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Practical Dressage

( Originally Published 1962 )

IN CONNECTION WITH THE UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES OF horsemanship dressage has recently been discussed more and more frequently in books and magazines. The subject still seems to be very unpopular. One editor wrote: "It is just like waving a red rag in front of a bull." In order to explain this queer reaction of the "experts" it would be necessary to delve into certain rather unflattering psychological phenomena that do not belong in this book. The matter belongs in the same category as the doctrine that "military riding" is something to shy away from—as if a different technique were used in turning a horse when the rider is dressed in uniform!

The average horseman in this country has the impression that dressage is something too fancy and complicated to bother with in everyday riding, and that it can be of interest only to the professional and the superhorseman.

Dressage is the core of all good horsemanship, the hub from which all practical uses of the saddle horse radiate like the spokes of a wheel. Had the skills included in dressage been introduced under a less outlandish name there can scarcely be any doubt that they would have been received with open arms. Dressage means the development of the inherent qualities of the horse, the necessary training to make him a pleasant and useful trail horse, hunter, jumper, or polo pony. Under no circumstances does it mean teaching the horse tricks of an artificial nature and of more than doubtful usefulness. Circus stunts have no connection with dressage. Even the motions of the advanced dressage, the haute ecole, are the result of the development of the natural qualities of the horse even though some of these movements look more fantastic than any circus has ever produced.

Here and there hunter trials arranged to demand good horsemanship as well as good horses are beginning to appear. The principles followed in these trials can be used with advantage to illustrate certain points. Their fundamental idea is a test of practical dressage. At the same time, the trials are a test of the rider's horsemanship, automatically eliminating the ignorant "passenger." These hunter trials, which are arranged along the general principles of the three-day event of the Olympic Games although on a much more modest scale, accomplish two things. They encourage both the correct training of the saddle horse for practical everyday use and the development of good horsemanship.

In up-to-date hunter trials the horse is first shown in a training test. It is not called a dressage test on account of the unfortunate effect this word has on the horseback-riding public. The same horse and rider then negotiate a cross-country course and, finally, a number of varied wingless jumps in a narrow arena.

These three performances are by no means independent of each other. Between them they should give a fairly complete picture of the skill and efficiency of both horse and rider in conformity with modern standards. Without the rider's ability the horse could not perform satisfactorily, and with-out a suitable and, above all, a well-schooled and trained horse the best of riders could not get very far. A good horse can very well take a poor rider over a few jumps of the standard horse-show type but would have little or no chance in a hunter trial without the efficient guidance of a horse-man who knows a good deal more than how to hang on to reins and saddle.

The first part of the trial, the training test, will reveal the rider's ability, whether or not he has personally trained his horse. His skill shows in his control of the horse, the horse's response to the aids, his obedience, his suppleness in all gaits and movements, the harmony, efficiency, and economy of his action. These elements will determine his degree of success not only in the training test but also in the following events —the cross-country and the jumping. The outcome of all three events can be predicted fairly accurately by the performance of horse and rider in the training test alone.

On the basis of the above discussion we can form a conception of what constitutes elementary dressage and what its purpose is. We can conclude that dressage is of a purely practical nature, and that it means development of the horse's obedience, his easy and immediate response to the aids, the improvement of his three natural gaits, and his manner of working. The rider's ability to balance his horse, to adjust properly both his own weight and the horse's support to suit the ever-changing conditions, is the fundamental criterion of smooth efficiency of performance.

It is obvious that a useful and tractable horse should be expected to perform a turn accurately, to change gait or tempo without fuss, to stand still when required, to remain under full control regardless of speed and circumstances, without hesitation and without the use of strong-arm methods. Obedience means that the horse understands and responds to the orders given through the medium of the aids, making force unnecessary.

Suppleness is of equal importance. A heavy, clumsy, stiff-jointed horse is poorly equipped to respond quickly and smoothly to the rider's will. He makes hard work of everything, blunders into obstacles, and wears himself out quickly. He is like any machine in need of lubrication.

