A couple of years ago I started assembling some thoughts for a blog, but, oops, it became DRESSAGE Unscrambled. Other than The Godfather, Part II, I can’t name very many sequels that measured up to the original. So, now it’s back to Plan A. I ended D.U. for the same reason that you stop eating potato chips—at the time I was full and, presumably, so were you. But like an old dictator haranguing the crowd, I’ve got my second wind now. You probably join me in observing that many, many riders get in their own way—by over-analysis, by under-analysis, or sometimes because they just ought to be in analysis. Dressage is full of Truths. You are bombarded by them in books and articles, during lessons and lectures and even over a glass of chardonnay at your dressage club meeting. Unfortunately, those truths are not all equally applicable across the board in all circumstances. Some obfuscate; others downright confuse. Navigating the whole shell shocking world of dressage is as fraught with pitfalls and booby traps as the task of Buying Your First Horse is to an unwary and unaccompanied novice. I certainly don’t claim to have a monopoly on dressage wisdom, but the same rules that apply to the human condition are equally valid as applied to our sport—exercise some common sense and avoid the mistakes that everyone before you has made. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t take it all so seriously. It won’t make you ride any better. As before, the tales which follow are not arranged chronologically but in studied disorder. Some are meant to illuminate. Others to distract. Some just can’t stand to hide in the dark any longer. Light and Truth R Us. And, oh, by the way, feedback is GOOD! I’m afraid that within me there’s an element of Alexander Haig after the Reagan shooting or Riff in Rocky Horror–“I’VE GOT TO KEEP CONTROL!” Consequently, this isn’t an open contribution blog. Tell me what you think. If it fits in, I’ll post it. If not, at least I’ll have learned something. CLICK to comment on anything below.
Nix on the Trickle Down Theory!
So what’s the deal with transitions? You’re told they have to be prompt; you’re told they have to be smooth. One or the other is usually easy. Both at the same time – not so much! What should your priority be? As always, that depends on the situation.
The underlying question is “what are transitions for in the first place?” Apart from the obvious answer that it’s the only way you can get out of one gait and into another, they do two things. When they are executed correctly – meaning the horse is on the aids, connected, and engaged – they have a gymnastic function. They strengthen and develop the hindquarters. You can picture this especially in a good canter depart. It’s an anaerobic, weightlifting exercise.
They can also test and hone your horse’s reaction to the aids. Upward transitions to get him quicker off the leg. Downward transitions to have him better respect the hand and not run against it. It’s fair to say if you can’t make a transition downward work, there’s little chance that subtle, useful half halt will work!
If your horse has connection issues, then it’s probably wise in the short run to emphasize smoothness. Give him a reason to trust your hand and not evade above or behind it. However, a smooth transition must also be balanced and “interactive.” Think permeable and pliable. If you let your horse dribble forward in a muddle of brain-dead, braced steps, you are not doing him any favors.
A “halt through the walk” should be at most a couple of steps. By First Level in an ideal world your transitions in and out of halt should be made without any walks steps. You may need to cheat a little, but don’t expect an eight or a nine if you do! It’s OK for a lower level horse to take a few steps to “develop” his Working Canter when coming back from a lengthening. Not so in a Training Level test where the instruction is “Between B and F (transition to) Working Trot” or “Between A and K Working Canter right lead.” Here the intention is to allow you to decide when you and your horse are most ready to execute the movement, but at that point it must be done promptly, concisely, and in balance—in other words, not running into it
The rulebook reminds us that transitions are “the best test of a horse’s suppleness.” It doesn’t mention trickling at all!
There is nothing like a good philosophical argument, especially one boiling with indignation and angst and carried on between parties with little in common who insist on talking past each other. A recent one I encountered on Facebook and proposed by Lesley Stevenson was this: Can lateral movements only be done “on the aids” or can they be used to help put horses on the aids?
There is a semantic component to this controversy (which we’ll get to later) but beyond that the answer depends on the knowledge level of the rider and her goals.
Yes, the movements will only produce their originally intended result if the horse is on the aids and through. For instance, the rule book states a major reason to ride shoulder in is to enhance the engagement and collection. If your horse is not on the aids, that simply will not happen!
HOWEVER, there are other reasons to do lateral work even if a horse is not completely on the aids or even round.
Experienced riders have many tools in their kit. And they have a very good awareness of how much their horse is listening and responding to each of their aids. That they can put any part of the horse anywhere they want and keep him connected is a given. When they can’t, they sense it immediately and rectify the situation.
A less experienced rider not only lacks this kind of control, but is often unaware of what she cannot do, being unable to hear what the horse is trying to tell her.
So where does such a rider gain those tools – the physical ones and the awarenesses? Fortunately (and not coincidentally) many of the mechanical coordinations that are required to produce recognizable lateral movements are the same coordinations that riders must learn to put their horse on the aids. Riding structured yielding exercises which involve the pushing and receiving/allowing/non-allowing aids – the “verbs” and the modifiers – gives your student a lab in which to figure out how to combine them plus immediate feedback from the horse
as they work. Roundness, displacement, and softening are empirical proof of being on the right track. Learning to do the movements can really give the rider the tools to solve much more complex problems.
Getting back to the semantic part of the argument, the rule book is quite specific about what the FEI and the USEF define as a “lateral movement.” In common parlance leg yielding and turns on the forehand are referred to as such because, well, they are movements which appear to be directed laterally. Not according to the FEI, however, which offers a very short list of lateral movements – shoulder-in, travers, renvers, and half pass. Regardless of how inclusive the category is, its members have two functions. They teach the rider how to operate the tools, and then use them to gymnasticize the horse.
The texts of past blogs which used to appear here have their own page. Access them with a simple click below