Today’s pony-crazy kids are potentially tomorrow’s dressage stars! But with so many other, more exciting, mounted activities to enjoy, how do you encourage children to get into dressage?
In this article, we give you some practical and fun ways to get kids hooked on dressage.
But dressage is boring!
That’s the response you’ll most likely hear when you suggest a dressage lesson to a group of children. After all, riding around in circles does seem rather tame compared with galloping across the country, jumping huge fences, or the helter-skelter excitement of gymkhana games.
But good flatwork is the foundation that makes for success in all riding disciplines, and without an independent, well-balanced seat and an understanding of how to ride well on the flat, no-one can progress far in any equine sport.
And dressage doesn’t need to be boring, as we’ll show you in this article!
Make dressage fun!
Children must discover that dressage can be fun and that correct riding will also help to bring success in other disciplines. So, attending a regular dressage or jumping competition, trail riding, having jump lessons, etc., are all great ways of keeping the training routine exciting and fun.
Here are a few activities that incorporate dressage training while keeping kids’ riding fun.
Prix Caprilli is used by the Pony Club and is a great way of teaching kids how to ride a dressage test that includes a number of jumping efforts within the test.
In effect, Prix Caprilli is a form of combined training. The first test is equivalent to a Training Level test and includes five jumps of no higher than two feet, although you can use ground poles for beginners instead.
The second test equates to a First Level test and has seven jumps up to a maximum height of two feet six inches.
The first test is ridden in the working gaits with the horse not expected to be as “on the bit” as for a pure dressage test. The second test expects a little more roundness and balance, and changes of lead are carried out through flying changes or through trot.
Prix Caprilli is ideal for kids who love jumping and find pure dressage a little too staid. The discipline has plenty of benefits too, including:
- Learning how to perform correct changes of pace within the gaits, allowing the rider to lengthen or shorten the horse’s stride into the jump.
- Teaching the rider how to maintain the correct tempo and prevent a hot horse from rushing his fences.
- Learning how to apply the half-halts correctly, which helps the horse to use his hindquarters to prepare for the jump and to lift his forehand so that he clears the obstacle cleanly.
- Improving the rider’s balance and seat so that they go with the horse over the fence.
Flatwork also makes the rider more aware of the horse’s straightness and balance. If the horse is crooked and unbalanced, it will be very difficult for him to bascule correctly over the fence and show good form.
Some dressage and riding clubs offer a trail class in their show schedule.
The trail class is ridden in a dressage arena. Riders are asked to perform accurate dressage exercises while navigating a range of obstacles, such as walking through a water tray, crossing a bridge, etc.
The dressage element of trail classes is crucial, as it teaches the rider the importance of harmony and trust when navigating the obstacles, understanding the geometry of the various exercises, and learning that straightness is essential when riding through or over obstacles.
Most kids love the thrill of riding and jumping across country!
However, before venturing out onto the course, children must learn that it’s important to warm-up their horses correctly on the flat first. Kids must also learn how to ride in a good balance both up and downhill while helping to keep their horse balanced and in the correct tempo for the terrain.
Cross-country riding helps to build confidence between horse and rider, makes the rider more aware of both their balance and that of their horse, and emphasizes the importance of straightness when negotiating fences and of maintaining the appropriate tempo and gait for the terrain.
Vaulting is a brilliant way for kids to improve their balance and confidence, as well as learning how to lunge the horse properly.
It’s recommended that you contact your country’s official vaulting association to find out more about local vaulting groups in your area. Often, these groups run training courses and demonstrations that children can take part in.
Quadrille is an excellent, fun way for kids to learn all about riding a pattern of movements in an arena. The addition of their favorite music never fails to capture children’s imagination, as well as helping them to ride their horses at the right tempo and in a good rhythm.
When devising the quadrille, focus on teaching children the correct geometry of the dressage schooling figures. As the riders work on keeping the correct tempo, alignment, and spacing, their horses relax and come onto the aids, which is wonderful to see.
Other benefits of riding quadrille include:
- Learning to ride in a correct, consistent tempo.
- Learning how to ride the schooling figures accurately and correctly.
- Learning how to keep the horse in front of the leg.
- Learning how to ride the half-halt correctly to keep in formation with other members of the quadrille.
- The development of team camaraderie, making dressage a social activity for both horses and riders.
Riding clubs and the Pony Club all have quadrille teams that are made up of their members. To find out more about how to organize, choreograph, and perform quadrille, contact your local branch.
Fun dressage exercises that don’t involve dressage!
In addition to the activities outlined above, there are lots of interesting, enjoyable exercises that you can use in your home arena to spice up dressage schooling for kids, horses, and adults too!
Pole work is a great way of injecting interest into a ridden session, as well as developing the horse’s flexibility and athleticism.
Use poles to create shapes that kids can ride around, build tunnels to ride through, or scatter poles randomly around the arena that children can ride over.
All these exercises demand accuracy and straightness. Start off in walk, moving on to trot and canter as riders become more confident.
