When I begin dressage training with a new dressage horse and dressage rider, I always want to know about their strengths and weaknesses, so I ask. I’ve learned over time that the dressage rider rarely tells me about the crux of the problem. A dressage rider usually talks about a symptom of the problem. In trying to fix that symptom, the dressage rider sometimes trades one problem for another. It’s easy to ride for an hour fixing the symptom when patches and band-aids cover the real issue. Then, the dressage horse is somewhat training the rider!
The manner in which a dressage rider thinks about her problems influences how she goes about solving them. When you address the underlying problem, you ride differently from when you are riding the symptom. Even if you’re not riding perfectly, you automatically start to solve your problem. It’s all about your thinking process. Let’s look at a few situations in which the rider can fix the problem instead of the symptom.
Problem 1: A Running Horse that is Heavy in the Hand
Riding the symptom: The heavy, running horse is usually uncomfortable for the rider, so it would be easy to become fixated on the symptom and ride for an hour trying to stop the horse and make him light. In getting him off the rein, the rider can actually create another problem, because self-carriage doesn’t come by getting your horse off the bit. He needs to be on the bit but in a positive way, drawing rather than pulling on it. The horse’s heaviness—and the running—are both just symptoms of an underlying issue.
The underlying issue: The heavy, running horse is not accepting the rider’s aids in a positive manner. He’s running away from his hind legs because he doesn’t want to carry weight with them. Now, we don’t usually think of the running horse as being lazy, but he is. He’s behind the leg, and when I imagine him as being lazy, it helps me psychologically. I’m more inclined to use those tools that involve the use of my leg. My horse will get lighter in front when he’s in front of my leg and accepting my half halts.
Let’s look at the leg aids first. It’s difficult to use the leg when your horse is running, but you have to be able to activate the hind legs in a way that doesn’t dump the horse into your hand. When you fixate on your horse’s reaction to your leg, he will automatically start to improve, even if your aids aren’t perfect.
Do things that require the use of your leg, such as turn on the forehand, leg yield, shoulder-fore and lots of bending and turning lines. Sideways exercises require diagonal aids that give you leverage between the inside leg and outside rein. Your leg persistently asks your horse to draw positively on the bit. Your inside leg says, step under your center of gravity. Your outside rein says, wait for me. We can go more forward when you step positively to the bit—drawing on the rein, not pulling. You want to feel that you can drive and ride from back to front, even while slowing down.
Now let’s look at the half halt aids: If you only stop the horse in front, he will stop behind too. Just as you want your horse to respond to your leg aids in a positive way, the same is true of your half halts. When you sit against the rein for a half halt and the horse’s hind leg is engaged, he will transfer weight to the hindquarters. Your half halts, in this situation, close his frame from behind. Remember to release after the half halt so your horse has an opportunity to balance on your seat, and your hand is available for him to draw on but not lean on.
The importance of the rider’s position: The rider’s position should shape the horse, not the other way around. When the horse is running and trying to balance on the rider’s hand, it is common for the rider to fall behind the vertical and let her legs go forward. To prevent this, the rider needs to keep a strong core, with her legs underneath and her upper body tall so the stomach muscles engage. The rider’s leg, in this case, is not exactly a driving leg but a supportive one that makes the seat less at the whim of the horse and more belonging to the rider. In this situation, the horse will balance on the rider’s seat rather than on her hands. (See “Exercises for Problem 1,” right.)