The experienced dressage rider expects a certain reaction from his horse in response to light aids. Because of this mental clarity and high standards, the horse understands what he wants.
If the rider sets his standards high enough and gives the horse a light aid that the horse understands, that is the sport ideal. When the rider uses confusing aids without a high standard of expectations, the horse can't clearly know what the rider wants.
The rider's aids are his leg, seat and reins. I will discuss each aid and how I work to the ideal.
The Leg Aid
Your horse must understand that your leg is the gas pedal and that he goes forward on his own from your light leg aid. When riders are too strong with their leg aids or use the spur too often, the horse becomes duller and duller. Then we say he is going "behind the rider's leg."
Before your horse can physically react to your leg aid, he must clearly understand that you expect him to give you a prompt reaction to the leg aids. I achieve this mental understanding by using what I call reminding aids.
- Test your horse's natural desire to go forward often by being momentarily passive. If your horse becomes lazy, he has proven to you he is not naturally forward.
- To correct this problem, ride with strength for a moment to make sure your horse understands he made a mistake in stopping or slowing his forward motion.
- The next time you ease up with your leg aids, see if your horse maintains the forward motion. If he does not, repeat the correction until he understands that he must maintain his forwardness.
The Seat Aid
If your leg aids work well, you can use my seat as a collecting aid. When you half halt by tightening your stomach, lower back and thigh muscles, you should feel your horse come back clearly.
Develop your half halt by doing trot-halt transitions. If the trot-halt transition is working, then the half halt will be more effective.
The Rein Aids
When you push with your leg aids, your horse needs to go gently into the hand, arch up in his back, yield in his poll and gently give. You then need to soften your hands forward. In doing this, your horse learns to go forward to the rein, knowing you will yield as soon as he does. He then is traveling in self-carriage.
You can develop this with trot-halt transitions. After that work, test your horse by becoming passive with your rein aids to check on the self-carriage. For example, half halt to help your horse carry himself, then soften your rein aids. Does he continue to carry himself without losing his positioning or carriage? If not, reapply the reminding leg and rein aids and try again.
The Circle Exercise
By using correct reminding aids, riding a circle is uncomplicated. Establish bend by using a light inner leg and inner rein for five or six strides. When you feel the bend is well established, soften your inner rein. Your horse should stay positioned to the inside. If he does not, give reminding bending aids a little more firmly, then release again.
The Figure-Eight Exercise
If your horse is stiff, you can use the figure-eight exercise to help supple him and to help him become even in both hands. If your horse is a little stiff to the left and doesn't want to take equal contact on the right rein, for example, as you come to the open side of the left circle, leg yield him off your left leg. Once your horse moves clearly from your left leg and searches for more contact on the right rein, you are on your way to helping him become equal in both reins. Complete the figure eight and repeat the leg yield in the same place. (You want to change direction because changing the bend will ensure that he is supple in both directions.)
It's easy to forget the high standard of expectation when you don't get an immediate result, so remind your horse as often as necessary that he needs to carry himself willingly forward and equally to the right and left. The result will bring you closer to the sport ideal.
Steffen Peters and Ravel won the 2009 FEI World Cup Dressage Finals.
This article first appeared in the March 2002 issue of Dressage Today magazine.