In this article, we discuss how the young horse comes to trust the rider’s aids in order to develop impulsion. Apart from the voice, whip and spurs (although the last are not used in the initial stages of training), we are familiar with the weight, leg and rein aids. To help the young horse develop further his understanding of the rider’s aids there are certain exercises ridden on the bit that are useful. Riding theses exercises can improve obedience to individual aids, as well as improving the way the horse works overall, for example when riding the movements required at Novice level dressage. Further specialized dressage training follows the required movements at Elementary, Medium and Advanced levels. Every successive level requires a certain standard of training which takes about one year to achieve. Throughout basic training, movements should be consolidated to ensure that the horse understands them before progressing further.
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The test of correct basic training is the first one-day event competition. At home the familiarity of the indoor school, outdoor arena and local countryside plays an important role. The horse is not distracted, is calm and therefore easier to ride. Sometimes the rider gets it wrong, especially in the dressage phase. With the showjumping and the cross-country phases the courses are similar to those practised at home. You can lose in the dressage competition because of self-deception if you think the horse is better than he really is – a mistake that can be done even by the most experienced horse betting punters sometimes, and the judge’s opinion can sometimes bring you down to earth with a bump. However, the judge’s opinion is of great importance and it should be taken notice of it. A large number of experienced judges are needed these days to cope with the number of shows, classes and competitors. Basically one must trust that in every competition the judge will be diligent and judge fairly.
The origin of this type of classical training for horses can be traced to Greece in the fourth and third centuries B.C. To those ancient Greeks, the systematic training of their horses was both an artistic accomplishment and a means of improving the performance of their cavalry. The Greeks correctly realized that an easily controlled horse, one responsive to his rider’s every wish, would be the most valuable type of horse a soldier could ride. If a trooper was mounted on a horse he could not control, he was of no help at all to his fellow soldiers. Therefore, with an eye toward improving the cavalry, Greek horsemen went to work devising a systematic approach to horse management.
The foundation of equitation—the act and art of horseback riding—was laid down by Xenophon, a Greek born in Athens in 430 B.C. He was a Spartan cavalry officer who trained his horses to change pace, to change direction, and to turn and circle. His horses learned to jump, were hunters, and served as cross-country mounts. Perhaps Xenophon’s greatest contributions to equestrianism came from the philosophy he developed for training horses. He was patient and did not use force; he used positive reinforcement for good behavior and a light touch for disobedience. General Xenophon wrote two of the earliest known books on horse training. In this modern world of constant change, it’s interesting to note that much of Xenophon’s theory on riding and training horses is as accurate and valuable now as it was in his own time. Today, Xenophon’s style of classical riding and training is called dressage.
The Grand National is a horse race for people who don’t normally watch horse races. Much like the Kentucky Derby, the Grand National is a horse racing event that draws in legions of fans who normally wouldn’t be interested. The race takes place annually on the first Saturday of April, which gives it an exuberant spring feeling that makes it quite thrilling. And even if you do not normally bet on horse racing at other times of the year you can not resist from having a bet on the Aintree Grand National.
A Jumpers’ Race
One of the most exciting things about the Grand National is that it is a race for jumpers. The course is over four miles long and has 30 fences that the horses and their riders are required to jump over. This jumping aspect of the event is one of the things that most entices the casual fans who watch the race. There is something very exciting about watching a horse leap over tall barriers with a rider on its back.
Let us make use of a musical analogy. Playing the piano with great skill is not enough for a great performance. Special performance skills must be added before success is achieved. Just as a great concert pianist does not need a score but plays by heart, so any great dressage rider rides his test from memory. Having a ringside prompter may be necessary when competing on several horses and with each one in different tests. Practice makes perfect. The rider who has the test called because he is not fully familiar with it will perform as poorly as would a pianist who is searching for the notes in a musical score while playing a concert. Only a well-practiced test will show brilliance. There is a myth about not riding tests frequently in practice, because the horse might learn and anticipate the patterns. No horse turned loose in the dressage arena will perform any test from memory. The horse cannot analyze and will not learn tests by heart! International riders might perform the Grand Prix test on the same horse for a decade, yet the horse will not spoil the test by anticipation. Every dressage test ought to be a logical composition unfolding a sequence of gymnastic exercises that allows the rider to show how well his horse is developed mentally and physically. As a composition, the test has fluency and beauty inherent in it through logic and balance. Dressage tests must be performed in their totality, not in bits and pieces or as patchwork. Riders should perform each test as an organic whole, like a concert pianist, who does not play notes or measures, but rather the whole musical composition that is beautiful only in its entirety.
Uneven standards in musical performances are not satisfactory. When some parts are played harshly and others with poetic expression, it shows either a lack of understanding of the piece or a lack of skill in unfolding it correctly. Riding a dressage test often owes its greatest beauty to consistency. Once the horse and rider’s temperament develop a distinct style, perform in that style consistently.