The dressage training scale provides a guideline for teaching the horse to collect with a rider. A collected horse is able to carry a rider with more ease and balance. When we add the weight of the rider to the horse it impacts their natural carriage. With the weight of a rider bearing down on the spine it is natural for the horse to invert, drop the back and carry more weight on the forehand. Correct training encourages the horse to engage core muscles, lift the back, and shift weight to the hindquarters. Any horse that is ridden benefits from this type of training.
I think of dressage training as yoga for the horse. In the studio I encourage students to increase awareness of the body and mindfulness of movement. Yoga postures release tension and restrictions that can limit flexibility and create discomfort. Finding “ease in the pose” and letting go of unnecessary muscle contraction helps to bring the body into balance and alignment. Increasing the use of core muscles and releasing extra effort of the limbs improves efficiency of movement and creates greater potential to achieve more challenging poses. The practice of yoga improves balance, alignment, suppleness, and strength. Yoga also incorporates breathing practices that facilitate a calm and relaxed state of mind. These qualities are very similar to those achieved with the horse by following the training scale.
Unlike with human students, I cannot use verbal and visual cues to guide the horse into various movements and postures. Instead the horse must allow the movement and posture to be shaped through touch. A supple horse will yield to gentle pressure and move the body in all directions with ease. In response to touch the horse will soften and yield rather than brace and resist. Teaching the horse to release tension and soften to touch begins on the ground. Bodywork that encourages release of tension, such as the Masterson Method, is a great place to begin. As the horse learns to release in response to touch throughout the entire body it becomes easier to guide their movements while riding. Gentle bodywork facilitates relaxation, as the horse releases tension in the body it also affects the nervous system. A relaxed horse is in a mental state to learn and play. Working with the horse in this way creates a space that feels good, in which the horse becomes more attuned and connected. A connected horse is ready to follow directions and to learn new ways of moving. Developing this type of relationship is essential to training the horse to move with ease and lightness.
A supple horse can be shaped into a variety of movements and postures, thereby allowing the rider to straighten the body in forward movement. To achieve this the horse must arrange the body in a way that engages the core and hindquarters, thus resulting in collection. As the horse allows us to request more challenging movements the degree of collection increases.
Developing suppleness on the ground makes it much easier to shape the horse when riding. On the ground we are able to teach movements more easily, set clear boundaries, restore a state of relaxation, release tension, and ensure that the horse always moves softly away from gentle pressure. While suppleness may bring to mind a horse with great flexibility and range of motion, it has less to do with physical confirmation and ability than with the response to pressure. If the horse responds to pressure with bracing, tension, avoidance or resistance then we must shift that response to one that is soft and yielding. This can best be achieved on the ground before we ever attempt it while riding.
Teaching the horse to soften and lighten in response to pressure requires that the trainer understand how to correctly use pressure and release. When I begin groundwork I create a “pressure-free zone” where there is a complete release when the horse yields to pressure. Only when we return to nothing can we achieve true lightness. When there is constant pressure we must add more pressure to get a response. When we completely let go each request becomes more clear and intentional.
As we add more complicated movements it becomes necessary to maintain contact to shape the horse while in motion. Contact and pressure are not the same thing. Contact describes a feel in which there is no resistance, the horse allows themself to be guided through touch. As the horse becomes more allowing we are able to straighten them while maintaining forward momentum, thereby achieving collection.
The training scale describes a process in which we guide the horse according to their nature, without force or coercion, creating a result that feels good to the horse and encouraging greater willingness to cooperate. Attempting to manipulate the horse into a posture that mimics the result of dressage training will not produce the same results as taking a mindful journey through the process. Just as yoga improves balance, alignment and strength while producing a calm state of equanimity, dressage training can do the same for the horse. The result is a union between horse and rider that is far greater than the sum of its parts.