Question: I am interested in learning more about what it means to train a horse using dressage principles.
Answer: There is a lot of current interest in the principles of western/cowboy dressage but these principles have been around for a long time. They are established, traditional, classical, and proven but as with any principles, they can be misinterpreted and misused. If the principles are misunderstood or not followed, the exercises will not be done correctly. Training a horse utilizing dressage principles will improve quality of movement, lightness, cadence and engagement. To really answer your question, there is a lot of material to cover. We’ll start with the basics.
The first principle of dressage is that the horse must go forward.
The horse must be obedient to my legs when I ask it to go forward at any gait. The horse must move smartly into a nice forward gait with good energy and attitude. When a horse is being trained, this may not happen immediately. I have had many dressage and western horses here at the barn that have been extremely behind the leg. This means they do not move forward with energy and may require a crop or spur as follow through to get them to move. In every discipline, to perform correctly, the horse must go forward. Even a horse used only for pleasure or trail riding must be responsive to the leg and go forward.
Sometimes when I ask a horse to go forward, either it is unruly and jumps out with too much energy and goes right into a runaway trot or it is behind the leg and moves with no energy. When there is no energy, I have to follow through to get life into the feet. I start by squeezing lightly and clucking. If there is no response, I follow through and up the pressure with a spur or crop.
All exercises and activities employ forward movement. For example, you must start with good forward movement as you begin a leg yield, as you get into the lateral movement, there is a loss of energy. When a horse begins a leg yield, it begins to shut down because the movement requires a different way of using the body. This is also true of a horse doing a turn around. Any time a horse is using its body in other than a straight line, it requires more energy, more exertion because it needs to use more body parts. If the horse is on the forehand and not under itself, it is really difficult for the horse to pick up its feet and go into lateral motion smoothly.
It does not matter how long it takes you to get to the point that when you ask, your horse moves out with energy. If you are an occasional rider, it may take you a week or longer, depending on the level of your standards and expertise. I have riders tell me that they do the exercises but get no results. This is because they do the exercises incorrectly. Sometimes riders are so involved in the goal, say a turn on the haunches or leg yield, they forget the principles, shut down the horse and fail to correct anything along the way. For example, if you get so involved in the turn on the haunches that you accept the loss of energetic forward movement and fail to urge the horse forward you will wind up trying to drag the horse through the turn on the haunches.
Another important aspect of dressage is the stop/halt.
Once energetic forward movement is established, we must be able to stop correctly. Many riders want to pull back on the reins but this is wrong. There is a classical cue and a reining cue but the easiest cue for a horse to understand is to simply sit deep in your pockets and, I like to say, quit riding. This is a method that works for me, even with a reining horse. I have had dressage horses in here that could do a great stop with softened hocks. I don’t want them to do a sliding stop but by keeping the hocks soft, the horse will come to a nice square halt because it comes from behind. So a stop or whoa cue is very important.
Your back up cue should generate smooth movement as if the horse is on roller blades.
While I don’t push the back up cue, if I ask a horse to stop and he doesn’t listen, I stop him and ask him to take a step back as motivation. As I progress, it may become three or four steps. I want my back up cue to generate smooth movement with the head slightly down and the back rounded.
Consistency and follow through make for a good response to a light cue.
We want obedience to our hands and legs. Years ago, when I started working with problem horses, most of the horses I worked with were hunter/jumper and dressage horses. I worked with a variety of dressage trainers to gain an understanding of the principles and language, as well as the language of the horse. Learning to understand your horse is where you build the relationship. The horse learns what you want and is not confused. The horse must be obedient and that may mean increasing the pressure until the horse responds. I mentioned that I lightly cue a horse with my leg and if the horse does not move off that pressure, I bump and if there is no response, I tickle the horse with my spur. Once I get a reasonable response, I stop. I don’t want a big reaction but I am consistent in my request, increasing the pressure until the horse responds. Once we go through this routine a few times, the horse becomes sensitive to the light touch and moves off my leg promptly. This is obedience and there is nothing negative in this. A horse that understands what you want will trust you and be happier and this strengthens your relationship with your horse.