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Active learning August 20, 2016

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, online lessons, training.

Active learning

Many, many years ago, an instructor I knew would often say, “This is dressage not massage — I cannot dressage you.” This sentiment, which is expressed in many different ways boils down to the idea that as students each of us has to be responsible for our own advancement. We each have to do the reading, the watching, the wondering, the critical thinking, and the asking.

As instructors it’s not our job or even within the realm of possibility to pull students up the mountain but only to offer our guidance and experience as each finds what is necessarily their own personal path. It is up to the student to spend enough time in review of what they think and what their horse is telling them to figure out what they’re confused about and present a cogent question to the instructor.

For my part I’ve written my books, put up my videos, have made this group available to anyone who would like to ask anything and am open to the occasional email question. I’m available for lessons literally throughout the world via skype which works, much to my happy surprise, really well and for many students is more effective than traditional lessons.

So if you’re going round and round not making the progress you would like, perhaps you should ask a question. The best time to do that would be right about now.


A consistent warm-up plan July 20, 2016

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, looseness.
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Every time I get on any horse I start the same way. I make sure he stands quietly while I mount and and that he waits quietly for me to ask something of him after I’m mounted. Then I ask him to go, stop, turn in, move out and soften on a fairly small circle in the walk. If there is any issue with any of those in either direction I use one or more of the exercises in my book to take care of it. When everything is squared away in the walk, I move onto a little larger circle and repeat in a slow trot. When he’s performing well that way I move onto a more energetic trot, or with some horses an easy canter.

At this point we’re ready for whatever we want, any issues having been addressed in an easy way. Usually I don’t know what brought an issue on, but if I can use the basic training he’s had to work through it easily, I don’t need to.

June 16, 2016

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage.
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Special Sale Celebrating 15 Years and Thousands of Happy Horses… 
We’re celebrating this fantastic book famous for clear explanations of training theory and methods for starting young horses as well as re–schooling the older horse. Using techniques both on the ground and under saddle, it explains how to show the the horse that he will find it easiest to to carry a rider correctly by softening, bending and stretching into the rider’s hand. Right from the Start offers training principles that produce happy, well–trained horses, enabling riders to succeed in any area of the sport they choose—dressage, jumping, reining, trail, or just riding for fun.

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Before worrying about the details of dressage… May 17, 2016

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, Natural Horsemanship, training.
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Quick reminder – before worrying about the details of dressage, make your horse into a safe, easy and fun ride.  Then the rest will come along easily.

Ride like you walk February 18, 2016

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, dressage, Natural Horsemanship, online lessons.
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Many students are writing in, anxious to see the snow melt so they can get back to their regular riding. Since we have more enthusiasm than riding opportunity, I’m suggesting they do one of my favorite riding exercises – walking on the ground.

Yes, that’s right. One of the best ways to improve riding technique is to observe your walking technique. This is true because when walking with reasonably good posture, we manage to go, stop and turn with our hips. When riding, the correct use of our seat for asking the horse to go, stop and turn is virtually identical.

I know many will protest they’ve been taught to use their seats in a different, and generally more complicated or counter intuitive way. It is also true that if we are to compare many of the methods taught, we will find that they are often in conflict. Yet when done with a modicum of skill they all work. I discovered this for myself decades ago. My conclusion was and is, as long as we use our seat consistently, in an encouraging way that doesn’t interfere with him, the horse is open to learning our aid and doesn’t really care much about the details.

From a standing position, I begin to walk forward by pushing my hips slightly forward. How slight? Until I paid attention to this, I never noticed it – but just doing this starts me walking. Notice I don’t need to be kicked in the ribs or ever squeezed about my mid-section.

When stopping from walking I bring my shoulders up and slightly back which again brings my hips slightly forward, and again allows my feet to come under me in a perfectly fine halt. It goes without saying I don’t need to pull backwards on my face or any other part. I just “sit up” a bit and allow myself to stop.

When changing direction while walking I don’t pull my nose in the direction I hope to go to, or point my feet that way, I simply turn my hips a teensy bit in the direction I want to go in. Not to be repetitive, but I didn’t know I how I changed direction until I made a conscious effort to figure it out. It’s really a small change.

