How to Structure a Dressage Training Plan for Your Horse
Whatever your competitive level and aspirations, a structured training plan for your horse is a crucial tool that allows you to advance in the dressage arena.
Here, we look at how you can create a dressage training plan for your horse.
We have broken this article and podcast series into the following three parts:
- The warm-up phase
- The training phase
- The cool-down phase and fitness
Keep it varied
One of the most common setbacks experienced by dressage riders is that their horses become stale and bored because of over-training.
Sometimes, an over-schooled horse will become resistant or disobedient, possibly because he is physically sore or simply because he is fed up with the same old routine.
In general, most horses will do well with three or four days of dressage training per week.
Also, you should include other activities such as hacking, jumping, and lunging. And your horse will appreciate a rest day turned out in the field!
Your schooling routine structure
For the horse to make progress from the basic training beginnings up to the medium and FEI levels, he will need to gradually increase the strength and stamina that will enable him to work in self-carriage and with true collection.
Once your horse reaches medium level, you’ll train him how to bend and flex his hind leg joints to increase collection through the use of half-halts, lateral work, and more advanced transitions. At the same time, your aim is to preserve the horse’s sense of pleasure and freedom in his own movement.
Every schooling session should include a warm-up, a training phase, and a cool-down phase.
Let’s look at each of those phases individually.
1. The warm-up phase
The idea of the warm-up phase is to allow your horse to stretch his muscles and loosen his body in preparation for the training section of his workout.
Begin with an energetic walk on a long rein and some basic preliminary or training level work, including large circles, transitions in and out of the working paces, and some center lines.
All your trot work should be done rising so that the horse can use his back freely. Your aim here is to warm up the horse’s muscles, get his cardiovascular system working, and loosen his joints so that he can work without risk of injury.
The way in which you ride your horse may contradict his nature. For example, if the horse is inclined to be lazy, you might need to kick-on and really wake him up. On the other hand, if your horse tends to be “hot” and stressy, you might need to use a slower, more relaxed chill-out routine. The warm-up is definitely a case of “horses for courses.”
Gradually, the warm-up will include your horse’s confirmed level of work, enabling you to find out what he finds easy and what he sees as a greater challenge, both physically and attitudinally. So, the greater your horse’s repertoire, the more time it will take to warm him up.
The warm-up is a good way of evaluating and identifying where your horse is at in his training and allows you to determine the focus of the training phase of your schooling plan.
Also, the warm-up allows you to know how long it takes for your horse to be “in the zone” and ready to perform a test. So, when you go to a competition, you will know exactly how long your working-in period should be.
2. The training phase
Once your horse is warm and mentally focused on the aids, you can begin the training phase of your schooling session.
Ideally, your horse should be working forward from behind through his back and into an elastic contact. However, in practice, and depending on the level at which your horse is working, you may need to begin the training phase of your schooling session when you get an acceptable reaction to your basic aids.
The training phase of every schooling session should be based around how the horse does things, not on what he can do. In other words, you must always work to ensure that the basics are in place before moving on to teaching your horse “tricks,” such as half-pass, flying changes, etc.
So, the training phase must always be based around the “Scales of Training,” i.e., rhythm, suppleness (through the back), contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection (or balance in novice horses.)
The training scale tells you how to challenge your horse, and it also reminds you when you’ve pushed him too far. When riding on your own, the training scale helps to identify the prerequisites to working up through the levels, which, in turn, teaches you to “listen” to your horse.
For example, if the rhythm starts to suffer or there’s resistance to the contact, you know you are asking too much of the horse, and you should take a step back. Find out what’s caused the problem: perhaps take a walk break, lighten your hand or seat, or try giving your horse a sympathetic pat, and then begin work again.
When you move into the training phase of your schooling session, concentrate on developing more impulsion, which is crucial for prelim or first level horses. Riding transitions within the paces helps to engage the horse’s joints and release the energy that you need for true impulsion. Novice level tests ask you to show a few steps of medium trot, which is a good indicator of whether the horse is working forward with impulsion or not.
