In dressage, your position is critical to being able to move with your horse, which in turn is important for feeling the communication that your horse gives you and this allows you to give precise, well-timed aids without interfering with your horse. A good position creates a balanced rider, necessary for riding in harmony.
An important aspect of the rider’s seat is balance. As soon as the rider’s balance is lost, the horse also becomes unbalanced and heavy in the forehand, leaning on the rider’s hand. A good position allows the rider to maintain balance in movement with the horse, whereas an unbalanced rider impedes the horse’s natural movement.
There is a lot of information about the correct position, and whilst the basic principles of posture for the dressage seat remain the same, it is important to apply them in relation to each rider. The position of a tall rider will not necessarily look the same as the position of a shorter rider, especially on different shaped horses.
A common phrase used for dressage riders’ position is a deep seat, which refers to the ability of the rider to move their pelvis and lower back in complete harmony with the horse’s back movement. This seat is developed by having your leg stretched out from the hip, around the horse’s rib cage without gripping, and your upper body balanced over their seat bones, without wobbling from side to side or backwards and forwards. In this position, your spine can move precisely with the movement of the horse’s spine.
Once the rider loses balance, they often resort to gripping with the legs or pulling on the reins to regain their balance, or just to stay with their horse! When this happens, the horse is instantly blocked, and the rider’s aids are indistinguishable from the gripping or pulling. As the horse tries to compensate for the rider’s lack of balance, they too become unbalanced.
The strength of the rider’s position or seat comes from being able to maintain balance. Toned core muscles are needed for this, muscles that can react quickly by an appropriate amount and then instantly release. Full on muscles are not always needed, sometimes the slightest movement is sufficient to rebalance the horse.
When the rider finds that state of perfect balance, the horse begins to move more freely and then they can start to develop their suppleness. The rider can feel the responses the horse gives and adapt the exercises accordingly.
The bit is a subtle way of communicating with your horse, a whispered conversation between horse and rider. No-one else can see the conversation happening, but they can see the results. The bit gives the rider instant feedback on how the horse is feeling in that moment. A soft, relaxed mouthing of the bit shows a unity between the horse and rider. If this continues through the work, the horse is comfortable and both horse and rider are content with the relationship.
This fragile contact is lost if the rein contact is more than the weight of the reins in the rider’s hands. Having X pounds of pressure blocks the horse and hardens the delicate structures of the mouth. Long loose reins does not create any communication between horse and rider.
If a problem with the work occurs, the first place this will be shown is in the horse’s mouth, communicated to the rider via the bit. The skilled rider will recognise this and make the necessary adjustments to the work. If this feedback is not recognised and acknowledged by the rider taking the steps needed to change what they are doing, the horse will start to raise their voice by blocking elsewhere in their body and avoiding the exercise.
When this unwanted behaviour is displayed, riders often look for an external solution, a stronger bit, a tighter noseband, a martingale. This simply ignores the issue and unless trainers and riders are willing to uncover the root cause of the problem, the fix masks the difficulty until it emerges somewhere else. To achieve this level of control and subtly requires riders to have a good position and balance, a lifetime’s work.
Whilst a lot of time is spent thinking about which bit to use, nose bands tend to be used solely to keep a horse’s mouth shut. Mostly riders use a flash or a cavesson, done up tightly to prevent the horse from opening its mouth. Apart from the obvious physical pain and harm that this inflicts on a horse, it masks a very important communication channel between a horse and their rider.
The art of dressage riding is to finesse the communication between the horse and rider so that, to an observer, the rider appears to be doing nothing. Part of achieving this is having the horse soft and mobile throughout their work, and the horse’s mouth is a very good reflection the level of that relationship between horse and rider.
For example, if a horse is finding an exercise difficult or feels too much pressure from the rider’s hands, this will show first through the horse’s mouth with blocks such as fixing the jaw, opening the mouth or putting their tongue over the bit.
Tightening the nose band to prevent this behaviour does not solve the problem. Unable to express himself via his mouth, horses often become harder in the jaw and the tension occurs elsewhere in his body. As the stress ripples throughout the horse’s body, blocks can often be seen in the horses neck, back and hind legs.
The solution is to change what you are doing, rather than increasingly tightening the nose band. It may be as simple as modifying an exercise slightly, or you may need to look a bit deeper at how you are asking. Riding with a softer hand and working more tactfully from your seat and back or with your leg.
