For almost two decades now, I have been exposed to various styles of dressage training: The French system, the Spanish system, the German system. Currently, I am studying historical techniques of each of the schools for a better understanding of the evolution of dressage into today’s competitive sport in America. What is that they say about studying history? The past causes the present and so the future. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when we look back on classical dressage training. We know what works (slow, steady progression within a system of sound training ideals) and what doesn’t work (the modern twist on dressage displaying instant gratification and quick fixes). To really become successful in riding up the levels we need to study the written classical texts and devote our time to understanding and interpreting them. Working under the eye of a skilled coach who knows the progression in depth is also paramount to developing riding skills. This seems to be the theme of my revelations this year when I started working under a coach who thoroughly understands and implements the classical German system. I am in awe of how well she adheres to the strict classical principles. I am equally in awe of the lack of comparable dressage trainers. Why am I just now finding a qualified coach, after over twenty years of riding dressage?
In my experience as a rider in America, the majority of dressage trainers have no understanding of a complete, whole system, and rely on “quick fixes” or unsustainable remedies. Their education is incomplete. They are using what skills they have picked up from a few rides at a local clinic, a video clip they had seen once, or by the latest fad in the competition arena. The training is often rushed in the beginning, leading to consistent problems down the road. Without a proper foundation, none of the advanced work is correct even if the horse is appearing to perform the upper level movements. I cannot begin to write about how many upper level trainers have taught me with their “quick fix” remedies. None of their fixes flowed into a steady, natural progression of a complete training system. It was more of like, hey let’s see what problems arise and we will treat them as they come up. For example, if, on a particular day, the horse didn’t “have his head down”, the draw reins went on. Horses learned to be ridden in a double bridle very early in their training (training level) if the trainer found the horse difficult to half halt and wanted the extra effect of the curb bit. Now more than ever, I have a better understanding of just how detrimental rushing through the training or improper use of artificial aids such as draw reins, curb bits, and double bridles are to the horse’s long term physical and mental well-being and the beauty of the dressage art itself.
Training a horse takes a basic understanding of fitness. The horse is comprised of complex muscle groups, fascia, skeleton, skin, and emotion. The fact that a horse may or may not be in correct posture at a particular moment in time usually has almost everything to do with fitness and the lack of correct muscling to do the job. (Correct muscling is not going to be built with draw reins OR the early use of the curb bit by the way.) The importance of fitness became very obvious to me when I ended up in a stable with my green horses. They weren’t fit yet and I had come to a trainer that I had hoped would give me guidance up the levels. A green horse doesn’t have the correct muscling right away to do their job and as a result, they become fatigued quickly. They will frequently lose their balance, fall on the forehand, come behind the bit, and then above the bit as they as trying to learn how to carry our weight, travel the way we are asking, all the while they are getting more and more fatigued. They will have short bouts of successful posture, but the majority of the first months will not be aesthetically pleasing as he gets used to using his body differently and building his fitness. Just think how much fun it is for us when we try to get back into shape? We get winded, have to take rests, lose our balance, and become fatigued just as the horse does. The problem is a lack of understanding that the horse needs the same compassion and consideration that we give ourselves when we are trying to get fit. When it hurts too much, we can stop and take a break. We build our muscles up slowly because we are in control of how long we work out each time. Often, I witnessed many trainers start right in at hour long sessions with a young horse.
Instead, so much emphasis was placed on making the horse appear to be trained to a higher level without actually training or conditioning the horse! For example, trainers would ride the horses in draw reins in an effort to give the appearance of a round frame, meanwhile chasing them forward to bigger gaits. It “looked” right to them. The horse was “round” and had big, flashy movement to the untrained eye. They were probably imitating what they had heard or seen other trainers doing. And riding in draw reins seems somewhat logical if you don’t have the education to inform you otherwise. The long term effects of riding a horse in draw reins, over flexed in the poll, running onto the forehand will ruin his future dressage training forever. This post isn’t meant to criticize anyone but simply to point out the obvious education holes that we have here in the United States when it comes to training horses and hopefully instill some inspiration and hope into any amateurs seeking a complete dressage education, keep looking, it is out there! But no, you’re not crazy if you’re thinking you haven’t found it yet. Keep educating yourself. If I had decided to quit at any point on my journey and settle for whatever trainer was conveniently located to me at the time, I would not have sought out correct methods and I would not be sitting here writing this post today. I would be going along with the majority and my horses would be unsound and unhappy (other sights I have witnessed through the years).
Before all of my exposure to different methods, schools of thought, theories etc. I never would have thought I would be writing about this. I never imagined I would have to. But this has been a big part of the journey, the years I spent seeking correct and time-tested dressage principles. For so long, I felt like I was learning by trial and error until I found a complete training system that is working for me. As I continue forward through my journey (starting not only as an amateur, but also as a horse crazy 10 year old kid), I know I will undercover more truths, more epiphanies. I am sharing my journey to give hope to everyone that you can start from nothing and face the complicated, confusing, overload of information of all that is dressage. There will be many turns, reverses, and hurdles along the way, but that’s the romance of it all.