Transitions should be used in every schooling session to help balance the horse, keep his attention, and sharpen his reactions.
Spice it up by telling the rider what transition they are going to make, and then count down from three to one at various points around the arena. That helps to build anticipation, encourages better preparation, and improves rider accuracy.
Playing games makes learning fun for horses and riders. Here are a few fun simple games that can incorporate dressage technique into kids’ riding lessons.
Traffic lights is a simple game that even very young children can learn to play.
Simply call out the different traffic light colors as the children ride a series of movements. You can equate the colors to any movement or change of pace that you want, but to keep things simple, red means halt, amber means walk, and green means trot.
Bean bag game
The bean bag game is designed to improve riders’ positions.
The rider places a bean bag on their hat and then rides various exercises as instructed. Whenever the bean bag falls off, help the rider by correcting their position.
You can tailor the game to suit riders of all abilities. Lean rein or beginner riders can play the game in halt or walk. More advanced riders can play in walk, trot, and canter.
Once the rider has grasped the basic form of the game, use these variations to make the exercise more challenging:
1. Ask the rider to keep a bean bag between their horse and their lower leg on both sides.
2. Introduce a small jump or ground pole, and ask the rider to negotiate the obstacle with a bean bag between their horse and their lower leg.
3. Ask the rider to keep a bean bag between their hands while riding turns, circles, and transitions.
Musical markers is a really fun game that’s perfect for a group of riders to play.
For this game, you’ll need an arena with dressage markers and a few cones. You will need one less cone or marker than you have riders.
The aim of this game is to ride around the arena to music. When the music stops, each rider must ride to a marker or cone. When a rider makes it to a cone or marker, they get a point. At the end of the game, the rider who won the most points wins.
The game teaches riders how to ride accurately and under control while keeping their horse attentive to their aids.
The Sammy Snake game teaches children how to ride an accurate three-loop serpentine.
Place two poles parallel to “A” so that riders can ride between the poles. Put two poles over the centerline to keep the riders straight after the second loop of the serpentine, and finish off with two poles at “C” to complete the exercise.
Riders begin riding at “A” or “C” (Sammy Snake’s head!), riding between the poles until they complete the exercise at Sammy’s tail.
The equitation pyramid
For older children who can already ride and for those who are about to begin their journey, the USDF’s (United States Dressage Federation) equitation pyramid is a great place to start.
The USDF’s equitation pyramid is a concise guide to the development of dressage riders and is devised in such a way that it parallels the dressage Scales of Training that’s used to train dressage horses.
The equitation pyramid can be revisited at any stage as riders progress up the pyramid, and it is a valuable guide that enables riders of all ages to gauge their progress.
Phase I of the pyramid is sub-divided into two stages:
Stage 1 focusses on the “rider’s attitude toward the horse.” Riders are encouraged to develop tact and feel, as well as learning the importance of compassion, patience, understanding, and repetition. All these factors combine to form the foundation of the rider’s partnership with their horse, regardless of what discipline they want to ride in.
This stage can be used to teach the child about communication between horse and rider and how the horse receives and processes information through the rider’s body movements and voice.
The child must learn that, when riding, he is in a position of power over the horse, but that power must never amount to abuse by incorrect or thoughtless use of the hand, leg, voice, or whip.
Stage 2 focusses on the rider’s position and seat and developing balance, poise, suppleness, and relaxation.
It’s relatively easy for a young rider to develop good muscle memory, so learning how to sit correctly at an early stage in their riding career will build a firm foundation for the future. Lunge lessons are a great way of helping the young rider to develop a good independent seat.
The final element of Stage 2 is learning how to develop a “mind’s eye” picture of the best riders and replicating what they do. So, by watching world-class dressage online and on TV, young riders can learn to emulate their idols in a positive way.
Phase II of the pyramid is all about the use of the aids, including the coordination of legs, seat, and hands, as well as the whip, spur, and weight aids. This phase follows on nicely from Phase I, once the rider has developed a secure independent seat.
This phase aims to create a “thinking, feeling” rider who understands the training methods and the effects of various dressage exercises. At this stage, the rider should be asking why a particular training method is used, rather than merely asking how to do it.
Phase III is entitled “Artistry and Grace.” This phase expects to see harmony between horse and rider and is geared toward fulfilling the requirements of classical horsemanship and of the FEI.
For the principle of the pyramid to succeed, the child must believe that all their dedication and hard work will result in a partnership that has the elusive qualities that are described in the three phases.
Most kids find the very idea of riding a dressage test rather dull. But kids are the future of the sport, and it’s crucial that you find ways to encourage your children to get into dressage, even if you do have to be a little devious to do so!
Use other disciplines, including jumping, cross-country, Prix Caprilli, and trail riding to catch the imagination of older children, and try including some of the fun games outlined above to enthrall younger kids.
If you have kids, how did you get them interested in dressage? Tell us your secret in the comments box below!
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