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Most dressage riders know the Pyramid of Training based on the German Scale that outlines the training progression of the horse.  It outlines the basic areas that create the foundation for the training of the dressage horse.  The training progression of the rider is often a bit of a mystery however.  Lessons focus on what the horse is doing, and an overall instruction of the rider’s position and use of the aides.  That’s not the whole story.

There are some overarching aspects of training for the rider that create a basic foundation for position and aides.  Without a grasp of these basic areas, riders often struggle to understand the point of the aides and the movements.  Riding becomes a rote memorization without comprehension of purpose.

After watching many students learn, I have found that there is a progression to development of the rider.  As I start with a new student, I evaluate from the ground up, not only the skill of the horse but the grasp the rider has on these specific areas.  That tells me, as an instructor, where the student is in skill level, and how to help them best.  The pyramid I’ve devised is simple.  Books upon books have been written on each of these subjects, but hopefully seeing these areas as a process will give some riders a place to start and a direction to work towards.

Part I – Fitness and Balance

To ride a horse in any discipline is to be first and foremost, an athlete.  The dressage rider also works with a partner who will always be bigger, stronger, and faster than any human athlete.   Attention to your own strength, coordination, and endurance is essential to train your horse and perform the sport at your best.

The average dressage test has a duration of 4-6 minutes of walk, trot, and canter.  Add the few minutes outside of the ring waiting for the bell and taking full advantage of the 45 seconds you have to enter the ring and that time can grow to as much as 10 minutes.  The rider should be able to ride this long at a forward pace (trot or canter) without having to stop to rest or catch your breath.  If you are new to the sport, of course you may have to work up to it.  Riding for 10 minutes may sound simple, but for many riders it can be a challenge.   Carry a stopwatch, or have someone time you.  If you can do 2-3 minutes, wonderful!  Work to get to 4-5 minutes over the next couple weeks.  If you can only ride infrequently, find another activity (power walking, jogging, biking   etc.) to keep your cardio endurance up so when you are in the saddle you won’t constantly have to stop to catch your breath.  This is not about working out, or losing weight.  Any athlete needs to develop the proper fitness to perform their sport.

Training your equine partner also takes the endurance to work through issues as they come.  For example, imagine that you are working to connect your horse over the back to the aids.  You have a nice forward trot and you are really communicating as a team, however, your horse is not consistent to the contact and you need to work through it.   You feel your horse start to relax into the contact and … you have to stop because you are out of breath!   You abruptly break from work, which may give your horse mixed training signals at a critical moment.  You have to start over once you recover, and hope you can work through it before needing to stop again.  As this scenario happens over again and again, your progress forward is slowed and stress and frustration can creep in.  If you feel you are getting tired or out of breath, bring your horse down at a conscious place in the ride and make a correct downward transition.  This makes an awkward training situation into a positive learning opportunity for your horse.

Another part of dressage fitness is strength.  Ultimately, your aids will be focused on your core and seat.  Initially, you will need to develop strength in the legs so that you can begin to use them independently and feel secure in the saddle.  Abs, hamstrings, quadriceps, triceps, biceps, – all these major muscle groups are used in daily riding.  To develop enough control so you don’t feel like you are just bouncing around in the saddle, you must develop muscle strength in all these areas.  Joint flexibility, especially in the hips, is equally important.  Strength training out of the saddle, as well as stretching in and out of the saddle can accelerate your capabilities.  Yoga or Pilates is a must for the rider, especially as you get older.  The body must stay flexible and strong.  You need deep core strength to properly support your horse in the gaits.  Your stability in the saddle is the key to helping your horse find its own balance.  Although extra weight can sometimes be a hindrance, you do not have to be a “supermodel” to be a fit rider.  You can have a super strong core and great balance no matter what your physique looks like.  Only you and your trainer can judge if your weight is appropriate for you and your horse’s health.

Balance is something our brains learned when we took our first steps.  Finding your center of gravity to balance your body fluidly on a moving object can be challenging.  But our brains do it automatically every day.  When we ride in a car, go up an escalator, or walk on a moving walkway our brains are using unconscious reflexes to keep us steady.  When you were a kid, did you ride your bike with no hands?  How did you do that and be able to talk, or throw a newspaper or wave to your friends?  When I was riding bikes, we didn’t have cell phones, but I see many young people today riding with no hands texting on the cell phone.  I marvel at their relaxation and balance on the bike.  You have to sit very tall, and control your torso.  Your hips are over your feet on the pedals.  When you go around a turn, you don’t use your hands because a subtle shift in your position will steer the bike.

