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Dressage Principles Based on Biomechanics
By Thomas Ritter, Maria Mähler
Cadmos Publishing LimitedCopyright © 2011 Cadmos Publishing Limited, Richmond, UK
All rights reserved.
Fundamental Aspects of Equitation
Riding can be described as a sport, since on the one hand, it transforms the horse into a four-legged ballet dancer, and on the other hand, it requires physical agility, stamina, a good sense of balance, good co-ordination, as well as a certain core muscle strength from the rider.
Riding can also be described as an art, since it requires great intuition, creativity and mental flexibility of the rider. The rider begins the training of the green horse like a sculptor begins with a block of marble or like a potter begins with a lump of clay on the potter's wheel. The artist shapes this raw material into a finished sculpture through the application of all his technical and artistic skill. The classical literature, therefore, mostly uses the term "equestrian art", whereas the term "equestrian sport" was not invented until the 20th century.
The authors of the late 18th and 19th centuries often referred to dressage, in particular, as "equestrian science", since it follows scientific rules and principles. The rider must be able to make a diagnosis like a physician in order to determine which part of an exercise is executed well, which part is insufficient, what can be kept, what needs to be changed, among other things. After having arrived at a diagnosis, the rider has to find a "treatment method" for the problems that were encountered, and to check afterwards whether the horse has improved or deteriorated as a result of the treatment. In other words: one has to check whether the diagnosis was correct or incorrect. For this reason, some classical authors refer to dressage also as "academic equitation", which finds its reflection in book titles such as Dupaty de Clam's 1777 publication La science et l'art de l'équitation (The Science and Art Of Equitation).
In order to be able to train a horse successfully, the rider has to acquire and cultivate basic skills in all three areas – sport, science, and art. This is a lifelong process which never ends. Nobody can ever achieve perfection in it. Even the greatest master always has room for personal improvement in all three areas.CHAPTER 2
During the two and a half thousand years that have passed since Xenophon, certain philosophical precepts have evolved in the tradition of classical equitation, which are timeless and which should shape our interaction with horses. They run like a consistent thread through the classical literature, setting a standard for the horse's welfare, regardless of whether the human is sitting on the horse or leading it from the ground. This mental attitude must find its expression in all actions of the rider and owner. It must be embodied by the teacher and passed on to the student.
Every interaction with the horse must serve its physical and psychological well-being. This begins with ensuring that the horse is managed and kept in a way appropriate to its type and that it is fed according to its nutritional requirements. This includes enough exercise, as well as shelter from the cold, heat, rain and wind, if the horse is turned out. In addition, it is extremely important that the yard staff, as well as the owner, rider, and trainer, treat the horse with love and consistency. We have to adjust our own energy level to each horse, in order not to unintentionally frighten an insecure horse, or to inadvertently encourage a very self-confident horse to play unpleasant or even dangerous games. The movements of the human should be flowing, quiet, and harmonious, whether on the ground or in the saddle. Abrupt, abrasive movements and thoughtless actions are to be avoided, since they make the horse scared and nervous, rendering productive work impossible.
The work must preserve or even improve the horse's health. Poor riding can easily cause accidents and unsoundness, because chronic stiffness creates excessive wear and tear on tendons and joints. Good riding, on the other hand, protects the horse from injuries and can even straighten out crooked front legs and at times improve certain types of lameness. According to the old masters, this is one of the main tasks of dressage training, and it is one of the reasons why show jumpers, three-day eventers, driving horses, and even horses that are only hacked out should receive regular gymnastic (i.e. dressage) training. Correctly done, dressage prevents the horse from suffering damage to its health as a result of the work, and it allows the animal to perform its "day job" more successfully. Correct gymnastic dressage keeps the horse healthy and rideable into old age.
You can make assumptions about the quality of the training at a yard from the age and health of the horses there. If all horses in a barn are young, this could possibly point to hard riding which creates unnecessary wear and tear on the horses' legs, so that they have to be retired prematurely. If you see lots of horses with bandaged legs in their stables and many horses with tendon injuries, it is usually a sign that the horses are stiff and that they are ridden on the forehand, because stiffness and lack of balance are the greatest enemies of the horse's legs.
