Training

Fundamental Skills for Successful Dressage Riders

Christilot Boylen gets ‘back to basics’ and identifies the elementary skills that, she says, many of today’s dressage riders are lacking.

Thumbnail for Fundamental Skills for Successful Dressage Riders

By: Christilot Boylen |

Many elementary skills are lacking in today’s dressage riders that are necessary to develop correct position and the ability to effectively influence the horse. If you are struggling at the higher levels, you may need to get back to these key basics.

Faults and problems in the development of the rider and/or horse almost always can be traced back to fundamental issues early on in the training. For example, horses that are not gymnasticized to be straight on the straightaways and properly bent on the circle on both hands will inevitably have problems as they progress from the basic levels to the higher levels. Gymnastic work not done at second level will not suddenly resolve itself; the stiffer side not dealt with at second level will only make the third level requirements more difficult.

Riders who have not developed the skills to ride accurate corners and accurate 20- and 15-metre circles will hardly do better with smaller circles and increased lateral work at third level.

Transition work – walk-to-trot, trot-to-canter, canter-to-trot – is also a basic skill for both horse and rider that is often just not done well enough, early enough.

After carefully watching the Young Riders and other classes in Ottawa a few weeks ago, I really felt, with a few exceptions, that the riders were “over their head” in the tests. Most did not have the basic and intermediate skills to “connect” their horses and show three balanced gaits with the appropriate level of collection. Many had serious flaws in their basic positions, which was the fundamental reason why the other points mentioned were not achievable.

The two most common position faults I observed were 1) unquiet hands and arms that were stiff and unable to create an elastic contact to the horse’s mouth; and 2) ineffective leg positions that were unquiet in their contact. These issues will hamper them as they try to move up the ladder to the U25 or senior ranks. Developing better horses is, of course, tied to this problem.

I was very happy indeed when I discovered Beth Baumert’s book When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics. I have spent many hours translating articles and notes from German to English and discovering over and over again that the English translation wasn’t quite the same as the German meaning. Beth’s book is the best technical dressage book explaining the classic dressage system in English that I have ever read and belongs in every rider’s library – especially coaches and trainers. Following are some key points from the book detailing the important early steps of developing the rider’s correct position and ability to influence the horse correctly.

Powerlines Channel the Horse

The rider’s elastic, upright strength creates pathways of energy that I call “Powerlines,” through which energy can flow. The rider’s Powerlines are absolutely straight. They stabilize her position. And, as energy goes through them, they channel the horse’s energy and sculpt (shape) his body by providing supple but solid boundaries within which the horse can balance easily. In this situation, the horse can stay in a frame that’s comfortable and yet one that stays underneath his rider’s seat.

If the horse follows his own path instead of his rider’s, he goes “out of bounds” and “runs into” the rider’s stretchy but firm Powerlines. If that isn’t enough to put the horse back on the rider’s path, the rider must give an active aid to remind her horse to stay “within bounds.”

When a rider uses active aids unnecessarily, the horse may challenge her – sometimes negotiating, leaning on the aids, or overreacting to them. However, when a horse runs into a Powerline, he is less likely to challenge it, because he actually caused the aid to happen through his own actions – not the rider’s. As a result, the aid is more likely to be perceived as an “absolute truth.”

Rider’s Upper Arms

The rider’s elbows work with flexible but stable upper arms that frame and channel the horse. FEI 5* judge and top trainer Lilo Fore helps riders align themselves with their horses by asking them to imagine their upper arms as pillars that frame and stabilize the rider’s core and the horse’s forehand. The rider’s hips move with the horse’s motion toward the contact, directing the horse’s energy through these pillars onto the line of travel.

Rider’s Wrists and Hands

When your wrist is in a middle position it’s as straight as it is when you shake hands, and your energy flows freely through the wrist and hand toward the bit. The back of your hand forms a straight line through the back of your forearm; this is the desired basic riding position. Your supple wrist asks for flexion by moving your knuckles smoothly from the middle position toward your belt buckle. A hollow wrist – in which the wrist rotates the knuckles away from the rider’s center – is a tense wrist; it’s an unnatural position and it blocks the flow of energy.

Try This at Home:

Monitor and Regulate the Flexion
This exercise will help your horse learn how to respond to your rein aids appropriately. If your horse is like most, he will mistakenly respond by misaligning his barrel and hindquarters when you use the rein. This teaches him to stabilize his body and respond only by flexing.

Step 1. At a halt, use your left fingers and wrist (not your arm) to flex your horse very slightly (centimeters or inches) to the left – keeping a light contact with the right rein. How far should you flex him to the left? Just until his crest “flips” to the left. Stay there for 5 to 15 seconds, until he feels comfortable and you have a good visual of how much flexion is required to flip the crest.

Step 2. Then, with light contact in both reins, slowly position your horse to the center and then to the right. Notice how much flexion is required to flip the crest to the right. It may not be the same as it was to the left. You will need to know this information in the future when you adjust your horse’s flexion during changes of direction in walk, trot, and canter.

If your horse is restless during this exercise, be patient. Consider his restlessness a reflection of the degree of agitation he might have in walk, trot, and canter from a simple aid for changing flexion and direction. If he backs up, it’s a reflection of how he might back off the connection in walk, trot, and canter during a change of flexion and direction. Just observe, and then you may need to support him with your seat and legs so he thinks forward and doesn’t back up, fall left, or fall right when you change the flexion. Quietly ask him to step forward and straight; then repeat. At first, he might not understand that your flexing aids are only for influencing his poll and jaw—not his entire body.

When you are successful, you’ve stabilized his body and made it independent from your rein aids. This is a big step in suppling your horse!

When your horse feels comfortable with changing the flexion at the halt, pay the same attention to flexion in walk, trot, and canter. You may not be able to see it as clearly, but pay attention to it anyway. In time, your horse will stay relaxed and committed to the bridle during changes of flexion and direction.

Essential Information about Equine Flexion

• Suppleness of the poll is a prerequisite to relaxation and suppleness in the entire spine. It enables a swinging back.

• The primary flexion aid is the inside leg and the supplementary aid is the inside fingers and wrist.

• The horse is always flexed either to the right or to the left, so there is always an “inside” and an “outside” of your horse. You can determine the flexion by checking to see which way the crest is flipped. The crest never stays in the
middle. It is either left or right.

• Over-flexion is common. You have enough flexion as soon as the crest flips. Correct flexion is the basis for correct alignment and bend, which is necessary for correct connection and collection.