In the sport of dressage, the horse should be in some degree of self-carriage during every stage of training. Self-carriage is a state in which the horse can maintain his own rhythm and frame without you, the rider, using your aids to create every single stride. In order to get your horse to reach self-carriage, you must be passive with the aids and let the horse move on his own. Once you are passive for about two or three strides, you can use your aids to improve the horse’s strides. But what exactly does it mean for a rider to be passive? Here are a few techniques to help you get your horse into self-carriage:
The Arms and Reins
You must ride the horse with a passive contact by making your arms elastic. First, let’s focus on your hands. You need to hold the reins between your thumb and top finger, allowing your other finger to move the reins as need. Do not hold the reins with tight fits, as that tightness is likely to translate to your arms. Make sure your wrists are mobile to that you can use them to move the reins. There should be no tension in your lower arms. The muscles of the lower arms are there to keep gravity from taking over. Your back and your upper arms should have positive muscle tension in order to stay tall but soft. The goal is to walk, trot, canter and do your transitions with a quiet contact. You should simply be a part of your horse, following the horse’s mouth with light pressure. After achieving this, you can ask the horse to change his way of going.
The Legs and Seat
You will also need to make your legs passive. This means that your legs allow gravity to pull them down. Your knees should be low, your heels should be down, and you should be able to ride at any gait without utilizing your legs. You’ll want the seat and the back to be passive as well. Let your seat sink down in the the saddle and make sure it stays there no matter what is happening. Your upper body should remain stable but should move with the horse rather than against him. The only time your legs should get tight to the horse’s side is if the horse gets lazy. After briefly using your legs to get your horse out of his lazy state, you should go back to the passive leg position.
Practicing Passive Aids
You need to make sure your aids are passive as well. At the walk, the horse will move his head up and down. You will need to make sure your hands move forward and back to go along with his head. At the trot, the horse’s head stays still, while the rider goes up and down. To be a part of him, you need to make sure your hands stay in one spot by opening and closing your elbows. Your elbows should open a little as you go up and close a little as you go down. In the canter, each stride involves the horse rocking up horizontal and then down every stride, and the rider rocking forward and back. The lower the level of the horse, the more the horse will rock. If you keep your elbows rigid, you will catch the rhose in the mouth when he rocks down. To avoid this, your hands must move forward and back and the elbows must open and close.
Getting your horse in self-carriage is more challenging than it looks. But if you follow these techniques and continue to practice, you will ultimately be able to get the horse in self-carriage.
When we talk about dressage, we discuss the arms and the aids at length. But what about the upper leg? Typically when we address the legs we are referring to the lower legs, but what you do with your upper leg is another important part of perfecting your technique as a rider.
A long, flat thigh is a key part of a classical dressage position. When the thigh is in this potion, the seat bones are pulled down into the saddle, adding stability to the rider’s position. The rider’s seat is made up of the lower back, the lower abdominal muscles, the pelvis, the seat bones, and the thighs. The thigh begins at the hip flexor and runs down toward your knee. Your thigh should be lying flat against the saddle, and the femur should be slightly rotated inward. This should open up your seat bones, let you sit deeply into the horse and cover a large area of the saddle. If you view a correctly positioned rider form the side, the rider’s entire leg lies flat against the horse in a relaxed way, and the knees and toes will point forward.
To achieve this position, you need to develop the ability to stretch the inner adductor muscles in your thighs. If you don’t stretch, you will be tight in the adductor muscle. As a result, the seat bones won’t be able to drop down into the horse, and the hip flexors will stay too tight. At this point you may be wondering about the exact effects that the thighs have on the horse’s movement. Here are a few ways that your thighs influence the horse:
- Shoulder Movement
Your thighs will typically influence the horse’s shoulders. The upper leg combined with the weight aid influences the direction that the horse’s shoulders are moving. To gain the ability to guide your horse’s shoulders, you need to lengthen your upper leg in a relaxed way while maintaining positive muscle tone. Using both seat bones will allow you to channel the horse’s shoulders in the direction that you want the horse to go. If you use one seat bone and thigh on the same side, you will turn or straighten the horse by way of the shoulder that is falling out.
2) Speed control
In addition to using your seat bones and weight aids, you can make your horse stop by slowing the rhythm of your seat in addition to lengthening and firming the inner thigh. Your horse will either slow or stop, depending on the intensity of the aid.
The seat and thigh can also be used to balance the horse. Horses tend to drop their shoulders and withers. If this occurs, you can use the seat, upper legs and upper body to create a balancing half halt. This will engage the the horse’s core and hind legs while rebalancing the shoulders up.
Many young riders want to advance quickly without perfecting their seat and position. This is a mistake, because the seat and position have an enormous impact on your performance. Make sure you work on achieving a long, flat thigh. It is achievable for every body type, and if you dedicate five minutes of your ride each day to work on the your upper leg, you will notice improvement in a few days.
