Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Last winter I spent ten lessons doing dressage. My intention from the very beginning was not to show in a dressage show, but to use some of the training techniques to help shape and rehab Ashke's right hind leg. The ultimate goal of dressage is to develop a horse to its ability as an athlete: maximum performance with minimum effort. My stated desire was to get Ashke to canter in balance with me. That was the gait I was struggling with the most and the one that he needed the most help with from a rehab perspective

See, at the point that Ashke injured his right hamstring, we began compensating for his injury by "hopping" his hind legs together at the canter, kind of the way a rabbit will. To the right this results in a rough, fast, almost awkward movement and to the left it results in either a cross canter or a hopping of the hind legs together. One of the best things we've done this summer is canter on trail on the straight away, since cantering on a circle seems to put added pressure and stress on his hips.

The second thing I needed to work on last winter was getting Ashke to really listen to my requests to slow down when cantering. He had a tendency to run away with me at the canter, especially if there were other horses involved, which happened more than once, both in the arena and on trail. A runaway horse that is refusing to listen to bit or seat is a danger to everyone around. These two things were my focus.

Let me reiterate something here: I have no desire to compete in dressage in a schooling show or otherwise. My only desire, as far as dressage goes, is to do that as part of my test for Working Equitation. The expectations are different, even if the training that goes into them is similar. The dressage arena is a different size and the tests are different.

The first thing I did when starting dressage lessons was to buy a dressage bridle with a noseband, which my trainer tightened down around Ashke's nose. Let's think about this for a moment. We put a bit in our horse's mouth and then we tie their mouths closed around that bit. We call this "preventing your horse from evading the bit".  Sometimes, we also run a band from the top of the nose around the horse's mouth, holding the bit in place, and then down under the chin. I didn't do the flash, even though the bridle came with one, since I was already having issues with the band around his nose. (This is more commentary about the types of bridles we use and the devices we utilize, then commentary on the trainer. By the end of last winter, I really didn't like the noseband at all.)

This was us last winter. Can I say that my horse was incredibly forgiving and incredibly horrified at being ridden this way?

He got more accepting of both contact and the bit, but he hated it.
I never really blogged about why we stopped doing dressage with a trainer. I think it's important to distinguish between "dressage" for competition and dressage techniques for strength, conditioning, balance and ability. My trainer was focused on the first, while I was focused on the latter. As the lessons went on, and we worked on the homework we were given, Ashke's physical ability began to change. He definitely got stronger and more balanced. However, he and I became locked in a physical struggle that became more and more apparent. I finished numerous rides last winter in tears, fighting with my horse, which was the exact opposite of what true dressage is supposed to be about. At the same time, my trainer was urging me to do a schooling show in dressage. She was teaching to the test and that was what our lessons were about.

One of my goals (like the most important one) was to get Ashke really going at the canter. We had had so many issues with runaways, stiff legs and cross-cantering, that I was beginning to get scared to try. The lessons were supposed to help with that, but they never seemed to be focused on helping me achieve that goal. It may be that the trainer saw other riding flaws that she wanted to correct, however, even when she rode him the effect was limited. By the end of February, we were cantering and he was being asked to go in a frame, which made him land heavy on his forehand.
Now, I get this is how she makes her living and having students go to shows and perform is the way in which she becomes known in the dressage world. However, we went into the training lessons with my goals clearly defined, including my focus on doing dressage for Working Equitation. I provided her with the dressage tests for WE, I stated on more than one occasion what we were working toward, but her focus was on the dressage tests for the dressage shows in our area during the spring, summer and fall season. I finally got to the point where my heart was breaking. What we were doing had nothing to do with increasing my relationship with my horse. Riding the way I was being asked was leaving me in physical pain (my arms and shoulders would hurt so bad after a ride that I could barely lift them from trying to hold him in a frame) and emotional turmoil. I hated what it was doing to Ashke and I. I told her I was done, that we weren't going to take any more lessons and I was going to go a different direction.