In elementary or second level work, straightness is crucial, as that enables collection. The lateral exercises that you ride at this level provide you with the tools that you need to build the horse’s strength, symmetry, and straightness. So, when you move on to work on the next level of your horse’s training, you will be able to ride him in collection for brief periods.
Now, technically, the foundation of your work is complete. However, your training from now right through Grand Prix will focus on improving each element of the training scales; rhythm, throughness, contact, impulsion, and collection, as well as developing self-carriage and relaxation.
Tip #1 – A little bit of stress promotes growth
By continually challenging the status quo, you can make a small amount of progress each day. When schooling your horse, challenge him with work that stresses him just a little. Horses learn best when challenged with new work, so essentially, no stress means no improvement or progress.
You must assess what level, type, and duration of stress works for your horse.
Horses that get tense and stressy do best with a routine to their schooling program. When presented with a new challenge, these horses respond by getting upset. Then it’s up to you to reassure the horse and return to their familiar, comfortable routine. If you introduce stress in very small increments, your horse will happily learn to accept that because he learns that each of those small doses of stress becomes part of his routine and are always followed by resolution and relief.
At the opposite end of the scale are horses that are easily bored actually thrive when presented with a new challenge. These horses relish a change in routine that prevents them from becoming stale.
Although the Scale of Training shows you how to challenge your horse, it also serves as a reminder of when you’ve pushed too far. If the base of the training pyramid begins to crumble, you know that the stress levels you’ve placed on your horse are a step too far, and you need to take a step back into the horse’s comfort zone.
For example, if the horse starts to lose rhythm because you’ve pushed him too much in an attempt to build impulsion, that should warn you to adopt a less aggressive approach to your training.
So, before presenting your horse with a new challenge, make sure that the basic foundations are in place.
If your horse becomes upset or unsettled when presented with a new challenge, you’ll need to work out how to recover the lost quality. A gentle pat, a few kind words, lightening your aids, a walk break, or maybe even a short gallop to release pent up energy and frustration; all of these tactics can be effective, but once again, it’s really a matter of horses for courses. What works for one horse may not work for another.
When it comes to deciding how long to labor a particular point, the best tactic is to train for long enough that the horse recognizes and partially meets the new challenge. However, don’t keep pushing on so that the horse can’t recover his equilibrium quickly. Provided that the horse learns that he can attempt to meet the challenge with which he’s presented, and he will quickly be rewarded for his efforts, all should proceed positively, and the horse won’t fear the stress.
When a new training concept is still unclear to the horse, repetition can help to train a certain degree of anticipation that can work for you. You must be careful not to punish the horse for anticipating your instructions, although he must learn to wait for you and not execute the movement before you ask him to.
For example, if you are working on simple changes, don’t reprimand the horse for anticipating the downward transition if that means he’s beginning to “sit” and bring his hocks underneath his body. That’s a good thing, as it means the downward transition will be nicely balanced, and the upward transition will be uphill and fluent.
Tip #2 – Training the walk
The inclusion of frequent walk breaks in the training phase is a beneficial tactic.
Firstly, the horse learns that walking doesn’t mean that work is over for the day! That’s important when it comes to riding a dressage test; you don’t want your horse to think he’s finished as soon as you get to the walk exercises!
Walking also allows the horse to get his breath back between bouts of more strenuous work, gradually increases his stamina and strength, and allows tired muscles and joints to recover.
Working your horse in the walk while keeping him on the aids is a skill in itself. Walk breaks on a long or loose rein present you with an opportunity to evaluate what you’ve achieved to date, plan the next phase of training, and rest the horse’s body between efforts. However, by keeping your horse on the aids during his walk breaks, you’re ensuring that he is physically and mentally prepared to continue with good quality work when you ask him to.
If that habit is not well-established, you’ll find that the horse has gone “off the boil” during the walk from the working-in area to the arena. However, if you get into the habit of restarting several times during each training session, the horse will happily return to work mode in both the schooling and competition arena.
