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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.
Tags: ,

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.


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:



The Problem with the System March 22, 2013

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, competition, contact, dressage, performance standards, The Training Pyramid, training.

In the official “system” your hands, seat and legs are your “aids.” Everything you do is an aid and there’s an “aid” for everything you do. The aids are always described in their ideal form – how you would ride a GP horse. Riding a GP horse through a corner – these are the aids for it. Riding a barely broke baby through the same corner – same aids!

It’s crazy talk!

First of all, your hands, seat and legs are not your “aids”, they’re your hands, seat and legs!

When you use your hands, seat and legs to make requests of the horse in a way that encourages and allows him to do what you’re asking for, then you’re using them to create aids.

When you use your hands seat and legs to physically/mechanically stop a horse from doing the wrong thing or to show him the right thing – then you’re using your hands seat and legs to create “corrections.” Corrections should be “clear, effective and over with.” Use them for a moment – then go back to riding with aids.

There are two kinds of aids – connected and cognitive.

“Connected” aids are the ideal aids used with a balanced supple horse that will go on “elastic” contact. The horse stretches to, but not through the bit. For this to happen the horse must be supple and elastic in his body, go with some engagement and a raised back.

Telling green riders on green horses to ride with “connected” aids will lead to bracing and pulling about 99.99% of the time. So most riders have to use “cognitive” aids when on green horses.

“Cognitive” aids are feather light and rely on the horses understanding of them for their effectiveness. If your horse knows to stop when you sit up and jiggle the rein a little, there’s no need to pull. If your horse knows to go when you push your belly button out a little and gently rub your legs by him, there is no need to squeeze or kick. If your horse knows to “follow your belly button” to go where you point it, there’s no need to pull him around with the reins while kicking and carrying on with your legs.

After you and your horse are pretty good at going with cognitive aids you ride him on the right size circles, do some figures and transitions, and he will gradually become loose, supple and elastic in his body. As he does, he will start to reach out and seek the connection with the bit – then you’re starting to ride with ideal aids. Note that YOU don’t establish the connection, your horse will seek it out.

Once he starts to connect HE will start to adjust himself to go in the correct frame. YOU don’t have to put him in the frame – the frame is “correct” because it’s the easiest and most comfortable frame for him to be in to do the movements and figures of dressage. Do I have to force you to do something the easy way or just show you the easy way? Well, your job as trainer is just to show the horse the easy way.

Once you’ve taken a horse through this process (which doesn’t require going to a single show!) the rest of dressage makes sense. It’s no big deal. Just one thing after the next.


Culture War in Training July 10, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in Behind the bit, calmness, competition, contact, dressage, looseness, roll kur, training.

Many are confused and concerned about the way they see horses go in schooling and warm-up arenas.  This is due to the culture war between the German “forward, straight, poll up” school of dressage, and the Dutch “tempo, flexibility, and back up” school.  Both schools agree that the ideal finished horse should be forward, straight, with the poll at the highest point.   So the argument is really over how to get there.

The German “practice like you play” school puts the emphasis on “forward, straight, poll up and open” at all times.  To my eye, that system results in a certain “look” – part shape, part conditioning that shows how well or not the system has been adhered to.  The best horses from back than looked a lot like this horse ridden by Herbert Rehbein.

Now Herbert was a wonderful horseman and this was a wonderful test for the time.  The thing is, it isn’t very good by todays standards.   Yes, the poll is always up, but the horse is not very elastic, supple or flexible by todays standards.  You can see that at most there is very little bend through his body – not enough to match the corners or voltes he is on. As a result the horse gets a little quick going through the corners and he loses the quarters at the end of the voltes.  The horse lacks elasticity as seen in the downward transitions from the extended canter where the horse slows himself down by braking against the ground.

Before moving on, let me be clear that I’m not attacking Rehbien or looking down my nose at this test.  I think it’s a good representation of the type of horse you get using the “always forward, straight, up and open” school of training.  What I’m seeing now as wrong with this horse can be seen in all the top German horses of that period – and frankly all the top competition horses from then were either German outright or a product of the German school.

By way of contrast – of the training schools – not the individuals, I like this video. The rider is a professional but not internationally known.  She’s on a very good horse, but not an international horse.  However, the benefits of training with the emphasis on “tempo, flexibility,  and back up” are clearly visible in this horse.

When this horse lengthens, his frame gets a hair longer and his tempo a hair slower as he clearly changes his stride length.  By contrast the Rehbein horse gets a hair faster in the extensions.  This horse goes forward in the transitions back to collected gaits, the Rehbien horse braces his front feet against ground to slow down.

