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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.


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.


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.


First Session with a Hot Horse January 19, 2012

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, calmness, contact, dressage, looseness, Natural Horsemanship, The Training Pyramid, training.
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My first session working with a very nice horse that had some fear issues.

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…


This is fun! December 17, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, contact, dressage, looseness, performance standards, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.
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I’ve been watching schooling  videos of Indeed and have noticed that when changing from left to right, sometimes he is late behind, sometimes late in front, sometimes even but jerky.  I think he’s blocked on the right side of the base of his neck and overloading his hocks by elevating too much in front – not just popping his head up, but bringing his whole body too high in front.   It’s also interesting to note that he elevates this way in the simple transition to the rt lead canter too.

So, I’ve been working him deep and doing a lot of over bending each way to release the muscles.  I’ve want  him to stay level in his body and “unload” his hocks so he can swing them  freely through as he changes.  You could almost say I’m  “un-collecting” him.

With that in mind I’ve been working on having him reach down and move his shoulder to the left as I bring my right hand up and forward towards his right ear – a standard correction I use as anyone who has ridden with me knows.

Today I got that correction working well, then I found myself on the 18m circle doing a rising trot to the rt.  When things felt correct, I would bring my inside hand up and forward.  As he softened and reached down,  I would ask for the canter while rising, almost in a two point position. After a few easy strides I let him back down to the trot or walk.

Well I suppose there are many that would say I was doing it all wrong, and technically I may have been. There are certainly a lot of traps and pitfalls to be aware of and avoid if doing things this way.   But the results I got were really good!  He was doing nice level transitions obviously bringing his hocks under and through.  There’s no question but this is the feeling I want in the flying change and I’m sure working this way will get him in the habit, so he’ll be there soon.

But wait – there’s more.  Riding around on this very cold crisp day in the silence of my furry hat with the ear flaps pulled down, Deedles and I were just having a great time working together sorting this out.  We’re past the re-hab stage (finally!) and now that he accepts me as leader, I can let him be a partner.  (hope that makes sense to you, if not, I  really don’t want to hear about it)  Being out there on a willing horse working through one of the myriad of idiosyncratic problems that is part and parcel of bringing all horses up the levels reminded me of just how much fun it is!  I just love deconstructing these things, figuring what’s really causing them, trying different cures and seeing how well they do or don’t work. Hell, working through issues may be more fun that being through them. It’s what keeps horses, training, and dressage new, fresh and challenging after all these years.


HBT “Herd Behaviorism Techniques” November 20, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in calmness, dressage, looseness, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, The Training Pyramid.
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When I start working with frightened or aggressive horses, I use HBT “Herd Behaviorism Techniques.” (like that name?)  It consists of three phases or messages:

1. He’s stuck with me because he’s either on the longe line  or in a round pen.

2. I’m  able to herd him – make him go, stop, and turn – so I’m  dominant.

3. I’m not going to eat him.

Once I’m at that point horses lose their aggression and fear as they calm down and relax.  It’s fun to watch as it happens.

I take any horse that’s trying to run from me and just start changing his direction. At first they tend to whip around and go running the other way. But then, slowly, it begins to dawn on them that they’re not getting away, so they start to slow down. The horse will go from whipping around and running the other way, to whipping around and cantering, to turning and trotting, to turning and walking. The slower they go, the more frequently I change their direction.

At some point no matter what they’ve just done, I ask them to go the other way. Then comes a moment when they just stop in mid turn, lick their lips, look at me as if to say, “Just what the Hell do you want from me Mister?”

Well, what I want is for him to be standing there asking me what I want.  When he does, he has just elected me leader of the herd of two. Now because I’m the leader I make the decisions including what/who is safe to be around. Now, training can begin.


Clever Hans and Classical Dressage June 30, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, The Training Pyramid, training.

In 1900, a German named Wilhelm von Osten claimed his horse, Clever Hans (Kluge Hans), could perform mathematical calculations and count out the answer by tapping his hoof on the ground. Initially, everyone assumed the owner had to be using some trick, but no one could understand how he was doing it. Furthermore, the horse would answer correctly even if someone else asked the question.

Eventually it was shown that Clever Hans only “knew” the answer when he could see the questioner and the questioner knew the correct answer. In tests in which the questioner did not know the answer, Hans didn’t either. Ultimately it was concluded that Clever Hans was sensitive to unconscious, involuntary movements and changes in posture of the questioner. It was discovered that as Clever Hans was getting closer to the correct response the questioner’s tension level would go up. At the moment the horse gave the correct answer, the questioners tension would release and he would make a tiny, involuntary movement — a very slight change in the position of the head or body, or very slight changes in facial expression. This movement was all Clever Hans needed to know he should stop tapping.

