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Perfecting the Walk, Trot, and Canter

Perfecting the Walk, Trot, and Canter by Dr Cesar Parra

Walk ~ 3 – 5 mph, 1-2-3-4 Beat
Trot ~ 8 – 9 pmh
Canter ~ 11 – 17 mph

When riders are first introduced to horse riding, they are taught three simple gaits at which the horse may move: walk, trot, and canter. However, many never perfect them, in large part because of a common misconception about how to shift the horse between each.

Many riders today believe that when switching between gaits, there needs to be a transfer of energy to the horse, almost as if the rider is stepping on the accelerator pedal and injecting more energy into the horse. However, this sudden injection of energy makes the transition awkward and abrupt, the opposite of what we want to achieve in dressage.

When competing in such a precise environment like dressage, it is crucial to make each movement as fluid as possible, with little to no excess movement. Rather than abruptly communicating a change in pace to the horse, speed should be increased gradually in order to give the movement a smooth and effortless appearance. You should be using your posture, which should be relaxed yet firm, to communicate these changes, not a sudden charge in energy.

Do not let too much energy flow into the horse when increasing speed, but rather maintain energy and simply let the speed increase gradually. Implementing a firm body position on the horse will need to be practiced, as it will take some getting used to. The horse must learn from the rider and must also have time to adapt to the new changes.

A second area to work on when perfecting the different gaits of a horse involves the transitioning positions when increasing speed. Be sure to practice consistent transitions as the horse will be primed when making the next move. Be sure to allow the horse to gradually pick up in speed, slowly altering the steps. It is crucial to avoid hurried steps in the gait because this may look unbalanced and will also cause stress on the horse.

Also, keep in mind that when halting, transitions are key as well. Slowing the horse with an outflow of energy is crucial to make the movement fluid and precise. Maintaining consistent power on the decrease is going to be a bit tougher than controlling it on the increase.

Overall, the key to perfecting the different gaits of riding lies in the body positioning and the perfection of key transitions. These two aspects of riding and performing are fairly simple, but can make a lasting impression on judges when done correctly.Dressage is a sport of controlled power, so understanding where these movements come from will be key in understanding how to control them. In every aspect, fluidity is key.

7 Ways to Boost That Dressage Score

7 Ways to Boost That Dressage Score by Dr. Cesar Parra

Dressage is considered one of the most skilled forms of exhibition riding in the equestrian world today. With highly skilled competition comes highly skilled judging. It is obvious then that correct execution on even the littlest things in dressage can make a big difference. Here are seven quick tips that can dramatically improve your score.

  1. Always assure accuracy when performing circles and loops. If a rider performs sloppy loops, it lets the judges know that they haven’t properly measured 15m and 5m paths when practicing. Poorly timed loops can also throw off the rest of the movements which may spiral out of control, resulting in a poor score.
  2. Be sure to give time for preparation when making a transition. Allow the horse to process each transition. If the call for the transition is late, then the transition is definitely going to be late. Smooth movements can ultimately rely on responsible timing.
  3. Put an extra emphasis on circles and loops. An unnatural circle shape can cause the horse to lean in and look off balance. All loops and circles should be a fluid stroke, creating a smooth uniform movement.
  4. When riding in competition, avoid the medium paced trot. Always be able to present a clear difference between a slow trot and a faster paced trot. Once a horse gets into a medium trot it can also be hard to pull them back into control.
  5. Fully understand the “give and retake.” Riders have created many variations, so it can be beneficial to learn the official movements and definition as outlined by the FEI.
  6. Remain calm when making a mistake. This is the top factor that makes riders come off as inexperienced. Always maintain composure and focus on the next movement. One blow movement is better than ten. Horse dressage is just as mental as it is physical, so be in control of your emotions as much as you are in control of your horse.
  7. It’s essential to avoid overshooting the center line. This, again, makes the horse look unbalanced and stressed. Do not start too close to the marker, and always allow the horse to anticipate the movement.

