Pet Connections

First Dressage Lesson, with Kristin Hermann

I call my first lessons “my getting to know you lesson.” I know, and I want my students to know. Teaching to me is a dialog. My typical first question is, what are your three natural aids? It is amazing what riders do not know: the legs, seat, and hands. And the secret to riding is using all three natural aids in unison or  what is called equestrian tact. All aids work in conjunction and are not used independently of one another.

I always ask what do you think the word dressage means. Most dressage enthusiasts don’t know this either. It means the gymnastic training of the horse. It does not mean I just imported a fancy warmblood and bought the matching outfit and boots. Any horse and rider can do dressage or gymnastically train the horse.

I follow the USDF training scale or pyramid in all lessons, and once again, most riders are not familiar with this either. Rhythm, relaxation, contact, straight, impulsion, then collection. However there are many sub-sections in the training scale, but the first three are the most important—the basics. You cannot ride a horse unless it is relaxed, and you must have rhythm before you can even think about contact. So to help my students remember the Training Scale, I call it the Three R’s Relaxed, Rhythmic, and Round instead of Contact.

Next, I explain how we do most of our training on the circle. I call it the Training Wheel of Training, or the 20-meter circle, to establish these first three basics. (It also enables me not to have to scream across the arena.) On the twenty-meter circle or the training wheel of training, riders learn about rhythm and bending or positioning. You can’t let a horse track left and look to the outside of the circle. I use the analogy of car tires for adults and a bicycle tire for a younger person. Renowned equestrian Bill Woods used to talk about a train and the horse’s spine following the track. Circling left, the horse’s whole body, from tail to poll, should be bent or positioned onto the arc of the circle. And how do you do that? By using your three natural aids.

As I teach, I share with the riders what each aid’s job is supposed to do and called. Shockingly, most riders never heard this information either! (Maybe I read too much when I was learning?) The inside rein is called the “softening rein.” You soften the horse in the neck as you bend it to the inside. I never instructed riders to look for the horse’s inside eye because I want riders to look ahead and not down. Then the inside “active leg” keeps the horse going by activating the inside hind leg, and the rider’s outside “supporting rein” supports the horse from falling in on the circle. Yes, each rein and leg aid has a name that explains its purpose. The inside softening rein softens the horse in the neck, the active inside leg asks the horse to stay out or bend plus move forward if needed, and the outside supporting rein supports the bending horse from falling in. The outside leg is called “passive.” However, it is supposed to hold the haunches and keep them from falling out, so in theory, the outside leg is not really passive! I often joke when I teach, “now, is that enough information already, or are you ready to put it all together?”

I think it is essential for riders to understand what they are doing and why! That is why I share this information. I also tell riders that if they read a book on training a horse, it would tell them to ride the horse the same way in both directions. Nope, not true. Horses are different in both directions. Most horses bend to the right, and the outside shoulder falls out, and when they track left, the inside shoulder falls in because they still want to bend right even when going left. Oh geez. So, simple training exercises on the circle bring this to the rider’s awareness. Starting to position or bend the horse on the circle with rhythm becomes dressage training for the horse. Training starts on the circle figuring out how to bend and balance a longitudinal horse with the rider’s vertical aids. It really doesn’t make sense if you think about it!

When we show dressage, we display to the judge how well we trained the horse in both directions at all three gaits. Training level starts with the rider being able to ride the horse on four twenty-meter circles, two at a trot and two at a canter. Then we ride a few straight lines on the centerline, across the diagonal, and splice in a stretchy circle to show that we are not holding a horse together. The judge expects the rider to be bending the horse in the direction of travel and riding the horse at all three gaits unconstrained.

Once the rider understands bending on a circle with rhythm and contact, the lesson progresses to straight lines. Straight lines and circles, oh my. I just spent months learning how to bend a horse, and now you want me to go straight? By this time, the student is either fascinated with horse training or dressage or, like me, says, “where is the closest liquor store?” But, what is dressage? It is learning how to ride on straight lines and circles! We train our horses on straight lines and circles, so if you do not value the training process (which takes time), you may as well take up golf or tennis.

