The basics of speaking horse involve the natural aids – the seat, legs, hands and weight. Riders begin by developing a two-way conversation with their horse; riders speak when they apply an aid and then listen for the horse to respond. Sensitive, feeling riders observe the horse’s response by identifying precious clues – the horse’s posture, muscle tone, ears, and attitude, along with the 3 basic concepts that anchor the Dressage Training Pyramid which are rhythm, relaxation and regularity. When you close your lower legs and quietly ask for an upward transition from walk to trot, does your horse stay connected into your reins and accept the contact, does his neck remain long, relaxed and soft, do his ears swivel back to let you know that he is focusing on you and is his attitude willing, happy and generous? Immediately after you attain the trot, are your horse’s strides long, relaxed and graceful with a regular, two-beat rhythm reminiscent of a metronome marking time and does he continue to give you a comfortable place to sit by keeping his back raised underneath your saddle? If so, then you’re speaking horse like a pro, and if not, then it’s time to focus on the missing elements, return to the walk and practice that transition again until you recognize an improvement in your communication skills because your horse responds correctly to your quiet aid.
It’s important to note that your horse probably won’t “guess” the correct answer right away and lift to a steady, ground eating trot with both relaxation and impulsion. You can predict however, that he will provide you with the easiest answer he can offer. For example, he might throw his head up and raise his neck, in which case, he has lost the elastic connection to your hand and come off the aids. Horses are not complex thinkers and few consciously try to be naughty; they do seek the simplest solution available though, so effective riders need to make the desired outcome easy and all possible evasions hard. Learning to speak horse means figuring out how to make it easy for your horse to “guess” the correct answer so that you can reward him with quick, “Good boy,” and a softening of your aids that let him know that he got it right! Patient and consistent repetition using the same quiet aid each time he guesses wrong, while you reposition his body or craft an exercise that will coax him into finding the correct answer becomes the challenge. The old horsemen’s adage, “Ask often, expect little and praise frequently,” is at work here and will help you and your horse learn to communicate better and work as a team. When you put it that way, it sounds so simple and maybe even easy and yet dressage riders work tirelessly to improve their riding, strengthen their horse and still wake each day with more riding challenges to conquer!
So tomorrow when you tack up and head out to the arena to school, think about brushing up on your language skills and remember that learning to ride dressage is really all about learning to speak horse.
Susan Moody, IEO President