The most important thing to take away from this is to always allow the horse to anticipate movements. It is your job to prep them for that anticipation. Always start transitions and movements a tad bit early and practice those movements prior to competition.

The Benefits of a Dressage Judge’s Perspective

The Benefits of a Dressage Judge’s Perspective by Dr. Cesar Parra

While riders usually want to focus exclusively on training, riding, and competing, becoming a dressage judge can offer many advantages, both in terms your own expertise and your contribution to the sport as a whole.

The Impact on The Sport

The benefits of judging stem from the fact that navigating through the numerous requirements and parameters of the USEF judging program gives you a deep understanding and appreciation of what judges really bring to the table. Most riders see that judges have to deal with frustrated riders who blame them for their low scores, but being a dressage judge is so much more than that.

Judges are given a unique opportunity in the sport: they get to impact how the dressage world views, talks about, and conducts dressage riding, training, and even teaching. Many riders who later become judges have attested to the fact that even though judging is a big commitment in terms of time and resources, it is certainly a worthwhile and rewarding experience to invest oneself in the education and development of the community and sport they love. At the end of the day, your role as a judge is to shape the future of the sport by rewarding good training and guiding the rest of the riders on how they can do better next time.

The Impact on Yourself

Dressage is also one of the few sports where you have to prove that you can perform what you will ultimately be judging. In other words, not everyone can become a judge. You must first apply to enter a judging program and you must prove your competence of the sport by having earned scores above the level that you will be learning to judge. For example, you can start by getting your USDF “C” license. This is a great way develop a good eye for what simpler things, like a straight entrance or a balance transition should really look like. Studying the Judging Terms in the USDF Glossary will also give you a whole new perspective on what kind of comments you should be offering to competing riders. Instead of sharing your personal or general opinion on what a rider could improve on, you will develop specificity in your observations and formulate informed, more helpful comments.

Aside from developing an appreciation for correct basics, judging dressage shows can also help you become more attentive to the basics of the Training Scale instead of just focusing on the description of the movement. As a judge, you will always be an advocate for the horses. Hence, you will learn not only to correct the rider’s position, but also to assess how the aids affect the performance of the horse. You will learn to always keep a close eye on rhythm issues, and you will be able to differentiate clearly between impulsion issues and submission issues.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, becoming a dressage show judge will improve and refine your skills as a rider. You will not only gain a clearer perspective on what quality riding should look like, but you will also have the opportunity to see first-hand the impact attention to detail and fine-tuning. Obtaining both of these perspectives will undoubtedly help you know where you, as rider, can continue to work on and where the sport in general should be moving towards in the future.

Dr. Cesar Parra owns and operates Piaffe Performance, a premier dressage training facility in Whitehouse Station, NJ. For more information, please visit his professional website.

Optimizing Your Horse’s Balance


Optimizing Your Horse's Balance by Dr. Cesar ParraThe key to fostering and maintaining a long and healthy life for dressage horses is balance. As a rider, having a keen sense of balance entails riding your horse in a way that empowers the horse’s body, as opposed to putting more weight and stress on the horse’s frame.

Unfortunately, horses are naturally built to have a few balance issues, even without the weight of a rider. Hence it’s up to the rider to manage those issues and achieve the desired balance for the horse. Once the rider is able to do that, he or she will notice how their horse will automatically feel free to move forward and perform beautifully without enduring any tension.

Specifically, the balance issues horses tend to suffer from are longitudinal, also known as back to front. Naturally, horses are inclined to be more eager with the forehand than they are with the hindquarters. Moreover, they are innately build on the forehand because of their large, protruding head and neck. This tendency leads the forehand and the hindquarters to not always be coordinated with one another. Ever wonder why your horse tends to initiate movement with just his front end? Back to front balance issues – this is why.

