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The Natural Circle May 24, 2013

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, contact, dressage, looseness, Riding, training.

(A short excerpt from Riding in the Moment – Discover the Hidden Language of Dressage. It is from the middle of the so it relies on exercises and concepts mentioned previous to this.)

The Natural Circle

For every horse at every gait, there is a circle of a certain size on which the horse will find it easiest to learn to balance a rider. When you ride your horse on this circle, you’ll find it’s very easy to regulate his speed, engage his hind legs, and get him to relax and bend his back while he stretches to, but not through, the outside aids. I call these circles “natural circles.” The idea of riding a horse on a circle based upon his conformation is not a new idea — the classical “volte” was determined by a ratio of the length of the horse’s back to the diameter of the circle.

A horse’s natural circle is a circle just small enough that he has to move slightly laterally to stay on it. This puts him in a shallow shoulder-in or shoulder-fore position. If a circle is too small he won’t be able to move freely. If the circle is too big, there is no incentive for him to move laterally and the rider is left with nothing but the reins to try to mechanically regulate speed, tempo, bend, and frame.

Figure 13-5 illustrates this. Horse -D- is on a circle so small he has to go around it almost perpendicular to the circumference — very close to the lateral engaging step exercise. This has the advantages of the lateral engaging step but it doesn’t allow the horse to move freely forward. At the other extreme, horse -A- is on a circle so large he can go around and around on it for years and years (as so many horses have) without ever learning to bend and soften in his body.
Horse -B- would, at first glance, seem to be right on target. He’s on a circle that he can bend to stay on. With a horse that has already learned how to bend, balance, and move into the aids, this is the ideal. However, with horses not yet this advanced, it is not as helpful as the circle horse -C- is on.

Horse -C- is on his natural circle. To stay on this circle, horse -C- has to move at a slight angle. Simply riding on this circle helps to teach the horse how to bend and stretch into the outside aids.

Finding the Natural Circle

A good way to find your horse’s natural circle is to walk him in to a very small circle and keep him there until he begins to soften. Then give him a very light aid — a soft whisper of a cognitive aid — asking him to move out laterally. As soon as he responds by taking any outward step, drop the reins in reward and let him rest or a moment or two. Repeat this exercise until he begins to feel as though he wants to move out on his own as soon as you bring the circle in.

When this happens, you can find your horse’s natural circle by adjusting the diameter until your aids asking him to turn in are in balance with his asking for permission to move out. The dressage speak for this feeling is, “moving from your inside leg to your outside hand.” When he is on this circle and you have this feeling, you will find it very easy, virtually effortless, to hold him on the circle you want.

Teaching your horse to begin moving out as you’re turning him in may seem at odds with the previous exercises, which dealt with the horse running through and falling out. However , in those situations your horse was being stiff or hollow and going through the aids instead of into them. To do this exercise your horse must be working off cognitive aids to easily turn in and move out. If he isn’t, he isn’t yet ready for this so you need to go back to earlier exercises to make him more responsive to light aids.

As your horse begins to correctly move into the aids on the circle, he will become connected. When he is, you can spiral the circle in or out by just pointing your belly button to where you want to go. With a little practice you’ll learn to keep your horse on connected aids all the time regardless of whether you’re doing a volte or straight line. Furthermore, whenever your horse does begin to lose balance, you’ll be able to restore it by doing a small circle — a volte. This is the beginning of using figures and movements to correct your horse instead of trying to fix him with “more hand” or “more leg.”

Getting a simple circle right will give you and your horse the feeling of what a very well trained school horse is like. It is the basis of everything that is important in dressage, so it’s well worth the effort. From this you will have the sensation of physically moving your horse from your inside leg to outside hand and leg. However, you’re not physically pushing your horse into your outside aids — you’re experiencing connection — the effortless conversation of two beings fluent in the same language.


Bailing out! May 16, 2013

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, training.

If you have time to think, “Maybe I should bail” you have time to grab mane, reins, saddle, anything you can and stay on. I suggest this because most horses are not suicidal so staying on their back until you can safely dismount is the best place to be. The chances of getting hurt while bailing are significantly greater than when unceremoniously dumped on your bottom and much higher than sticking like glue and riding it out.

If you hold on for dear life (literally) you’re keeping your upper body UP and therefore keeping your head on top. If you let go before you have both feet on one side of the horse (as in the case of the emergency dismount) your upper body will rotate downwards in the direction of the fall as your leg on the other side comes over the top. So by bailing you end up doing a head first dive into the ground and a helmet is NOT going to prevent brain injury in that situation. If you hold on and still get dumped, the horse has to have gotten both of your feet on one side or the other so you land feet first or on your bottom, but either is far better than landing on your head. This is why I say over and over again, DO NOT LET GO.

As to the oft quoted nonsense about doing a “tuck and roll” landing – hah! This is the stuff of gymnasts and martial artists standing on rubber mats. They have learned to do it correctly and practiced it over and over and over again for hours and hours. So if you’re in top physical condition and have practiced it for so long it’s a reflex not a thought, OK. If not, and you are headed for the ground head first – stick your hands out there and break a wrist or arm if necessary, but always, always, always protect your head.

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.

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

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.”


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…


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