NFED Special Interest

Dressage – why?? by Fiona Macdonald
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The purpose of this article is as an introduction to dressage – how to start, how to improve and ultimately how to succeed. I started in pure dressage some twenty years ago when I decided eventing was not for me, and was lucky enough to purchase a lovely schoolmaster from Germany (at a time when this wasn’t so fashionable so he was reasonably priced) – I owe that horse so much – what a patient teacher he was and we had a lot of fun together. Since then I have trained various horses of my own (and of other people’s) to fairly high levels, but have never lost the basic enjoyment of a horse trying hard for me and enjoying his job.

One of the most important aspects of dressage is that, unlike sports such as showjumping where it is very clear to the rider when a mistake has been made – either a fence falls or the horse stops or runs out – dressage is by its nature more subjective – what the judge sees is what will determine your success, and how many of us have complained about the visual prowess of a judge or their mental state at the time of our test?

Here are a few hints and tips that I have collected over the years since I made the transition from eventing to dressage (too many falls from too many horses – I still fall off now but usually not at such high speed!!):-

    • Dressage is for any horse and any rider. You do not need an expensive warmblood to succeed, nor do you need to be very tall, slim with legs that go all the way up to your armpits! There are plenty of examples of horses of all shapes and origins doing well in the sport, and riders come in all shapes and sizes. What makes a dressage horse? – a horse which has reasonable paces, is sound and has a trainable attitude.
    • For the rider, the most important features are the ability to seek and take help and instruction, whether it is from an instructor or even a friend with the ability to be ‘eyes on the ground’ (or most valuable, a patient schoolmaster who will only perform the movements if you ask properly! However, these equine jewels are rare.)
    • Use of a video camera if possible (very useful to have your tests filmed – it can be a humbling experience and I certainly don’t complain about visually impaired judges since I started using one) – if you have no-one to film you while you are schooling at home, simply set the camcorder up on a tripod in the corner of your school and let it run during your training session – then you can at least see part of your work-out and more importantly what you felt and what it will look like to a judge. Film your lessons.
    • Install a mirror if you can in your schooling area. It need not be expensive – I have one which I made from an ordinary household mirror, backed with marine plywood, and I have used this (and moved it around the country) for the last 10 years. Just one quick glance in the mirror can tell you so much about your position and the horse’s.
    • Practise, practise and practise – your horse must have the opportunity to develop the muscles to carry out the required movements with ease (and so must you). One of the often quoted questions is – ‘does your horse not get bored with being schooled so often?’. The answer – if a horse is moving comfortably, and not being worked to the point of muscle fatigue and consequent pain, why should it be bored? If the rider isn’t bored, and at least in theory the rider should have a higher IQ than the horse (sometimes I wonder….) then why should the horse be bored? It is out of the stable, in the fresh air, exercising – probably much nicer surroundings than a gym – and hopefully having praise as well.
    • But if you practise tests too much, won’t the horse learn them and then anticipate? Well, one of the purposes of schooling is to train the horse to wait for the aid – in a test you set up the movement, and the horse must learn to wait for the aid before he/she executes the movement. Therefore practising a test to practise this aspect of test riding should not cause a problem ‘on the day’ – in fact it can often be very illuminating to ride a test at home as though you were in the competition arena, without stopping and trying again if you get a movement wrong. Combined with eyes on the ground, a mirror or the video camera it can be very revealing, and it is surely far better to make the inevitable mistakes at home away from public eyes. However, as with everything, keep it in moderation. Test riding can be surprisingly tiring, especially for young horses.
    • And, finally, remember the aim of the sport is to produce a ‘happy athlete’. There are no shortcuts.
    • Remember the 4 ‘C’s –

      1. Clarity – of your aids to your horse (it is your fault if your horse is confused!!) and of your purpose in schooling/training/competing

      2. Consistency –again of your aids

      3. Calmness – when things go wrong, as they inevitably will

      4. Competitions – no better forum to establish progress – we can all be World Champions at home!!

The next article will deal with how to start – I will build up from the real basics – so often talked about but not so often practised. These basics can be applied to any discipline since the whole purpose of dressage training/ schooling/ flatwork (three names for the same basics) is to make your horse or pony more obedient and more supple and hence able to find its particular job easier and hence much more pleasant to ride.

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