Question: Lessons and training sessions are almost always in 45- to 60-minute blocks of time. Recognizing that dressage requires short spans of intense concentrated effort, would anything be gained by riding twice a day for 30 to 40 minutes each time?
Answer: There are many benefits to riding a horse in two short daily sessions, rather than in one long session. I often school horses twice a day, using the first session to work on the basics -- movements that are easy and build confidence in the horse -- and saving the challenging or newer movements for the second session. Usually the horse needs a much shorter warm-up for the second session and is ready to go on to more difficult work sooner. Sometimes I will take the horse out on a hack for one of the schooling sessions, offering him a nice change of pace and scenery.
At shows, many lower-level competitors perform two tests in one day. These tests are often scheduled with a break in between. If your horse is not accustomed to working twice in one day, he will assume he is done after one test. Some horses can be quite reluctant to perform a second time in the same day. If you have been riding your horse twice a day occasionally at home, he will see this as part of his normal routine and will be prepared to come out for the second test ready for work.
At FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) levels, the tests are longer and require the horse to perform many different movements in one test. FEI tests clearly require additional fitness and stamina. Working an FEI level horse twice in one day will condition him more quickly, making it easier to maintain the higher degree of collection needed for the longer tests. It also gives the rider ample opportunity to practice all the different movements required at these higher levels. It's easy to spend all your time schooling the more difficult movements and overlook movements such as walk pirouettes, rein-backs and halts, which carry the same score weight in a test.
Another important benefit of schooling a horse twice a day is that it gives you two opportunities to end on a positive note. If the horse has finally performed a movement well, such as a simple walk-trot transition or the difficult first few learning steps of piaffe, you can reward him with sugar, a slice of carrot or a pat on his neck and immediately dismount and take him back to the stable. This makes the horse happy, proud and willing to perform his work because he understands, under no uncertain terms, that he is rewarded for his efforts.
Unfortunately, most riders get a little greedy and want to perform the movement one more time. This can create tension, causing the horse to get tired and resistant. This situation is similar to a jumper rider who has asked the horse to jump one final jump and the horse refuses. Then the rider cannot get off the horse until it jumps again, and this could take another hour. It is always better to quit while you are ahead, thus ending your workout on a positive note. This way, you can train your horse to look forward to his work.
Judy Westlake is a United States Dressage Federation (USDF) silver and gold medalist and a USDF certified instructor through Second Level. She has studied with Gunnar Ostergaard and Sue Blinks. She teaches and trains at her Broad Park Equestrian Center in Gray, Maine, and maintains the web site www.judywestlake.com.
For additional information about schooling your horse, see "Develop a Training Plan to Move Up," Dressage Today, January 2003.