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Tools of the Trade – an excerpt from Riding in the Moment October 1, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, Riding, training.

Tools of the Trade

An excerpt from “Riding in the Moment – Discover the Hidden Language of Dressage”

The first tier basics are go, stop, turn in, move out, and soften. These are “first tier” because every horse has to go, stop, and turn to be ridden. A dressage horse also has to move out and soften. Another reason I’ve put these together is that these five basics rely only on each other for training, while everything else in dressage relies on them. Finally, and perhaps most definitively, these are first tier because they — and only they — can be corrected.

Any problems you may be having in training will always be found in one or more of these basics. The measure of your skill in correcting more advanced movements will be in your ability to figure out which first tier basic is the source of the problem and then correct that.

Accepting that everything in dressage comes from these few basics is a radically different way of thinking about dressage. It changes our language and training methods. We no longer think of aids as simply the mechanical application of “hands, seat, and legs.” Training becomes a dual process of first getting the horse to understand the concept of each basic and then refining how we ask for it until he “understands” the correct aid combination we use to ask for it.

Aid Combinations

Part of the change to our thinking is acknowledging we always use our aids in combinations of hands, seat, and legs. That we do is patently obvious when you consider that we use our legs to ask the horse to go, to halt, and to reinback. Sometimes our legs mean move forward from piaffe to extended trot, other times to go from extended trot to piaffe. We bring our outside leg a little further back to ask for half pass, a canter departure, a flying change, a pirouette, or just to stay on a round circle. This is why the seat and hand are always necessary to give meaning to the legs and why our legs must support hands, and seat. It is only when the three are used in a deliberate, coordinated fashion that a horse can know what we want.

What is not so obvious is that there are very limited aids that can be created by hand, seat, and leg. In fact, when all is sorted out, they can only ask for the five first tier basics. The different movements and figures of dressage are created by sequentially performing the five basics, changing the order and frequency of them as required. For instance, to stay on a round circle the basics might be used in a particular frequency and sequence. To spiral in to a smaller circle, there would be a slight increase in the turn in aid relative to the move out aid. To spiral back out, there would be less turning in relative to moving out.

Linking aids to the five first tier basics provides a common sense approach for training the horse. For each of the five basics there is an aid and exercises to teach the horse how to react to it. This makes the horse’s life much easier — he doesn’t have to figure out all of dressage — just the first five basics. He doesn’t have to learn different aids to do more advanced exercises later on — he follows the same aids to do more difficult figures and movements as his ability increases.

By linking these few aids to the horse’s understanding and response to them, the emphasis is shifted from the rider’s application of the aids, to the horse’s response. It is no longer a question of the rider using “more inside leg” or “more hand” if things are not going as planned. Rather, it properly becomes a matter of making the horse more sensitive to the rider’s aid for the first tier basic at issue. As a result the horse becomes more sensitive to the aids so the rider can use less leg and hand to ride

Dual Nature of Training

There is a dual or two part process of training. The first, the cognitive phase, consists of teaching the horse the concept. The second part is teaching him the correct or ideal aids for it. This is, when you think about it, so evident and commonplace it is undeniable. Teaching the horse basic concepts is what makes any reasonably trained horse rideable by any reasonably competent rider. Once a horse understands these basics, which may take some time initially, he can figure out a different rider’s aids in minutes if not moments.

The dual nature of training is the reason why I can ride a horse that has been trained by a another who may be very different from me physically. My aids will never be the same as the horse’s regular rider, but they don’t need to be. When getting on a horse someone else trained all I have to do is to show him my aid combination or “word” for each of the first tier basics. I don’t have to retrain the basics nor do I have to try and match the regular riders aids with precision.

There are very important ideas to be taken from this.

The first is that it is always more important to use aids in a relaxed way than in a precise way. As long as I’m able to sit in a comfortable, balanced fashion and apply my aids without tension, I can ride any reasonably trained horse reasonably well. If the horse doesn’t understand my “aid” for something I’ll use one or more of the exercises I’m about to show you for teaching green horses the five basics. If the horse already understands the underlying concept of the basic, he’ll figure out my aid for it very quickly.