The way the horse is muscled is also an indication of the quality of the riding. If a horse has a poorly-muscled back and croup, it is usually a symptom of shortcomings in the training. If the topline musculature has a big dip directly in front of the withers, you can assume that the rider tries to create longitudinal poll flexion by working backward with a hard hand, which shortens the neck unnaturally: The withers can therefore not be lifted, the back cannot swing, and the activity of the haunches is suppressed. The neck should be widest at its base and taper off towards the top. A well-trained horse looks harmonious and round. An unharmonious topline with points and angles, in a horse with good conformation, is a sign of bad riding. Poor training can make a very good, beautiful horse look ugly and inferior. Good training, on the other hand, can make a horse with inferior conformation appear better than it really is.
Every interaction with the horse, every aid we apply, every exercise or movement we ride is a learning experience and makes the horse either better or worse. There is no neutral ground in this respect. That's why it is important that all the parts of a training session complement each other and build on each other in a meaningful way. Every type of work should aim at improving the horse. For instance, it makes no sense to let the horse fall apart completely during the warm-up phase by trotting and cantering around with no rein contact. This will only get him used to working in a poor outline and trains the wrong muscles. Afterwards, it takes much more time and effort than necessary to put the horse together again and to eliminate stiffnesses that were created by letting the horse fall apart.
Dressage training must make the horse more reliable, more obedient, and more sensitive to the rider's aids, no matter under what circumstances the horse is ridden. A well-trained dressage horse should be fun to hack out as well. If a horse is mentally unbalanced and unpredictable, it is often because serious mistakes were made during the training.
Trust and respect are two sides of the same coin, without which a high standard of riding is unattainable. You cannot have one without the other. "Respect" without trust is fear. "Trust" without respect leads to anarchy. The horse has to see the human as a trustworthy leader whom it can follow with a clear conscience, without having to worry about suffering harm. The rider is the higher-ranking animal in the little herd and, therefore, assumes the responsibility for the horse. This means that the rider must never ask the horse to perform a task that it cannot do or that could hurt it in any way. The horse must feel safe and secure with the rider, who, in turn, must not exploit the horse's good nature and talent. "Education, not exploitation" used to be the motto in the past, which should be honoured more again in the future.
The horse has to learn two fundamental lessons: on the one hand, there is no way around the rider's demands or around the quality of their execution. What the rider is asking for is the easiest alternative for the horse under the present circumstances. All evasions he may think of only lead to a longer and more difficult workout. On the other hand, the horse has to know that these demands are well within his capabilities and will not overtax him.
The "How" is always more important than the "What" in riding, which means performing simple exercises to a high standard is better – and serves the education of horse and rider more – than riding difficult movements poorly. We should resist the temptation of trying to appear more accomplished than we actually are. That would only end in embarrassment for the rider, because you can't fool an expert about a rider's skill level or a horse's training level. We should not attach much value to the opinions of uneducated or semi-educated people. The rider should only take the opinions of true experts to heart who are able to judge the situation accurately.
Difficult movements become relatively easy once horse and rider have truly mastered the basics. Artists are always master craftsmen first. Horsemanship is no different. There are certain basic technical riding skills everyone has to acquire. The rider can only become an artist in the saddle after having perfected these technical skills of the craft. Without the proper foundation, dressage descends into something that is artificial without either gymnastic or aesthetic value. The same thing applies to the horse. That is why the basics must continuously be practiced and refined, exactly like a virtuoso musician has to practice their finger exercises and musical scales every day.
Classical equitation is a nature-based form of equitation, which means that every horse is developed within its natural possibilities and limitations, and it is ridden in an outline that is appropriate for its conformation and training level. This is the reason why some classical authors, like Otto de la Croix, refer to dressage as the "natural art of riding".
This outline, or the shape of the way the horse "carries" itself, is made up with a number of different elements, including the engagement and the flexion of the hindlegs, the bascule, i.e. the rounding of the spine, as well as the elevation of the neck and the flexion of the poll. The degree of the momentarily achievable "Zusammenstellung" is determined on the one hand by the horse's conformation and on the other hand by its muscular development. Horses with good conformation and those who are already more advanced in their training can obviously be "put together" more and be placed more on the haunches than horses with poor conformation or green horses. The term "Zusammenstellung" in the sense of the old masters always refers to the entire spine. This used to be called (and still is called) the position on the haunches.
