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.
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.