The foundation of dressage is a riders position and balance. How you hold yourself atop a horse will affect everything from direction and speed to rhythm and tempo. Moreover, a properly balanced rider means aids of communication to the horse can be made clearly.
Sounds simple enough, but as anyone who climbs atop a horse for the first time will discover, finding and keeping your balance on a live, moving animal is no easy task. As a result, beginners often grip on tightly with their legs to try to stay upright, and they tend to hang onto the reins at all times. The result is, I suppose, one way of achieving balance, mainly because the horse won’t go forward or bend.
A better way to achieve balance is by unifying a riders movement with their horse, so the two move as one. The more in sync the pair are, the more swift and complex of movements the rider and horse will be able to achieve. Finding the right positioning is essential to quality dressage.
The Dressage Seat
Because positioning is so crucial to directing the horse, the first thing a rider should check if they feel that their horse isn’t picking up on their exact instruction is their own position in the saddle.
In classical terms, the dressage seat is formed by the two seat bones and the pubic bone, which together form a triangular base of support for the rider in the saddle. The rider then, must develop the ability to engage the appropriate core muscles to stabilize this base and allow the hips to move in tandem with the horse’s back muscles.
When engaging the core, you should really be evaluating three parts: lower core (pubic bone to belly button), middle core (belly button to sternum), and the sternum upward through the top of the head. The higher you move up the levels, the more core stability you will need, and the greater awareness you will need of each of these parts.
If you do not engage your core properly, your limbs will try to compensate for what your core fails to balance. For example, if your mid section is slightly leaning to left, your right arm or leg will unconsciously try to compensate, sacrificing your ability to give proper aids.
By maintaining good posture and alignment in all of these areas, you increase your effectiveness in the saddle as well as your ability to use independent, balanced aids.
Once the proper seat is established, we must also make sure that we have a ear-hip-heel alignment. If a rider grips with their knees or sits with their upper body too far back, this alignment can suffer. As the name suggests, the idea is to have the riders ear, hip, and heel in vertical alignment as one rides.
As riders begin to tackle more difficult movements in dressage, this alignment becomes increasingly important.
Moving As One
Your horse will always follow your weight. For example, if you are sitting heavier on one seat bone or collapsed through your hip, the horse is going to follow your seat, no matter what your leg, arm, or mind may be telling him/her to do.
We should see that the joints in the horse’s body reflect the joints in the rider’s body. At all times, a rider must know how much of an aid he/she is using and what the response is from the horse.
Diagnosing Problem Areas
If a rider is having trouble identifying where they are losing connection, an easy way to diagnose the problem is to look at the horse. Horse-and-rider pairs usually reflect one another’s dysfunction, meaning a horse with a tight back often has a rider with a tight back and/or hips, a horse that is pullings usually correlates to a lack of balance in the rider or the combination of horse/rider, etc.
Posture Off the Horse
It is impossible to walk through life with terrible posture, only to come to the barn and perform perfect dressage positioning. Students must train themselves to be aware of their posture at all times (not during training.)
Beyond simple laziness, our modern lifestyles are making proper posture more difficult. Things like working at a desk all day or spending hours behind the wheel during your commute often result in a forward head positioning, rounded shoulders, tight hamstrings, and sore lower backs.
It’s important to incorporate stretches and exercises throughout the day to reinforce proper posture and counterbalance the effects of these often unavoidable daily tasks. Yoga, pilates, and strength building exercises can all help develop a better posture in dressage and in life.
If a rider has a good seat, alignment, and an engaged core, that rider is more likely to be effective. Expression, balance, and suppleness are created when horse and rider can communicate without interruptions caused by poor positioning. Your ability to stay correctly positioned, even as you and your horse are learning, is what will lead you both to dressage success.
Dr. Cesar Parra owns Piaffe Performance, a premier dressage training facility in Whitehouse Station, NJ. For more information, please visit his professional website.
When done correctly, dressage should result in a balanced, harmonious display of teamwork between horse and rider. In the beginning stages of training, dressage helps horse and rider communicate with each other by developing balance, strength, flexibility, and accuracy (elements of the Training Scale.) At its highest level, dressage improves the horse’s ability to use its own body, resulting in seemingly effortless movements that appear light, almost as if the horse is floating across the arena.
Communication between an experienced horse and rider becomes so subtle that the horse often appears to be performing on its own without visible input from the rider. They can perform more spectacular movements, such as the collected and extended gaits, lateral movements, and collected work such as the pirouettes, passages and piaffe. The Lippizan Stallions of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna demonstrate the “haute ecole” or highest degree of training in dressage with the infamous “airs above the ground.”
Dressage tests are designed to show off the horse’s abilities and evaluate its proficiency in training. Because reaching the highest levels of dressage can take years of practice and dedication, there are multiple levels of tests (each increasing in difficulty) that riders and horses of every age, experience level, and mastery can participate in.
