse to go sideways already without noticing it. Think when someone is mucking out a stable with the horse tied up in it. Once they have done one half, they say ‘over’, and he moves across the stable, making it easier to muck out the other half.

The movement that the horse makes is a sort of ‘turn on the forehand’, which is one of the first mounted exercises you do when starting lateral work. The turn on the forehand is a useful exercise for three main reasons:

  • It teaches your pony to move away from your leg.
  • It teaches you to ‘blend’ the aids given with your legs and your hands.
  • It has many everyday uses, such as when opening gates or turning in confined spaces.

In this exercise the pony turns in a half-circle through 180°, so that he changes the direction in which he is facing. It starts from a good, square halt. The outside forefoot marks time (stepping up and down in the same place) and he pivots around it.

The inside forefoot makes a small half-circle around the pivoting outside forefoot, and the hindfeet make a large half-circle to complete the turn.

Giving the aids

The turn on the forehand is made almost entirely with leg aids. The hands do very little. To make a turn to the right (in which you start on the right rein and end up on the left rein), your pony should first be standing square and on the bit.

Ask him to look slightly to the left by giving little squeezes with the fingers of your left hand, until you can just see his left eye. Don’t pull back with this hand, or your pony may step backward, which is a serious fault.

Your right hand keeps a steady contact, ready to tell the pony that he is not to step forward. Keep your left leg just at the girth, in contact with his side to keep him up into your hands, and to discourage him from stepping backward. Your right leg, drawn back a little behind the girth, asks him to turn his hindquarters through the half-circle. Once the turn is complete, ride the pony energetically forward without hesitation. You must ride forward immediately so that the pony maintains his forward impulsion, with his hind legs underneath him.

Yielding to the leg

The next exercise that is usually taught in lateral work is ‘leg-yielding’. Here the pony is asked to walk or trot forward and sideways at the same time, While remaining parallel to the side of the arena.

An easy way to start this work is to use an exercise that is known as ‘yielding to the leg’. It sounds the same as leg-yielding but is not.

Starting on a 20m (66ft) circle (in walk to begin with, and later in trot), ask your pony to make the circle gradually smaller. You could make it a metre (3ft 3in) smaller on each circuit, down to about 12m (39ft).

Keeping the pony bent on the track of the circle but not with too much bend in his neck -use your inside leg just at the girth to ask him to step forward and sideways back out to the 20m (66ft) circle.

When doing this in trot, it is best to make sitting trot from about the 16m (52ft) circle downward, and when ‘yielding to the leg’. This is because it is difficult to rise to the trot on very small circles and still maintain a rhythmical, balanced trot.

When you reach the 20m (66ft) circle start rising again. The work should be done as evenly as possible on both reins. Your pony will almost certainly find it easier one way than the other.


When you can do ‘yielding to the leg’ fairly easily on both reins, try ‘leg-yielding’ on a straight line, first in walk and then in trot.

It is best if you can start this work in a 20 X 40m (66 x 132ft) arena, so that you can measure exactly what you are doing. On the left rein, start the exercise by making a half l0-metre (33-foot) circle from M or K to bring you on to the centre line (C to A).

Once your pony is moving straight on the centre line, ask him with your inside leg (the left leg on the left rein) to move sideways as well as forward toward the opposite quarter marker K or M. Try to keep the pony parallel to the side of the arena by keeping your outside leg against him to encourage him forward.

Be content with just two or three steps in ‘leg-yielding’ to start with, then ride the pony straight forward with both legs. As with any new exercise, praise your pony when he achieves what you are asking him to do.