Good horsemanship starts with a feeling for horses, and knowing your horse is invaluable. In dressage we seek to replicate the natural movement of the horse, but the horse in nature doesn’t repeat these movements while bearing a load. So what can we do to achieve our goals and keep our horses sound and happy?
In an ideal world, repetitions would be kept to a minimum. Sometimes professional riders are lambasted for working their horses at higher levels too soon. However, often the benefit of the rider’s experience means they know how to present the work to the horse in a way that is easy to understand, and so the horses have actually done fewer repetitions of the movements than they may do with a rider who is doing it for the first time.
Learning to train different horses to grand prix is a very different skill to riding one that is already trained, and it requires great patience. I don’t start my horses at small tour until they are eight as I like their seven-year-old year to be one of consolidation, but I have started several at grand prix aged nine. It doesn’t hold them back.
Good eyes on the ground are invaluable, and sometimes it is best to swallow your pride and let a more experienced rider show the horse a new exercise, particularly if you are trying to keep the repetitions down.
Make your training short, sweet and meaningful. Strengthening the horse’s core by riding on different surfaces, up and down hills, walking on roads and incorporating some polework is key to building an athlete that can cope with the demands of the sport.
Know your horse
“Feel” needs monitoring. We’ve had fun at home with a new app that tracks us riding in the arena, and shows the route we take and how long we’ve spent on each rein and so on.
We use sleep monitors on some of the older horses as, if they don’t lie down at night, it can be a sign of orthopaedic pain or stiffness. Or you can simply check your horse’s rugs to see if he’s been lying down.
Repetitive strain injuries are common in dressage horses, but often there are signs, such as leaning heavily on one rein, that can be picked up by the rider.
Of course, ideally you would start with a horse with good conformation. But know your horse’s strengths and weaknesses and use common sense: if your horse has an upside-down neck, then you will have to focus on keeping his back strong; if your horse has long pasterns, make sure your shoeing is tip-top so he doesn’t end up with collapsed heels, causing more pressure.
Many anecdotes can be brought up about top horses having long careers despite bad conformation, but top horses will have balanced riders. Rider fitness is our responsibility and crucial to being an easy load for the horse to carry.
Keep your horse off his forehand. It already has you, the saddle and much of his natural bodyweight over his front legs. I see too many young horses trotting round on their forehands whacking their front feet down, which is far more damaging than the horse being one centimetre behind the vertical at times.
Social media trolling has made some riders terrified of picking up their reins. Learn to ride in balance and save those suspensory ligaments!
For all the latest equestrian news and reports, don’t miss Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday