When I rode as a child, I was taught that the more a rider squeezes with her legs, the faster a horse will go. Those were my hunting and jumping days and, whilst this rather crude advice may have stood me in good stead then, it certainly did nothing for my dressage. In fact, my experience with a classically trained horse in Portugal showed just how misleading "squeezing" can be to the horse.
Sadly, however, after years of teaching, I am dismayed to see many people, even at quite high levels, still riding with constant leg or rein pressure. To produce the different paces and movements they think they need to use a lot of leg, and the aid becomes stronger and stronger. After a while, that doesn't work anymore and the rider gets spurs. When they don't work well, then it's sharper spurs, so it's a never-ending problem.
What they don't seem to realize is that pressure oftentimes creates the opposite effect on the horse: He becomes slower, more phlegmatic and heavy in his overall appearance. This is especially true with horses that are more lethargic by nature, such as many warmbloods. So, I've learned that the way to create sensitivity in a horse that isn't very responsive is to do less, not more. When a horse doesn't go forward or sideways when you ask him, resist the idea of adding more pressure. Instead, indicate to the horse with a very small amount of leg pressure that you want forwardness. The moment he goes forward, take the pressure off instead of adding more. Reward the horse every time you get a response--lighten your aids, even if it's just a little. Eventually, he will understand that it's quite pleasant to go forward.
Here's how I made a cathartic discovery on this subject. For a long time, I got what I thought was a good shoulder-in. I could school horses to do half pass and all the movements up to Grand Prix until I discovered that, if I was applying too much pressure on the opposite side, I would not get such a good result. Logically, if you want to create the sideways step but the horse is also feeling pressure on the opposite side, he is not going to give you nearly such a good sideways step if the other side is rigid. So I discovered that the more you can teach the rider to be aware of when to let go, the better the result.
The feeling is a bit like throwing a ball with your right hand and catching it with your left. Imagine your horse is on the left rein. I try to get the rider to apply a quick left leg (throwing the ball). Then there's going to be a moment when you don't want any pressure at all (the ball passes through the air). Then, you stop the horse from falling out of balance by giving him time to step across and then catch him with your right leg (you catch the ball). It's like a three-stage action.
In every stride the horse takes, whether it's forward or sideways, there's got to be that moment at which you let go. The freedom in that moment allows the horse to perform, and you can get infinitely better results. The same principle applies to the hands. The feel with the fingers is the preparation. You want your horse to find your hand. It's just a little bit of feel, a vibration or wiggling in the rein. The moment the horse acknowledges that vibration by dropping his chin and bending through the poll, I immediately give with my fingers. Instead of closing the fingers slightly, I gently open them. Imagine you're closing your fingers around a sponge. Having squeezed the water out, you let your fingers open slightly.
Sylvia Loch studied equitation in Portugal, where she met her late husband, Lord Henry Loch in the 1970s. Together they created The Lusitano Stud and Equitation Center, which moved to the United Kingdom in 1979 and is home to about 24 schoolmasters. Loch is the author of six best-selling books on dressage, including The Classical Rider and Dressage: The Art of Classical Riding. Loch is currently at work on a series of interactive training DVDs called Sensitive Schooling. They cover training from how to supple and engage the novice horse to piaffe and passage. Her websites are classical-dressage.net and classicalriding.co.uk.