For the Amateur Arabian Horse Exhibitor


The following contribution was made by "Anonymous (1)" on January 1, 2001:


And you thought Dressage Shows just had Grand Prix horses???  Definitely NOT!!!  

For you dressage hopefuls that became hooked after watching canter pirouettes, half-passes, and one-tempi changes across the diagonal last fall in the Olympics, just remember that these riders all started at Training Level way back when.  And the horses?  They weren't born knowing these upper level movements, and they too, started their careers in the dressage court learning how to walk, trot, and canter when (and how) asked.   Every horse, whether it's an Arabian, Clydesdale, or Shetland Pony, can benefit from basic dressage as part of their training.   Some of us also go a bit further and look to dressage as a new beginning.  

After years of riding hunter, western pleasure, and trail, I was extolling the virtues of jogging and loping over poles -- not to mention in circles -- when this 'dressage person' commented that she'd never seen a horse jog and lope when free.  She also commented about all the gimmicks we used to get the nice jog and lope I spoke of.  She went on to comment about how so many of the horses jogging and loping really didn't want to be jogging and loping...and those horses were sending their message loud and clear with wringing tails and pinned ears.  

Before all the rail folks have a fit, I want to be the first one to say I love a nice moving, good looking, western horse.   Especially one that is bred and built for western pleasure.   If people like to compete in rail classes, or working western, that's good.

The main problem I've seen, however, is a mistake in a rail class usually results in the out-gate being your prize.  One obvious problem, and you may be out of the ribbons!!  In dressage competition, most tests have individual scores for over 20 separate movements and you can score low on one movement, yet end up with an excellent overall percentage and win your class.  Most dressage judges look at the positives -- not the negatives -- of a test and like to reward both horses and riders (yes, you are scored on your riding among other things) for correctness.  In addition, you get to see and keep your score sheet. 

Every dressage test is a mini-clinic.  I save each of my tests to see how we've improved over the months.  Most judges also offer advice on how to improve your scores in the test "Comments" section and these can be most helpful.

For me, dressage became a way of life. The daily schooling sessions have taught me tons of patience from dressage and dressage training.   Also, that success comes not from forcing or shoving your horse into a frame but from taking each step slow so that my horse understands what I'm asking from him.  I try to create harmony, throughness, softness, and engagement in each session whether it's being longed or under saddle.   I've realized that a dressage horse is similar to a bodybuilder . . . and that Rome was not created in a day!!  

Much of my training is designed to develop my horse's body which, in turn, will make it easier for him to perform his test movements.  In fact, I can honestly tell you that it's taken over a year to strengthen his back and loin area...and we worked on this in small increments to avoid stress and muscle strain.  We can now show a true lengthening and medium trot that starts, and finishes, with engagement whereas six months ago he was struggling to make it a third of the way across the diagonal before running into the ground. 

So, instead of schooling repeatedly our "running" mediums, I looked to further conditioning as a cure.  Warming up riding "long and low" while keeping impulsion and throughness helped.  My horse also benefited from several days a week on the end of a longe line bitted with sidereins with LOTS of transitions.  And, of course, trail riding in the hills.  I threw a medium trot in once every couple of weeks in my schooling sessions and, lo and behold, they got better.  Finally, one day his shoulders came up, he started using those hind legs, and we powered across the diagonal instead of running across it.  In fact, the first time this happened I was so happy I forgot to transition back to collected canter . . . and still was smiling as he jumped out of the court.  Still, a good boy!!  

Dressage can be about mistakes because without them, you can't successfully train.  I love mistakes!!  The reason why is it gives me a purpose and reinforces just why I love dressage.  A mistake is an excuse to train and teach . . . not punish.  The horse must never learn to fear making mistakes.  A while back, I read somewhere that our tax dollars were used to discover how long it took animals to learn something.  Of the domesticated animals, dogs were pretty high on the intelligence chart but horses weren't that far behind.  The average horse takes about 22 times of "I do this and you do that" before he understands what we want. And all 22 times of this can not happen on the same day.  

Have you ever had one of those knock-down, drag-out schooling sessions when nothing was coming out right??  You kept asking for a left lead canter and your horse would just throw that hip back against your leg, hollow his back, and just plain tell you he wasn't a happy camper. 

You finally got the message through and reminded him he HAD a left lead . . . and sometimes the message delivery wasn't too subtle.  Afterwards, when you're hosing the sweat off of your horse you reflect back on that session and analyze just when things started going to heck in a handbasket.  First of all, you actually did get the left canter lead several times.  A couple of transitions were pretty good ones, too!!   Unfortunately, instead of resting on your laurels and handling left canter applause with aplomb, you had to try for just one more.  "One more" became ten more because that first "one more" was not good.   You insisted, rushed your cues, demanded perfection and immediate response, and your horse is mentally and physically tired and oh so confused.   Why, oh why, did you have to ask for one more left lead canter??   Next time, you'll know better.  Tomorrow, you'll stop after several correct responses and move on to something you know your horse has learned well so you two can quit on a good note.   

Remember, dressage is always about reward.  Look for ways to tell your horse he did well.  Pet him as long as he tries .. . . even if he gets it wrong because once that desire to please is firmly squashed, you've got nothing else to call on.   

Dressage also isn't about today...or even tomorrow.  Maybe next week.  Possibly next month.  And probably by next year.  If your horse presently competes in Training or First Level, Grand Prix won't be in the cards for several years . . . if at all!!  Only a handful of horses have the natural talent to compete successfully at the upper levels and chances are yours isn't one of them.  I know mine isn't either but that's okay.  I take my horse's education seriously but realize that he can't physically DO many of the upper level movements without risking soundness problems.  

For us (my horse and I), it will probably stop at Fourth Level.  Presently, we're solid Second Level, schooling and light showing at Third this coming year, and eyeing Fourth a year after that.  Our shoulder-ins and travers have greatly improved and those movements help create a nice half-pass.  Our counter-canter has both impulsion along with correct bend.  Our circles are really circles, not eggs.  Our flying changes are improving each week. 

Our turns on the haunches don't "stick."  But the absolute hardest, most difficult thing to do in the whole wide world of dressage, is a halt, rein back 4 steps, and move forward in medium walk.  Something that looks so simple in a test can turn to trash on horseback if ridden improperly. 

And when I get a good halt, one that's square and immobile, my joy is immeasurable.  

Dressage also means you never stop learning.  I read Dressage Today faithfully, view and analyze training videos to get another perspective, watch the good riders and trainers school and ride dressage tests, and take as many lessons as I can. 

My instructor is an invaluable tool as she is my eyes on the ground.  She also knows of what she speaks.  Having trained and ridden Grand Prix horses, trained in Germany with Dressage Gods, a Bronze, Silver, and Gold USDF (United Stated Dressage Federation) medallist, and was long-listed for the USET (United States Equestrian Team) Dressage Team, she still finds time to spread some of that knowledge my way.  She has given me confidence and encouragement, with a hint of cattle prod thrown in for good measure, to move up.  Without her help, my horse and I would still be trying to perfect Training Level.   After each lesson, I ask about our homework so we'll have better things to show the next time we meet.  

A dressage trainer is essential; may you all benefit from good instruction.  While I realize I'll never get to Grand Prix with my Half-Arabian, I do know is that dressage training and schooling has improved every facet of my horse.   Training horses starts out by initially taking away the horse's "right to think" as we do most everything for him.  Good trainers eventually give some of that "right" back as they understand that the horse must carry some responsibility for his actions.  By using this philosophy, my horse has gained confidence and trust in me and there's so much more "try," no matter what's asked of him.  Dressage has made him fun again!!

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