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How NOT to Do Dressage

how not to do dressage

To start, it’s paramount that we make it clear that the featured image of this post does not show correct training and cannot be described as “dressage.”

Instead, it illustrates exactly how NOT to do dressage.

Sadly, this way of going is seen at all levels of competition, and to the untrained eye, it can look impressive.

To the novice rider watching what is supposed to be a more experienced rider on a more advanced horse, this then fills them with an incorrect image of what dressage is and how to do it.

With a desire to progress, the novice rider then tries to emulate what they have seen and they try to recreate the same way of going with their own horse(s) believing that it is correct training.

This has filtered through the equestrian industry and has created a lot of confusion about what dressage is. The basic principles of the sport are not universally understood and it’s having a negative impact on the well-being of our horses.

This article tries to bust a few of those myths and explain how NOT to do dressage!

What is dressage?

Dressage literally means “training” in French. The sport of dressage is all about the systematic physical and mental development of the horse so that he can perform various movements in a rhythmical, obedient, supple, balanced manner at a prescribed marker in the dressage arena.

The dressage horse should be a “happy athlete” that enjoys his work and moves in harmony with his rider. In turn, the rider should be balanced, supple, and discreet with their aids.

So, when watching a dressage test at any level, the picture should be one of harmony, controlled energy, and fluency. 

What is the purpose of dressage?

A lot of riders partake in dressage solely for competitive reasons, and there is nothing wrong with this, however, dressage does serve a greater purpose than the chance of a rosette.

When practiced correctly, its purpose is to train the horse to move in a way that will help keep him sound and prolong his working life.

When we first put a saddle on a horse and we sit on him, he will carry the weight of the rider and equipment on his forehand, with his delicate front limbs taking most of the burden.

It then becomes our job to gradually bring the horse up off the forehand by encouraging him to engage his hindquarters with a lifted and rounded back. This enables the horse to be able to carry our weight without risking damage to his muscles and joints.

This is of the utmost priority and it’s the reason why we ask our horses to work ‘on the bit’; only in such a functional posture can the horse carry the rider without physical damage.

Conversely, when dressage is done incorrectly (as shown by the featured image) it has the opposite result and will instead cause physical damage to the horse, impact his soundness, and reduce the length of his working life. In which case, it cannot be described as “dressage.”

How NOT to do dressage

Now, let’s dispel a few of the myths and misunderstandings that surround dressage.

Myth #1 – The horse’s head must be “tucked in”

When watching dressage, most people look and see that the horse is working with his head “tucked in.”

It’s true to say that the horse should be working into an elastic contact and round outline. However, his head should not simply be tucked in! 

The horse should work forward from his hindquarters, through a supple, swinging back to seek the rider’s contact.

Unfortunately, many riders become obsessed with getting their horses to work in an outline. That results in what can amount to an abuse of the horse, as riders try to take shortcuts or simply act out of misunderstanding on how to get their horses on the bit.

You don’t create the correct outline for dressage by:

  • Fiddling with the reins to jiggle the bit around in the horse’s mouth.
  • Pulling the horse’s head from side to side.
  • Using draw reins, side reins, and other gadgets to force the horse’s head down.
  • Overflexing the horse so that he has his head forced into an unnaturally low position.
  • Using a double bridle or severe bit to persuade the horse to lower his head.

Any of those techniques will result in poor marks in dressage tests (as a good judge will see right through them) along with a miserable and uncomfortable horse.

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Myth #2 – Dressage is about making the horse “look pretty”

Although the sport of dressage does demand that riders wear the correct attire and look smart, unlike showing, you don’t get any marks for turnout in dressage.

That said, a smartly turned-out combination does look more professional than a horse that’s covered in mud and a rider who’s wearing dirty breeches and no hairnet! But the judge is more interested in the quality of your work than your new sparkly browband.

Myth #3 – Collection is a slower version of the pace

When riding tests that ask for collection, some riders simply slow their horses down by using more rein pressure.