Tip #3 – Using the dressage tests in your training plan
The dressage tests are all numbered sequentially, beginning with the simplest. In theory, the higher the number, the more challenging the work contained in the test will be.
A useful exercise you can do from your armchair on a cold, wet day is to spend time looking through each test and making a note of the different movements it contains. You can then use your list as a basis for your training plan. So, once your horse can perform everything at Prelim and Novice level to a good standard, you know he’s ready to move on to Elementary, etc.
Using the dressage tests as a basis for your training plan also allows you to vary the exercises you use during the training phase so that the work doesn’t become repetitive and boring for your horse.
Tip #4 – Blending exercises
Using random exercises can be beneficial to your horse’s training, but you will often achieve better results if you blend different exercises into short routines as part of your daily training.
For example, riding shoulder-in around a circle helps to bring the horse’s hind legs closer together, which in turn makes it easier to collect, straighten, and balance the horse on a straight line.
So, by blending a mixture of bent and straight lines in shoulder-in, you will improve the horse’s balance, suppleness, and engagement. Ultimately, the horse will find performing the shoulder-in on a straight line just as easy as he does on a circle, and his overall way of going will also improve as a result.
Deciding what exercises to blend
For the blending principle to work well, you need to know which exercises to blend. To do that:
- Start by working through your horse’s repertoire to identify his strengths and weaknesses.
- Next, think about areas in your horse’s basic way of going that need improvement or are now ready for further development, and what qualities are lacking.
- Now, you need to decide what qualities are missing in a particular movement and blend that movement with one that will improve the movement that lacks those qualities.
Let’s take the half-pass as an example.
If your horse struggles to maintain the bend and position in the half-pass, try interspersing the movement with 10-meter circles to correct the bend and bring the horse’s inside hind leg more underneath him to help increase the fluency and crossing.
If the quality of the half-pass deteriorates again, try changing the bend and riding a 10-meter circle with counter-flexion. That will help to re-engage the horse’s outside hind leg and rebalance him.
Then, let’s suppose that the horse is falling onto his inside shoulder during the half-pass. Try blending the half-pass with shoulder-in to rebalance the horse and lift the inside shoulder. Ride a few steps of shoulder-in, and then go back into half-pass. The blending of these two exercises helps to reinforce the bend, encourages the horse to listen to your inside leg, and keeps the connection through the horse’s back into your outside rein.
Also, that technique encourages the horse that comes wide behind to step more underneath his body, making it easier for you to develop more impulsion and crossing of the half-pass.
If the horse loses lateral balance and begins to straighten his body with just a kink in his neck, rather than a proper bend around your inside leg, the half-pass will turn into a leg-yield. Start by riding a half-pass, and then put the horse into leg-yield to encourage him to take longer more sweeping strides.
To prevent the horse from becoming “stuck” in a crab-like movement that lacks fluency and freedom, intersperse the half-pass with some medium trot. Make the horse straight, ride him in medium trot for a few strides, and then put him back into half-pass.
You get the idea! Use multiple exercises and blend them to improve and develop a movement, rather than merely repeating an exercise over and over again without making progress.
Remember to include simple exercises that take the pressure off the horse, as well as riding more complex sequences of movements that he finds more challenging.
Tip #5 – Learning should be fun!
Too much repetition can be tedious for both the horse and the rider. So, change things around and think outside the box!
Learning can and should be fun! So, adopt a more playful attitude to your work. Why not leg-yield from one side to the other of the trail while out hacking? Or perhaps, ride travers between two poles on the ground, and then gallop to the end of the arena. When you ride with a playful attitude, there are no rules. Have fun, and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.
“Playing” with your horse helps to strengthen him physically, teaches him new skills, and keeps him fresh. You may even find that the standard exercises in dressage tests seem simple in comparison to what you have achieved when the two of you are just playing!
Here’s an example of how you can use playing to train a novice horse to easily accomplish an elementary level exercise, as well as introducing him to more advanced skills:
Simple changes, tempis, and canter pirouettes!
