A Look at Dressage, Part One: What Is Dressage and Why Do It?
My original sport was show jumping, and I thought dressage training entailed riding ever decreasing circles in the sand. Why would anyone pursue such a boring activity?
But dressage has since become my passion, and now I don’t understand why anyone would not include it in their horse training.
Dressage is the art of creating harmony between horse and rider. Surely that’s the aim of every horseman and horsewoman?
So What Exactly Is Dressage?
Far from being a monotonous repetition of artificial movements, dressage develops a horse’s natural athletic talents. From the French ‘dresser’ – meaning ‘to train’ – it fulfills the animal’s potential as a riding horse. Over time he is transformed into a supple, strong and willing equine.
Ideally, his schooling follows a structured program based on ‘The German Training Scale,’ also called ‘The Training Scale’ or ‘The Training Pyramid.’ The six phases of the German Training Scale flow logically from one to the other, with no rigid timetable.
Some horses move easily from one phase to the next, while some take longer or get stuck at a particular stage. If the animal encounters difficulties the answer is always to go back to basics until he is comfortable again.
The German Training Scale
Here is a brief overview of the six steps in the training pyramid. Each has the German term followed by its usual English translation.
Takt – Rhythm
The horse is encouraged to move forward (not rush) under a balanced rider, so he can find his natural rhythm. His gaits become regular in length, with the correct footfall. The gaits of an English riding horse are the four beat walk, two beat trot and three beat canter.
Often a horse has two ‘good’ gaits while one is lacking. For example, the canter may not be ‘pure’ – perhaps it is four beat instead of three beat. This beginning phase helps achieve purity in all three gaits.
Losgelassenheit – Relaxation and Suppleness, or Looseness
Now in a calm state, the horse can concentrate on his rider without anxiety or distraction. Signs that he is relaxed are snorting softly through his nose and beginning to stretch his neck down in walk, trot and canter. Another indication he’s loosening up is that he uses his back: it ‘swings’ as he reaches for connection with the rider’s hands through the bit.
Anlehnung – Contact
The horse now accepts bit contact – i.e. he’s comfortable with the even, gentle pressure of the bit in his mouth. His whole body softens as his hind legs increase their pushing power.
The rider should always ride ‘back to front’ – i.e. by activating the animal’s hind legs and encouraging him to step willingly into the bit contact. The horse’s mouth should never be pulled with the reins to force contact.
Schwung – Impulsion
The forward thrust flowing from the animal’s hind end is contained in front by the rider’s steady yet sympathetic hands. This creates impulsion. The horse’s whole body now becomes supple and elastic as he moves towards the state of Durchlässigkeit, or ‘being through.’
Here is a helpful video of international dressage rider Lisa Wilcox demonstrating how to achieve Throughness. (She is not wearing a helmet, but please wear one when you ride!)
Geraderichtung – Straightness
Every horse is somewhat crooked. This is partly due to the fact that his hind end is wider than his front. His haunches tend to swing to one side, so in this fifth phase he learns to move in a straight line, by placing his hind legs directly in the traveling path of his forelegs.
The total weight is then distributed more evenly over the animal’s body, creating a balanced horse. His strides become increasingly powerful as all his energy is channeled forwards.
Another reason for straightness is to reduce uneven wear and tear on the horse’s limbs.
Versammlung – Collection
Only when the horse is straight and balanced is he ready to begin collected work.
His thrusting strides are now shortened without losing rhythm and regularity, and exhibit extra energy and activity. Over time his hind legs become stronger, taking more weight and thereby lightening his forehand. He is then able to perform the higher levels of movement.
These include piaffe (trotting in place with impulsion) and passage (trotting slowly forward with high, prolonged steps) and canter pirouettes (180° or 360° pivots on the hind legs in canter).
Such movements demand a high level of strength and training, and a horse should never be asked for collection before he is ready.
Why Do Dressage?
The process of creating a capable and willing equine partner is enormously satisfying. A horse well-schooled in dressageis both a joy to ride and enjoys being ridden.
Dressage competitions offer an opportunity to showcase the harmonious partnership between horse and rider, and demonstrate their athletic skills.
This type of training provides the ideal preparation for other riding disciplines, too.
Show jumping riders school their horses in dressage to develop the balance and strength the animals need to negotiate fences successfully. They become tuned in to their riders, and can easily obey requests to adjust their strides before a jump or make tight turns for the jump-off.
Dressage is a vital stage of one and three day events. An event rider, who jumps clean in the cross country and stadium phases but places low in the dressage, has no hope of winning. For good reason is it said that one day and three day events are won or lost in the dressage.
Western and Gaited Riding Disciplines
Western and gaited horse riders are also warming up to dressage. The USDF (United States Dressage Federation) competitions used to be tailored to English riding only, but the tests are now being adapted to suit these other equestrian styles.
This system of training is becoming increasingly popular as more people understand its value for every riding horse.
To the uninitiated, like my former self, dressage might appear to be senseless routine. But the exact opposite is true. It develops physically fit equine partners, willing and able to perform their best. Carried out correctly, dressage creates a win-win situation for both horse and rider.