Even if you know nothing about horses, you probably have a pretty good idea what jumping is. With dressage, it’s not as obvious. Dressage is simple, and yet very complex. It’s like gymnastics, ballet, or figure skating… but with horses. It’s hard work, and takes years of dedication and practice. It takes fitness and coordination, and yet it’s just flatwork, riding simple figures… right? Why is it that people who’ve never heard of dressage end up hooked once they give it a try? Let’s take a look.
Here is a Grand Prix Freestyle… the highest level of dressage, set to music. The ultimate in partnership, harmony and expression. Can you imagine dancing like this with your horse?
As inspiring as this video is, many of us do not dare to hope we will ever achieve that level of riding. But dressage still holds something for the rest of us. It’s about working *with* our horses as partners, communicating more and more subtly and still getting more and more control over how the horse moves. It’s having a safe, willing partner in our horse, a horse that is fit, supple, and a joy to ride whether it’s in a show ring or on a trail. It’s about having a seat that sticks to the horse’s back, even when the unexpected occurs, making us safer and more confident. It’s about keeping our horses strong and flexible, preserving their health and longevity so we can enjoy them for years to come. It’s about keeping ourselves strong and balanced, always striving to improve our feel and timing to become better, more sensitive riders. And it’s fun.
The first time you feel your horse’s gaits improve when he lifts his back and brings his hind end under his body, you will begin to understand. When your horse floats easily sideways in a leg-yield, or springs softly off the ground in a collected canter, there will be no going back. These are the rides that leave us glowing the rest of the week, in a sort of euphoria that our non-horsey family and friends just can’t understand. Once you’ve felt these beginnings, you’ve opened Pandora’s box, and you’ll crave more every time you ride. As you and your horse increase your strength and skill, more and more becomes possible. If that’s not motivating, I don’t know what is!
Dressage also has other less-obvious benefits. For example, when I ride I am aware of where the horse’s shoulders and haunches are. This is just normal riding, whether riding the horse straight, bending on a circle, or moving the shoulders or haunches around for lateral work. But this awareness brings a huge benefit. When something is “not quite right”, I can feel it before it’s a total disaster. I have two recent examples of this.
I have been working with Sarah and Jag for a year and a half now, so I know them both pretty well. I saw Jag go through some back problems last spring, recover, and go on to make excellent progress. Sarah and Jag cleaned up at the shows last summer and fall, and were on the path to move up a level by spring. Then all the progress starting coming more slowly, with more difficulty. Then the progress stopped altogether, and Jag seemed to be going backwards. Jag wasn’t “lame” and nothing obvious was wrong. But it became very hard to get him to use his back correctly, or to connect his back end to his front end. He felt wiggly, like the shoulders would go one way and the haunches may or may not follow, despite every effort. Something just wasn’t quite right. Instead of punishing him, we called the vet. Sure enough, he has the beginnings of something, and it sounds like it may be EPM. We are still waiting on test results, but the good news is we were able to catch it before it progressed much and he shows only very minor neurological symptoms, and he should make a full recovery!
Another example is with my own horse, Liam. Liam showed first level last fall, and throughout the winter improved a ton. He was schooling many of the second level movements, and they were coming relatively easily considering Liam’s age (15 this spring), and the fact that his build and movement do not make him an ideal candidate for dressage work. All of the sudden, things that used to be easy became hard. He wouldn’t bend to the left, and when I tried to canter him to the left, he was throwing his haunches in and his head out so he was counter bent. When I tried to straighten him, he would give me a flying lead change. Now this is a horse that can do a shoulder-in at the canter, and yet I couldn’t even straighten him? Something wasn’t right. I thought his left hind was bothering him, so he was resisting bringing it up under his body (by instead carrying it to the inside so the right hind was directly under his body). I called the vet, and as she watched him go, she said the hind end looked fine. She saw him display the same behavior on a lunge line, which indicated it wasn’t his back or weight in the saddle causing trouble. She continued to work forward and checked his neck, asking him to bend it back and forth, which he did very cooperatively. Then she moved up to his poll, asking him to flex. To the right, he didn’t argue, but when she asked him to flex to the left, he threw his head up in the air and put his ears back. Sure enough, it turned out there was a sore spot on the right side of his poll that made it painful for him to look left… just like if we get a stiff neck! She treated him and he should be perfectly fine. I was SO glad I listened to my horse and didn’t try to force him to do something he was saying he couldn’t do.
In both of these examples, if I hadn’t been able to feel the horse using his back incorrectly or carrying the hind end in an unusual way, it would have taken far longer to realize something was wrong. By then, more damage would have been done and treatment may have been more costly, required more time off, or a full recovery may not have been possible.
So dressage is about beauty, harmony, and partnership. It improves communication, strength, and balance. And most importantly, it helps us understand and work better with the horses we love.