The greatest fun of dressage riding is that, although I’ve been lucky enough to train horses to senior team level at grand prix, I never stop learning.
In my thirst for knowledge I took to social media over Christmas. I was looking for videos as I tend to switch off at diagrams and theoretical chats, and was unprepared for the obsession above all else with horses being trained and ridden sometimes just a centimetre behind the vertical.
I realise I won’t be able to go to Tesco in my Pikeurs now for risk of ambush by angry “classical” ambassadors for what I’m about to say, but as they’re unlikely to use restraining devices or force (apart from the torque on their keyboards) I’ll take my chances.
I was surprised not to find discussions about how detrimental it is for horses to be ridden with the head up and with hollow, stiff backs, and I was most confused about the use of the term “breaking at the third vertebra” to describe horses that are over-bent, as the horse’s neck vertebrae do not run along the top line of the crest, as some seem to think.
When the horse is “on the bit” he’s telling the rider that he’s happy and relaxed. There’s no sense in winching his head down if it’s up, but nothing to be gained from leaving it up, either.
Over-bending can be a training issue, but the horse shouldn’t go around like a llama chewing a wasp. We should listen to the horse and if he’s telling you he’s protecting his back, it’s not kind to leave his head up waiting for some magic osmosis to handle it.
We need to revisit the training scales until the solution is found, not the symptom addressed. We need to look to our balance, fitness and suppleness. There’s no need to split the atom on head positions; look at the whole horse, his back and his ambience. That’s what the good judges do as “horse people” and it’s why 10 means excellence in motion… not perfection.
Scales of training
Rhythm: an active one!
Suppleness: the horse should bend. Riders shouldn’t fear to touch the inside rein to guide. Bend is all through the body, which includes the neck and flexion at the poll. I’ve yet to see someone flex a horse at the poll just by using their legs and seat. Horses can turn round in 10ft stables; they’re not made of wood.
Contact: enough to guide and influence, not more. Not chucking the reins up his neck and waiting for rigor mortis to set in.
Impulsion: this is riding forward in balance. It’s not flat out, it’s born of response to the aids.
Straightness: this means the back end following the tracks of the front end, unless directed otherwise in lateral work. It’s not chugging around like he swallowed a pole!
Collection: power in balance. Not to be confused with dribbling round with baggy reins and the hindlegs in the last century.
My advice is to free your mind and your arse will follow. Riding isn’t complicated; its beauty is in its simplicity. It’s just not easy to do the simple things well and make it beautiful.
Ref Horse & Hound; 12 January 2017