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. 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.