So, if you’re ever being told to ride in a way that makes your stiff and tight instead of relaxed and comfortable — you’re being told the wrong thing. Your comfort, balance, and relaxation trump any other claim as to what is “correct.”.

The second idea is that you don’t need to use finished aids when teaching the concepts. In fact you don’t even want to try to use the “correct” aid at this stage. You’re free to move around and make large obvious gestures (big cognitive aids) with your hands, seat, and legs in order to help the horse figure out what it is you’re asking for. Later, once the horse understands the concept of the basic, you can refine your aids for it.

For example, when teaching a green horse to turn right, I will open the right rein almost as much as I can while I give and take the rein in a big but not forceful way. To the observer it will look like I’m pointing as if to show the horse where I want him to go and saying, “Hey – come on – let’s go over there!” As the horse becomes more familiar with the concept of turning right on request, I gradually make my aids more and more subtle. Eventually, my aid should be so quiet an observer can’t see me
using it.

The third idea is that I can’t tell you with any precision what you aids should be while training the five first tier basics. In coming chapters I will tell you in general terms the aids I use. However, it would be dishonest for me to say this is the way I always do it with every horse or to suggest my example aids are the way you have to do it with your horse.

All experienced trainers will tell you they learn a little from every horse, because each horse is a little different. So, a trainer will always have to modify the aid, the exercise, or both for each horse while teaching each concept. It is only after the horse has the concept that they worry about refining the aid for it.

All of this means the more flexible you are in you approach, the more you observe your horse’s responses and adjust technique and methods to suit him, the more you and your horse will learn and the faster you’ll make progress. Conversely, the more you stick to the “one true way” the more likely you are to become
frustrated and stuck.

The five first tier basics rely on each other for training. You will need stop to help teach your horse to turn in, move out, and soften. You will find that turn in and move out help with teaching your horse to go correctly. If your horse isn’t soft, none of the other basics will be correct, however you can use the other basics to help soften your horse. So, play with these and do not become locked into any order. If you’re having a problem with one basic, see if you can solve it with another

The way to train or re-school any of the basics is the Exercise Reward Cycle. We use the Exercise Reward Cycle by “first asking correctly with a “cognitive” aid that requests, encourages and allows. Then, if necessary, we correct the horse in a way that may be “mechanical” but must be clear, effective and over with.
Finally, we reward immediately and proportionately.

As you repeat the Exercise Reward Cycle the horse will begin to understand the cognitive aid. Then he will start to reach out into the hand seeking contact and stretching into his frame as this is the most comfortable way for him to carry a rider. When this happens the aid and the horse will become connected.

Now I’m going to suggest training methods for the five basics and then methods that use the basics to develop movements and figures. These are by no means the only methods and techniques available. I’ve selected these because they demonstrate an approach to training that is cognitive, bottom up, very gradual, and easy.

The methods in the following chapters are good examples of cognitive, bottom up training that builds on the five basics. These are by no means the only way to train any of these basics, figures, or movements. You are encouraged to experiment with different figures and exercises to accomplish your goals. In fact, the more techniques and exercises you have, the better. As long as you’re using cognitive, bottom up methods and progressing in tiny incremental steps, there is a tremendous range of techniques and exercises available to you and your horse.

Mike Schaffer
All rights reserved



1. Bruce Peek - March 18, 2013

Mike awhile back you posted a video of you working with a nice looking morgan mare, getting her to step under with he inside hind leg. Am I right in thinking that the stepping under and inwards with her inside hind leg is the beginning of the basics under saddle?
Bruce Peek

2. mikeschaffer - March 20, 2013

Hi Bruce,

Good to hear from you. Funny how you pop up every few years! The short answer is “yes.” The more interesting answer is, it’s the basic “move out” from the 5 basics, go, stop, turn in, move out, and soften.


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