Dressage training is a systematic process of physical, mental, and behavioral education which helps the horse to carry the rider's weight with the greatest possible ease, so that it can show off under saddle with the same freedom of movement and extravagance of paces as when at liberty. In order to achieve this, the rider has to learn to eliminate all negative influences of his weight on his horse through the careful application of a good seat.
Every new training step must be well prepared. It is explained to the horse in such a way that it understands what is expected of him, and that it is capable of fulfilling the demands made of it. If the horse does not execute the rider's request, one should check seat and aids first, in order to rule out misunderstandings. So we ask ourselves: "How can I make my horse's job easier? How can I help my horse in this exercise?" Afterwards we check the horse's attentiveness and reaction time. In many cases the horse needs to be finer tuned so that it responds to the rider immediately and without delay. Finally, we have to find out which part of the exercise is especially difficult for the horse. We ask ourselves: "What is holding the horse back? What is preventing the horse from executing the task?" Once we have found the weakness, the muscle groups involved are strengthened and suppled through specific targeted exercises.
Through further "explanations", and through filling in holes in the basics, the horse acquires the ability to solve even complicated questions. One can say that advanced movements become rideable and even appear easier over time to the degree that horse and rider have mastered the basics. Problems in difficult movements are always caused by mistakes that were made in the basic training. As soon as these holes in the basics are filled, the problems in the movement disappear as well.
We cannot expect a high level performance from a tired horse. Brilliant movements, elastic gaits, an ability to focus on its work and a good work ethic all require a fresh horse. This means that the warm-up phase of the training session must be handled intelligently and thoughtfully. Chasing the horse around thoughtlessly and tiring it out is essentially abusive and only leads to premature unsoundness. The rider's task is to structure the warm-up phase so that the horse is not rambunctious or explosive any more, but still as fresh as possible. The muscles have to be warmed up, the horse should be fully concentrated on the work and its trainer, and it should look forward to the workout with happy expectation. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, such as: lungeing briefly, a few minutes of work in-hand or work in the pillars, long reining, or bending in motion at the walk, to name just a few possibilities.
It is the horse that determines the rate of progress, since every new step that is taken when learning must be secured and the horse must be relaxed when taking that new step, before we can attempt take the next step. There is no general recipe or universal formula that fits all horses. However, haste invariably comes back to haunt the rider sooner or later, and short cuts always cost triple time in the long run, since it is much more time-consuming to correct the inevitable mistakes and omissions than to proceed slowly, but thoroughly and systematically, at the horse's natural pace.
The rider, furthermore, has to be intimately familiar with the individual strengths and weaknesses of each horse, as well as the limits of its athletic capability, since not all horses are suitable for advanced work. That means that the rider chooses a four-legged student that is talented for the intended work. In other words, one should not try to make a horse into a dressage horse that was really bred to drive. One should not try to train a draft horse that was born to pull heavy loads at the walk and the trot to become a high school horse. It is already difficult enough to train a very talented horse to the upper levels. With a horse that has no talent for it, because it was bred for an entirely different career, this is not only virtually impossible, it is unfair to the animal. It shows a certain ignorance and arrogance of the rider who believes he can ignore the horse's nature.
Every exercise and every movement influence the horse's gait and posture in a specific way. The thinking rider's task is two-fold in this respect: First, he has to determine in what way he wants to modify or improve the horse's gait and posture. Then, he has to find suitable exercises that can help to reach this goal.
Since, at least "classical" dressage is a nature-based form of riding, the movements that the horse is supposed to execute either have to occur in nature, such as flying changes, piaffe, passage, and airs above the ground, or they have to be useful gymnastic exercises, which improve the horse's balance, suppleness, straightness, and collection, such as the lateral movements. Movements that do not meet at least one of these two criteria should not be included into the curriculum. I am thinking here about the canter on three legs, among others.
Excerpted from Dressage Principles Based on Biomechanics by Thomas Ritter, Maria Mähler. Copyright © 2011 Cadmos Publishing Limited, Richmond, UK. Excerpted by permission of Cadmos Publishing Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents* The aims of dressage training * The system's essential gymnastic building blocks * Breaking down blockades * Essential rider skills: Sitting, feeling, thinking * The network of aids
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