Most horses are pretty unconscious about their hind, so they end up dragging their hind end as if it was a trailer being pulled by their front. Another way to think about this is: your horse’s front end acts like the pulling engine, while your horse’s hind end acts as the pushing engine. This becomes a problem when the pulling engine is dominant in the moment of an upward transition. If this happens, the horse gets a bit too long in the frame, it gets hollow in the back with its shoulders down, and sometimes uneasy in the hand. Whereas, when the hind end is the dominant force, it causes the horse to cover ground and has the effect of lifting the forehand.

You might be asking– so if the horse is innately built to have balance issues, how can I, the rider, improve or better yet, solve these issues? The best tools a rider can use are half halts and transitions. Through these exercises you can train the horse to respond with his back and hindquarters to your seat and leg aids.

For example, when it comes to the half halts, the rider can gently teach the horse to wait with his forehand and work more specifically with the hindquarters. While the half halt can take on many meanings, the primary message from the rider to the horse is “balance under me.” The best balance will be achieved when the center of gravity of the rider is directly over the center of gravity of the horse, and the horse is able to step with his inside hind foot directly under that mark.

When it comes to transitions, the rider is essentially sending the same message to the horse as with the half halts (“balance under the me.”) For example, when you teach your horse a downward transition, you are essentially teaching him to wait with the forehand and carry the weight with the hindquarters. On the other hand, when you introduce him to an upward transition you are encouraging him to thrust and reach with the inside hind leg under your center of gravity. Both kinds of transitions help the horse carry the weight from the front to the back, hence improving their balance issues.

Ultimately, how you optimize your dressage horse’s balance is going to be up to you, the rider. Depending on your assessment of your horse’s strengths and what he can improve upon, you will decide what you want from your horse’s hindquarters. Perhaps it’s power, posture, or your horse’s reach. Regardless, you will adjust the exercises accordingly, always keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is to improve your horse’s overall balance, head to toe.

Dr. Cesar Parra owns and operates Piaffe Performance, a premier dressage training facility in Whitehouse Station, NJ. For more information, please visit his professional website.

Mastering Your Dressage Position

Mastering Your Dressage Position by Dr. Cesar Parra

As many of us already know, in the sport of dressage the muscles of a horse and a rider must work together almost like linked chains. If executed correctly, these muscles will form lines that will pull along several tracks within the body. Having these lines present in the riders’ minds, especially while riding, will undoubtedly enhance ease and control for both the rider and the horse. Two of the most talked about lines are the ones that can potentially bring balance to the front and the back of the body. These lines are called the superficial front line (SFL) and the superficial back line (SBL).

Aside from the superficial front and back lines, riders should also take into consideration lateral lines (LL). These are the lines that run down the sides of the body, starting at the ear and ending at the outer arch of the foot. The lateral lines meet SBL and SFL along the lines of a rider’s suspenders. Without having stability of these four lines, riders will not have ability to stack their midlines over the horse, therefore compromising posture, steering, and overall riding execution. But when riders do in fact activate and manage to control all four lines, they begin to share a powerful muscle-chain-to-muscle-chain connection that can easily lead the team to success. This muscle-chain-to-muscle-chain connection can be tricky to acquire, but with the help of repetitive isometric exercises and practice, it can definitely be achieved. Here’s how:

Step 1: Find a firm chair and sit on it. Make sure your seat bones are pointing down, your feet are flat on the floor, and your legs are slightly apart. Observe the symmetrical V shape that forms between your inner thighs.

Step 2: Place the edge of your hands on one of the suspender line boards. Make the outer third of your body shift towards your midline by slightly rotating your body to advance that specific board. Keep in mind that the board that joins the back and front of each suspender line divides your torso into three parts: right, middle, and left. Firm up your body and move it over.

Step 3: Come back to a neutral position.

Step 4: Repeat Step 2 and observe how the symmetrical V shape that forms between your inner thighs changes. The side of the thigh that has advanced in Step 2 becomes larger and stronger, while the other side becomes shorter and weaker.

Step 5: Continue to perform this exercise while riding in walk. As you repeat, make sure that as you are bringing one board closer and closer to the horse’s midline, you are also letting the other one get away from it. Depending on your horse’s personality, he may respond differently to steering, but for now, let that be the case.

