At its essence, the French term, dressage, means "training". In effect, all we do when we ride "dressage", is develop a better training regiment for both ourselves and our horses. Regardless of discipline, solid basic training is what every movement is based upon.
Even at its most basic level (or perhaps, especially at the most basic levels), dressage holds a value to horses of all disciplines.
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Done well, it presents opportunity for you to analyze your horse's way of going, strengthening weaknesses and evening out imbalances in movement.
Done well, it provides you opportunity to develop your basic riding skills, strengthening weaknesses and evening out imbalances in your aids.
Because both are critical to your horse's success in performance, and your success as a rider.
What do dressage exercises do for the horse?
If riding were a language (which in fact, it is), then the alphabet would be based on the above qualities of movement. The foundation for all movements begin with the horse's ability to stretch, release, bend and be strong. All four qualities combine to allow the horse to move in a way that keeps him sound and physically functional for years to come. If any one component is missing, then the horse runs the risk of joint/muscle/tendon injury.
There are two ways a horse can stretch - longitudinally (over the topline), and laterally (side to side). The former is usually the first to be accomplished well and the latter improves along with the topline as that develops. As a young horse learns to stretch, the muscles have an easier time releasing and working in tandem.
Some people refer to muscle release as "relaxation" - as in, the horse should relax while cantering. However, a horse cannot truly relax in movement - he must "release" his muscles instead.
You will know that your horse released his muscles by how the movement feels: fluid, ground-covering, lightweight and sometimes even bouncy. Your horse's expression might change - from tense ears to soft and floppy, from almost no breathing sounds to snorts and deep grunts. You know you are in true suppleness when the movements feel effortless.
Stiffness and tension are the opposites to a release. Horses ridden with tight muscling develop mystery lamenesses and other ailments over the long term. All riding exercises should be aimed toward improving the horse's ability to release the muscles through their particular exercises and limit stiffness and tension as much as possible.
Increased ability to stretch and release will invariably lead to better bending. All horses have a preferred side, much like we humans have a dominant hand. Better bending will lead to better evenness in the left and right body. The horse will develop his ability to bear weight more evenly on both hind legs, and therefore stretch through both sides in an easier manner.
You might be amazed at the horse's development once the muscles work together instead of against each other. First of all, the horse's muscling will change visibly. You might notice a top line musculature where there was none before. You might notice a squaring of the rump when viewed from behind. There might also be a delightful groove developing over the horse's back over the spine, a sure indication of supple muscles working underneath the saddle. But the clincher is that the horse becomes capable of doing the movements (in whatever discipline) easier, slower and with more control.
The Healthy Horse
Regardless of our disciplines, we want horses to live long and thrive in their work until old age. Adding dressage exercises regularly into your routine workouts will always reap benefits in several areas at once.
When combined, the above components of riding will result in the horse's increased capacity for correct weight-bearing. And more than anything, improving the horse's ability to carry the rider's weight in a manner that not only prevents damage, but in fact improves the horse's health and well-being, is what all good riding should endeavor to produce.
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Read the articles below for some specific dressage exercises that you might find useful.
Secrets to a Great Turn (a.k.a. Shift Out to Turn In): Can you tell if your horse uses his hind end before taking the first step in the new direction, or does he feel stiff and awkward, almost like he’s leaving his legs behind the movement?
Don’t Mistake the Halt For a Stop! Don’t do it! Don’t mistake the halt for a stop. They are two entirely different maneuvers.
How the “Not Canter” Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: Every time you ask (with the correct aids), the horse resists. The situation becomes ugly – you have a hard enough time just sitting the bounciness, never mind getting the transition. What to do? This article remains one of our most popular posts of all-time.
The #1 Problem of the Year: The Outside Rein! The outside rein is the most underused and poorly understood of all the aids, and here’s why.
6 Ways to Unleash the Power of Your Riding Seat: As you become more subtle in the aiding process, you will begin to discover just how powerful the seat can be in guiding the horse without disturbing and interfering in his movement.