For the good of the horse or the glory of the rider…
Updated: Jan 26
“ What has survived centuries of testing is the sum total of pragmatic equestrian knowledge” - Charles De Kunffy (Training strategies for Dressage riders).
Dressage has always fluctuated with fashion, tack, head and neck position, popular trainers, clinicians, etc. What about the horse? Are rider’s educating themselves enough to develop harmony with their horse? Or just the fads of today’s Dressage methods? The sole purpose of Dressage is to fulfill a horse's potential both physically and mentally. “ It is based on mutual understanding, respect, and trust between the horse and rider. It is based on kindness and reward rather than punishment, and it excludes the use of force” (Charles De Kunffy). Is Dressage considered a therapeutic benefit or a destructive race to the ribbons? Most riders today are not concerned with the best interest of the horse but rather the recognition the rider receives.
I have evaluated and rehabilitated many horses that have begun to show resistance. Resistance is shown in signs of reluctance to accept contact to the bit, shortening the neck, stiffness, uneven contact, and irregular rhythm of gaits and lateral movements. Resistance can sometimes be associated with pain or confusion. In trying to protect themselves from pain, the horse may brace against the exercise and never develop necessary muscles to achieve balance. It is so important to understand the meaning of the training scale. The training scale is a guideline for the behavior and physical state in which a horse portrays when it is ready to learn. It is not necessarily meant to be in the exact order but one level cannot exist without another. Without a strong foundation, horses will not be able to reach their full potential.
Horses that seem resistant or defensive to aids from the rider are usually braced somewhere between the jaw and the tail. Horses will defend themselves, or they will submit to the riders' demands. The braced horse may not show signs of pain until changes in behavior eventually show up physically or emotionally. The horse that is braced anywhere in the body will not develop proper muscle asymmetry which just like with people, will eventually lead to discomfort and compensation. How does the horse communicate? The only way they know how-behavior.
The horse should always be schooled with suppleness and fluency. We have to show the horse the correct way of stretching by inviting them, not demanding them for the head and neck to be down. They need the rider's assistance to help them understand how to coordinate their body while carrying a rider. The energy needs to come from behind and over the back in order for the horse to correctly stretch down. The rider must fully understand this concept and obtain the feeling before teaching it to the horse. Connecting the horse to the outside rein is a common misconception. If the horse is being correctly “ connected” with the outside rein, they are able to get the hind leg up and under for balance and strength.
Take time to learn the theory of the Dressage movements. Learn from a trainer that teaches the biomechanics of the horse. There needs to be more communication than, “ forward” and “on the bit.” If you are working with a trainer that will not allow you to move to a higher level without the correct understanding of movements, don’t switch to a trainer that will allow rushing through the levels. Trainers and riders seeking glory at the expense of the horse's comfort are not thinking of the horse. Do your horse a favor by acting as their biggest advocate, the rewards are endless.