A Closer Look at Dressage: Part 2

Time-tested principles of horse training can help anyone become a better rider.

Editor’s Note: Since this story was written in 2001, Holly Clanahan has become the editor of America’s Horse magazine. Also, Rugged Lark was inducted into the AQHA Hall of Fame in 2006. Did you miss Part 1 of this story? Catch up on it here!.

[AQHA Professional Horsewoman, Lynn Palm] saddles up Larks Hot Potator, a gorgeous son of Rugged Lark owned by Debbie and David Cronk, for the western portion of my lesson. He’s wearing a mild snaffle bit, which is advocated by dressage riders to facilitate clear, close communication with the horse’s mouth.

Our first assignment is a walk-trot transition. I’m a little suspicious, since it sounds simple. Just nudge the horse with your lower legs, right? If he doesn’t respond, squeeze a little harder and use your spurs if you need to, right? Not even close.

Transitions should be 80 percent seat aid and 20 percent leg aid. To use your seat, think about how your pelvis naturally rocks as your horse walks. Then speed up that rhythm, so your pelvis is moving forward and backward faster than your horse’s gait. That’s the equivalent of telling him, “Hey, c’mon! Let’s do something!” As your seat encourages the horse to step up, apply a little pressure with your lower legs so he gets the message loud and clear: It’s time to trot!

To make a downward transition back to the walk, it takes more seat action - but this time its weight, not forward motion. Put your shoulders back, which puts weight into your seat, then slow the action of your pelvis by tightening your rump and lightly close your fingers on the reins.

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Using your seat allows for lighter leg pressure and less use of the reins. It’s hard to get used to, but once you do, it’s possible to communicate with your horse almost invisibly.

These techniques apply equally to western and English riding. To illustrate that, Lynn brings out My Royal Lark. Tacked up for English, “Wills” and I are going to tackle the trot-canter transition.

Dressage teaches trot-canter transitions first - way before horses are expected to take the canter from a walk or a stand-still. The reason lies in the horse’s natural way of going. If you see a horse playing in the pasture, he’s going to go from the walk to the trot to the canter, unless he’s throwing a bucking fit. Lynn says that natural progression of gaits, 1-2-3, makes it easier for the horse to keep his balance.

So, using my seat, I ask Wills for a trot. When we’re comfortable with that, Lynn tells me how to ask for the canter. Wills’ body should have a slight arc to the inside of our circle. The arc shouldn’t be too pronounced, which would get him off balance. I touch him with my lower inside leg and shorten my inside rein just a little to get the desired effect. Now, I sit the trot, pull my shoulders back to put weight in my seat, move my pelvis forward, put my outside leg just behind the girth and apply a light pressure. Bingo! Wills strides gracefully into the canter.

To get back to the trot, the instructions are similar to our other downward transition. Pull the shoulders back, still the seat action and take light contact with the reins.

I’m surprised that there’s such a better way to do something as simple as these transitions. And I can’t wait to get home to try these techniques out on my own Quarter Horse, Lark It Or Leave It, better known as “Junior.”

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A few days later, when I try out what I’ve learned, it takes Junior a little while to figure out what I’m doing up there. But after some practice, these ideas - and other dressage principles that I’m continuing to learn - are making us a better team.

“Dressage can build a real relationship between the horse and rider,” Lynn says. “It’s definitely for someone who loves horses and loves the sport of riding and wants to become a partner with their horse.”

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