What’s the secret of training an excellent dressage horse? What do the best Grand Prix horses have that sets them apart and allows them to perform upper level movements? You can bet that a Grand Prix dressage horse that scores a few 10’s has what trainers call excellent “rideability.” This means that due to years of correct training, the horse respects and yields to the leg and rein aids without reluctance or great physical exertion from the rider.
Maintaining True Contact
Envision how consistent Valegro and Verdades looked in the bridle in their 2016 Rio Olympic tests. One of my favorite trainers once told me, “Your horse can only be as soft as you are.” So remember that true contact is achieved when the horse becomes round by moving forward into the hand in response to the rider’s leg. Some horses have hard mouths, some are very stiff in the neck, others fuss as soon as they feel pressure on the bit. Don’t let these issues instigate a tug of war. Event rider Denny Emerson compares dressage to weight lifting, because the horse must learn to engage his hind end and lift the front end. Have empathy and patience as the horse gets stronger, because consistent contact will require some degree of engagement from the horse as he builds up the strength to carry himself. Avoid the vicious cycle of using increasingly strong rein aids to muscle the horse onto the bit. Coercion does not improve rideability, and the goal is to have steady contact from soft and quiet rein aids.
Always be Adjustable
If the horse truly understands contact, you should be able to quickly vary positions in all gaits. Test the horse as you warm up by asking for different bends and flexions. Can you easily go from a collected or working trot to stretching the horse long and low? Does the horse find it difficult or confusing if you ask for the counter bend? Assuming that the horse does understand the concept and has the strength to carry himself, these exercises will be a test of his suppleness. Part of being adjustable stems from the consistency of the contact.
Varying Paces in Lateral Work
This exercise can be done in each gait, and in either a leg yield or half pass. Start by leg yielding off the rail in a working trot and continue across the arena. Ask the horse to collect for a few strides of leg yield, then ask him to lengthen for a few strides. Alternate between lengthening and collecting in the lateral movement. Make sure that there is a noticeable difference with each, and that you don’t lose the quality of the lateral movement. He should become more aware and respectful of your leg aids, noticing the difference between the forward and the sideways aid. Having the ability to get the horse to seek the contact and vary his gaits easily in all movements will be an extremely valuable skill as you move up the levels. Having a more rideable horse will make all the other movements easier and more cohesive.