Step 6: Once your awareness of each board has improved, go ahead and practice with both boards on. Always remember to put on the board of the weaker side first, and keep it in place. Then proceed to put on the other board. Your middle third will be squashed by each board and will be made narrower. By making your middle third narrow you will allow each board to line up with the inside edge of the horse’s back muscle, which is the main goal.

As you continue to exercise and master the skill of this position, you will become accustomed to the unnatural sensation of your posture. At the end of the day, grabbing such control over your lateral lines is the kind of stabilization you need to get to if you want to be able to effectively ride both sides of your horse.

Dr. Cesar Parra owns and operates Piaffe Performance, a premier dressage training facility in Whitehouse Station, NJ. For more information, please visit his professional website.

Your Guide to Dressage Show Season Prep

Your Guide to Dressage Show Season Prep by Dr. Cesar Parra

There’s never such thing as too much preparation, especially when it comes to getting you and your horse ready to perform spectacularly during show season. Here’s a handy month-to-month list you can use as you take each and every step forward towards success. If you happen to work around different calendar dates, feel free to adjust them according to your pre-season and season dates. Good luck!

December: A time of relaxation and evaluation.

This is the perfect time to assess where you and your horse are at. Have both of you benefited from the downtime? Are you mentally and physically ready for what’s to come? Here’s when you should start thinking about what kind of work both of you should be focusing on moving forward.

January: Plans begin to take shape.

During December you started thinking in broad terms about what kind of work you want to do, but now it’s time to get more specific. Early in January, talk to your trainer about what level you should be preparing to show. By late January, you should be able to adequately perform every test run you want to show.

This is also an important month because it’s the time you should be renovating all your memberships, such as your U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF), U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF), and Group Member Organization (GMO).

February: Show dates are published; lock in those dates!

When receive the current Omnibus, begin to plan out your show season according to your region’s released dates and locations. If you haven’t received an Omnibus, get in touch with your GMO.

In terms of planning out your show season, there are several factors you should take into consideration. The most important thing you need to figure out is your individual goals. Depending on what they are, your plans can take many different forms. For example, if you want to qualify for regional championships, you must participate in at least two shows. Other elements to factor into your plans are calendaring (how many shows you want to do a month) and lodging (the sooner you book hotels, the better).

Because every region varies when it comes to dates, the best way to help you stick to this checklist is by assessing the time between your prep and your show. Let the countdown begin!

Two months to the show: Rules & Uniform

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing this for, it’s important your read up on the USEF Rulebook, because believe it or not, some of these rules tend to change quite often.

You want to make sure you’re abiding by every rule, so when the day of the show comes, you’re not disqualified due to a tiny detail you simply didn’t know about. Moreover, attire is a big part of the rulebook. Not only should you make sure the attire fits the requirements, it’s also important that it fits your body. Try it on and test it out. You and your horse must be comfortable in it, or it could inhibit your performance.

One month to the show: Memorize dressage tests.

This month, the most important thing you need to focus on is memorizing your dressage test. Memorize everything; don’t leave anything to the reader.

Two weeks away: Ride your tests.

Now’s the time to ride your tests. Up until now you’ve probably been practicing pieces here and there, but now you take it from the top and ride the whole thing. Doing so will give you a much better sense of what to expect the day of the show and what last minute tweaks you should be working on.

One week away: Strategize this week’s schedule.

Plan out this week so that your horse peaks the day of the event, not earlier. By now you should know your horse better than anyone else. You know when he feels better and when he needs a break. So be very careful how you plan out the schedule during the week leading to the show.

At the show: The big day!

Hopefully you and your hose have worked really hard in the days leading up to today. Do your best, and don’t forget to enjoy every second of it!

Dr. Cesar Parra is the owner of Piaffe Performance, a premier dressage training facility in Whitehouse Station, NJ. For more information, please visit his professional website.