Dressage Principles That Sound Like Zen Riddles

Jec Ballou, horse trainer, jec aristotle ballou, western dressage, jec ballou, dressage exercises for horse and rider, equine fitness

By Jec A. Ballou

It sounded like one of those Zen riddles intended to puzzle my 13-year-old brain until it staggered upon some flicker of enlightenment. “Forward does not mean faster,” my dressage instructor annunciated, her exasperation rising. And then with the next breath she waggled her longe whip towards me to assist in creating a forward-but-not-faster movement.

My Welsh pony surged ahead in a bone-rattling trot as our speed ticked up, and I gleaned from my instructor’s grimace that I was failing her proverb. As I understood it, I needed to get my pony’s hind legs moving with more activity and energy. But how was I supposed to do that without changing her speed? For as simple as it was in theory, I found out the concept of riding a horse correctly “forward” was surprisingly elusive in practice.

I’ve observed numerous dressage riders banging their legs on their horses’ sides to get the horse moving more “forward” until they are charging around the arena in a state of tension or frenzy. Just as often, I see riders who are unwilling to ride this way plodding around on a horse that appears disinterested and utterly disengaged with the work he is doing. Neither scenario is ideal. Nor are they the correct interpretation of riding a horse “forward.”

What IS the correct interpretation? A Western trainer I admire named Tom Pierson defined it best, and I think he did so without even realizing he was talking about dressage. He said working with a horse is like constantly checking in with the temperature gauge on your car. When the car is running right, the needle on your gauge should be directly in the middle of the spectrum between too hot and too cold. Think of your horse’s attention and focus this way, he explained. You do not want him so hyper-alert and fired up that the needle on your gauge tips one way. Nor do you want him so tuned out and sleepy that it tips the other way. You want it in the middle. Always.

Lately, I have begun to adopt the Western terminology of “readiness” in favour of the word “forward” that we dressage riders have relied on. No matter whether I am mid-stride in an extended trot, a halt, or a canter transition my horse needs to be fully ready and responsive for the next cue I give. When he is in this state, he travels with the activity and engagement in his limbs that we pursue as evidence that he is correctly moving forward. In other words, nobody needs to chase after me waggling a longe whip to create a desirable amount of engagement. And I do not need to keep my horse in a state of chomping edginess masquerading as liveliness and energy.

Of course, even the term “readiness” would have been murky for a 13-year-old to solve, so it still might have taken me years to arrive at the understanding that good, classical dressage requires a horse to be alert but not frenzied. If I could offer one tip for how to keep your horse in a state of readiness without chasing him unnecessarily faster, it would be the following:

At various moments during your ride, no matter what you are doing (or not doing), ask yourself: Does it feel as if I could instantly and immediately extend my horse’s stride right now? Does it feel just as likely that I could stop him on a dime without encountering resistance? If these answers are yes, chances are good that you’ve done well to keep him in a state of readiness. If the answer if no — and be honest with yourself — it would be a good idea to prioritize spending a week or so of your training working solely on this.

Operating with the above question in mind as you ride will inform your training considerably. The next time you are riding around practicing elusive dressage ideals and you think to yourself I think this trot is pretty good…but is it good enough?, ask yourself the readiness question and you will have your answer.

Photo: Shutterstock/Olga I

Jec Ballou, horse trainer, jec aristotle ballou, western dressage, jec ballou, dressage exercises for horse and rider, equine fitness

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Jec A. Ballou
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