When starting a young dressage horse under saddle, you can never be sure how he’ll turn out in the end. You may have great hopes for an exceptionally talented 3- or 4-year-old, only to discover that he lacks the character and willingness necessary to reach the upper levels. At the other extreme, a youngster who doesn’t look like a potential champion may surprise you by blossoming into a superstar. The range of possible combinations of personalities and talents is as diverse among horses as it is among humans. There are very talented people who are lazy and have no drive to succeed. And there are extremely hard-working people with limited talent. Some people have both talent and drive; some have neither. Horses are just the same.
Whatever combination of qualities you think your young horse possesses, it’s essential to give him time to grow into his body and absorb the lessons that you’re trying to teach him. Although some horses truly lack both talent and the will to work—in which case it would be in both their and your best interest to find a different job that suits them better—oftentimes a horse who seems stubborn and unwilling to work is simply going through a challenging phase in his development that makes the work physically harder for him. Or he might be having trouble understanding what you want him to do with his body. While it may be tempting to give up on a horse like this, I have learned the value of offering every horse a chance, no matter what impression I have of his qualities in the beginning of his career.
My Not-So-Secret Secrets to Success
In this article, I’ll share two examples of horses who achieved far more success than many people initially expected of them. In both cases, I relied on the same basic training rules I follow with all of my horses and students. First, always use clear, consistent aids. This minimizes the confusion your horse might experience while trying to figure out exactly what you want him to do. Second, be very careful to control your body language and emotions. Everything you do in the saddle should be entirely free of any expression of negative emotions. Never allow yourself to show anger or frustration. On the other hand, when your horse does something well, always honor that by expressing your pleasure effusively. This will help him understand the difference.
Teach your horse new concepts step by step, so he never feels like you’re asking him to do something hard. Introduce different elements of a new skill separately. Then, when he’s doing them all well, put them together like a puzzle. (See “Piece Together the Puzzle,” on page 39.)
Keep your schooling sessions easy—and think easy. Many riders think too much, making dressage more complicated in their minds than it needs to be. I always tell my students, “Feel! Feel what happens under you. Feel what you need.”
Make a game out of each ride. After your warm-up, start your serious work in whatever gait your horse likes best. Some horses, for example, do better trot work if they do their canter work first. Avoid practicing every movement every day. Instead of saying, “Hey, you’ve done it wrong again,” encourage him by saying, “Come on, you can do more.” Remember, when the horse has no fun, the rider has no fun. So play with your horse.
To keep his training fresh, vary his routine. Practice the movements out in the fields if there are good surfaces. If he likes jumping (not all horses do) and you’re an experienced jumper, do that now and then. Try a little cavalletti work if he’s comfortable doing it. Get a feel for what your horse enjoys and work that in periodically to keep him motivated.
Finally, when you encounter a stumbling block in your training, remember that it’s sometimes better to take a step backward than to push forward. Instead of drilling a troublesome movement over and over again, take a breather and go on to something else. Often, if a horse understands the general idea of what you want but is having trouble executing it, if you give him a break, he’ll come back later and do it better than he did before.
The following two stories exemplify how these principles can produce better-than-expected results.
Responsible was a large, powerful Oldenburg mare born in 1999. She was by the extremely successful stallion Rohdiamant and out of a mare by Freudenprinz. Her owners sent her to me as a 5-year-old with a plan to compete her in some shows and then sell her. During that phase of her development she was very thin because her body was using all the food we gave her to grow. Eventually maturing to 17.1 hands, she was quite long in the middle with a relatively short neck for her body. So, in the beginning, she didn’t look like the ideal dressage horse.
In the first year of her training, Responsible was not very easy to ride. She was willing, but I don’t think she honestly understood what I wanted her to do with her body. She carried her neck too high, short and round. As a consequence, she wasn’t able to use her back properly. It was difficult to ask her to open up her neck and bring up her back. She was also very soft in the hand and not easy to ride forward into a good contact. I spent all of our schooling time at home encouraging her to stretch her neck as long and flat as possible. I also did a lot of bending to one side and then the other to improve the contact on each rein. This, in addition to many transitions forward and back between the gaits and within the gaits, as well as lateral work, taught her to work her hind legs more and carry that energy over her back and into a better contact.
