Click to set in motion or stop this photo sequence. Jayne Ayers' student Madeleine Wood, age 5, demonstrates a serpentine on Hillcrest Red Bonnet, a 17-year-old Welsh Pony mare. From the editors of Dressage Today magazine.
Parents often ask, "What is the right age for my child to start dressage lessons? Does a person--child or adult--first learn to ride a horse, then study dressage?" In my experience, using dressage principles in the earliest lessons helps build a solid foundation for any type of riding, and promotes a more intuitive, naturally balanced rider. Anyone who has had a sketchy start and developed bad habits, such as crooked posture, riding mostly with the hands, or applying aids that confuse the horse, will attest to the fact that learning correctly in the first place is much easier than having to unlearn faults which have lingered for years.
Is dressage too complicated for the youngest riders? Yes and no. Just as a child learns building blocks for reading--letters, phonics, words, and simple sentences--before being able to read and comprehend complex texts, a rider can learn the elements of dressage in a simple, step-by-step way to build a strong foundation for a future in higher levels of sport or a lifetime of safe and enjoyable recreation. So which of the building blocks for dressage are appropriate for the youngest riders, the 5- to 10-year-olds? The most fundamental are balance and rhythm.
Being able to turn a horse with light, clear aids is essential to all riders. It is important that rein and weight aids work together, rather than in conflict. Madeline uses a very light but wide opening rein to turn the pony back and forth in tight loops. This helps her to turn her upper body naturally and shift her weight in the direction of the turn. For less sharp turns, weight and shoulders do most of the turning, with very little rein. A shallow serpentine through cones set 5 to 6 meters apart on the centerline, done first at a walk, then at a trot, can be challenging for any age rider in need of learning to use weight aids better.
Two things to note for very young riders:
- Rainbow reins help the rider and the instructor keep track of whether or not the reins are held at equal lengths.
- Also, I have the very young ones use the whole hand over the rein, because the rein is too thick to be comfortable between tiny fingers in the traditional grip.
Jayne Ayers is a Federation Equestre Internationale "I" and U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) "S" dressage judge as well as an "R" sport horse breed judge. A member of the USEF Dressage Committee, she is a former executive board member of the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) and founder of the USDF sport horse committee. She owns Hearthstone Farm, where she breeds sport horses and enjoys training students of all ages in Dousman, Wis.
To read Jayne Ayers' article on introducing dressage to children, see the November '08 Dressage Today. To order back issues, call 301-977-3900.