In the saddle, shoulder-hip-heel is the neutral position, but the rider’s center of gravity on a moving horse is constantly changing.  Developing the unconscious neurological reflexes to continually adjust your center of gravity to the optimum position is often foiled by the conscious conversation in our heads.  Heals down.  Legs back.  Don’t lean forward.  Look up.    When you are learning, you often have to make these conscious adjustments.  Be mindful and aware of the feeling of balance when you get it right.  It is that feeling, not the conscious forcing of your body into the right position, which will ultimately develop the reflexes of balance.  The kid on the bike with the cell phone is not consciously thinking ‘sit up straight’.  His conscious mind is on the text he just received from his girlfriend!  But he is perfectly balanced as his unconscious reflexes keep him moving forward.

There are many books and resources to find exercises to work on this part of the Rider’s Pyramid.  Working without stirrups is a great way to develop strength and balance.  Riding with one foot in the stirrup and the other side free can really identify which side of your body is stronger and where your balance naturally goes.  Have a trainer or friend put you on the lunge, and use exercises like riding with both hands in the air, standing up in the saddle, or moving your upper body back and forth to find the best balance.  Be creative and make up your own exercises!  Cardio fitness, body strength, and developing your balance reflexes are the key to a solid foundation as a rider.

Part II – Independent Body

Most riders have very little awareness of what their body is doing, especially if they have ridden for a long time on the same horse.   The brain often ignores positions that feel “normal”.  This is a functioning of the brain that creates pathways each time an action is repeated.  Eventually, the brain labels these pathways as “normal” and they become unconscious.  If you are right handed, you don’t think much about picking up a pen and writing your name, but if you were to try to write your name with your left hand it feels uncomfortable and you have to think consciously about it.  If you started writing only with your left hand for a few weeks, eventually your brain would adjust and it would feel normal.

If you have only ridden the same horse for a long time, even the feel of that horse becomes unconscious.  If you try a friend’s horse you may feel odd, or out of balance.  The benefit of a person who rides many different horses all the time, is that the feel of the horse does not become unconscious to their brain.  They become independent in their body and do not have the same habits and actions that correspond with a single horse.

For dressage, the aides can be quite complex, and the riders brain must be aware of what legs, hands, seat, and all body parts are doing at any given time.  Having independent body parts means the rider is aware of what each part is doing, and can use each part to do a completely different task than the others.  Often riders won’t realize that, for example, their outside leg is not even on the horse’s side until it is brought to their attention.   Then trying to use the outside aides becomes both a physical and a brain awareness challenge.  It takes many repetitions to then make that action feel automatic.

Many actions of our bodies are coupled with others.  For example, if you turn your head to look to the right, are you aware that your balance often shifts in the opposite direction?  As a result your left leg and arm, as well as your seat, may unconsciously move in an unintended motion.  Your horse feels your balance shift, recognizes the motion of your leg, arm, and seat and tries to interpret it as an aide.   If your horse does something unexpected, look to your own body first.  He may be doing exactly what you unintentionally asked for.

Practice bringing awareness to all your body parts.  The warm-up is a great time to practice this.  Work from the top down or bottom up, stay relaxed and simply ask, what is my (insert body part here) doing?  Try making a movement, and be aware of what happens elsewhere in your body.  Use the previous example and turn your head to look to the left.  What does the rest of your body do?  Do you feel your horse react?  Once you are aware of dependency, find or create exercises that require those body parts to move independently.  Eventually the habit of dependency in your brain will resolve.  It takes repetition often over weeks and weeks, so be patient.  Off saddle, balance exercises and yoga are a great help here too.

Part III – Awareness of the Horse’s Posture and Balance

A natural extension of becoming aware of what your own body is doing, is to then become aware of what your horse’s body is doing.  Your horse’s balance is a result of his brain doing the same unconscious process that our brains do.  The rules of the horse’s brain is governed by instinct and comfort, and the requirement to remain upright.  A horse, like us, is pretty unaware of what the body parts are doing as long as everything is comfortable and feels “normal”.   What governs a horse’s natural balance is too big a subject for this article, but suffice it to say a horse does not go around saying to himself “oh, I need to be aware what my left hind is doing” or “oh, I am not using my body correctly”.  He just does what feels comfortable and allows him to survive.