Start by thinking of the simple changes as an auditory rhythm exercise. So, listen to the sound of canter-walk-canter:
Da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-BUM-BUM-BUM (walk), da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-BUM-BUM-BUM (walk)
Now, with that rhythm in your mind, ride the simple changes as if they were temp changes across the diagonal. So, canter four strides, walk three strides, canter four strides on the opposite leg, and so forth.
Make the exercise more challenging by riding simple changes down the centerline every four strides. Then try the same exercise, making a simple change every three strides. That’s a fabulous exercise to engage, straighten, and sensitize a horse while also confirming the simple changes.
Keep playing with this routine until the elementary level exercise of one single simple change over X seems ridiculously easy in comparison.
When you train simple changes this well, you are laying the groundwork for canter pirouettes. A perfect simple change requires the horse to load his hind leg as he would do in a canter pirouette. Turning the pirouette is relatively easy.
So, when the simple change feels easy, introduce a quarter canter pirouette instead of the walk transition element of the change. That allows you to play with pirouettes long before you need to ride them “for real.” The horse will understand that pirouettes are simply an extension of what he can already do well.
Tip #6 – Gifts from your horse!
In dressage training, one thing very often follows another as you move along the training scale. However, your horse will give you unexpected gifts from time-to-time that you must recognize and use to your advantage.
For example, your horse might make a flying change when you’re riding in a counter-canter. Rather than regarding such events as evasions and reprimanding your horse, you should appreciate the unexpected gift. You can then sort out the misunderstanding. The important thing is to recognize the horse for the effort he’s made.
Tip #6 – Learning to listen
Try to listen for the feel of the advanced horse within your inexperienced novice or elementary level mount. The only way that your horse will know that he’s doing the right thing is if you let him know!
Just as learning to work along the scales of training is a skill that your horse must learn, listening to your horse is a skill that you need to learn.
Here are some tips that will help you to learn to listen to your horse so that you can ultimately work together in perfect harmony:
- Develop the ability to follow your horse’s movement underneath you. The best way to do that is to have some lunge lessons.
- Develop a balanced, independent seat that enables you to hold your position, regardless of what your horse is doing underneath you. Again, the best way to achieve that is on the lunge.
- Next, develop influence so that you can be proactive and stabilize your position simultaneously.
- Learn to listen to your horse underneath you so that you can “hear” when your horse is losing his balance or drifting away from you.
- Now deliberately ride out of harmony with your horse, and ask him to come to you.
- When the horse joins you, you will achieve the ultimate, elusive harmony that makes the difference between a good dressage test and an exceptional one.
The point of the exercise is that your horse enjoys that feeling of being in perfect harmony with you as much as you do. So, when the feeling isn’t harmonious, the horse tries to find the feeling. Riders who ride their horses in this way can achieve something special without having to continually “tell” their horses; the horses come to them.
3. The cool-down phase
All professional athletes include a cool-down phase, both in their training sessions and in competition. And your horse is no different!
Cooling down helps to prevent injury and muscle stiffness, and it’s crucial to your horse’s wellbeing.
When you’ve finished the training phase of your workout, finish off each schooling session with a few simple exercises in rising trot that allow the horse to stretch his muscles and loosen his back, followed by a period of walking on a long rein.
By allowing your horse to cool down in this way, you are showing him that periods of hard work are always followed by things that he can do easily. The winding down work teaches the horse that he can finish his schooling session feeling that the work is easy, and he feels great.
The duration of the cool-down will depend on the intensity and difficulty of the training phase. So, you may need to cool down your horse for between 10 and 20 minutes. This period of relaxation is just as important to the horse’s wellbeing as the warm-up.
The cooling-off walk allows the horse’s heart to slow down, lets his circulation return to normal, and prevents the horse’s muscles from stiffening-up when he is at rest. Also, the horse’s footfalls help to pump blood out of the extremities before he is returned to his stable. If you don’t allow sufficient time for that, soundness and circulatory problems can occur.
