The best Grand Prix dressage horses make the work look effortless. They can coil and release their energy from the lightest touch, make seamless transitions from neat, crisp collection to breathtaking extension. That kind of power often comes at a price—many top upper-level dressage horses are hot horses, sensitive rides.
And that’s not just the case at Grand Prix. Many dressage horses, from green to the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) levels, have a more high-energy nature that can, at times, be a challenge to channel for dressage riders. Pushing the limits of control with a hot horse can result in big scores in your dressage tests, but it can also be a big risk. Here are a few tips and dressage training exercises that can help you manage this type of hot horse.
Turn up the Heat
“Hot” can mean different things to different dressage riders. Some hot horses carry tension and energy, but they do it consistently, unlike a spooky horse who can be sensible one moment and explosive the next. Some hot horses internalize their energy and shut down, getting balky or behind the leg; others take over, overpowering their riders or themselves and getting fast. Identifying what type of “hot” your horse is dictates how you, as a dressage rider, manage it.
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the hotties and have had lots of them. My first successful FEI horse was a Trakehner gelding named Bellinger, who could be spectacular, assuming you could keep him in the ring. Billy wasn’t spooky by nature. Certainly, there were things he’d give the hairy eyeball to, but he always had a little too much go and it manifested itself in great tension in his back.
For Billy, I had two forces to deal with: the physical tension he carried through his back and neck and the mental tension that showed up in all three gaits, but especially the walk. Suppling work taught him to let go in his body. I dealt with his mental nerve by always keeping my leg on, not only so he’d stay in front of it, but because he liked the pressure and knowing I was there. Billy also did best schooling with a low neck. If I could put his neck down, it freed his back and kept him from bracing.
Ellegria, my current Grand Prix horse, is different. She has the same mental tension as Billy, maybe even more, but in a claustrophobic kind of way. Ella gets tight and builds, but if I keep my aids too close, she panics and backs off. She also needs to keep her neck up—a low neck makes her feel closed in. She needs to feel my aids, of course, but for her, a light touch and a more open, free neck have been the solution to keeping her confident and relaxed in the ring.
My Dutch Harness Horse, Victorious, is different still. Midgey hates the leg– it’s like he’s ticklish—and he’s a little explosive. Plus, his breed type makes riding his body a challenge since his conformation is bred for pulling with the neck up and the back down, instead of the more traditional thrusting-from-the-hindlegs dressage-type.
Riding Midgey when he was young required a bit of courage. At the beginning of every ride, I had to take a big deep breath and put my leg on, come hell or high water, and leave it there until he relaxed into it, all without getting run away with.
Forward, Not Fast
The one thing all horses, hot or not, have in common is that they must stay in front of the rider’s leg. Implusion is different from speed, though, and as some hot horses prefer “go” to “whoa,” it’s easy to forget that the horse still needs to feel the leg aid and move forward from it.
When dealing with a hot horse who’s behind the leg, first you have to ask yourself: Is he behind the aids because he doesn’t respond to the aids or because he has a bad response to the aids like getting quicker instead of bigger? Or is he behind the aids because I can’t apply the aids without getting an explosion? If your horse is ticklish like Midgey, the first step is teaching him to accept that your leg is going to be there no matter what.
Exercise One—Spiral in on the circle: Moving in and out on the circle can help teach your horse to accept the leg. You can perform this movement in trot or canter and will find you prefer one over the other, depending on how your horse responds.
- On a 20-meter circle, pick up the canter or trot.
- With your outside leg, move the circle in to 18 meters. Then, with your inside leg, press it back out to 20.
- If the horse gets tight or runs, use the circle lines to control the speed; perhaps you have to bring the circle in to 15 meters or even 12.
The young or unbalanced horse might struggle with those tighter lines and fall out of the canter. If he does, don’t be in a rush to get him back to the canter. Take time. And it’s always best to fix a tight, on-the-forehand, running canter by going back to the trot and starting over. It’s easier to pick up a good canter than to fix a bad one.