This horse clearly has more lateral bend in the voltes and half-pass.  So, he stays “on track” coming out of the volte going into the HP – while the Rehbein horse throws his quarters out noticeably and loses rhythm.

The list of things this horse does better, more correctly, goes on but I’m not trying to say just that this horse is more suited to the task (he is) or that one rider is better than another.  The point is that training with the emphasis on tempo rather than forward, suppleness and flexibility rather than straightness, and keeping the back up rather than worrying about the poll, is generally a better system that generally makes better horses.  It’s time to just accept this and move on.


Poor Toti.. August 22, 2011

Posted by mikeschaffer in Behind the bit, competition, contact, dressage.

I look at him riding this horse and want to yell through the screen, “LET GO of his mouth Mathius!”


3’rd place August 22, 2011

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, competition, dressage, half-halts, looseness, Riding, training.
1 comment so far

I love this horse and he keeps getting better!


Adelinde Cornelissen *NED* Rotterdam 2011 Dressage August 22, 2011

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, competition, dressage, Riding, training.
1 comment so far


1° Adelinde Cornelissen *NED* Rotterdam 2011... by martinehp

All Hat, No Cattle June 14, 2011

Posted by mikeschaffer in competition, dressage.

The F.E.I claims it is trying to eliminate any possibility of horses being injured in competition or preparation for it. Towards this end it has taken a pro-active stance in the dressage discipline by (unwisely) limiting the lengths of curb shanks, spur shanks, the time a horse can be worked in a particular frame, and now the total time a horse can be worked in the schooling/warm-up rings at competitions, well the list goes on. Yet in the reining discipline it sanctions events that include sliding stops, western spins, and rollbacks — three “movements” that can only be described as the demolition derby of the horse world.

You simply could not devise any more damaging things to do to a horse. These movements are in direct violation of Article 142 of the FEI General Regulations which states in part:

1. No person may abuse a Horse during an event or at any other time. “Abuse” means an action or omission which causes or is likely to cause pain or unnecessary discomfort to a Horse…

The pain and discomfort these movements cause is unnecessary because they have no purpose. They are completely removed from anything a real working cowboy would ask a real working cow horse to do. The only function of them is to titillate and thrill those who know nothing of horses and have never given a thought to their well being.

There is an expression in the American southwest that describes someone who talks big but cannot back it up, as being “ all hat, no cattle.” The direct analogy to reining is, “all horseshow, no horsemanship.” No real horseman would engage in meaningless competitions that destroy horses just for the ribbons and money to follow.

Yet the F.E.I. is doing just that. In the name of more ticket sales and TV viewers, the F.E.I. has sold it’s soul and turned its principled stand on promoting the welfare of the horse into hypocritical platitudes. It’s a devils deal in which they cannot profit. Just as running professional wrestling exhibitions in the lobby will not save an Opera company, reining will not keep Dressage, Driving, or Eventing in the Olympics or on TV. To the contrary it’s more likely to chase them out and off sooner rather than later.

The F.E.I. should stand for what it stands for, or not at all.


Letter from a Reader.. October 29, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, calmness, competition, corrections, dressage, half-halts, looseness, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, training.
1 comment so far

I recently received this from a reader of Riding in the Moment – The Hidden Language of Dressage.


Mr. Schaffer,

I have bought over 100 books on riding in my lifetime and your book is by far the most useful of them all!  In fact that statement doesn’t really convey exactly how useful it has been to me.  I bought the book yesterday and read the whole thing in one sitting.  I made a few notes and went out to ride my horse that day.  I have been riding my whole life and most seriously with tons of professional assistance for 15 years and I cannot believe the difference these simple exercises have made in my riding.  I too have an affinity for Thoroughbreds off the track.  My current horse which I purchased only 2 weeks ago has, I believe, spent his life(16years) leaning on the bit and racing around as if he were still on the track.  I was really struggling with how to get this horse retrained and we were having all kinds of battles resulting in him bucking and running away.  After reading your book, I figured this is EXACTLY what I need to do.  Take this horse back to some very simple singular movements.  I thought 5 concepts, pretty simple but I have all the time in the world.  Who knew I would make it all the way to soften in 2 rides!!  With each exercise, he picked them up quicker and quicker and by the time I got to “turn in” he had it on the second try.  2 days ago it took me the whole length of the arena to stop him and by the end of my ride today all I had to do was think about stopping and there he was!

With sincerest thanks,

Jennifer F……..

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