No matter how diligently you school your horse, you’re almost certain to encounter problems once in a while.
In this post, we’re going to cover the steps you need to take to troubleshoot those dressage problems.
STEP 1 – Physical issues
Before you do anything else, consider whether there’s any physical reason why your horse is not performing as you want him to.
That’s especially important if the problems you’re encountering have suddenly appeared from out of nowhere.
Here are some of the main areas to double-check.
Teeth and mouth
Dental problems can affect much more than just your contact with the horse’s mouth.
If your horse’s mouth is painful, he will be reluctant to work forward through his back to seek the contact. Some horses become nappy and reluctant to go forward at all if they have discomfort in their mouth.
Remember that older horses can develop dental issues quite quickly, so you should have your horse’s teeth checked more frequently as he ages. If you have a youngster, wolf teeth coming through can sometimes cause problems if they come into contact with the bit, so be vigilant to that.
Also, a startling study found that 52% of event horses had bit-related lesions. These horses were volunteered to have their mouths checked and their riders were shocked that their horses had these lesions. This is a reminder that we should be checking our horse’s mouths regularly.
Bottom line: Have your horse’s teeth regularly checked as recommended by a qualified equine dentist or experienced horse vet, and get in the habit of regularly opening your horse’s mouth to check for any injuries, and to understand how the bit is affecting your horse’s oral health.
Back and neck
Has your horse tweaked his back while clowning around in the field with his mates? Did he get cast in his stall overnight? Maybe you began some new exercises that have left your horse with aching muscles?
Spinal problems and muscular aches are a very common cause of resistance and schooling issues in dressage horses. So, if your horse is showing resistance and hollowing through his back, especially when you ride in a sitting trot or you ask him for more collection, it’s sensible to have your horse checked over by an appropriate equine specialist.
Did your schooling problems first appear when you changed your horse’s bit? Perhaps you bought a new bridle or invested in a beautiful new dressage saddle?
Many times, a change of tack can trigger schooling problems. Even changing a noseband can spark objections in some horses. Remember when you bought that trendy new pair of shoes for yourself, only to find you could barely walk in them? Well, a change of tack can have the same effect on your horse!
First of all, make sure that all your horse’s tack fits correctly. A bit that pinches or a noseband that puts a lot of pressure on the poll can be really upsetting for your horse, and a saddle that sits too low on the withers and pinches every time the horse takes a stride can very quickly cause problems and trigger resistances too.
Ask a qualified saddle fitter to check your saddle and have your instructor ensure that your horse’s bit and bridle are in order.
Often, a horse will lack confidence if you introduce a double bridle too soon, and that can lead to all manner of problems. For example, the horse might work with his mouth open, cross his jaw over, hollow through his back, or remain behind your leg as he doesn’t want to take the strange new contact in his mouth.
STEP 2 – Are you creating the problem?!
Once you’re sure that there’s no physical reason for the problems you’re experiencing, your next point of call to look at yourself.
At the end of the day, you’re the pilot and the one who’s giving the horse the aids. So, if things aren’t going according to plan, you could be at fault.
Here are a few common rider issues that can cause problems with dressage schooling.
Are you sitting straight?
If you sit crookedly, your horse will become crooked, too, as he tries to compensate for you.
Sit up straight and keep your shoulders aligned with your horse’s shoulders.
Related Read: How to Sit Up Straight
Are your hands thinking forwards?
Problems can occur if you are trying to do too much with your hands. Remember that the horse must seek the contact and not have it forced upon him.
A ‘hard’ contact will cause the horse to disengage his hind legs, loose balance, and create tension and resistance.
Make sure that your contact is steady, light and even, and that both hands are allowing the horse to move forwards into the contact.
Are your legs correctly positioned?
If your legs are not stretched down long, they can act as a clothes peg, disrupting your seat and pushing you up out of the saddle so that your weight and seat aids become ineffective.
If you’re following the horse’s bend, your inside leg should be slightly forward than your outside leg. If you have your inside leg too far back, your weight will drop into your outside seat bone and unbalance your horse.
