Pressing Onward

gustafson_-_jack_and_the_beanstalk-726768A 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.


(posted 5-5-21)

Given the frivolous nature of the whole endeavor, it would be hard to claim legitimate, meaningful frustrations in my line of work. Nonetheless, all instructors are bedeviled with knowing what they want from their riders and having difficulties extracting it from them.

Among less advanced students (who often fear making a mistake), a common issue is getting them to do enough. “I DID make a half halt but nothing happened!”  Which, as I have pointed out to them, means you really haven’t made one!

If your horse doesn’t react, it doesn’t count. You have to try again. You have to amplify. Sometimes you have to try a different approach. “I’m squeezing him as hard as I can,” or “I’m asking so strongly that my shoulders are burning,” should be a clue that you’re asking the wrong way.

Making their horse be attentive enough or active enough is a big issue for some riders. In a less humane time I recall several trainers who were rumored to keep a BB gun leaning in the corner of their indoor arena. That could buy them a ticket to the hoosegow

Sleepy Ferret

nowadays. My solution is this: a trip to the “Previously Owned” department of Ferrets R Us where I acquired Nils.

You can see that at first he wasn’t very friendly, but clicker training works wonders, and now he rides on my hip during lessons in his custom made leather holster. He never touches the horses, but if I’m working with a particularly unmotivated one whose rider can’t find the GO button, I place him on the ground with his tiny red nylon lunge whip. He knows to follow at their heels to instill energy and enthusiasm to the ride.

If you’re having similar problems, Nils is available for short term rental. His water bowl and a small bag of ferret chow are included.

                                   In the Stratosphere

 (posted 4-25-21)

Eventing Nation just posted a video of the highest scoring dressage test at a British horse trials. “Highest” like ever!  A -5.5. The ride performed by Carrie Skelton was in the equivalent of an American Training Level test.

The question at hand is was such a fantastic score deserved or a case of the judge forgetting to remove his rose colored glasses? Look for yourself. We have both the score sheet available and the video of the actual ride.

Without a doubt it is a very nice ride. But are a slew of nine point fives and tens appropriate? I think at the very upper levels of pure Dressage the movements are complicated enough that it’s easier to parse subtle differences at the upper end of the scoring spectrum. It’s easier to recognize a 10 for a line of 15 one tempis than it is to accurately decide among 8.5, nine, 9.5, and 10 for a single flying change. The same goes for double pirouettes, zigzag half pass in the canter, piaffe, and passage.

Regarding this test the most telling comment comes from the rider herself who said first she thought the posted score was a misprint and was probably a 25.5. That would have been a bit stingy but not totally unrealistic. While judging several of our top American riders on their very exotic young horses I have seen comparable tests and not felt compelled to use the very highest numbers.

As an example just look at the last halt. Certainly it was Good — straight, square and all that, But for me a 10 halt is the horse is trotting and boom, it’s standing there like a statue. Just the fact that this horse stopped and then had to adjust his left front leg into place makes it not a 10 for me. Along those lines I have judged better movers than this one. If we give the highest scores here, what is left to award those horses?

What do you think?

                                              Weighty matters

(posted 4-21-21)

When people speak of weight aids, they are referring to something that your seat does, but don’t think of your “seat” as just those two little protuberances on the bottom of your pelvis. I prefer to think of my seat as beginning somewhere in the back of my neck (my withers) and going nearly to my knees.

For the most part the use of your weight (your seat) is not placing dead weight somewhere. Rather it’s a dynamic displacement which goes rhythmically with (or occasionally intentionally counter to) the motion of your horse.

When first learning to ride, your job is to sit in a non-interfering way which goes entirely with the horse’s movement. At some point, however, as your own coordination and your horse’s training develops, he will learn to adjust to changes you make in your motion and begin to follow you. The combination of abs, lower back, and thighs (supported by your driving legs when necessary) will regulate the tempo and direction your body language dictates. It may even momentarily interrupt it.

One thing to remember is that responding to your weight is a learned response. Through second order conditioning (using your leg and weight together) your horse will learn what your weight aid means. Consequently, if you don’t get the response you want, go back to the primary aid, reinforce it, and try the combination again. A classic example is a rider who wants her horse to go forward. In the best world pulling your pelvis forward with your abdominal muscles should elicit that response. If it doesn’t, the last thing you want to do is that rapid series of back to front grinding you see beginners do with their hips. It’s about as effective as waving the reins around and shouting giddyup!

Here is a more subtle example with a similar message. Imagine you are leg yielding. Often a horse will respond if you take your hips in the direction you wish to go. But if he doesn’t come along, it does no good to further exaggerate that weight shift. Then you have to “reload,” put your weight back to the opposite side and a little behind him, and send him sideways with your leg. As he responds you can shift your weight back in the original direction and go along with him, even slightly leading him.

On the topic of weight, it’s also good to remember that at times a quiet seat or a lighter than normal seat (where you take a little weight off your seat bones and support yourself more on your thighs) is a useful option. Less really is more at times, and if your horse is carrying himself forward, there’s no reason to be pushing him.


The texts of past blogs which used to appear here have their own page. Access them with a simple click below