There are some important lessons to be taken from this. The first is that no matter how quiet our seat or subtle our aids, we should probably be working to make things quieter and more subtle! It turns out that our clever horses don’t need very much in the way of physical guidance.

The next idea is that no matter how well we think we understand the training process, we are probably missing an entire subtext of subconscious aids, cues, and rewards. We have to assume the great riding masters and authors of the past were missing it as well. I suspect this is why they left us with such a mechanical description of how dressage works.

The words and phrases of dressage like “bend the horse around your inside leg” and “push him up to the bit” are mechanical because they literally tell us to “bend” our horses and “push” them to the bit by physically pushing, pulling, and bending. Without interpretation these statements are terribly confusing since we are not capable of physically bending a horse or pushing him anyplace he doesn’t want to go. This is why we have to go through a process of teaching the horse to bend, to step up to the bit, and to move from our leg. It is only after the horse understands these ideas and the aids for them, that it will feel to the rider as though he bent the horse and pushed him to the bit.

It’s easy to see how the great riding masters managed to teach their horses the concepts and aids so deftly they thought they were actually bending, pushing, and elevating their horses. This is much the same as Wilhelm von Osten thinking Hans was actually performing mathematics. What is not as easy to see is, how do we consciously do what the masters just did?

If you were to try to teach a horse to perform arithmetic without understanding what was really happening with von Osten and Hans, the task would seem impossible. However, if enough trainers did try it, some small percentage would get the same result as von Osten for the same reason. In all likelihood, those trainers would be as blissfully unaware as von Osten and believe their horses were actually performing math. However, once you understand the hidden language of von Osten was simply, “tap your foot until I tell you to stop,” teaching a horse to apparently “know” 3+2=5 is not a problem at all.

There is a direct parallel between teaching a horse to tap his foot and riding circles, serpentines, and transitions. Although the conventional mechanical language doesn’t provide a very good explanation of how we make those circles round, loops even and transitions accurate, once you learn there is hidden language, life gets simpler. The hidden language of dressage consists of what I call the “five first tier basics.” They are: go, stop, turn in, move out, and soften. We build from these to create all of the figures, movements, and qualities we want in our horses. Being aware of and understanding these first tier basics makes it easy to see that we don’t ride circles – we ride individual strides emphasizing the first tier basic or basics necessary to create a circle. The same is true for every other movement and figure in dressage.

circle To visualize how riding with the five basics works, think of keeping a horse on a circle by alternately asking him to move out to the circumference and then preventing him from moving out too much and falling off the circle with turn-in. (Figure 1 -A-) His speed, stride and frame are adjusted with go, stop, and soften. If the horse should run through the aids and off the circle, he is not responding to stop and turn in basics (Figure 1 -B-).

In the conventional explanation of the aids, we keep a horse on the circle by “pushing him from our inside leg to our outside hand and leg”, or “keeping him between our leg and hand.” These mechanical descriptions are as false as the illusion of Hans doing math. The irony is, Han’s illusion was based on the idea that he did understand what he was doing — the mechanical aids illusion is based on the idea that the horse doesn’t.

Find out more about The Hidden Language of Dressage” at my website: www.mikeschaffer.com

Some Great Dressage Kurs! January 4, 2010

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, Behind the bit, calmness, competition, corrections, dressage, Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas, half-halts, hyperflexion, looseness, Riding, roll kur, The Training Pyramid, training.
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I was poking around youtube and came across these rides from the European Championship 2009 UK Windsor. Please enjoy them and then post your POSITIVE comments about each. In fact, try to post at least several POSITIVE things about each ride. It’s great fun and learning to see what’s right with rides is a necessary part of learning.

Starting with the lowest placed ride that I’ve selected, but still, a very nice ride that I like more each time I see it.

Here we have Laura Bechtolsheimer & Mistral Hojris 81.750% KUR

From that, we go on to Anky getting only a bronze! What’s more surprising is she only got bronze with a score of 87.250%

I hadn’t seen the rider before stumbling onto this ride – she took the silver from Anky by .1%

And finally Edward Gal & Moorlands Totilas Kür 90.750% European Championship 2009 UK Windsor

Remember – just POSITIVE comments….


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