Dressage to me is the systematic training of the horse to become more of an athlete, to preserve its joints, its health and therefore to prolong its life. If that is not reason enough then to make the horse more obedient to the rider and therefore in turn for it to be more pleasurable to ride is the other.
The photos on the right show a horse that in the top photo was already backed and broken and then in the lower photo how he looked after one and a half years with me working with him.
Firstly let's look at the difference between classical and competition dressage. To me there should be no difference between the two, but unfortunately the pressures of competing have changed some riders priorities. The irony is that the resurgence of classical dressage is now being misinterpreted as the kinder way of training the horse. If the training of the young horse is correct in the first place and executed with patience and an understanding then classical and competition should be the same. Let us once more make ourselves clear as to what we are aiming to achieve with our training?
A supple, fit healthy horse that is calm and obedient. A horse that has been developed as an athlete both mentally and physically, who is light and responsive to the aids. These are the basic aims to our training, I would, however, add to this that if the training of the horse is correct then the quality and beauty of the horses paces should be improved and enhanced.
If you turn a horse out on a crisp, fresh day and observe the elegance with which the horse moves and plays, this shows the potential that the horse has. Then observe the same horse being ridden in the school - the paces are invariably flat and dull. So often the horses paces and natural beauty are lost through incorrect riding and training.
This sounds very demanding on both horse and rider, the responsibility for not only maintaining but also improving the quality of the horse. It sounds beyond the reach of the everyday rider but it can be achieved if you have dedication, enthusiasm and patience. Only when the rider is of the correct mentality can the training of both horse and rider begin. When the right attitudes are in place the benefits by way of feels and enjoyable sessions with your horse, be it out hacking, in the school or out at the competition will be tremendous.
The rider needs the discipline to be in control of their mental state and to block out the day's events. By this I mean I have seen so many riders come to work their horses in the evening after a long day at the office. Their heads are still buzzing with the day's events, problems at work, things they should have done. They get on the horse and ride it with the same gusto that they had in the last sales meeting of the day and the poor horse wonders what on earth has hit him! As humans we have become very susceptible to the moods and problems associated with modern life, the struggle to survive, the pressures of working to pay for the keep of the horse! But it is normally these very pressures that prevent the rider from truly enjoying their horse and their progress, either by being too busy to notice, too rushed to take the time to enjoy or simply so stressed that you end up purely demanding from your horse and unfortunately not getting very far. Many riders do not want to take responsibility for their own bodies and make excuses all the time or blame the horse.
Sometimes they are nervous of the trainer because they do not want to look foolish or incompetent. Any trainer worth their salt will never knock a rider who really wants to learn, sadly many just want to be told a set of instructions to make the horse work better and refuse to accept that it is their riding that has caused the problem in the first place. So an open receptive mind is the prerequisite of the novice rider wanting to improve. An acceptance of what is being told to them and the discipline to overcome any problems outside of the arena.
How does the rider begin to learn:
I look at the training of horse and rider as a series of building blocks. You never replace one piece of information for another, but simply add to the beginning that you already have. To get to the top of the building you must have a firm foundation with a structure that is built one piece on top of another. Like with everything in life you need therefore to look at where you want to get to i.e. the end result, once this has been decided a foundation can be established and the building blocks put in place to get you to your end result. The end result that I have in my mind when taking on a new horse is to improve the physique and mental attitude of the horse such that it will be able to perform to the best of its ability, whether at the end of the day that is at Riding Club level or Grand Prix. The important note here is that the training does not alter for either case, it is purely the conformation or the limitations of the horse that will define how far he or she will go.
One problem that I have found when taking on new clients is that the instructors that they have had up to that point have only had experience in producing horses to a certain level. The way that these people teach reflects this because I feel that you need to have an overview of the whole procedure to have more of an insight to what problems will occur further on down the line if there are shortcomings in the teaching during the early stages. Once the end result has been established the training towards that point can now begin. The mental attitude of the horse will be improved with the way in which the horse is handled in all respects, i.e. from the grooming through to the preparing the horse for the session right through to the after care of the horse. The horse for my end result, that of the dressage trainer, needs to be taught to carry the weight of the rider, to listen to the riders commands and instructions and to learn to carry its own body weight equally distributed over all four legs such that the horse propels itself along by pushing with the hindlegs as opposed to pulling itself along with its front legs.