In all dressage tests, we come down the center line twice. But for training purposes, it does not matter if it is a straight line on the center line, quarter line, or second track. What matters is that the horse is straight. Horses are not born straight any more than we are born ambidextrous. I always share a famous quote: “we ride our horse forward ( relaxed and rhythmic), and WE put them straight.” I emphasize that the word riding is a verb! Riding is an action word. You have to do something with your three natural aids to get results from the horse. Horses do not go straight. Riding on the quarter line or straight line, we realize how crooked our horses are with the shoulders falling in or out. And, how do we put them straight, easy – by using our three natural aids. Just riding a horse on a straight line teaches more about the rider’s aid coordination than any instructor could tell them!

I love that the dressage tests have a coefficient score for “effective use of aids.” Yes, effective! What does effective mean? It means doing something. Like put the horse’s shoulders straight, bend the horse, and ask it to move if needed. I like to shatter that concept that all this does not happen from a rider just sitting there looking pretty. Use your aids, and be effective; however, let’s not look like we are riding a trampoline. Move an elastic elbow forward and back, widen the hands if needed to get a direct line of communication elbow to bit, let the leg breathe with the horse’s rib cage, but kick when needed, and allow the seat to absorb the horse’s back oscillating and not bear down. Indeed, the act of riding is the ultimate in multitasking.

Riding is like treading water; if you sit still and don’t tread, you will drown. You have to move and signal the horse in rhythm with its rhythm, and that is only one of the challenges. So many riders come to me that are afraid to open a rein; I tell them it is explained in every book. I did not make it up; go ahead and move. I give students permission to bend an elbow, open a rein, and move their heads. But many riders have been told not to move, lock their elbows in, and no breathing when they ride. We could call it ‘mummified riding.’ Hmmm, a good title for a future article! Riders try so hard to do it right and become stiff and ineffective. You ride with your joints, not with your muscles.

A rider’s position is tweaked throughout all lessons. A balanced rider sits, on the sitting bones, not the coccyx, elbows hanging out of the shoulder with an elastic connection to the bit to be able to follow the horse’s longitudinal motion at the walk and canter and the side of the leg on the horse but breathing with its rib cage. The classical masters say the leg should breathe with the horse’s rib cage and not be like a vice grip on its side. Stiff riders have the most challenging time trying to communicate with the horse.

I think the difficult part about riding is obtaining the correct riding position. You have to have a good position, so your aids can better communicate with the horse. The horse won’t understand your signals if you do not have a good position. Riding is like playing an instrument; if the position on the keys is out of place, the instrument will always be out of tune. It is unfortunate when riders blame the horse when it is likely due to their lack of skills.

You cannot have a horse if you do not first have a rider. I explain the riding ring of muscles. The ring of what, my students say. Yes, the ring of muscles or aids. Some people call it the circle of energy. The horse steps from your calf muscle (leg), which shortens its abdomen muscle, pulls the hind end forward, stretches under your seat to the bit or tongue, and the reins reverberate this back to the rider’s hand, seat and leg. It is called the circle of aids.

Learning how to ride a decent circle with the horse positioned or bending is a lot. Then practicing straight lines adds another challenge, but to truly ride dressage a horse is to be on the bit, the holy grail of dressage. I learned how to put a horse on the bit from a German trainer in 1978, and I am so glad I had this opportunity because I love the method—asking the horse for flexion at the poll. Our horses flex at the poll and chew the reins out of our hands. The goal is to ride in lightness and not hold the horse together. Most riders are told to go forward to get the horse on the bit, and yes, a horse has to be forward, but the word forward is not even on the USDF Training Scale.

I believe that riders first need to develop the feel of flexion at the poll or the horse chewing and giving at the poll and jaw, at a whoa, and then it will be easier at the trot and eventually the canter. So developing those skills follows in our lessons. Riding is a feeling, and until you feel it, you will not know what you are trying to accomplish. That is why students keep returning for more lessons until they have felt what they are learning.

Typically at this point in the lesson, we are ready to wrap up, and I never did get to explain why we want our horse straight. I love to ask my students questions when I teach, and if I get the “correct” answer, I know my time was not wasted!

Riding is an art; it is not for the fane of heart. It requires skill and dedication. I remember crying in lessons; I wanted it so bad. I call riding a pilgrimage something that never ends. Our passion for dressage unites us to endlessly perform round twenty, fifteen, and ten-meter circles, feeling our horse softening on the inside and accept the support of the outside rein and go in balance on straight lines. Straight lines and circles, oh my! And as the dressage or training of the horse continues, I keep getting summoned for more lessons.

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