Working Your Horse - Progressions

You can pick up almost any book on riding and read roughly the same description of how the horse should go. The Pony Club manual is an excellent example but is probably overlooked or ignored by most riders! Up until a couple of years ago you could find clear guidelines on the requirements of dressage under the FEI description of the paces and movements in the BHS Dressage Rule book. These were based on classical principles and it is a sad reflection on modern competitive dressage that BD has chosen to omit them from their latest rule book. Dressage competitions are designed to "test" the training of the horse at every stage from very novice to advanced and anyone can buy the test sheets and work through them in a logical sequence - "dressage by numbers". If you and your horse can trot a 10m circle and give yourself an 8 but you can only achieve a 5 when you try to canter a 10m circle, you are probably still at novice level and should not be attempting advanced movements such as canter pirouettes! You will only achieve a good canter pirouette if you have worked on collecting the canter so that a 6m circle is easy and you will only achieve a good 6m circle if a 10m circle is easy. The progressions are there for everyone to read. Whether your horse is Olympic Grand Prix or just being backed the progressions are the same - you start at the beginning and work through to the point where the horse is stretched but not overfaced. A just backed 3year old will already be "stretched" just walking on a long rein. A (correctly trained) Grand Prix horse will start on walk on a long rein and after a few minutes will rapidly work through novice, elementary and medium exercises until he is "stretched" at a much higher level. The following is a guide for any level of training and neither horse nor rider should progress to the next step if they are not competent and confident in the work at the previous level. Likewise, if any qualities are lost on the way, they should go back to a lower level until they have fully regained them.

  1. 1 CALM - without this, progress cannot be made so this should be the first step and must be regained immediately whenever tensions sets in.
    • (i) Breathe and deliberately "melt" into the horse.
    • (ii) Stay mentally calm - pay no attention to a horse's "spookiness"
    • (iii) Direct the horse's attention to simple exercises
  2. 2 FORWARD - a horse that is unwilling to go forward is in no fit state to progress.
    • (i) Large figures
    • (ii) Freely and willingly from a light leg aid, reinforce with a whip if necessary
    • (iii) Ask and expect a "surge" when using your leg
    • (iv) Use a rein contact appropriate to the horse's level of forwardness
  3. 3 STRAIGHT - marked crookedness or uneveness in the rein or the body is a serious fault and will result in uneven development of the muscles and eventual lameness.
    • (i) Ride circles with an even bend to left and right
    • (ii) Ride off the track without drifting
    • (iii) Check that you can give away either rein without the horse (immediately) changing direction or bend
  4. 4 CONNECTION - this is the connection from the hind legs through a supple spine into the riders hands.
    • (i) Feel the hind legs step into the rein.
    • (ii) Ride on a long, short or medium length rein with the same "weight".
    • (iii) Ride walk, trot and canter as above
  5. 5 RHYTHMIC - if the above are maintained, rhythm is easy. Any loss of rhythm can usually be attributed to loss of one of the above.
    • (i) Count a rhythm in your head and stick to it through school figures
    • (ii) Breathe in a rhythm
  6. 6 SUPPLE - this is the easy swing though the back which makes a horse "easy" to sit on. Training should improve suppleness (and strength).
    • (i) Ensure that you are not blocking the horse
    • (ii) Vary the size of your circles while maintaining speed and rhythm
    • (iii) Use a variety of single track school figures - serpentines, loops etc..
    • (iv) Use simple leg yields
  7. 7 IMPULSION - true impulsion is only possible if the above are established. It is energy generated by the hindquarters and channelled through a supple back .
    • (i) Ride "short" upward transitions
    • (ii) Ask and expect a "surge" from your driving aids
    • (iii) Lengthen and shorten the steps
  8. 8 ENGAGEMENT - only comes when the horse's impulsion can be filtered and directed through the reins.
    • (i) Ride transitions
    • (ii) Ride smaller turns and circles
    • (iii) Ride shoulder in
    • (iv) Lengthen and shorten the stride
    • (v) Change canter leads
  9. 9 COLLECTION - is easy when the above are established and the horse is strong enough to "sit" ie carry more of its weight on its hind quarters and lighten its forehand. Extensions are only as good as the collection
    • (i) Ride short transitions - collect to extend to collect
    • (ii) Ride lateral work
    • (iii) Ride deeper into the corners
    • (iv) Ride 6m circles
    • (v) Pirouettes, piaffe, passage

All horses should go through these progressions but some horses will have particular problems which require "remedial" work. This requires additional knowledge and skill on the part of the rider as the rider must be so sure in his own work that he can help the horse overcome its own difficulties. It may mean that the rider will have to go outside the normal progressions in order to progress the horse but whatever remedial work required, it is imperative that both rider and horse get back to "correct" riding immediately. For example, if the rider needs to back up a leg aid with the whip, he must immediately return to a correct (light) aid so that the correction does not become a method.

All advanced work is merely walk, trot and canter"

"One will always be able to trace any riding problem to the breaking of one or all of the cardinal rules of horsemanship : calm, forward and straight

"As much as necessary and as little as possible"

"Expect and get a response from every aid, every time"

"It must be our chief aim to cause the horse to respond to ever lighter aids" "An aid which does not get a response merely serves to dull the horse"

"All horses are sensitive - they can feel a fly on their flank - so if they do not respond to an aid it is because their rider has not been clear"

"Only once the rider becomes quiet will the horse be able to hear the whispers of finer aids"

"If it took strength to ride horses, weight lifters would be the best rider!"

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