This is relevant because if you teach your horse that he should go, stop and turn in response to only you using your seat this way, the rest of training is a matter of polishing it up. Said better by an Irish eventer I rode with long ago, “Once you have go, stop, turn, everything else is window dressing.”

Start the Summer Right! May 21, 2015

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, online lessons.
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The last few years more and more readers of my books have been discovering how incredibly effective online video reviews are.  This week, to help get even more riders and readers familiar with this system, you can try it at no charge.  Just shoot some video of you working with your horse.  It doesn’t need to be anything fancy and your horse doesn’t need to be at his best (actually it’s better if he isn’t).  Just get a little video – 4 or 5 minutes is fine –  contact me  and we’ll setup a convenient time to watch it together.

Looking forward to hearing from you,


Half-halt in half a minute. March 22, 2015

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, competition, contact, dressage, half-halts, looseness, performance standards.

A half-halt is half of a halt.  A halt is a forward going stop.  To ride a horse forward to a stop (halt) he must understand what you want and do it because you asked him to.

You can (sometimes) make a horse “stop” with strong use of hand and leg by making it difficult or impossible for him to keep going.   However, a rider cannot use strong physical aids to “forward going stop” a horse.  To ride a horse forward to a halt you must use aids that allow him to go forward.  Aids that request, encourage and allow.

A rider can slow a horse down with strong hands and legs – but that is a slow down, not a half-halt.  A rider cannot physically half-halt a horse (FEI definition be damned!).  He can only ask the horse, with whispering aids,  to collect himself.  Since we rely on the horses’ understanding of the aids for the correct response, there is no problem with the horse listening for what we want next  and doing that as well.

Times up.


In Response to a Eurodressage Article March 18, 2014

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, competition, dressage, performance standards, rules, training.
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This is a post written in response to the Eurodressage article:


The basic points of this article are:

1. To do dressage correctly the horse must be up in front, have a raised, swinging back, be engaged, through, elastic, and in self carriage. Each of these qualities is related to the others and all are necessary to have any.

2. Determining the qualities listed in point 1, is a subjective process “ and needs to be experienced and felt to understand and see” except for the nose and poll position as it “… can be judged easily, as it is technically well defined! The nose must be in front and the poll at the highest point.”

3. Judging is a matter of first subjectively deciding the qualities listed and then, based on that subjective decision, deciding whether the horse is doing dressage correctly or “doing dressage correctly in an incorrect way” – performing tricks (circus).

Point One

Point one is well taken as top horses do need to display these qualities. So there is no argument here.

Point two A- Judging is Subjective

Point two, that judging is mostly subjective is mostly nonsense – having experienced and felt a horse going correctly does improve the eye, but to determine correct basics one need not look past the basics.

If you want to know if a horse is over his back, swinging, through, engaged, and correctly balanced (light in front) look to his transitions, tempo and bend. For a horse to perform smooth transitions within a single stride he must have a raised, elastic back, be engaged, balanced and reaching forward into accepting contact. There is no other way this can happen. You cannot fake a correct transition or do it “as a trick.”

If you want to know if a horse is correctly balanced, engaged, elastic through his back, and accepting the bit correctly look to his tempo. A horse must be engaged, elastic in his back and balanced to maintain even tempo through transitions and movements. A horse who can perform an extended gait in the same tempo as the collected must be correct it cannot be faked and it cannot be done as a trick.

If you want to know if a horse is supple in his back, carrying himself and reaching into an elastic contact check if he maintaining tempo and bending appropriately. Correct bending in tempo cannot be done as a trick, it cannot not be faked. If a horse fails to bend when he should or changes tempo when he does, there is some flaw in his basics and stiffness in his body.

So the statement a horse can “perform the test correctly, but in an incorrect way” is nonsense. Only someone so confused about the very nature of dressage, it’s very core principles could say such a thing. A correct test cannot be performed in an incorrect way. The old sully “a circus horse doing tricks” has been used by lessor trainers against their superiors for centuries. If you want to know if a horse is doing tricks or has correct basics, you need look no further than the basics – the transitions, tempo, rhythm and bend. If you want to know if a speaker understands dressage or is a trickster himself, look to see if he can explain the basics, the essential elements of dressage, in simple clear words and concepts.