Another result of training a horse in correct dressage is the striking development of the muscles, both in suppleness and strength. The conformation and general appearance of a horse that has been worked intelligently in dressage is characteristic. He gives an impression of poise, balance, ambition, spirit, gentleness, and alertness. His muscles ripple and their play shows plainly through the skin, especially along the hindquarters and the shoulders. The suppleness and strength of the hock action is very pronounced. He looks fit and eager, whether in motion or at rest. The effortless smoothness and harmonious beauty of his gaits are obvious even to the uninitiated.

The most important points to be judged in the dressage test are the three gaits and their improvement for purely practical purposes. The various movements—halt, back, small volte, change of lead, etc.—are meant to demonstrate the rider's skill and control as well as the horse's obedience and coordination.

The schooling of the horse starts when the rider begins to learn to use and adjust the application of his aids with sufficient effect to obtain response from his horse and when the horse has had the necessary preparation to understand and obey the action of seat, boots, and hands and be guided by them in performing elementary movements such as change of direction, tempo, and gait.


The principal factor in dressage is the problem of "collecting" the horse. When the time comes for the student to face the intricacies of active riding, when he is promoted from the passenger class to the fraternity of riders, an all-important new element appears that must be carefully studied and thoroughly understood. This is the problem of balancing his horse in such a way that he becomes easy to handle, reacts pleasantly to the aids, and performs his work in the most efficient and economical manner. This is roughly what collecting means. On the rider's ability to collect his horse properly depends his correct and successful execution of the elementary movements previously described, as well as others of a more advanced nature.

On this same ability depends his skill in handling his horse cross-country, in polo, or in jumping. On it depends whether the horse will stand up during the long grind on the road. It also means the difference between exhilaration and drabness, whether on the bridle path or in more active sport. That the rider's ability to collect his horse is very closely connected with his control in general, and so with safety, is evident.

With reference to balance the race horse and the high school horse represent the two extremes. The race horse carries most of his own weight as well as his rider's over his front legs, leaving the hindquarters free and unhampered to drive him forward. The high school horse carries most of his own and the rider's weight on the hind legs.

An illustration of this extreme is the high school movement called the "courbette," in which the horse lifts his forehand off the ground about 45 degrees. His weight is balanced on sharply bent hocks and the forelegs are pulled in. The horse then jumps from the spot and lands in the same position, still with his forehand off the ground.

Between these two extremes we find the horse intended for practical use, pleasure, and sport. His balance must be under the rider's control in such a way that he is equally ready to transfer his weight to forehand or hindquarters, as the occasion requires. He must, in other words, be equally ready to stretch himself out in full speed and to pirouette with his weight on his hocks.

Collecting the horse is an important part of his schooling, but must not be overdone. Otherwise he may be in danger of losing his elan and getting behind the bit.

A green horse normally carries most of his weight on his forehand. When a rider mounts him he will transfer still more of his own weight and also most of the rider's on his forelegs and use his hind legs mostly for pushing. When leaning forward in this way the horse feels heavy in the hand, and is sluggish and difficult to control. His action is flat, clumsy, and hard, without spring.

The front legs are straight, unyielding, and comparatively weak. The hind legs are stronger and less vulnerable due to the angle of the hocks. When the horse's balance is adjusted so that the hind legs are forced to accept more of the weight his action immediately becomes more swinging, elastic, and pleasant. He gives the impression of working more easily and is less inclined to stumble. This is due partly to the increased action of the hocks and partly to the fact that, with the hind legs under and more strongly supporting, the back muscles are tightened and become more elastic and active. This is a deciding factor in connection with the horse's endurance.

With his center of gravity transferred backward the horse also becomes light in the hand and easier and more pleasant to control, both as to speed and direction.

To sum up, we may say that the first and most important problem of practical dressage is to make it possible to transfer the horse's weight more to his hind legs, to be able to collect him and balance him correctly, for any purpose, between boots and bit.

The schooling of the saddle horse involves his collection through the aids. He must accordingly be taught to respond to the aids before he can be collected. In the following analysis we shall assume that the horse responds normally to seat, boot, and reins.

