California Riding Magazine • September, 2014

Ask Charles Wilhelm
The principles of dressage - Part II

Question: I am interested in learning more about what it means to train a horse using dressage principles.

Answer - Part II: Last month we covered the need for a strong forward cue, the stop, a smooth back up, follow through and consistency. These are basic training principles needed for any discipline. The following principles relate to cowboy/western dressage and are also beneficial for other disciplines.

The horse must be relaxed and fluid.

The movements discussed last time are just the beginning level. If you are familiar with my Four-Sided Pyramid of Training, these aspects are part of the physical side of training. All of these movements and the exercises that teach these movements must be accomplished with the horse relaxed and moving smoothly. If the horse is tense and concerned about the environment it will be stiff and its movements will be jerky and not fluid.

To be relaxed, the horse must be emotionally sound and this is the mental aspect of my Four-Sided Pyramid of Training. The horse must be focused on the rider, engaged and waiting for the next cue. This is what I call the horse having his "business ears" on. A horse is not engaged when it is distracted, looking around and reacting to every new or little thing. While there will always be something that can set a horse off, we must teach the horse that even if it is concerned, it must listen to the cues.

Part of responding to the cues is muscle memory, in other words, at a cue the horse should respond automatically. Sometimes people get upset about the time it takes to thoroughly teach a cue. The length of time it takes depends on the mentality of the horse or how trainable it is, how much emotion is involved, as well as your standards and expertise, including your consistency in giving the cue. If you are not consistent with the way you give the cue and/or your expectations of the horse's response to the cue, it will take longer and you will need more repetition. Your cue must be precise and it must become a muscle memory for the horse.

We want a horse with spirit and expression.

Spirit and expression are also classic dressage principles. I don't want a horse with lifeless eyes and no energy in its movement. I see this a lot, unfortunately. Horses like this may be obedient but there is no spirit. We want life in the feet and in the eyes. If you have life in the eyes there will be life in the feet. No matter what the horse is used for, show, reining, or simply trail riding, we want it to be expressive. This means the horse has a good attitude, likes its job and this spirit will produce better movement.

Suppleness is a major principle in dressage.

I want a horse that is supple, in other words, soft in the body. You will not have a nice, relaxed, fluid movement if the horse is stiff in the body. A horse that is cued properly but does not move smoothly may have a health issue. Good health and nutrition make up another side of my Four-Sided Training Pyramid and they are very important to the performance of a horse.

A horse that moves stiffly or has trouble maintaining a lead may need a chiropractic treatment. Horses in pasture often roll to achieve relief but a horse that is in a stall may not have room or the misalignment may be too severe for a good roll to relieve it. The dental care of a horse is also very important. A horse that cannot chew properly does get the full benefit of its feed. Also, the horse may resist taking a bit because it is painful. A horse that is not shod/trimmed or has been shod improperly may look sound, walk and trot sound, but be uncomfortable. Horses can be very stoic and they can put up with a lot. When I have a horse like this shod and the horse perks right up, I know it was uncomfortable. A comfortable horse can express itself and have a more fluid movement.

If you want a supple horse, it is critical to do each exercise correctly. Doing an exercise correctly will cause the horse to exert itself properly and use the correct muscles. When you are doing an exercise with purpose and the horse is engaged, you will see business ears. I work with a horse until I see some improvement, even if it is only a little. While I am a great believer in working a horse until it breaks a sweat, you need to know your horse and be careful if the horse has a high emotional level. This type of horse will break a sweat with very little work because it is nervous. You need to work through the issue as a horse that is stressed out cannot learn.