Dressage is a balancing act and never more so than when riding a sensitive horse. They require you to keep your channels of communication open and clear, and you’ll have to override your own natural instincts occasionally. The pay-off, though, is worth it – sensitive horses are often capable of offering up brilliant work and they help you to hold yourself accountable for your aids, as they’ll respond to anything you ask – whether or not you’re asking the right question.
On the down-low
There should be two distinct phases to your warm-up. The first phase rudimentary – you use it to get your horse moving, to ease his muscles into work, and to check that he’s comfortable and happy. The second phase is when you should start to assess how your horse is moving and what you can do to improve it. This is when you make your game-plan for your schooling session.
It’s quite common at this stage to find that your horse is rushing a little bit without engaging his hindquarters, either because he’s naturally forward-going or to evade working in a correct outline. This can cause problems early on in your ride, as it’s natural to react by trying to slow his stride down. By doing this, though, you’ll only succeed in shortening his stride and lessening his ground cover. Instead, ride him forwards. Because his movement is already quite busy, riding him forward will encourage him to lengthen his stride and begin to stretch over his topline. This will create swing and reach in his movement and, at that point, you can ask for a decrease in speed without sacrificing the activity of his hindquarters.
I always say to my students that the first thing I want is for them to ride nicely. That means they should have a balanced position with a good seat, kind hands and gentle aids – nothing rough and nothing abrupt. Once you’ve learned to ride nicely, you can start to learn to ride effectively. To be a little bit more obvious with your aids, sometimes your position has to be a bit less pretty, but you have to learn the rules before you can break them.
To be a truly effective rider, your hands, seat and legs must be having a constant conversation, and they must each make an equal contribution. You have to be able to speak to your horse through these contact points. This is when bravery becomes so important – if you’re worried about putting your leg on or picking up a bit of contact, then you’re disrupting the cycle of communication. Any energy that you create from your horse’s hindquarters needs to be able to be half-halted by your seat, directed by your hand, then added to with your leg, and so the cycle continues. If you haven’t got that cycle, then you become complacent and end up settling into a gait that’s probably only going to earn you a score of 65% at best. Then it doesn’t matter how well you can do a shoulder-in or how well you can half-pass, because if the basic gait is only worth 6.5 then the movement can also only be worth that much. Brave riding is rewarded with better marks.
When you take the gait to the next level, you may find the movements are initially more challenging because you’ve got more power and balance to deal with. But you have to leave your comfort zone to be in a place where you can build upon your scores, your horse’s quality of movement and your level of riding.
Whatever you ask for, you mustn’t think of it as a big deal. If you’re applying your aids and already thinking ‘this is going to push his buttons’, then it makes you ride cautiously. Your horse will pick up on this, wonder what you’re worried about and react accordingly. Have confidence in what you’re asking for – it’s the confidence itself that often produces the results!
For more of Michael’s tips for dressage success, and to discover his three trouble-shooting exercises, get your copy of April Horse&Rider here, on sale 9 March