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How Dressage Can Work for You

By Kristin Hermann

Horsetrend Magazine, July 1988

"Good dressage can be good for many horses", stated Bill Woods at the 1988 Equine Symposium held at Station Square, downtown Pittsburgh. Woods is Chairman of the United States Dressage Federation's Council of Instructors and Trainers. His lecture entitled How Dressage Can Work For You enhanced many simple truths of dressage. "I do straight forward dressage", Woods explained, "but it is a complicated system."


Woods disagreed that dressage is good for all horses. For example, dressage is not conducive training for a Park Horse. Dressage is good, if the goals of dressage - a harmonious calm performance - are in sync with your own. "Most horses benefit by good dressage, but not all horses will be suitable for competition. Therefore, riders should know their goals when attempting dressage and their horse's capabilities. Dressage enthusiasts do not need fancy horses", Woods pointed out, "but a rider's goal must be fair to their horse's ability.


Dressage is a relationship of non-verbal language, believes Woods, thus the whole essence of dressage is how this communication between horse and rider is enacted. This two way interaction is constant as the rider signals the horse with aids and the horse reacts depending on what the rider signaled. Then the rider responds to the horses reaction. This 'feedback loop' is working second by second and stride by stride.


In order to obtain this nonverbal communication, Woods clarified that the rider must have acquired correct position. The rider has to sit aligned to train right; if not, the signals to the horse will be muddled. A correct position keeps the rider aligned with ear, shoulder, hip and ankle in one line. All areas of the body should remain relaxed with the elbow supple in order to absorb the rein contact. "The horse is like an accordion", stated Woods, "stretching and contracting longitudinally and bending laterally."


With basic position intact to create the nonverbal language, the rider than learns to coordinate the aids (legs, seat, and hands) with the horse. Riders must be able to drive with the legs and squeeze with the rein, yet soften all aids simultaneously. There are lateral and diagonal aids. One of the difficult aspects of learning dressage, believes Woods, is learning to apply these aids in a coordinated effort, which is synchronized with the horses movement. Good dressage, according to Woods, will develop supple muscles in the horse and change the posture, or topline. Good dressage will aid in comfort between horse and rider, soundness, and will look effortless. The horse will be energeticllay forward, yet relaxed. Self-carriage, Woods added, is when the horse has its own balance and does not depend on the rider for support. With a loose rein, if the horse sppeds up and does not stay in balance, the self-carriage has not been established.

Woods points out that it is easy to get some of the qualities required for dressage, it is hard to get all of the qualities. The term 'on the bit', to Woods, encompass four points:

  • The horse is in front of the leg,
  • Flexed at the poll,
  • Soft in the jaw,
  • Stretched over the topline and ridden energetically, with the impulsion of the back end connecting to the poll and bit at the front end.

 It is the rider's ability to coordinate the aids that will determine whether the horse is properly on the bit.


Advice from Woods upon taking dressage lessons is to realize that each rider and his horse needs individual instruction. In other words, spectating someone else's lessons may be confusing, thus dressage enthusiasts must develop a feeling for how the whole system of dressage works. Woods recommends books such as Museler's Rriding Logic, Eric Herbermann's The Dressage Formula, Col. Bengt Lundquist's The Principles of Riding, Waldemar Seunig's Horsemanship and R.L.V. Ffrench  Blake's books Dressage for Beginners and Intermediate Dressage. Woods suggested only reading what you need at the time. For example, why read how to train piaffe and passage when you still are not riding on the bit. Each year, the book can be read according to what you are learning. Reading helps to crystallize what you are learning, but riding will teach you more.


Dressage has an image of top hats and superficiality believes Woods. Once you transcend this image to feeling a horse in its natural state is when dressage begins. As a result, good dressage riders are enhancing what is natural to the horse.


(A note from the editor of Horsetrend Magazine, July 1988:

HORSETREND Magazine welcomes Kristin Hermann to our staff of writers! Kristin is a free-lance writer from Pittsburgh, PA. ... Kristin regularly has articles published in "The Chronicle of the Horse","Horseplay", and "Dressage and CT". ....

The first couple of articles we received from Kristin for publication introduce and confirm the importance and value of dressage work for most any discipline of horsemanship. Kristin is preparing a series of articles discussing classical dressage, of which she has already sent me a brief outline. Looks, good, and promises to be beneficial to all riders and horses!)

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