The main goal of dressage is to shape the posture of horse and rider together into balance.  In order to do this, the rider must become aware of how the horse feels in motion.  This means being able to tell whether he is moving straight or crooked, or leaning in one direction or another.    The rider then uses the aides to encourage the horse to move in a more balanced way.  Through repetition, the beneficial posture (from the human point of view) will become “normal” to the horses brain, and the horse will begin to automatically carry himself differently.   But the rider must learn to be aware of what the horse is doing, and through the help of a good trainer, interpret that awareness and learn to mold it.

Part IV – Controlled Seat and Hands

The main points of communication for the rider to the horse is through the seat and the hands.  Once again, this is very much an over-simplification, as there are many complex aides, but we are not going to address that here.

The rider has now progressed up the pyramid to having enough fitness to work the horse for a reasonable time and intensity, is balanced in the saddle (or knows when they are not balanced), and can give separate signals with each quadrant of the body at least some of the time.   He/she may even have started to break down the body quadrants into their component parts, for example, the lower left quadrant of the riders body is actually made up of the left hip, thigh, knee, calf and heel.  All parts could be required to move together or separately at any given time.

To continue to develop themselves and their horse to more advanced movements, a finer type of communication must be established.  Small, relaxed movements of the seat and hands will allow the stability of balance that the horse needs now to respond in a powerful yet controlled fashion required as training moves forward.   For reference, the typical horse and rider at this stage are probably training at first or second level, and thinking about going higher.  This is not a rule, but I want to just emphasize the importance of controlled seat and hands in the rider’s development.  He/she should have been working on independent seat and hands since day one, so this step should not be too difficult to master, but this is the time when it becomes a showstopper for some riders.  Many riders get frustrated at this point, get stuck on a plateau, and eventually conclude they can’t go further.  Many blame their horse and go out and buy a new horse, or try new bits or other equipment.  Some add gadgets like elastic rein inserts to avoid developing the feel they need in their hands.  Most of these attempts will ultimately fail anyway.

So what is this level of the pyramid all about?  It’s about the focus and work to get over the last bit of body control.  For the hands that can do independent actions, it now means that the rider must do this in complete relaxation and stability, from the shoulder to the finger tips.  This is when the rein aides have become automatic, like a musician playing a piano.

As for the seat aides, which are the foundation of balance, core control must happen deep within the body.  The muscles that are usually never apparent during regular activity become paramount, like the psoas and the piriformis muscle.  Control here allows differentiation of the seatbones, weight aides, and stability.  If you think you have a strong core, you probably need more.   Again, it takes focus, and hard work especially for those riders who do not have the opportunity to ride every day.  You can get there, believe me.  It just takes putting the extra time in elsewhere to help you develop and keep the advantage of this type of fitness and coordination.

Part V – Judgement and Training

This level doesn’t mean you made it Grand Prix, or that you have become a professional.  This level means that for your horse, at your level, you understand what is happening, understand what you are feeling and know if it is correct or incorrect.  This level starts to awaken in the rider from the first day they sit in a saddle and they feel the horse underneath of them.   No one has ever achieved this level with ultimate perfection.  No one.  No matter how much of a riding master you are, you continue to learn until your very last day.

This level is about confidence in what you know and the confidence to apply your knowledge.  As you move up the training levels, you probably have forgotten the day when you did your first circle, or leg yield, or shoulder-in, not knowing if it was correct or incorrect.   You were probably second guessing yourself saying ‘was it right?’   At some point the circle becomes automatic, or if the circle is bad, you know how to fix it.  As your skills increase, and you create the foundation in the Rider’s Pyramid, the skills you worked at previously become automatic and the next set of skills becomes the goal.   You amass a large toolbox of strategies and exercises to help you solve problems.

For this reason, we all start at the bottom of this pyramid over and over again.  And that’s not a bad or frustrating thing.  You may be starting a new horse or moving to a new dressage level.  Every advancement you make in your riding opens up the door to the next endeavor, for which you will probably need to start by relooking at your fitness, balance, and independent aides.   You will need to learn the feeling of correctness in the horse for the new movement and may have to go back to the drawing board as far as your skill and strategy.  This simply is dressage.  This is why we are here for a lifetime.

(Copyright C.Curley / ©Effective Equestrian, LLC 2018)

Carole Curley