Collection does not mean going slower! In fact, collected work needs more impulsion than the working paces, not less.

In collection, the horse’s hind legs must be super-active and brought more underneath his body to carry more of his and his rider’s weight. This creates a shorter stride and a taller outline. It also lightens the forehand and makes the horse more maneuvrable, lighter on his feet, and creates more expression in his paces. 

Slowing the horse down disengages the horse’s hind legs and can damage the natural sequence of the pace, which completely defeats the objective of collected work.

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Myth #4 – Long stirrups for dressage

Advanced dressage riders seem to possess endless legs that hang straight down by the horse’s sides, making a beautiful, elegant picture. This leads many new dressage riders into thinking they need to drop their stirrups to the last hole in order to look the part.

However, dropping your stirrups too soon could mean that you are forced to grip with your knees or thighs in order to keep your balance. This position automatically de-stabilizes your seat, brings your lower leg away from your horse, and encourages you to tip forwards and point your toes down. You might even find yourself using the reins for balance; not good!

The longer stirrups are used in dressage because they help the rider to establish a deeper seat and more refined leg aids. You can lengthen your leg comfortably and effectively over time, but you’ll need to work on developing your strength, suppleness, and a truly independent seat.

In the meantime, when deciding if your stirrups are the right length, the most important considerations are your horse’s comfort and your own effectiveness as a rider.

You will not lose marks in a dressage test just because you ride with a shorter stirrup. In fact, the mark for the rider is given for the rider’s effectiveness and correctness of the aids, as well as for their position and seat, and not for the length of their stirrups.

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Myth #5 – The horse needs to flick their toes

For some reason, we have become very obsessed with the horse’s front legs and how extravagantly they flick their front toes out during the medium and extended paces.

Instead, we should be focusing on the power and engagement of the horse’s hind legs.

When performing any pace that requires the horse to lengthen the stride, the horse’s hind legs should come more underneath him, taking strides that match those of his front legs. This keeps the horse’s engagement and balance.

Too often, we see a horse that simply flicks his toes out in front while his hind legs trail behind him (as demonstrated in the featured image) which goes against the basic principles of dressage. 

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Myth #6 – Artificially raising the horse’s head and neck

As a dressage rider, your ultimate aim is to have your horse working in an uphill balance. This can lead many new riders into the trap of trying to raise the horse’s forehand by using various bits, gadgets, and/or carrying their hands too high.

For the horse to work in the correct balance, the focus should not be on artificially raising the forehand, but instead on engaging and lowering the hindquarters.

When the hindquarters are working properly, the horse will be in an uphill balance relative to his level of training.

This is much more difficult to achieve and can only be done through correct schooling and working in line with the dressage Scales of Training.

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Myth #7 – Pushing through the contact

Although you want your horse to work between your leg and hand, many riders misinterpret this and instead cram their horses between stronger leg aids and stronger rein aids. The result is a false and forced connection.

In these situations, the horse’s paces lose their elasticity and expression, and the transitions become less fluent. The performance will never be harmonious or beautiful to watch because the horse is being forced into a frame with an increased amount of pressure. The horse will only be able to move in a way that is wooden, stiff, and unnatural.

Instead, the goal should be to have the horse working freely forward from behind through a supple back to seek your contact. It is the horse that creates the connection with the rider, not the rider than imposes the connection on the horse.

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In conclusion

The basic principles of dressage are being lost, leading to an array of misunderstandings and incorrect training, especially amongst those who are new to the sport and non-riding spectators.

Dressage is not about forcing the horse to work in a particular outline or frame, or to have them extravagantly prance around for the amusement of others.

Dressage is the systematic development of the horse, both mentally and physically, with the goal to rebalance him under the weight of a rider. This prevents injury and promotes a longer working life. It should form the foundation for every equestrian riding sport.

When done correctly, the result is a horse that is comfortable and works in harmony with his rider, presenting a relaxed, rhythmical, balanced, uphill picture and a naturally round frame.

If there are any other myths that we have missed that you would like us to address, then please put them in the comments box below.

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