The first thing I did was take off the noseband and get a new bit. I knew, based on our runaways, that I had to have something that would give me the ability to stop him if I had to. So, we went to the Myler Level 2 low port 5" shank. It did exactly what I needed it to do. It was a bit that he would respond to and a bit that would allow me to hold him or slow him when I needed. The second thing I did was stop trying to force him into a frame and instead just get him to move forward at a canter when I asked.

The work over the winter had solidified our trot and walk, both of which are easy for me to ride, but our canter still was a work in progress. I guess in some ways it was lucky that the saddle I was riding in really wasn't fitting his back, since it gave me some time to hang out with my horse and reestablish our connection before going back into more focused training. It was also good timing that the weather began to break, we bought our own trailer, and J and I started to explore trails in our area. It got Ashke and I out of the arena, out of our struggle and into some wide open, new to us, areas to ride.
 Getting him to move forward, as long as I wasn't stifling that tendency with braced arms and tight reins, was easy. This is a horse that likes to go. I also think that the intermittant cantering we were able to do on the trail really helped both of us find our center of balance and for Ashke to realize that I have no issue with cantering as long as he is willing to listen. Asking him to canter for a long time would result in cross-cantering and a ragged canter, so the intermittent canter on trail was perfect. It didn't take long before we were cantering at will on trail.

 What we've discovered, Ashke and I, is that he likes to go with his head a bit higher than any real dressage competitor would like. The picture above (we were trying our first flying lead change under Nuno Matos' eye) is about where he is happiest. His center of balance is shifted back and he can get his haunches up under him, something we absolutely could not do when his head was as low as his chest. Working Eq requires that the horse to move freely but be responsive. We can do that without his head in his chest. And he is much happier to do so.

 We've been working on finding a place where I have enough contact to give direction and support (in case of a trip or for balance) but not so much that he comes too far forward on his forehand. He is so much happier, which is what this really is about for me: both of us happy - neither of us hurt.

He has such a big stride when he is allowed to use his head to help him balance. Each ride has put us one step closer to the answer.

Last night I rode in the indoor by myself. We started at a walk and then moved to the trot. After he was warm and loose, we worked on the canter. We started to the right and as we went he was rough, bouncy and stiff almost. I kept him at the canter and worked to bring him into even a little bit of a frame to see if we could find our balance. That made him more bouncy. I looked up and watched us briefly in the mirror. There was no relaxation there and my attempts to ask him to relax weren't working. I turned him to the left, relaxed my hands and let him have a bit more rein. He gave me a very relaxed canter that was balanced and strong. We turned around and headed the other way. Again, I relaxed my request for contact and just let him canter. He was a much happier horse.

I am more interested in a horse I can spend a ton of time with, either on trail or working over obstacles, to the point that I am not interested in pursuing training techniques that are going to make our relationship less than what I want. See, I'm not interested in ribbons or prizes. I want a special kind of relationship with my horse. I don't want to ride any other horses, and I don't want anyone else to ride him. I want to get to the point where I can think of something and he reacts. I want to be able to ride for 10 or 12 hours and still love it and him. I want him to enjoy his work, because I think horses have emotions and emotional reactions to the things that happen in their lives. I think Ashke has an opinion, and although I get to ultimately decide what is going to happen, I want him to have a say in what we do. I want to learn as much from him as he has to teach and I want him to learn as much from me as we can do. I don't want to have to tie his mouth shut, or his head down, or use spurs to get him to do what I am asking him to do.

Being his other half is so much more important to me.


  1. I'm sorry you had a bad experience with a dressage trainer. Please don't judge the discipline by that experience. Dressage basically means "to learn". You do not have to show, use a crank nose band or even a dressage saddle. In it's simplest form, it means to follow a pyramid of progression to physically strengthen your horse and communication with your horse. If a horse dose not enjoy his work..then the teacher needs to change the way they are communicating. Dressage can be made enjoyable for everyone involved, including the horse. Best Wishes & Happy Trails!

