Dressage is a complicated sport with many layers that impact on each other. The quality and success of an entire movement can be undone by one minor error in execution. In addition to this, horses and riders each have their own strengths and weaknesses, which is why it’s misleading to make sweeping statements about the right or wrong way to do things. However, there are exceptions to every rule and there are a few common errors that come up in many tests that consistently rob riders of points. Here are a few of the common mistakes I see when I’m judging and what you can do to avoid or fix them.
Identifying the problem: The way you sit directly affects the way your horse moves beneath you. If you’re perched on the front of your pelvis, your horse will fall onto his forehand and out through his shoulder. If you sit too far back, which is a common problem in dressage riders, you’ll be inadvertently driving your horse, causing him to hollow. The temptation is always to try to correct these errors by using too much leg, which causes your horse to switch off to your aids and, in turn, forces you to increase the force of the aid each time. If someone were to nudge you consistently, you’d learn to ignore it after a while, then it would take a punch to get your attention, and you wouldn’t like that any more than your horse does. You’ll be able to dial backyour leg aids if you correct your centre of gravity and learn to sit in the middle of your horse.
How to fix it: In walk, practise feeling the mechanics of the gait. Can you feel when the left hind leaves the ground? How about the right? If you’re sitting incorrectly, or are tight or gripping with your seat, you won’t be able to feel it. Only when you’re sitting centrally and with your hips relaxed will you be able to differentiate between the motions, then it’s easy, and you can start identifying how much ground cover your horse is making with each step. Is he overtracking by 30cm? Or is it just 15cm? Is he just tracking up into the print left by his front hoof? Once you can finesse your feel enough to know where each step will finish, you can start to influence his stride length. Experiment with using your seat, not your reins, to shorten the stride by 10cm. This should be accomplished by encouraging your horse to lift his stride – practise over poles and cavaletti to get the feeling.
Overriding with the hand
Identifying the problem: A lack of understanding of the mechanics behind a good outline causes many people to ride with too much hand, which causes their horse to lean. I also see many riders use the reins to balance themselves instead of developing their own balance in the saddle. Your horse can’t carry himself or work correctly if he’s using your hand as a fifth leg. A stiff, restrictive hand, or a variable or see-sawing contact are incorrect and encourage leaning or evasion of the contact.
How to fix it: Firstly, ensure you have your own balance in check, otherwise your horse will never be able to develop his own. When he leans on you, use the swing of the movement from your horse’s quarters to allow him to push ahead of you so that you can soften your contact. When he has sufficient energy and impulsion, he’ll come up and naturally balance himself, but if there’s not enough activity from his hindleg, then his front end will drop and look for the contact to balance on. Use one or two steps of leg-yield to encourage more activity and be strict with yourself about maintaining a light contact. Ask for transitions in the corners and allow your horse to go forward into a steady contact. Don’t be tempted to cheat your way to an outline, but rather allow your horse to work from back to front, then into your hand.
Cutting off corners
Identifying the problem: Corners don’t have to be complicated, but a lot of riders make them so by not being brave enough to ride right into them. They turn too early, which means they lose marks for accuracy, and also means that they don’t reap the benefits of having the corner to rebalance and prepare for the next movement. If you keep riding into the corner, your horse will have to take responsibility and turn eventually – after all, there’s a visible barrier to stop him. He has to learn to make that decision himself and if you pull him out of every corner prematurely, he never will.
How to fix it: You don’t have to ride into the corner thinking ‘inside leg, outside rein’, keep it simple. Use the corner to let your horse find his own balance. Ride in straight, let your horse turn, then ride out straight. It’s as easy as that. This will establish the balance needed to carry on down the long side, transition or cross the diagonal – whatever you need to do, your horse will be ready for it.
Discover how to solve more of Sandy’s dressage pet peeves in the September issue of Horse&Rider, on sale 27 July 2017.