Point 2b – poll nose position

The article expresses the idea that the nose and poll position“… can be judged easily, as it is technically well defined! The nose must be in front and the poll at the highest point.” This is wrong headed and amateurish.

There is a range of positions in which the poll as highest point with the nose in front are correct, not just one. For instance the classical Ramner is correct in some schools, in others the more horizontal vision of poll/nose position considered correct. Obviously everything is between fits these criteria as well. There are also many situations in which poll up/nose forward is quite incorrect – the American Saddle Bred going in park seat is an obvious example.

Furthermore, while the article claims the rule is objective and “technically well defined” the fact is the Rule for poll/nose position deliberately leaves room for exceptions — this is why it says is “as a rule” the poll is “more or less” at the highest point and the nose in front of the vertical.

And lets not forget that the easiest element in all of dressage to do as a “trick” or “to do correctly in an incorrect way” is to put the horses head and neck in the “correct” frame. So rather than the poll/nose being a useful indication of whether the rest of the qualities and movement are correct, the quality of the rest of the movement must tell you whether the poll/nose position is correct for that horse and if was obtained in the right way.

Point 2c – lightness

The article asks, “Is it not better to have a horse going in lightness and make a couple of mistakes; which is what the judges at London said about Valegro’s test at the Olympics.” I think the judges got it exactly backwards. It should be if there really were only a couple of mistakes in the entire test, the horse was “light enough” — for that horse.

So in judging tests, and judging judges, we really need to look at the elements of dressage that really are objective and “well defined” – the basics of transitions, tempo and bend. If the horse can keep these throughout while performing a correct test, he has to be over his back, engaged, through, light, accepting the bit, and performing effortlessly. You can’t fake the basics, they can’t be done as a trick, and you can’t do them correctly for incorrect reasons.

Since the article mentions what the judges said about Valegro and “only a couple of mistakes” there are by objective criteria more then just a “couple of mistakes.”

For instance, Article 418 states in part,

“…The hands should be carried steadily close together, with the thumb as the highest point and a straight line from the supple elbow through the hand to the Horse’s mouth. The elbows should be close to the body. All of these criteria enable the Athlete to follow the movements of the Horse smoothly and freely.”

Yet throughout the test we see a straight line from bit to shoulder with the elbows far in front of the body. That’s objectively wrong and should have been marked down, as well as been treated as a red flag that something is amiss.

Transitions are “technically well defined!” in Article 407.

The changes of pace and variations within the paces should be exactly performed at the prescribed marker. The cadence (except in walk) should be maintained up to the moment when the pace or movement is changed or the Horse halts. The transitions within the paces must be clearly defined while maintaining the same rhythm and cadence throughout. The Horse should remain light in hand, calm, and maintain a correct position. The same applies to transitions from one (1) movement to another, for instance from passage to piaffe or vice versa.

This is the rule, yet Valegro gradually picks up speed (over many strides) at the beginning of every extension and gradually slows down as he returns to collection. So all of his transitions into and out of extended trot and canter should have been marked down (even though they were quite flashy) and the judges should have looked at them as a definite red flag that some basic or basics are lacking.

How the horse should bend is defined in Article 409 – Changes of Directions:

1. At changes of direction, the Horse should adjust the bend of his body to the curvature of the line it follows, remaining supple and following the indications of the Athlete, without any resistance or change of pace, rhythm or speed.

Yet Valegro never bends through corners – he leans through them. When he does bend for lateral work, he picks up speed. Yes his head and neck are in the correct place, but these other, better defined, basics indicate all that glitters is not gold – or shouldn’t be.

Yes I’m nitpicking, and yes Valegro is a fantastic horse that does a great test. My concern is not about him – it’s about Judges saying it’s OK to look to the subjective (is the horse over his back? Is his head in the “right place?”) first to decide if the horse is correct for the “right” reasons. Doing that is assigning marks for all the wrong reasons.

If the top dressage horses in the world are selected by the quality of their breeding instead of the absolute correctness of their basic training – transitions, tempo and bending, then dressage will be done incorrectly and nobody will be there to notice.


