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Dressage – The Chicken or the Egg May 19, 2009

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, calmness, corrections, dressage, half-halts, looseness, performance standards, rules, The Training Pyramid.
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What comes first: Energy and impulsion or calmness, looseness, and balance?

In order to do dressage your horse has to have all of these qualities and more. However, there are two very different approaches to achieving this. The first is to send your horse forward and then get your horse to soften, bend, and balance. There is no doubt that this approach can work and work very well. Generally, the very best riders use this method with excellent results on a regular basic.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that this method can and has been futile and frustrating for thousands and thousands of horse and rider combinations. There’s nothing wrong with these riders or their horses – the problem is they’ve been given a single method with no other options.

However, there is another option – a very, very good one. Instead of making your horse go forward and then trying to sort out softness, looseness, and balance, teach the horse to be soft, loose and balanced first, then gradually add in more energy and forward as both horse and rider improve.

I think this is really the approach anyone who isn’t a professional riding a bunch of horses every day should use. It’s easier. It’s also more classical. Chasing the horse around with more leg, more hand, more this and more that in the hope it will look like he’s really moving forward and you’ll impress some judge is what’s wrong with “modern” dressage.

Keeping your horse calm and relaxed, giving him the time to figure out his job and develop the muscles and abilities to do it is what’s right with classical.


Natural Horsemanship and Dressage January 8, 2009

Posted by mikeschaffer in balance, calmness, competition, corrections, dressage, looseness, Natural Horsemanship, performance standards, Riding, rules, The Training Pyramid, training.
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There’s really nothing very new, special or unique about Natural Horsemanship.  It’s just common sense horse handling that’s been around for centuries.  Yes, there’s a lot of good information within the modern NH  packages and if you have a chance to watch and learn from some of the very good practitioners out there, do it.  Just remember NH has very little to do with a stick of particular color, rope halters with special sailor knots, lead ropes with magic powers, green handkerchiefs with logo or whatever else some are trying to sell.  It’s the ideas and concepts that are important and they boil down to “acceptance” and “understanding.”

In a nutshell, acceptance means that the horse accepts you as the leader of the herd of two.  When your horse accepts you as leader he will wait for you to make the decisions about where to go and when to go there.  He will also let you take care of the herds safety and security issues.

“Understanding” means your horse understands your “words”, cues, or aids for “go”, “stop”, “right”, “left”.  Most of the NH guys also train “moving the front end around the back end” (loosely related to turn on the haunches) and “moving the back end around the front end” (similar to turn on the forehand).

A horse trained to these concepts is a basic broke horse.  He’s safe to lead and work around, can be backed and hacked safely.  In other words, he is a  horse ready to begin doing dressage.  Dressage students who find themselves in the lower levels for years and years are usually stuck because their horses are not trained or “broke” to this standard.

This idea that a horse isn’t trained enough to be doing dressage will surprise a lot of readers who were taught the function of dressage, the very meaning of the word, was to train the horse.  However, dressage doesn’t explain or deal with this basic “breaking” phase of training very well — the formal language doesn’t even mention it.  usdf-pyramidThe so called Dressage Training Pyramid is pretty good visual evidence of this situation — it’s missing  it’s base.  It starts off with the horse trotting around in rhythm with no explanation or guidance as to how that happened.

My book “Right From the Start — How to Make a Sound, Sane, Well Balanced Horse”  goes into great detail about this “missing” phase of dressage training.

My latest work Riding in the Moment (still in progress) introduces another perspective to this issue — cognitive, connected, and mechanical riding.  I’ve defined “cognitive” riding and training as working primarily with the horses intellect — the horse performs because he understands our words or cues for go, stop, turn.   Connected riding deals with the contact and throughness of dressage.  In connected riding the horse understands our “words” and there is also a physical joining so that our aids not only request, they participate and potentially assist or “aid” in the movement.  Mechanical riding consists of the horse being  pulled or pushed in a physical way with little or no consideration of his understanding.

It is reasonable to use mechanical techniques for moments at a time as corrections.  This means we use some mechanical techniques to stop a horse from doing the wrong thing or to show him the right thing.   However, if dressage is attempted before a  horse has been “cognitively” trained to accept and understand the most basic concepts, the result will almost always be a forced horse that is always ridden mechanically.

So, to the extent that NH teaches a horse to accept the rider and understand the cognitive aids for go, stop, turn, it is a useful adjunct to dressage.  This is especially true because, as previously noted, dressage doesn’t have a formalized approach to this area of training.   However, useful as NH is, I think the same goals can be achieved in a program more tailored to the aspiring dressage rider.  I’ll be talking about this in weeks to come.

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