    1. In all fairness, when the lessons first started, that's what we were using them for - to physically strengthen Ashke and his right hind leg. However, Ashke and I did not fair so well as we went on and rather than change the focus to change our conversation, we just continued with what wasn't working. The bottom line was that it wasn't working for myself and my partner and I hated how that felt.

      We still use a lot of the ideas of dressage when on the trail. Shoulder in is an especially fun one when I need to redirect his attention or focus. In the truest form, dressage occurs anytime my horse and I learn a new way of communicating better.

  2. Anonymous said it very well indeed. True dressage always puts the horse first, not a test, not a show.

  3. I agree with the first comment. Dressage should not make the horse tense and afraid. You should not be in pain after a lesson. Granted learning a new way to ride in balance with your horse can make you tired but not exhausted. The horse should go in a way that they are balanced. The other way you experienced is called puling the front end back to meet the hindquarters. You can see in your pictures how on the forehand Ashke is and how low and restrictive your hands are. Good call in doing what is best for your horse!

  4. I'm so sorry to hear about how negative an experience you and Ashke had to work through last winter! I knew you weren't loving it at the time, but reading all of that together is just so much more telling. =(

    I love that you kept your goals and the well-being of you and Ashke at the forefront though. That can be a really hard thing to do.

    I think you're doing exactly what you and Ashke need to be doing and you're going to get right where you want and need to be. A rock climbing analogy (I'm sure J will like this, haha): So you're on a route on a wall somewhere. You've got bolts to clip, or maybe you're climbing trad, either way, you have a rough path to follow up the rock face. The way you get to each point of protection between you and the top is up to you though. No one way is *the right* way. Holds that others may love may not be very good for you; your path may be entirely different from others. End goals are end goals, but the journey to them depends on you and your circumstances (strengths, weaknesses, etc.).

    You and Ashke are headed the right way methinks. No other horse is as lucky as he is to have you.

    1. Thanks Liz. I hope you and Griff are able to work through your issues with contact as well. Sometimes taking the road less traveled is a very difficult thing. J loved the analogy, as did I. And like the character in Dead Poet's Society said "I'm exercising my free will to not walk", sometimes doing something completely at odds with everyone else is the toughest line to take.

  5. I concur with other comments, your experience was not what dressage training should be. here is a link to a west coast trainer that has a lot of nice videos you might like regarding basic, stress free training to the benefit of the horse. he uses quite a few arabs in his videos, I really enjoy his info.

  6. That last paragraph: so beautiful, and what it ultimately is all about. You do right by Ashke and yourself, and that's what's most important. Dressage at its best is exactly what you were looking for: a key to completing the dance between horse and rider. That trainer not only encompassed some of the worst in terms of modern dressage trends (behind the vertical riding, the uber tight crank nosebands, etc), she also wasn't a good trainer in the sense that a good trainer works with the student's agenda. If the student's goals are not what the trainer teaches, a good trainer lets that student know before taking their money. If a trainer only trains for competition, they should say so prior to the student starting lessons. In my personal experience, the really good trainers are there for the students that seek to learn, to improve, whether having a competitive goal or not. They are supportive of your goals. And like the first Anonymous said so well: if the horse is not happy with the work, the trainer should be able to change the way they communicate. I'm so happy you were brave enough to take the road less travelled and find the way there on your own, that you and Ashke continue to find one another as you continue your journey together. Most of the time, our horse is the greatest teacher and trainer of them all. ;)

  7. You know I've been wondering about this recently. Being around dressage people I was always told the horse has to have their head down to use their back... But I've seen Chrome use his back with his head up. It has had me so confused. Maybe it's an Arab thing? I'm glad you quit taking lessons with that trainer. I think my trainer lost interest in me too when I said I want interested in showing... Different priorities I guess. I'm in it for the relationship with the horse, not the ribbons!