The connection between bit and rider’s hands should always be the weight of the reins. For very skilled riders, the slightest tension in the horse’s mouth is felt in their hands, and they make appropriate adjustments to make the horse comfortable. With a nose band that is done up tightly, the horse is unable to speak to the rider and training becomes an exercise in force.
One of the most important things I learnt from Nuno Oliveira is that you cannot train each horse exactly the same way. Although there were many Lusitano horses at Mr Oliveira’s stables, we also trained other breeds, Selle Francais, Arabian, Russian Budyonny and Thoroughbred among others, and Mr Oliveira adapted his methods to suit each horse’s physical and mental needs throughout their training.
By closely observing the horse that I am working with I can see how and why they move in a particular way. Some things to look for are;
Choosing an appropriate exercise encourages the horse to release restrictions they may have by developing suppleness, strength and balance. Sometimes it is necessary to be a little creative and adapt an exercise or develop a new pattern of work that is more effective for the horse and if the exercise is not working as you expected, again analyse where the problem is and make the necessary changes or use a new exercise.
If the rider is not sitting well it has a huge impact on the way the horse moves. Working on the rider’s position, balance and aids is central to creating a horse that is well balanced and supple. If the rider is off balance their horse will be constantly adjusting his balance to compensate, and the rider’s aids will be unclear which leads to difficulty in communication.
Watch the horse continually and make small adjustments as necessary. Don’t expect too much, be satisfied with small improvements and give plenty of rests, tired horses become sour, and always reward their efforts.
In-hand work is a very useful method for helping horses develop the strength, suppleness and understanding of movements without the added weight of a rider. I also use this technique to help riders with difficulties in certain movements.
At the Quinta all our young horses were started using this in-hand method and by developing the basic work in hand before the rider was in the saddle. The whole process of starting the horse was calmer and simplified. They had the strength and balance to carry the rider more easily, and understood the basics; walking and halting, circles, stepping sideways, shoulder-in and rein back. Further on in their training, in-hand work was used to introduce the first steps of piaffe and passage.
There are two methods of working a horse in hand, and I use both in my teaching. The first is to work the horse from the ground by using the cavesson and the second is to work them using the reins. I start horses and riders using the cavesson because it is easier for both the horse and rider and is less harsh for the horse if the rider makes a mistake.
The model for the pictures is a young pony who is learning in hand work as part of being backed.
Use the lunge cavesson and whip with the long end wound up round the whip handle. Stand in front of, and to the side of your horse, so that you can see all of him and he can see past you.
The lunge line should be safely looped up and held close to the cavesson. Have your elbow near your side so you can control your horse on the cavesson.
Hold the whip in your other hand. Have the handle in the palm of your hand so you can rotate your wrist, and hold it pointing it down towards the floor when you are not using it, and raise it gently when you use it.
Keep yourself on the inside; don’t step across your horse or allow him to step across you.
When you are walking, you need to step backwards and at the same speed as he does– but he should not rush past you. Use a light flick on the lunge line against the cavesson to slow him down. Keep your shoulders soft and your elbows bent, a lot of riders let the horse go past them and then they lose control of the horse, or hold their hand close to themselves which draws the horse’s head inwards, pushing the horse towards the outside shoulder.
Some horses are very wary of the whip, so you can use a schooling whip or just your hand if they are more settled like that.
Walking and Halting
The first thing to teach your horse is to stop. This is done by gently placing the whip on his quarters but first you need to acclimatise him to this. He already understands the lunging instructions and so start by using these voice directions.
Gently encourage him to walk forwards, stepping back at the same time and speed that he does (some horses can be confused when you stand in this position, but gently encourage them to walk and they will move forward.)
Then, using your voice only, ask him to halt. If he does not stop you can use a small jiggle on the cavesson to help. Try to keep the tension out of your body and just hold the whip softly, pointing down. It’s very important that this work is done calmly and quietly. Your horse will take triggers from your voice, body position and the whip (as well as any noises from outside!)
When he has taken a few steps, ask him to halt, again using your voice. You need to stop walking backwards when your horse stops. If you stop before he does he will walk straight past you!
When he stops, give him a pat. Repeat this a few times until you are both comfortable with walking and stopping.
Now you can introduce the idea that the whip is asking for halt. We do this through 3 steps. Firstly, ask your horse to walk and then ask your horse to halt by the wall or fence.