When a horse stands to attention he is required to be absolutely immobile and perfectly balanced—collected. It follows that the first step in collecting is to flex the horse's neck in such a way that he does not lean on the bit. If the horse naturally carries his head low it must be raised with a light tightening and lifting of the reins accompanied by a gentle movement of hands and fingers just sufficient to make the horse chew on the bit but not disturb him. As soon as he chews he will flex his neck and his head can be brought up in a vertical position, with the neck arched and somewhat shortened. If the horse carries his head too high, with his nose pointing forward, he is brought down to the correct form by a similar procedure with lowered hands. That this play with the reins requires a very sensitive and steady hand scarcely need be pointed out.

How high a horse should carry his head to be in correct form depends on his conformation. It must not be so low that he leans on the bit and becomes front-heavy nor so high that the back muscles become slack and lose their elasticity.

In bringing head and neck into position the first step has been taken in the process of balancing the horse over the hindquarters. The next and most important step in collecting the horse is to work his hind legs under and force them into a more supporting position. This is accomplished by applying a heavy driving seat accompanied by an animating vibration of both boots. During this operation the hands must remain in gentle motion to prevent the horse from becoming heavy in the hand and to prevent him from advancing. The picture is somewhat like riding the horse against a gently elastic wall until he shows a tendency to rear.

The action of the seat and boots is the important factor of the operation, both for urging forward the hind legs and for flexing the neck. We might express it by saying that the horse should be ridden forward on the bit instead of the bit's being pulled back on the horse. If the horse shows the slightest tendency to back while the process of collecting is taking place the handling is entirely incorrect.

The horse is now prepared to advance. Once he is properly collected on the spot no increased action by seat and boots should be necessary to make the horse step forward at a walk. He should be balanced so nicely that only a scarcely noticeable loosening of the reins is necessary.

The balance achieved on the spot should be maintained during the walk—hind legs well under, flexible, strong action in the hocks, the head vertical and the neck arched and some-what lifted, and chewing on the bit with complete flexibility where the head joins the neck. The correct balance of the horse results in an energetic walk with long, supple steps and clean action.

To preserve the proper action at a walk the seat and boots are again the important aids. The seat especially must be active and driving. The effect of carefully applied rhythmic boots, supported with a spur point if necessary, depends not so much on their strength as on the nervous energy of the rider transmitted to the horse through them. The stimulating and animating effects of seat and boots must be met and checked by the reins, by which the tempo is regulated. With-out exactly the right checking with the reins the only effect of the action of the two other aids will merely be a faster walk. Although the walk should be fast and gaining, it must be remembered that every horse has a limit of tempo beyond which he cannot be pushed without loss of balance. On the other hand, if the urging of seat and boots is not sufficiently effective the horse may be behind the bit, which is the most serious fault of all. The rider's feel alone can decide the correct tempo.

The faultless school trot is possible only when the horse is collected to perfection. In this gait the beat becomes slower to a marked degree and the steps shorter, while the swing and action of back and hocks increase in vigor. This is a result of the hind legs being well under and the head and neck in form, with a very light support on the bit. By increasing the degree of collection the steps become slower and shorter, but what they lose in horizontal progress they gain in vertical action until they reach the limit in the two movements of the haute ecole, the "piaffe" and the "passage."

When advancing from a collected walk into a collected trot the principle is the same as that employed at the start of the walk as already explained. If the horse is swung into the trot before he has been properly prepared he may lose his balance and collected form.

At both a walk and at a trot the rhythmical use of the boots has considerable influence on the rapidity of the beat. The boots applied a fraction of a second behind the beat will tend to decrease the rapidity of action. Hurried application of the boots will accelerate the beat.