Exercise Two—Leg yield on the diagonal: Once you can put your leg on, it’s time to make sure your horse is in front of it.
- Start a leg yield or half pass on the diagonal from the corner. Begin in normal working trot.
- Slowly build it to finish the line in medium trot.
- Keep the rhythm and tempo as your first priorities. Your horse is not to get quicker, merely bigger in his movement.
Using the sideways movement helps regulate that tempo. Georg Theodorescu once told me, “A horse can’t run away when he’s crossing his legs!”
The hot horse is often a tight horse, and freeing his back is crucial for both his physical and mental relaxation. “Sideways” is your friend here, too.
Exercise Three—head-to-the-wall leg yield: One of my absolute favorite exercises is the head-to-the-wall leg yield.
- Trotting down the long side, turn your horse’s head to the rail as you leg yield him alongside it—haunches to the inside, shoulders on the rail. It should look like a haunches-in with no bend, on at least three tracks if not four, and there should be the tiniest suggestion of outside flexion.
- Ride your horse straight before the corner. If you’re schooling in an indoor, be careful of your arena walls—you don’t want him to hit his head.
The rail does your “whoa” for you. Your horse shouldn’t want to exit the arena, so as you apply more driving leg, he should take bigger steps sideways. And crossing the hind legs loosens and lifts the low back.
Exercise Four—leg yield on a circle: If your horse is uncomfortable doing this exercise on the rail, you can leg yield around a circle line, too.
- Imagine he is a carousel horse with a pole through his belly button.
- Put that pole on the circle line, and, keeping his body quite straight, ride his shoulders to the inside of the line, haunches to
- the outside.
- Make sure the circle stays 20 meters and that he doesn’t cut in to decrease the angle of leg yield you’re asking for.
In both of these exercises, tempo is crucial. Just like in the leg-yield crescendo, you want your horse to build his length of stride, not get quick or hurried. Take your time.
The Brain Game
Keeping your hot horse mentally cool is as big a challenge as working with his body, if not more so. You can’t tell your horse, “Hey, you dummy, relax!” But you can find what he likes and what sets him off and manage him accordingly, both at home and away from the farm.
Some horses go stir crazy from a lack of exercise. Turnout is a blessing for so many reasons, but if it’s not an option for your horse, maybe he needs to be worked twice a day, one normal workout session, followed by a hack or some light work in the afternoon. Billy always liked being longed in Vienna reins. When he was in peak competition fitness, he’d work in those a few afternoons a week, but not for long.
Silly as it may seem, some horses like having a toy. Midgey has a Jolly Ball that I hang from the barn ceiling on an old lead rope. When he’s happy and relaxed, he cuddles with it; when he’s stressed out, he bites it or throws it around. Having an outlet helps reduce his stress.
Knowing your horse away from home helps keep horse shows from becoming a stressful event. I always do my best to get all my horses into the competition rings before the show starts because even the most reasonable and experienced show horse can find something scary. With my tight horses, I make the rounds to the show rings the last thing I do in schooling. I work them first so they’re already relaxed and supple by the time I get to the competition arena. I want them to associate that dressage ring with calm, relaxed confidence.
At shows, I often see people hand-walking their horses. I’ve never found this helpful. I have more control from the saddle, and my horse needs to be relaxed under saddle, not merely in-hand. I haven’t found a positive correlation between the two. Billy, as an example, was the king of the CDI vet jog. He happily floated along, quiet and docile as can be, then would proceed to be an absolute lunatic under saddle. The two were totally different things.
Cool and Confident Together
Ultimately, horses are herd animals and read the emotional status of their herdmates to know when there’s danger lurking ahead. When you set foot in the irons, you become a part of your horse’s herd. When you tense, he expects trouble. When you keep cool, he takes confidence from you.
It’s easy to let your own emotions get in the way when working with a hot horse. Just relax already, you want to shout at him. Keep your frustrations in check and be relaxed for him. He’ll follow your lead. And when the going gets tough, when it’s hot and humid, or on the final day of a long dressage show, you know that your horse will still be hot to trot.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Dressage Today.