Given enough time to learn how to deal with her body, Responsible grew more and more confident and developed into a lovely dressage horse. She had three excellent gaits and all of the movements were really easy for her, especially the lateral ones. Just as important, she loved the work and always gave her best. She had a characteristic that I describe as “positive hot”—forward, active and extremely responsive to my legs. As a petite person, I prefer this kind of horse to a lazier, less sensitive one, who would take a lot of strength to ride. Responsible also loved being outside, so I did much of her schooling in the fields or on the dirt training track that runs around the fields. This helped to keep the process fresh and fun for her.
The one movement Responsible had trouble with in the early years was the flying change. Although she could execute it easily in the middle of the ring or outside in an open space, she tended to dodge sideways when performing the change that was required in the young horse test. This had to be done toward the end of a diagonal as you approached the rail. In the indoor arena, I think she worried that she wouldn’t have enough space to make a good straight change before reaching the wall. So, instead of jumping forward in the change, she escaped a little bit to the side.
To help her overcome this problem, I practiced the flying change outside on the straight sections of the training track, where there was no wall to intimidate her. This routine practice helped her gain security and confidence over time. Eventually, she was able to perform the change correctly in the arena as well.
Our first big breakthrough happened when I took Responsible to the Bundeschampionat, the German national championships for young horses, as a 6-year-old. She didn’t qualify for the finals, but in her second test, for the first time ever, she felt like a very, very good dressage horse. She was using her body in the right way and clearly understood what I wanted from her. By this time, her owners realized what a special horse she was and decided not to sell her.
From that moment on, all of her training was easy. She learned everything very quickly. As a 7-year-old, she won many S-level tests and qualified for the Nürnberger Burg-Pokal, a national championship for 7- to 9-year-olds. As an 8-year-old, she successfully competed in the young horse Grand Prix classes (which use an abbreviated form of the standard Grand Prix test) and, by the time she was 9, she was performing the full Grand Prix test and scoring consistently above 70 percent. That year, she was named the reserve horse for the German Olympic team.
Responsible continued her world-class career, winning many Grands Prix, until she was 14. Her superb attitude made her a formidable competitor. She always gave her best at home, but at shows she was three times better. She knew when it was important to give her all. And somehow she knew that she didn’t need to go for the 9 trot at home. That’s a valuable distinction for me. To keep my horses healthy and motivated, I don’t want them to give everything every day. At home, we practice easy, small things and focus on the basic work—relaxation, suppleness, transitions between and within the gaits, lateral work, etc.—saving the brilliance for the show ring. With Responsible, that meant we always went back to her neck issue. Even when she was competing internationally, I rode her at home like a young horse, asking her to stretch her neck long and flat, so she could loosen and lift up her back.
Because Responsible proved to be such a successful horse and because she was the only filly ever produced by her dam, her owners and I decided to retire her early and breed her. I’m sure she could have competed successfully for several more years, but we were keen to produce more mares from these bloodlines. Her first foal was a lovely colt by my 2012 Olympic partner, Damon Hill. Still hoping for a filly to continue the mare line, we bred her again. Sadly, she suffered a broken leg in the pasture that year and had to be euthanized. She was a very special horse who lived a very happy life.
Born in 2007, Diamigo is Responsible’s half-brother, out of the same mare—but he couldn’t be more different from her physically. A gelding by the Oldenburg stallion Dimaggio, he is only about 16.2 hands and is built more like a Thoroughbred with a light, leggy frame. His shape is almost the opposite of Responsible’s: His back is relatively short and his neck is long and thin. As a youngster, he went through a development phase when his hindquarters were higher than his front end. He was as beautiful then as he is now, but he didn’t look like the typical uphill dressage horse with the much-desired big stallion-like neck. In fact, he was so small and skinny as a 3-year-old that he looked more like a deer than a horse. Running free, though, he had spectacular gaits. So we decided to give him time to grow and see what he might turn into.
As a 4-year-old, Diamigo was really easy to train. He has the same mind and “positive hot” nature that Responsible had, but fewer physical weaknesses. Even when he was a bit high behind, it never affected his balance under saddle. Still, the horse you saw in the stable was completely different from the one you saw in the ring. He appeared so unlike the typical dressage horse that I received pitying looks when we entered the warm-up arena at shows. I could hear people saying to each other, “Oh, poor Helen, what a horse she has to ride now!” But when we started trotting and cantering and they saw his incredibly elastic, fluid gaits, they changed their minds. That was always funny to me.