The first requirement of the free or fast trot is that the hind legs should lose as little as possible of their supporting function. In order to prevent the horse from "running away from his hind legs" the tempo can be increased, but only to a certain point. The fast trot should combine efficiency with economy of effort. This means, among other things, that the steps should grow longer as the beat becomes slower. When developed to perfection the free trot gives the impression of a slow-motion picture, the front legs being thrown out with a distinct snap, almost horizontal, while the strong action of the hindquarters is very marked. Head and neck are thrown somewhat forward and are a trifle more stretched—but without loss of flexibility in the jaw or lightness in the hand. The action of the back frequently becomes almost violent but pleasant, due to the slow and springy swing. Again, the correct execution of the trot depends on the vigorous and well-timed action of the boots, regulated by a sensitive hand. Because of the fact that the rider should usually post in this gait the manner of applying the boots will be different, although the principle of retarded action remains important.

The natural quality of the gaits, as well as the horse's action in general, varies materially in different horses, but can without exception be developed greatly through proper dressage work.


The student's painstaking practice of the correct use of the aids in the simple movements included in the first period of his education should be directed toward the development of co-ordinated application, feel, and touch. In other words, he should be taught how to use his tools and acquire control of his own motions. As the student's ability in the handling of his aids gradually improves, the response of the horse becomes more apparent, his performance smoother and more controlled. This means that the practical elementary dressage work is starting.

It now becomes obvious that the simple movements referred to take on a broader meaning. From motions with the object of teaching the rider his technique they now become means for training and developing the horse's inherent qualities. The most important goal is the collecting of the horse. The other objectives—obedience, suppleness, muscular development, and improvement of the gaits—will quite naturally follow, as by-products.

An unschooled horse cannot be collected until he learns to obey the aids, and even then his balance can be improved only through systematic and patient work on the small volte, full and half parades, the correct preparation for and start of the canter, and similar movements.


It will be remembered that in executing a circle or part of a circle the horse should be evenly bent from ears to tail, so that his body describes the curve he is moving in. If the performance is sloppy, the flexing inaccurate, or the hind-quarters permitted to swing out the volte has no value or meaning as a dressage movement.

If the horse is forced to move on the volte correctly, with the hind legs following the track of the forefeet, the inside hind leg is carried further forward, under the center of gravity, and assumes more of the weight. In other words, it gives more support, and at the same time is subject to a gymnastic motion that will develop its muscles and make them more supple. The flexing of the neck to the inside must be watched with equal care. A tenseness at this point will naturally counteract the willing bend through the rest of the body.

A strong similarity will be seen between the application of the aids when riding a small volte and when starting the canter. The obvious explanation is that the rider in both cases has the same objective—to force the inside hind leg under in a more supporting position. As a result, it will be found that an unexpected canter will develop occasionally during the correct execution of a narrow circle.

By varying the voltes, left and right hand, one hind leg at a time is urged forward gradually into the position necessary for the collected form.

The size of the volte for this kind of practice is a variable factor. A very small volte is possible only if the horse responds well and can be balanced properly. If a volte smaller than his degree of schooling justifies is attempted, his hind-quarters can no longer be kept in and the active swing of his back disappears as he starts to shuffle. The diameter of the volte should consequently be decreased in proportion to the progress of the horse's schooling.

The correct execution of the small volte demands perfect response to seat, boots, and hands. It is, therefore, an excel-lent means for the schooling of the horse in obedience.

We must not lose sight of the fact that it is the continuous bending and stretching of the horse's body alternately that constitute the main principle and value of this movement in dressage work. The bent position should not be maintained too long. The same volte should be ridden only once around followed by the execution of another volte when the horse has been sufficiently straightened out. Short periods of free trot should be frequently interpolated on the straightaway, for the effects of the increased action in the hindquarters.


It should now be clear why the pirouette is the logical result of a very small half volte. The sharper the turn becomes the stronger the bend in the horse's body and the more pronounced his balance on the inside hind leg. When a point is reached where the hind legs cease to advance the horse is practically sitting on his inside hock, while the other legs keep up the beat and move about in a half circle. Before the rider can perform a pirouette on a straight line, he must be able to collect his horse in preparation, in the same way, without the help of the small volte for balance.

He must apply every ounce of weight he has on his inside seat knuckle, collect the horse by vigorous use of both boots and both reins, and then let the outside aids take effect for the turn, as previously described.

