Seven Easy Dressage Exercises for Newcomer
When beginning dressage, the aim is to let your horse find his natural rhythm and release any tension. But relaxation in the rider is also important. These 7 simple exercises dressage exercises will help both you and your horse unwind and develop mutual trust.
Get Into the Rhythm: 4 Walk Exercises
1. Positioning Yourself for Success
Developing a correct dressage seat is the key to effective riding.
a) Sit tall in the middle of the saddle without hollowing your back, and place weight evenly on both seat bones.
b) Let your legs hang at a comfortable length. If you stretch them down too far, you’ll be ‘fishing’ for the stirrups.
c) Position your legs in such a way that if someone suddenly removed the horse from under you, you’d land on your feet. This will put you in perfect balance.
a) Each rein fits through the ring and little fingers of the hand, threads across your palm and out between your thumb and forefinger. Hold your hands in a gentle fist with your thumbs up, a little in front of you. Place them just under two hands’ width apart.
b) Relax your arms at your sides, with elbows bent.
2. Moving Off
Every riding session should begin with at least 10 minutes in the walk.
a) With a light rein contact (feel of the horse’s mouth) move your seat as if you were polishing the saddle from back to front. This is your driving seat: it asks the horse to move forwards.
You may also have to apply some leg pressure until the horse understands that he is to move off your driving seat only.
Your seat is the principal aid (communication with the horse) for controlling the horse’s rhythm, his speed, the length of his stride and transitions (changes in gait).
b) Next, adopt a passive seat, which simply follows the horse’s motion and lets him continue forwards in the regular four beat walk tempo.
c) Walk on a 20 meter circle on the left rein a few times. Relax in the saddle and allow your horse to move freely without rushing.
3. Changing Through the Circle
It’s now time to switch direction
a) Squeeze the fingers on your outside rein, for a brief moment of increased contact with the horse’s mouth. If you’re traveling to the left, your right rein is your outside rein.
This squeezing is called a ‘half-halt’ and tells your horse to be ready for something new.
(Another function of the half-halt is to regulate his tempo when combined with the stilled seat as in Exercise 4 a) below.)
b) Now ride an S shape through the circle to walk in the other direction – called ‘changing through the circle.’
Keep the horse moving at the same tempo in the new direction.
4. Walk-Halt-Walk Transitions
Transitioning between walk and halt improves communication between you and your horse.
a) Transition from walk to halt.
To halt your horse, apply the preparatory half-halt, and use a stilled seat: grow taller in the saddle, lengthen your legs and stop moving your hips with the horse’s movement until he stops.
b) Alternate between halt and walk.
Use your driving seat to move off in walk, your passive seat to continue walking in rhythm, and your stilled seat for halt. Remember to prepare your horse each time with gentle half-halts.
c) Practice walk to halt and back to walk until your horse responds immediately to your seat aid.
Stay relaxed and keep your back supple.
d) To further test your aids, slow down his walk with a stilled seat, but before he halts activate your driving seat to increase the tempo of his walk and lengthen his stride again.
Feel how using your seat aid regulates the tempo and rhythm of his footfalls.
Tension-Free Transitions: Three Trot Exercises
You and your horse will now be relaxed and supple after your walk work, and ready for trot.
1. Trot on a 20 Meter Circle
a) Shorten your reins couple of inches, apply the half-halt, and use your driving seat to transition into posting trot from the walk.
Again, you may need to back up that initial request with some leg pressure.
b) Trot on a 20 meter circle to the left.
It’s easier to control the horse’s speed when on a circle than on straight lines.
c) When posting to the trot, your passive and driving seats won’t come into play. (They are effective at the sitting trot, which comes later in your training.)
Instead, use the rhythm of your posting to create an even one-two-one-two rhythm in the trot. Counting out loud really helps achieve a steady tempo.
If it’s too slow, rise a little faster. If the horse is rushing, deliberately slow down your posting. Your horse will respond to your rhythm.
2. Changing Rein
Once you’ve established your horse’s trot rhythm on the left rein (i.e. riding to the left) it’s time to ‘change rein across the diagonal’ and ride in the other direction.
The usual way is to change rein across the ‘long diagonal.’
a) Draw an imaginary line across the arena rectangle to divide it into two equal triangles.
“Changing across the diagonal” involves riding along that imaginary line to switch the direction of travel. This is the long diagonal.
As you trot across this line, remember to change your posting diagonal by sitting for one stride halfway along it. This mid-point is known in dressage as ‘X.’
You’ll now be on the correct diagonal (rising out of the saddle when the horse’s new outside foreleg moves forwards) as you reach the other side of the arena.
b) Trot a 20 meter circle in your new direction.
Concentrate on moving forwards in a solid one-two-one-two rhythm, so that you and your horse can continue to loosen up and relax.
c) Change rein frequently across the diagonal. This prevents you both from getting too comfortable on one rein and neglecting the other.
3. Transitions from Trot to Walk
Transitioning from trot to walk tests how well your horse is listening to you.
a) While on your 20 meter circle, apply your half-halt and slow down your posting. As your horse reduces speed, sit in the saddle instead of rising and apply your stilled seat.
Your horse will transition down from trot to walk.
b) Walk for half a circle then ask him to trot again.
c) Alternate between walk and trot on both reins.
d) Change rein across the diagonal in walk sometimes and ask for trot on the circle in your new direction.
Mix things up, as this will keep your horse listening and always ready to obey new commands.
Work on the smoothness of your transitions between gaits and into halt, and end each riding session with 10 minutes in walk. This lets your horse get his breath back and allows his muscles to wind down.
These exercises will help you stay stress-free, while creating the harmonious relationship with your horse which is the foundation of all dressage.