Spanish walk – Classical and Neo-Classical February 21, 2014

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage.

Recently Horses for Life published this article about Anja BeranThe Perfect SpanishWalk”. There is no argument from me that Anya does very nice “classical” work as is reflected in her classical Spanish walk.


In this walk the horse is bringing his head up and a little back to free and elevate the shoulder which he does very nicely. However, there’s a price for elevation obtained this way. Notice how much his back drops every time the foot elevates. This works because she’s light of weight (and aids) on a stocky, very strong backed horse.

I’m heavier and always manage to end up with longer and therefore relatively weaker backed horses. So my approach is to rock the horse laterally instead of rocking him back, and to teach him to free his shoulder by stretching his topline while lifting his leg. This tends to lift the back, rather than drop it. Here’s an example of me teaching my neo-classical Spanish walk. Note this is a training example so the aids are exaggerated.

Here’s the same clip with me explaining as it goes.

Finally, to put this in the context of the version of “classical” which put the emphasis on keeping the poll up, and the neo-classical of today which puts the emphasis on keeping the back up, here’s a video from 1920. Note that this rider is using the inertia of the horses head to create more elevation of the stride, but this makes the horse very hollow. As a result, skillful as he is, can’t sit to the trot correctly.


Irrational Exuberance – Charlotte and Valegro December 23, 2013

Posted by mikeschaffer in competition, dressage.

Let’s get something straight right off – Charlotte and Valegro won the recent world championships with a wonderful ride. There is no question about that. Had the judges given her a wonderful score that would have been fitting and unquestionable. But they gave her the best score of all time. They said it was the best freestyle dressage test ever done. Well that’s just loopy – and there is no question about that.

The fact is Valegro is an amazing horse with big, huge gaits. Not only that but he’s a saint for putting up with her pulling on his mouth once per stride. Sometimes CD pulled harder than others, but keeping her arms that straight with her elbows in front of her, every time she rocked her shoulders back (which was every stride) she caught him in the mouth. And he still performed beautifully. To put this in perspective, I honestly think Mathias Rath could ride him successfully – that’s what a trooper this horse is!

The musical portion of the ride (which I suppose should count in a musical freestyle) remains horribly amateurish. It’s not a musical program at all, just a collection of a few measures from each of the following:

The march from the Great Escape for every piaffe/passage
The theme of a James Bond movie for the trot ext.
Pomp and Circumstance for canter work
Some fanfare I can’t place
The bells for every canter pirouette
(and a couple of other bits here and there)

So you get few measures of one thing, cut poorly to another, back to yet another, repeated so there is never any “story” (for lack of a better word) which makes it difficult to accept the idea that she “interpreted” it well.

There were also serious technical errors that should have been marked harshly but apparently were not. The initial halt was not square and rather than a transition from halt to passage, he walked out of it and passaged from that. At about the 2:45 mark there was a transition that should have been canter to passage but had a momentary halt in there, further along there was a transition from walk to canter that had a trot step snuck in.

The pirouettes were large, the piaffes moved forward, and there was some uneveness in the passage and changes of the sort that indicates stiffness or resistance on one side rather than soundness issues. Even with these problems, it’s still a great test. But how do you look past these and decide it’s the best of all time?

Well the judges did make that claim so I thought I’d put this in some historical perspective and look at an 86% winning ride from just a few years ago, Anky on Salerno at the 2006 WEG.

While watching this notice that the initial halt was square and transitions cleanly to passage. Salernos piaffes were on the spot his passages even. The canter pirouettes tight, the transitions throughout were not only technically pure, but done exactly on the correct musical moment. The music of course reflects the fact that somebody gave a damn and put together a program of a quality you would expect at the world championship level. I don’t think that’s too much to ask!

And finally, and this is very important, notice that Anky also rocks her shoulders back every stride. However, because her elbows are back and bent, she is able to open them in time with her motion so she does not bang Salerno in the mouth once per stride. As a result she gets a near perfect performance from a very sensitive Salerno who is not as forgiving or as gifted a mover as Valegro.

Here’s the link:



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