Getting your horse fit for dressage
Some riders assume that dressage is the easy option compared to jumping and cross country. However, if your horse is to perform at his optimum, he must be fit and strong enough to cope with the demands of schooling work without sustaining injuries.
If your horse is completely unfit, you should expect to allow at least four months as a minimum fittening period and up to seven months, assuming you experience no setbacks; imagine how long it would take to get yourself fit from zero – your horse is no different!
Be prepared to extend that timeframe if you feel that your horse needs more time.
Months one and two: Acclimation
If the horse is being started completely from scratch, begin fittening work with exercises on the ground for the first two weeks. Try using calisthenics, such as backing the horse uphill for a few steps, together with neck and leg stretches.
When carrying out stretches, always work on muscles that have already undergone a brief warm-up routine and after a workout. That’s because the horse’s soft tissues are more elastic and, therefore, easier to stretch and less prone to damage. A good way of achieving that is by using a horse walker. Never force the horse to stretch if he is resistant, as that could injure him if you go beyond what he’s comfortable with.
Carry out stretching exercises for the horse’s neck, back, and legs for 10 to 15 minutes on at least three days per week. Now you can begin riding the horse for 25 minutes, starting with the walk. Every ten days, increase the duration and intensity of the exercise.
After the first ten days, add some short periods of trot and a little canter after the second ten-day period.
You will very quickly notice that your horse is losing excess condition and becoming more toned and muscled.
Months three and four: Cardio
The cardio stage of your horse’s fittening program usually takes around four weeks, although it can take 12 weeks or even longer. This phase of fitness training focuses on building your horse’s stamina, so you must be prepared to ride four or five days each week.
Cardiovascular fitness comes from the repeated muscle contractions that push more oxygen into the blood via the horse’s lungs and is also known as heart and lung capacity.
Exercises that are highly effective at improving the horse’s cardiovascular fitness include cantering, as well as two shorter workouts each day. Frequent transitions and changes of direction are useful for increasing stamina as they demand that the horse must overcome the forces of inertia.
The more cardiovascular fitness that the horse has helps to prevent the problem of lactic acid build-up in the muscles, which can affect performance.
By the end of the cardio phase of his fittening program and before moving onto the strength-building stage, the horse should be carrying himself properly and working in a correct, round frame. The horse should be stretching his back, carrying his spine in good balance, and pushing himself along with his hind legs to get the maximum benefit from his strengthening and conditioning work.
Final two months: building strength
By this stage in your horse’s fittening program, you’ll be schooling him two to three days each week and working on his cardio fitness on one day. Now, it’s time to add strength training for two days per week.
It’s thought that many horses never achieve their full potential, simply because they lack strength. Also, if the horse is not strong enough to cope with the demands of his work, he is more likely to sustain muscular and joint injuries.
Useful strengthening exercises include:
- Walking and cantering uphill, and then walking back down for recovery.
- Gymnastic gridwork, using 18” to 24” fences. Ride down a grid of one stride or bounces, and then walk and trot back to the beginning of the line.
- Repeat exercises, such as canter pirouettes, for a short time, followed by working the horse in trot on a large circle in travers and shoulder-in and then repeating the exercise.
Perform this routine on alternate dates, several times a week, adding more repetitions of the exercise each week to build up the horse’s strength.
Keeping your horse fit
So, having worked so hard to get your horse fit, you now need to maintain that fitness level.
To do that, you will need to work your horse on at least four or five days each week, keeping to the 50/50 rule, whereby you spend half the time working on dressage movements, and the remainder working on conditioning.
A clear dressage training plan for your horse is essential if you are to progress up the levels.
Begin your training sessions with a warm-up phase, then move on to a training phase where new exercises are introduced, or new work is consolidated. Finish each session with a cool-down phase to prevent injury and muscle stiffness.
Do you have any top tips on how to create a dressage training plan for your horse? If you do, please share them with us in the comments box below.
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