As Diamigo developed, I took my time with his training, not because he had physical problems like Responsible but for the opposite reason. He was so straightforward and everything was so easy for him that I worried I might destroy his wonderful willingness to work if I pushed him. So I kept his program light and easy, moving through the steps gradually.
My patience paid off. As a 6-year-old, Diamigo placed sixth in the World Championships for Young Horses. The following year, he won the S-level tour for 7-year-olds at the World Championships.
In preparation for his first young horse Grand Prix test during the winter of his eighth year, however, his “positive hot” personality became a minor challenge at home. The test called for 11 one-time tempi changes (flying changes made every stride), which is a lot of changes to practice in a single session. He got a little tense in between the changes, so I decided to stop practicing them. Instead, I spent the next weeks only practicing easier two-, three-, four- or five-time tempi changes. I didn’t try the 11 one-time tempi changes again until we got into the actual show ring. I knew there was a chance that this wouldn’t work, but it did! Diamigo performed the changes as if they were the most normal thing in the world. This was a great reminder for me that sometimes taking a step backward in training can help you progress further in the long run.
Since then, Diamigo’s career has flourished. Even as an 8-year-old, the Grand Prix movements are so easy for him—especially the piaffe and passage—that he can perform them all at home without a whip. Like Responsible, he has a wonderful work ethic at home and performs even better at shows. Because he does everything so perfectly and so willingly, I do my best to keep his training at home fun. I work him four or five days a week. On the other days, he plays a little (hacking in the fields or on the training track), goes on the automatic walker or has the day completely off, spending it grazing in the fields. On the days he does work, I try not to take everything he offers. By making his sessions easy and playful, I hope to keep him motivated.
I’m excited to see how Diamigo’s future unfolds. He is a perfect example of how a horse can exceed your expectations if you give him a chance to develop and show what he can be.
Piece Together The Puzzle
Many riders make the mistake of introducing new movements to their horses by asking for the final product—the movement as it should be performed in the show ring. This makes the lesson feel extremely challenging and even impossible to a green horse. As a result, he can become discouraged and frustrated. Knowing that he’s unable to satisfy his rider, he may give up altogether. To avoid such an unhappy outcome, plan to introduce every new concept to your horse in small, easy-to-do steps. Consider all of the individual components of a movement and ask yourself, “What does my horse have? What does he need?” Then fill in those gaps, one component at a time. Wait until he’s mastered each of them before putting the “puzzle pieces” together and asking for the final product movement.
For example, let’s consider the half-pass. Instead of asking your horse for a perfect half-pass straight off the bat, think about its components. You need the forward–sideways tendency plus bending and flexion. So start with leg-yielding to teach him the forward–sideways concept. Once he understands the aids for the leg-yield, set that aside and tackle the bending and flexion. Go down the diagonal without asking for any leg crossover, instead simply focusing on bending and flexing his body in the direction that he’s traveling. Once he’s doing this well, you can put all the components together in a proper half-pass. Even then, though, ask for only a few steps at a time and gradually build on your success.
With this puzzle-piece approach, you will never overwhelm your horse by asking for something that’s seemingly impossible. Instead, you will build his confidence with a series of good experiences and feelings. In the end, he may enjoy his job so much that he’ll perform it beyond your wildest expectations.
Making dressage fun for horses of all ages is Helen Langehanenberg’s passion. Born and raised in northwest Germany, she has guided many horses to success in the Bundeschampionat, Germany’s young horse championships—including three winners in 2007—and has competed for her country internationally many times. She began her professional career working for Olympic eventer Ingrid Klimke. In 2005, after suffering a shoulder injury, Ingrid gave Helen the ride on a promising young Westphalian stallion named Damon Hill in the World Championships for Young Dressage Horses. Helen won the 5-year-old division with him. She was given the chance to ride him regularly starting in 2010, and the pair went on to compete on the 2012 Olympic silver-medal-winning team and to win the 2013 World Cup final as well as two team gold medals and four individual silver medals at European and World Championships. Her partnership with the stallion ended in 2014, when she and his owners were unable to successfully negotiate an extension of their contract.
Under the guidance of Klaus Balkenhol, with whom she has trained for 10 years, Helen has many exciting young prospects coming along. She runs a busy training facility in Billerbeck, Germany, with a support team of young professional riders. Helen is currently taking a brief hiatus from showing while expecting her first baby, due this month.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.