A Word About Dressage Exercises

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Jec A. Ballou

By Jec A. Ballou

The image of dressage horses prancing sideways might just seem like fancy footwork, but in reality these lateral movements are akin to physical therapy for the horse. From a conditioning standpoint the dressage exercises of shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass prove highly advantageous for improving neuromuscular coordination and proprioception. Obviously, they are most helpful when introduced only to the mature horse carefully and in small bouts, but many riders could benefit from learning what they do.

These movements activate muscle groups deep in the horse’s body that otherwise remain underutilized, a state which causes dysfunctional movement. When ridden correctly, or schooled in-hand, they can be curative for horses with poor postural habits due to their effectiveness in recruiting deep pelvic stabilizing muscles, which play a cybernetic role for locomotion. You can think of these muscles as storing a whole new language for the horse’s body. As joints, muscles, and tendons learn to speak this new language, the horse becomes capable of fluid, efficient movement.

In addition to the hip and spinal joints gaining better stability and range of motion through lateral exercises, the pectoral, groin, and gluteal muscles become stronger. These play a primary role in adducting the legs, plus improve forward reach and mobility of the forehand. As the gluteal muscles strengthen, the horse’s power and impulsion in the hindquarters also increases.

The extent of these positive outcomes relies on the quality of practice. Many riders introduce these movements too early, before the horse is physically mature or has a good baseline of general physical conditioning. This is a mistake that often leads to soreness, or to shortening the horse’s gait rather than improving forward reach. The horse in this case learns to shuffle through the exercises in a compromised way and does not recruit his cybernetic muscles for balance and control.

It is almost always better when training these movements to request just a few steps, and then allow the horse to travel forward. Repeat this sequence rather than try to hold the horse in the exercise for several meters at a time. And always before tackling these maneuvers, it is imperative that horse and rider can execute flawless turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches.

These simple but often overlooked turns require the foundation elements that lead to success in lateral exercises — bend and responsiveness, hindquarter engagement, proper sideways movement, and roundness. Be absolutely certain that your horse’s gymnastic turns are as good as they can be, and practice them frequently before tackling lateral movements. Whenever there is a loss of quality in one of your lateral movements, often you can return to schooling these turns to fix the problem. If there is a glitch in your turns on forehand/haunches, there will assuredly be a glitch in your lateral movements.

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