Each test has it’s own prescribed series of movements that the riders horse must perform. Tests for the lower and middle levels of the sport are designed by United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), a national governing body of equestrian sport, of which there are 5 levels. The levels go as follows:
Training level: Tests 1,2, 3 & 4
First level: Tests 1,2,3 & 4
Second level: Tests 1,2,3 & 4
Third level: Tests 1,2 & 3
Fourth level: Tests 1, 2 & 3
More challenging tests meant for upper level horses and riders are designed by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), an international equestrian sport association, and they are used in international competitions around the world. The tests go as follows:
Prix St. Georges
Grand Prix Special
The FEI has also designed two tests for Young Riders (ages 15-21) that are roughly equivalent to the Second and Third level’s.
Horses in Olympic competition use the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special tests, and they perform a Musical Freestyle where the horse is required to do flying lead changes every stride, full pirouettes at the canter, piaffe and passage, as well as demonstrating extension and collection at all gaits. It is commonly believed throughout the industry that it takes an experienced trainer with a talented horse at least seven years to train the horse to perform at the Grand Prix Level.
At all levels, competitors ride in front of a judge who observes and evaluates their execution of each movement. While the competitor is riding, the judge’s secretary, or scribe, writes down a numerical score corresponding to the execution of each movement along with the judge’s comments. At the end, the judge gives scores rating the general impression of the horse and rider and their performance overall. The secretary add’s up the total at the end.
Scores range from 0 (not performed) to 10 (excellent). Going off course results in a point penalty. The winning ride is the one with the highest percentage of possible points for that particular test. Winning scores are typically in the high 60’s or 70’s, depending on the level of competition. Competitors are typically given a copy of the judge’s scores and comments to take home with them, so they can improve their weaknesses for future competitions.
Scores are based off of a number of qualities including accuracy, energy, relaxation, consistency, rhythm, tempo, balance, and submission. The judge also considers the horses movement and the rider’s positioning and use of their body. As rider and trainer become more well versed in each movement, the horses expressiveness becomes a factor in scoring.
For a Musical Freestyle where riders chose their own music (typically instrumental), movements, and choreography. Freestyle rides are judged on technical accuracy, use of the music and movements, artistry, and artistic expression.
Two additional types of dressage competitions are the Pas de Deux and the Quadrille. A Pas de Deux consists of two horses and a Quadrille four. Horses perform together, often to music, synchronizing their choreography and movement with the music, their riders, and each other. Participants are judged based on choreography and synchronization, as well as technical and artistic merit.
Dr. Cesar Parra owns Piaffe Performance, a premier dressage training facility in Whitehouse Station, NJ. For more information, please visit his professional website.
Dressage can seem like a complicated and nuanced sport from the outside, and it certainly has those elements, but anyone with an interest and desire to learn absolutely can. Before diving into anything too specific, it’s important to first understand the basics of dressage, as well as what trainers and students around the world refer to as the “Training Scale.”
In dressage, the rider uses his/her weight, legs, and seat to guide the horse. These means of influence are known as the riders “aids”. In order to use the aids correctly, the rider’s body must be aligned with the horse correctly and they must be properly balanced.
From the side, an observer should be able to see the ear, shoulder, hip and heel of the rider in a straight line at the halt. From the back, the rider should sit evenly on both seat bones and an observer should be able to see that the length of the stirrups are the same.
By shifting the riders hips and weight, the rider “ask’s” the horse to move in the direction he/she desires, and step using their gaits of choice. When imagining how to guide the horse, riders should imagine that the horses hips will do what the riders hips do, and the horses shoulders will mimic what the riders shoulders do. Rider and horse move in practically synchronized ways.
Most trainers use what we call the Training Scale.
The German Training Scale is as follows:
Relaxation (sometimes called Suppleness or Looseness)
Though the pyramidal shape leads many to believe that each step it meant to be following progressively, building off the one before it, there is actually lack of unity in Germany regarding how the scale is applied. Some trainers utilize it as a series that they gradually walk their students through one by one, while others see each piece of the pyramid simply as part of the bigger picture of what makes up a great rider, without regards to order or placement on the pyramid.
It is difficult to find the origin of the Training Scale, but the most popular theory is that it originated over a century ago in the Spanish Riding School, whose training is based on the work of the Frenchman, de Ia Gueriniere. Some believe it was derived from the works of Caprilli, others from Sigmund von Haugk. Olympic judge, Nick Williams, researched the scale and determined it’s approximate age to be 100 years old in 2012, with its first mention in the 1912 revised edition of the German Cavalry Manual, the “Heeresdienstvorschrift” (or HDV as it is abbreviated.)
Currently, the FEI is actually reviewing the dressage training methods that are currently in place, and are expected to present a formal revision in the coming months once it is approved by the FEI Bureau.
To learn more about Dr. Cesar Parra’s dressage training experience, please visit his personal website.