Saturday, July 25, 2009

Is it REALLY dressage?

Dressage means "training". We hear that phrase all the time now from people in specialties other than Dressage. The reason we are hearing this really has little to do with people actually believing that "dressage" has anything to do with the kind of training THEY are doing with their horses, but some BNT (Big Name Trainer) that is respected in their specialty said it, so they are just giving in and saying it too. It is kind of a slight, actually, since it is usually said in the context of "okay, not that dressage stuff again--here we go--yes, yes, dressage is the foundation of all riding...I know, I know, blah, blah, blah."

How did we get here? I think I can answer that question. As Dressage (the specialty) has developed here in the United States, and has gained a more mainstream understanding, more and more people have come to understand that the dressage principles DO apply to all primary training of the horse, no matter what the horse will specialize in as it progresses through its physical and psychological development.

And here is where I believe we get the misunderstandings, and hence, the eye-rolling dismissiveness. So let's try this. Let's compartmentalize the training of the horse away (or apart) from the specialties. Let's call the basic training of the horse just that. BASIC TRAINING. The basic training of the horse (and rider, for that matter) should be the same, no matter what s/he will specialize in later in their development.

The principles of this basic training should be the same as those applied in what is dressage. We (Dressage people) call it the Training Scale. The basic elements of the training scale are:


In other words--it is NOT DRESSAGE (yet). Those principles are the only correct path of BASIC TRAINING. It is the only set of principles that will lead you to having a horse that can specialize into any discipline they are physically and mentally capable of. Even for horses that will ultimately BE Dressage horses.

For the sake of argument, let's agree for a moment that Dressage is a specialty or discipline, just as Stock Seat, Western Pleasure, Hunt Seat, Polo, Jumpers, Gymkhana, Reining, Cutting, etc. etc. etc., are specialties or disciplines.

The basic training for all these disciplines should follow the same principles listed above and the same training scale (sequence and methodology of those principles)--to a point in their training where their specialty dictates that the horse acquire a different or specialized posture or level of tension (not the bad tension, but the good tension needed for movement at speed). That is why we call them specialties! And that is the point at which you listen to the horse to decide what his future path will be.

But let's define the goal of basic training a little more specifically.

I believe that a trained horse should be able to move in balance and relaxation through all the figures and movements through the third level movements in found in competition dressage tests. This means that the horse should be able to travel rhythmically (regular four-beat walk, two-beat trot, three-beat canter) on straight and bending lines down to the arc of the 10meter circle, change direction without losing balance under the rider at walk, trot, and canter (including single flying changes), go freely and willingly forward (suppleness) allowing itself to be molded by the seat/leg/rein aids (contact), have a spring in its step that coincides with its natural ability and conformation (impulsion), can shorten and lengthen its stride in all gaits, can move laterally in balance away from and into the direction of the bend, can come to halt and move from halt freely and confidently, and can halt/reinback straight and rhythmically/trot on. (straightness and the beginning of collection).

This addresses the elements of the BASIC training scale and allows the horse to move into its specialty with enough athletic development to be the best they can be in their specialty and as much as possible, prevent injury. At the very least, the horse will be a joy to ride, whether you use an English saddle or a Western one.

So here is my point to all this. I think we (dressage people) should stop calling “it” dressage until after third level, when it moves into the specialty phase of training. Let’s call the “lower levels” basic training. What say you?


  1. Nice post - couldn't agree more about what basic training should require in all disciplines.

  2. Very astute, very clear, indeed brilliant put. If all riding/jumping specialties would adopt this "basic" training, wonderful result would show up everywhere. But that ain't realistic. Within dressage, however, the division you propose should be consciously adopted. There is a difference--as there is between college and post-graduate education.