Dressage Exercises for Any Horse, Part 1

Create a supple horse with these horse-training exercises.

Dressage can help your horse become more supple, as shown here by Honey Bright Dream. Photo courtesy of WNC Photography.

Editor’s Note: The Journal put together these tips with the help of Karen Pautz, a dressage instructor at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri.

Dressage is good for your horse – if you do it the right way for the right reasons. If you just aim for the “look” and not for the real suppleness, then you get a horse that is stiff and unhappy and crooked, a horse that grinds his teeth and pins his ears and swishes his tail. I am absolutely convinced that when you do dressage correctly, your horse become sounder, happier and more willing to work.

The whole point behind dressage is just to make the horse a better athlete, to “gymnasticize” him. You do this with suppling exercises, like the ones you see here. When you finish these exercises and go back to simpler work – that is, whatever you’ve been struggling to accomplish with your horses – the horse is a better athlete and a better partner.

A supple horse is only part of the equation. You also need balance, smooth transitions and so much more. Download AQHA’s FREE Riding Dressage report to learn about other horse-training exercises that can help you create a balanced, responsive equine.

The point is to go out and play with these exercises – in an arena that has good footing. If they don’t work the first time, try them again. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Recipe for Suppleness

You can’t just get your horse moving in a circle, going around and around, expecting the good fairy of suppleness to drop some “supple dust” on your horse. Suppleness requires three kinds of change:

    • Change of bend



    • Lateral change, with the horse moving sideways off your leg, not off the reins

Remember that while you are asking your horse to do all of this, he’s going to moan and groan in various horsey ways, perhaps losing his rhythm, raising or lowering his neck, tilting his head, and basically looking a mess. That’s OK! If he were to perform the suppling exercise perfectly, it wouldn’t be much of an exercise, right? We want to work on his self-carriage and his attitude. We want him to be better the next time you get on him to ride.

Defining the “Inside”

If you’re used to thinking about the terms “inside” and “outside” relative to your position in the arena, you’ll need to retrain yourself. When dressage riders talk about the inside and outside, they’re referring to the concave (curving inward) and convex (curving outward) sides of their horses. The concave side is always the inside, and the convex side is the outside, regardless of where the rail is.

Exercise 1:

Turn on the Forehand

What It Is: The turn on the forehand is the most basic of all lateral movements in dressage. The horse’s forefeet remain in approximately the same place while the hind legs make a semi-circle around them. The horse is bent slightly away from the direction of the movement. In other words, if a horse is moving his hindquarters to the right, he is bent slightly to the left.

Dressage exercises can do more than one might think. Download the FREE Riding Dressage report for nine lessons that will lead to a more balanced horse and rider!

This is the easiest lateral movement for the horse to perform for several reasons: the horse only has to move one pair of legs sideways; he is moving the less-weighted (hind) pair of legs; and he is being asked to move sideways away from the direction of the bend, which is much easier than moving toward the direction of the bend.

Why Do It: This exercise teaches the horse to move sideways and helps him understand that not all leg aids mean “go faster.” You want the horse to move away from leg pressure. This exercise is the beginning step toward gaining control over your horse’s haunches. (And it’s useful for opening and closing gates while you’re horseback!)

How to Do It: To perform a turn on the forehand away from your left leg (the haunches swing to the right), bend the horse slightly left using your left rein. (“Slightly” is an important term here: You should be able to see the bulge of the horse’s inside eye, but not much more.) Your right rein prevents the horse from over bending or moving forward. Your left leg is applied behind the girth to ask the haunches to move. Your right leg keeps the horse from backing up.

Don’t pull the horse around with that inside rein. Rein pressure should be applied only until the horse bends, and then the rein should relax.

Don’t turn this into a speed event. The horse should take one step sideways for each application of leg pressure. Release your leg pressure as soon as the horse responds.

Don’t punish the horse for making slight adjustments to his forelegs while doing this exercise. Unless he’s a circus-bound pretzel, he will need to make these small adjustments. Be patient.

Check back next week for two more suppling exercises.

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What is dressage? Uncover the answer with AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lynn Palm.

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