Are your aids clear?
Does the horse understand what you are asking of him and are your aids clear?
Often, problems occur through miscommunication. Either the horse doesn’t know what you’re expecting him to do, or you are making a lot of background noise that’s making your aids unclear.
STEP 3 – Back To Basics
After you’ve checked for physical reasons and looked at your own riding, it’s now time to go back to basics.
Use the dressage Scale of Training as ground zero and work from there. Whatever the problem is, it’s a pretty safe bet that the issue lies in one or more elements of the basic training scale.
So, begin at the bottom of the scale and work your way through each element to work out why things are going wrong.
As you ride, be aware of the horse’s rhythm and tempo.
Does the horse work actively forward? Is the rhythm correct, i.e., walk four-time, trot two-time, canter three-time?
Is the horse working from behind through a supple, swinging back without resistance, or is he hollow and stiffening away from your seat?
- The Scales of Training: Scale 2 – Suppleness
- How to Improve Your Horse’s Longitudinal Suppleness
- How to Improve Your Horse’s Lateral Suppleness
Does your contact with the horse’s mouth feel elastic and “soft”? Is the horse quietly seeking the bit and willingly accepting your hand without tension? Do you have equal weight in both reins, or is the horse tilting his head or blocking you on one side?
Does the horse remain active and push himself forward from his hind leg to your hand? Perhaps the horse has become dead to your leg and is not responsive to your forward aid?
Has the horse become crooked? Is he falling through his outside shoulder or crossing his hind legs over through the corners or on small circles?
Is the horse on his forehand? Does he tend to work croup-high? Does he lose his balance onto his shoulders through downward transitions?
For example …
Here’s an example of how to troubleshoot a common dressage schooling problem by going back to basics:
When you begin teaching shoulder-in, many horses come above the bit, so there’s a problem with the connection. But how do you fix that?
To create that connection, you need the horse to work forward from behind into your outside rein. So, you need to activate the horse’s hind leg and work on his suppleness and impulsion.
Alternatively, the horse might have come above the bit because he lacks straightness. If the horse has too much neck bend to the inside, he will stiffen and lose balance. In that case, you need to work on making the horse straight.
So, you can see that going back to the basic Scale of Training can help to identify what’s causing the problem. Now you can formulate a plan to put right what’s going wrong.
STEP 4 – Improve the ‘ingredients’
If you’re having a problem with a particular movement, don’t keep drilling that same movement over and over again. Instead, practice other exercises that will improve the ingredients of the movement in question.
For example, if the horse is lacking impulsion during a leg yield, rather than repeating the leg yield with increasingly nagging leg aids, ride lots of transitions concentrating on getting the horse to react more promptly to your leg.
Trot-canter and canter-trot transitions on a circle, working trot – medium trot – working trot, and working canter – medium canter – working canter will all be helpful.
Once you feel the hind legs actively stepping under and propelling the horse forward, then you can revisit the leg yield.
STEP 5 – Temporary abandonment
In some cases, the horse may get hung-up on a certain movement. This may be caused by negative past experiences, incorrect training, or the development of bad habits. This results in extreme tension, panic, loss of confidence, and confusion.
The best thing to do here is to abandon the movement all-together for a significant period of time and work on building your horse’s confidence and understanding before re-teaching the movement again from scratch.
Once you have re-affirmed the aids through other movements, and the horse is working in a relaxed and attentive manner, it will be must easier to address and correct the problem.
If you’re experiencing problems with your dressage schooling, you need to take time out to troubleshoot what’s going wrong.
First, make sure that your horse isn’t in any physical discomfort, either from his teeth, from his back, or because of badly fitting tack. Next, take a step back and consider if you are creating the problem through miscommunication. Lastly, re-visit the training scales to see which block(s) are creating the problems.
Once you’ve identified the root cause of what’s going wrong, you can work with your trainer to formulate a plan of action to get you and your horse’s training back on track.