The pirouette must be regarded as a collected movement, not as a means to collect the horse. It becomes, however, an important dressage exercise for the development of obedience and suppleness as soon as the horse is able to execute it properly.


The full and half parades, the checking of the horse to a halt or to a slower gait, also acquire new significance from the standpoint of dressage and, particularly, of collection.

If the horse is pulled in from a trot to a halt with the reins only, he will stop sluggishly and clumsily, leaning heavily on the bit, with his weight on the forehand. He will usually stop, of course, even if the rider has to make quite an effort or a fancy bit has to be used. But nothing else will have been accomplished.

Keeping in mind the picture of the forehand's being checked at the same time the hind legs are urged forward and the advance of the front legs stopping a moment before the hind legs have to stop, it will be readily seen why a correct parade is an important means to collect the horse.

Practical Dressage

The success of the parade depends entirely on the rider's feel, his delicate adjustment to obtain exactly the right degree of balance between seat and boots, urging forward, and the reins, checking.

The less schooling the horse has had, the slower and more gradual the parade must be. A quick parade is also led up to gradually, and requires a well-trained, supple, obedient horse. The sudden and violent pulling in of a horse from a fast gait, unless started from behind with seat and boots, is a common severe abuse.


Of all the movements used in dressage to develop collection, muscular strength, suppleness, obedience, and the action in all three gaits, the systematic use of the start of canter is the most important and effective. This work takes place on the "great volte." The advantage of working on a curved track instead of on the straightaway is that the rider's aids are then already nearly in position for the preparation for the canter. The balance of the horse is also the most favorable when he is advancing on a curve.

The school ring or training arena should always be rectangular, never oval, principally because riding a horse well into the corners is valuable practice in itself, both for the rider and for the horse. The short side of the arena should be a trifle less than half the length of the long side, so there is space for riding two great voltes without intersecting or touching.

The great volte is a circle that completely fills one end of the arena, one short side and parts of two long sides of which form its tangents. Approximately three-fourths of the volte is accordingly supported by the walls or fence around the ring and is called the "closed" part of the volte. The remaining fourth, which forms a curve across the arena from one long side to the other, is the "open" part. The two points at which the volte touches the long sides are named the "parade points."

The horse is taken in on the great volte at the slowest possible collected trot in which he can retain the active swing of his back. As soon as he is well balanced and relaxed without being sluggish and the tempo has acquired a machine-like regularity the preliminary work toward the canter can begin.

Upon leaving the closed part of the volte from one of the two parade points the rider's weight is transferred more noticeably to the inside seat knuckle. At the same time the animating action of the inside boot becomes much more pronounced. The horse is already flexed correctly to the side toward which he is turning, and care must be taken that the neck, particularly close to the shoulder, remains straight.

With the increased action of the inside boot a slight checking with the reins is necessary to prevent the horse from evading the desired response to the boot by trotting faster. The correct response is a swing of the hindquarters a trifle out from the track. The swing must not be so marked, however, that it takes the form of a two-track. All that is required is that the horse obey the inside boot until the rider senses a slight limping action in the hindquarters resulting from the inside hind leg's stepping slightly across and in front of the outside.

This movement is kept up only during a few beats on the open part of the volte. With the approach to the other parade point the horse is straightened out by application of the outside boot well back. He is then ridden normally around the closed part, with vigorous use of both boots, until the open part again is reached and the movement repeated.

As soon as the horse begins to respond willingly to the inside boot the outside boot commences to counteract its effect, in a position distinctly farther back, forcing the hind-quarters somewhat in and, consequently, the inside hind leg under, while the tempo is carefully maintained. The inside boot gradually increases its persuasion, but the hindquarters are now no longer permitted to get outside the track of the front. The limping action of the hind legs becomes more pronounced, until the horse is so completely collected over his inside hind leg that the canter starts as a matter of course.

At this stage of training it is impossible to tell in advance when the canter will develop, and the rider should under no circumstances try to decide it himself. He should merely repeat and increase his efforts, until the horse can no longer avoid the issue.

