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Dressage Today Review of Riding in the Moment April 23, 2013

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, contact, corrections, dressage, half-halts, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.

Dressage Today – May 2013

Book Review
Riding in the Moment,
Discover the Hidden Language
of Dressage
By Michael Schaffer
Softcover, 170 pages, available at

Reviewed by Mary Daniels

This book is a bit of a sleeper. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the author had written something so useful and so innovative that it could be called brilliant. Though the problem of how wooden and obscure the traditional language of dressage is has been cropping up here and there in the work of other authors, this is the first book I have come across that offers a system of viable solutions that won’t offend the rule-bound.

Schaffer, an FEI-level trainer, instructor, clinician and author of Right From the Start, Create a Sane, Soft, Well-Balanced Horse, says the conventional language of dressage is “top down and mechanical.” It begins at its end goal, with definitions and descriptions of trained horses ridden with refined aids. But the actual process of training a dressage horse is “bottom up and cognitive (getting the horse to understand what it is you want and allowing him to do it from light aids).”

Schaffer’s ideas bring to mind that some of the best trainers of performance horses don’t talk much. Perhaps language is inadequate to explain what it is they do. Schaffer’s reduction of dressage-speak into common and easily understood ideas gives you a simple but effective plan to introduce a green horse that hasn’t a clue to a mutual language by which a rider is able to communicate with him. I have never had anyone teach me this, though I have been able to observe trainers very experienced in starting young horses patiently go about it, and I am pretty sure what they are doing is not too different from Schaffer’s bottom-up method of training.

Schaffer begins with what he calls the five first-tier basics: go, stop, turn in, move out and soften. These concepts are at the core of all dressage, he says. Master them, and then by combining them, you can easily create all of the movements we seek in a made dressage horse.

One important idea the author emphasizes is that it is always more important to use aids in a relaxed way than in a precise way. Ask often, accept what you can get, imperfect though it may be, but keep trying to do better, and reward lavishly when you get the closest semblance.

There are excellent photos breaking down how to go from having to develop and use light, cognitive aids. And isn’t that the way we all want to ride, but never knew how to start?

Most likely, any thinking rider will find this book useful in switching on new neuron paths in the brain. But I believe someone who is trying to either personally introduce or supervise the very early basic training of a young, green horse is going to find it useful and a way to prevent frustrations from escalating.

My helmet is off to this guy for thinking in an innovative way and putting it down on paper for the rest of us.


August open schooling session August 9, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, contact, corrections, dressage, half-halts, looseness, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.
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Here’s this months video – generally pretty good stuff, new 3 and 4 tempi changes.  Things are coming along.




Operant Conditioning vs Cognitive Training June 14, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, corrections, dressage, Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.
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“Operant Conditioning” is to “Cognitive Training” as “horseback riding” is to “Gal on Totillos.”  Actually, that comparison is far too narrow – the concept of conditioning subjects to respond to stimuli with behaviors, is so generic that it applies to every interaction, between every being, every time.   Furthermore, it has no moral value – there is no “good” or “bad.”  The oaf that “conditions” his horse to run off in panic at the sight of a longe whip is every bit as successful as the master that teaches his horse to relax, sit, round, and rise in lofty piaffe at the sight of the very same whip.

In cognitive training, the trainee must be an active and willing participant – not so for operant conditioning.  The victims don’t even need to know they’re part of the plan.   I could “condition” my co-workers to “behave” by leaving the room at the “stimulus” of my entering it, merely by not showering for a week or so.  This is not science – it’s the road kill remnants of common sense run down by pseudoscientific silly speak.

Those of us looking for rules to build a relationship with our horses need look no further than the golden one.  Have a little empathy, imagine how he feels, and treat him with the same common sense and kindness you would want in his place.  Remember to ask often, expect little, reward generously – the rest is really pretty straight forward.  Chances are that on some level, you already know this, do this and feel this – now I’ve said this.


Just Stop it! June 13, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, corrections, dressage, Riding, training.

If a horse is out of balance and you can’t get him back in a few strides, it’s best to just stop, regroup, and begin again.  There are riders that can salvage a bad situation that’s gone on for longer than that, but they know who they are, what they’re doing, and to heed their own counsel.

I also have the “allowed stop.”   I teach horses that when I drop the reins, pat them and sit up  they’re allowed to stop.  I use this as a form of instant reward.   I started teaching/training it when I noticed  students would work at something for a while, get it, and then pull the horse to stop him before they rewarded.  I think everyone can see the problem with that.

In yet another instance of stop, I don’t get after a horse if he gets worried, out of balance, or whatever and stops on his own.   In that situation I don’t drop the reins, pat him or offer a “good boy”  I remain neutral, soften the reins if necessary so he can reorganize, and then we proceed as though nothing had happened.  I developed this approach to worried horses because I come across so many so over corrected for everything that they get frantic about anything and become virtually un-rideable.  Once they begin to figure out they’re not going to get the snot kicked out of `em when they make mistakes, they don’t worry so much and begin to relax – then the mistakes, and unrequested stops, get further and further apart.

