While most people think of the competition ring when they hear the word "dressage," there is so much more to be gained from the system of dressage than originally might meet the eye. I mean, it's only walk, trot and canter (with the occasional lateral movement thrown in), right?
But there is a secret about dressage. Because the focus, especially at the lower levels, is on developing quality movement, there is much to be gained for riders of other disciplines to learn and then develop these skills in their horses. Which discipline doesn't want the horse to move as well as it can?
So here are 11 reasons why we dressage the horse.
1. The Path
First off, the dressage "levels" and the training scale give riders a well thought-out path to follow when training their horse. While not everyone aims to learn the exercises and movements in order to compete, the organization of all the skills into levels allows every rider to follow a sequential order of progression, from the very basic to the advanced. It's not all about the horse, either. Rider's skills are also progressively addressed so that the rider can effectively influence (and balance) the horse.
2. Inside Hind Leg
You might hear somewhat of an obsession about the inside hind leg among dressage enthusiasts. There is good reason for this. When we ride a horse in the ring, the inside hind leg carries the balance of the horse. The inside hind leg that can step deeper underneath the horse will always be able to carry the horse and rider's weight better, maintain a better rhythm and tempo, and use the musculature of the horse's body in a way that allows the horse to move stronger with less constraint.
3. Swinging Back
The back is another area of obsession because without a supple and swinging back, the horse will always move in tension and rigidity. Done over the long term, the tightness of the horse's back transfers into every part of the horse's body, and can eventually be the root cause of a variety of lamenesses. And so... we try and try some more to move with the horse, encourage better movement through the back, and allow the energy "through".
4. Rider Education
Dressage isn't all about the horse, of course (well, it is, really). Because if the rider doesn't know how to create these flowing, going movements, even the kindest, most accommodating horse will inevitably suffer. And so in order to dressage the horse, we need to dressage the rider too.
5. Rider Position and Effectiveness
The rider can look "pretty" on the horse, but in order for the horse to look pretty, there must be more than just holding the body in a certain way. And so in dressage, you will get into "the effectiveness of the rider," because without that, the movement will always suffer, even in the most talented horse.
6. Quietness of Aids
One of the most common observations about good dressage riding is that it looks like the rider is doing nothing; the horse is just moving merrily along and the rider moves not an inch! Well, if you know riding at all, you'll know that the quieter the rider looks, the more work she has done to get to that place. We're talking about muscle memory, coordination, balance, timing, and so much more. And it's not really that the rider wants to appear motionless - it's more that the rider wants to become "at one" with the horse - the ultimate place to be!
Nowhere will you hear the word "suppleness" more than in the dressage ring. This is because in order for the horse to be able to do anything with ease, he has to learn to flex left and right, and over the top line. This is something that needs to be learned early and then maintained as the horse becomes more fit and educated. All horses, in all disciplines, benefit from suppleness in their work.
In dressage, we live in transitions! And transitions help the horse with engagement, impulsion, and all the good things that come from reaching deeper underneath the body with the hind legs. Transitions also get the horse and rider tuned into each other, helping to develop better communication and responsiveness between them.
9. Power From The Hind End
You simply can't "dressage" the horse without working on increasing the power of the hind end. The stronger the horse can become in the hind end, the better he will maneuver through his discipline-specific movements.
10. Off The Forehand
The reason we want the horse's hind end to strengthen is so that he can learn to "balance back" - and take some of that weight off the forehand. The fit and balanced horse is much better able to carry the rider. He also puts much less weight on to the front legs and shoulders.
Finally, this is where the magic happens! Because once all the above areas are developed, the horse and rider will have the skills and relationship to play at will. And this is what riding is all about!
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