When the canter has been obtained, it should at first be kept up only halfway around the volte. Vigorous use of the boots accompanied by well-adjusted checking with the reins must strive to slow the tempo while preserving the form and balance acquired at the start of the canter. When a change of gait into a collected trot is desired, checking with the outside rein should become a trifle stronger.

It is always noticeable that the first two or three beats of the trot, after the parade, are taken with very pronounced action of the horse's back. The reason is that the collected form of the preceding canter is still maintained and the subsequent smoother trot indicates that the collection has been lost. It is of the utmost importance that the intensive use of the boots endeavor to preserve this high swing of the back for a longer and longer period after the change from canter to trot, until the horse can be forced to keep his hind legs under him and his back active.

This will explain the principle behind the use of the collected canter to improve the horse's action at a collected trot and, gradually, also at a free trot. Periods of free trot, in which the objective is to stretch the steps out to cover more ground at each stride without increasing the beat, should interrupt the work on the volte at frequent intervals. To start with, they should not be longer than once around the square. The stretching of the stride during this round should be attempted only on the two straightaways, with a distinct slowing up in passing the corners and short sides of the ring.

A decidedly pleasant change will be felt in the horse's action and general behavior as soon as the collecting work begins to take effect. He begins to maintain his balance during the collected canter, the tempo of which then can be reduced to a marked degree without danger of relapse to trot. The action of hocks and croup becomes more springy and vigorous. The horse gives the impression of being lighter in front. The muscles of the hindquarters develop rapidly. The action in the collected trot becomes higher and more supple. The steps of the free trot become longer and more effortless. The horse's response to the aids becomes more sensitive and his discipline and obedience improve.


An hour's work in the ring should be planned so that the various movements follow each other in logical sequence. Only in this way can full benefit be derived from them and systematic progress be assured. If a cold horse is started with movements that require collection nothing can be expected except active resistance. Before a horse can be collected he must be thoroughly limbered up and all stiffness worked out of his joints and muscles.

The hour is always started by walking the horse quietly but briskly for five or ten minutes with long reins, for the purpose of relaxing him. The rider must himself be entirely relaxed and avoid hard pulls on the reins at all costs, even if the horse is frisky. He must also be careful as he mounts.

The trot should not be started until the horse has subsided with the reins loose. The habit of taking the "kinks" out of a horse by galloping or running him is dangerous, as well as the worst kind of horsemanship.

As soon as the horse is relaxed and quiet the reins are tightened slightly, without demanding a collected form, and the horse is put into an easy, natural trot neither so fast as to excite him nor so slow as to prevent his going freely and willingly forward. In this trot he must remain in entirely natural balance and be disturbed as little as possible.

After five minutes or so of this trot, on both hands, he can be slowed down to the working tempo, and the movements he is put through from then on have as their main object a more and more intensive collection. Usually he is first worked in small voltes and parades, with an occasional back and two-track, all frequently interrupted by short bursts of free trot.

The last half of the hour is occupied by exercises on the great volte, with frequent periods of free trot on the square, various movements at collected canter such as starting it from a walk or a halt, and change of lead. The practice of the pirouette from a walk and trot also belongs toward the end of the hour, because of the strong collection demanded.

Finally, he is let out at a free canter on the square, including a few turns and changes of hand and lead through the diagonal of the arena. After the free canter comes a minute or two of trot. The hour should invariably end with a period of walk with free reins so that the horse is properly cooled off and his respiration normal before he is brought back to the stable.

In regard to the use of the various movements for the purposes explained in previous chapters, repetition is the key to results. But the rider must be extremely careful not to overdo things. One of the most important rules in the schooling of the horse is that the periods of actual work be short but intensive. In between, there must be frequent periods of walk with long reins. If the work is kept up too long at a time the horse will either begin to show signs of resistance or become sluggish. The rider will also be too tired to use his aids effectively.

The walk must be kept brisk and energetic even during periods of relaxation. A horse must under no circumstances be allowed to rest standing still, with the rider in the saddle. If a stop is made, even if only for a few moments, the rider should immediately dismount.

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