When your horse is quietly standing, very gently raise the whip up and rest it on his quarters. Some horses move away from the whip because they understand that this is what the whip indicates. Quietly lower the whip and ask them to stand again using your voice and repeat the raising of the whip to the quarters.
Once your horse is standing quietly from your voice command and doesn’t move when you raise the whip to his quarters, you can start to lift the whip while he is walking.
Ask your horse to walk on and then, using your voice ask him to halt and at the same time, raise the whip to his quarters. Repeat this several times until he is quietly halting as you use both your voice and the whip together. You can support this with a light feel on the cavesson, but don’t rely on this aid.
If he becomes anxious at any time, go back to the previous step.
Once he is stopping confidently from both your voice and the whip, start to bring the whip up before you use the voice command. You are looking for him to stop from the whip movement and your voice becomes a supplement to confirm the action. Look for the moment when your horse stops as you bring the whip up, before it touches his quarters!
Some horses pick this up very quickly, whereas others take a few sessions. It’s important that you don’t rush things. This work it takes as long as it takes, especially if both you and your horse are learning together.
Again, if at any point your horse becomes anxious, go back to the level he was comfortable with and repeat that step until he is calm again.
Common problems that riders find with this technique are:
Sometimes it is because the aid you are giving is too big or the whip is not still.
To start the new year I'm looking at definitions for some of the French terms associated with higher levels of classical dressage; Descente de Mains, Ramner and Rassembler. Please see my previous blogs for discussions on other dressage terms; Cadence and Collection and Rhythm, Impulsion and Engagement.
Descente de mains
This is a French term and the literal translation is “descent of hands”. For classical dressage purposes, descente de mains is a lowering or giving of the rider’s hands to softly release the contact and have the horse remain in the movement without altering the frame, rhythm or cadence, and is most telling in piaffe.
It is a simple and very tactful movement for the rider, but comes as the result of precise training; a horse in balance, with the correct level of impulsion and rhythm. Descente de mains is not riding with loose reins or when the horse has his neck stretched down with his nose near the floor!
Nuno Oiveira and Arthur Kottas Heldenberg both give clear precise descriptions of descente de mains.
Arthur Kottas Heldenburg from Kottas on Dressage (glossary) describes descente de mains as
A term from French equitation; basically, a yielding of the rein contact, either as a reward or to check the horse’s self-balance. In respect of the hands, ‘descente’ can mean either a physical lowering, or ‘reduction’ (lessening) of the contact – commonly both.
Nuno Oliveira, Reflections on Equestrian Art
Descente de main: the rider relaxes his fingers and the horse meanwhile maintains the same pace, the same attitude and the same cadence.
A good definition of Ramner can be found in Dom Diogo de Bragança’s book Dressage in the French Tradition (page 18)
Ramner, the neck is raised and self-supporting, verticality of the head (or a position of the head close to the vertical, and in front of it), the poll at the highest point of the neck.
It is possible to position the horse’s head by raising your hands, but this will not create ramner, which is a position that the horse chooses for himself based on other factors. The horse must be supple, balanced and able to control the impulsion generated from the haunches. As these qualities develop, the horse becomes more engaged, and the forehand will become lighter, the neck will lengthen from the withers and the poll will appear to advance with the nose near vertical. It is important to understand that this starts from the withers, not the head.
The translation of rassembler is given as
To bring together.
To assemble, to gather together.
To gather together, to collect.
In classical dressage terms it defines a horse who is in perfect balance, haunches engaged with the weight displaced back to the haunches as much as the horse’s conformation will allow, creating lightness in the forehand and a very maneuverable horse. Again, it is a position that the horse acquires for himself through careful and precise training and is one of the ultimate goals of classical dressage.
In Dressage in the French Tradition by Dom Diogo de Bragança, he describes rassembler as
..balance or equilibrium on a short (collected) base of support (the horse's feet placed close together).
…which is the harmonization of the means necessary for the execution of natural gaits, or those that are derived from them, on a short base of support.
Rassembler is indispensable for classical high school training. It is different to collection because it is a quality that is more tied to lightness and ramner than collection alone implies. Whilst ramner refers to the position of the horse’s head, rassembler refers to the whole horse.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
Please CLICK HERE to read more about Horses and Riders I have been able to help with Classical Dressage Training