This approach fits into my general rule of not trying to fix what’s already happened. If it’s done, you can’t undo it.  If a horse stops, he stopped.  Move on and see if you can figure out a way to prevent it next time.  When you do, reward that – yes, often with an “allowed stop.”


Hands… May 21, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, calmness, corrections, dressage.

I took a little snippet from a schooling video and slowed it down to look at my hands which I’ve been thinking were really terrible.  This is an interesting result – if for nothing else than to see what riding an 18HH wb moving along can be like.


so you know, first pass is regular speed, than 1/2, followed by 1/10, 1/2 again and back to full speed.

Whadayou guys think?


(8-18-12 fixed link)


Training Indeed -3/14/2012 April 3, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, contact, corrections, dressage, hyperflexion, looseness, Riding.
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Whoops – I forgot to put this up on the blog.  This schooling tape is from mid march- the changes are getting straighter, the trot stronger and more consistent, and I’m keeping my right elbow quieter. There’s a good correction coming down the long side where I raise “and GIVE” my hands to stop him when he starts getting against me and quick.



Indeed – 2-20-12 February 29, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, contact, corrections, dressage, looseness, Riding, training.
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For those of you that have been following his progress there’s lots to see in this video.

The changes are not perfect yet, but they’re coming along. There are a lot of changes from left to right in which the rt hind and fore remain parallel – that wasn’t happening at all before.

That’s me positioning his body for the changes. I’m also riding the changes a little flat and underpowered. If you recall some tapes from early Dec. I did the changes in all different ways looking for the ones that worked best. Well doing them from a low energy haunches in position was the winner so that’s how I’m schooling him now. Once we’ve burned in the neural pathway and his habit is to remain parallel, I’ll begin to straighten him out and add in more jump.

Funny how the music and the movements match up occasionally – I really don’t plan/edit that – I just take all the chunks of video, stick ’em together and find something that matches my mood, his tempo,I and is long enough to go with it.

I can see by the stats that plenty of people are looking these, if you have questions or comments feel free to post them.

On a students horse January 6, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, contact, corrections, dressage, looseness, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.

A while back a student videoed me schooling her horse in a lesson.  It’s a pretty good example of taking your time, working slowly and helping the horse to understand what you want.  Share your comments…


Transition to walk… February 17, 2011

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, contact, corrections, dressage, training.
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So my ring has been good enough to ride in for a week now. It’s to be expected that the ring isn’t 100%, it’s a little wet here, still has a little ice over there, and somehow there is still 3 feet of snow all around the edge making it smaller with undulating sides.

It’s always been my practice to spend the winter months working in a relaxed way on basics.  The last few days the basic of choice has been  transitions to walk.

The transition to walk is probably the most important movement in all of dressage.  When done right, the tempo remains exactly the same as the rhythm changes from either a 3 beat canter or 2 beat trot to the 4 beat walk.  The contact should stay the same or even get slightly softer.  Ideally, with a more advanced horse he will actually come up a little in front during the transition.  With a less advanced horse, or if you’re just getting back to work after some time off this winter, it’s quite proper to allow the horse to stretch out and even a little down during the transition.

It’s Ok to let the horse stretch out and down a little in the transition because the real interest in doing it is in keeping those back legs marching up and into the bridle.  It’s only when those hind legs step up and take the weight that the movement can remain smooth, fluid and elastic.  Without the hind legs coming forward, the horse can’t help but to either fall forward into a fast wall or scurry, or to throw his head up, drop his back and stop.

Yes, if you’re very skillful you can cover up or even eliminate those few fast steps or chase him out of the halt – but that defeats the purpose.  Your goal is not to make him look like he’s doing a good transition, it’s to do a good one.  So keep the focus on the hind legs coming forward and the fluid easy nature of the transition.  If you’re having a problem with it, don’t try and hide it, look at it.  Analyze it.  Decide which of the 5 basics is failing and figure out how to fix that.  Then go back to the transitions.,


Eyes on the ground – part 4 December 21, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, corrections, dressage, half-halts, looseness, Riding, training.
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So Indeed had the weekend off as I was away doing a clinic. Today was really cold! But I got on him and we were continuing with the lateral suppling, etc I mentioned in the last post. Basically, I’m doing the lateral engaging step in the trot on the circle with him. I do it with him in a “normal” way, over bent to the inside of the circle, and in the counter bend – overbent to the outside. I didn’t bother with changes at all today, but what I did notice is that he was much more “through” as a result of this work. So my thoughts to pass on to all today are, “improving anything improves everything.” This is just another example of it. I was looking for a blockage that was messing with his flying change, I got him more through than I’ve ever felt him before. At one point I gently touched him with the stick to ask for a little more, and it felt like 2 more cylinder in his engine kicked in. Very nice, very soft, just a whole lot more there, there!

The other thought is that, within reason, you’re always better off to just press on and move on to the next training level rather than trying to make the lowest  level stuff perfect. This is a typical example of what I mean. I thought I did have Indeed supple and through, and had I not pushed on to the changes I wouldn’t have known what I was missing.

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