Dressage Training Philosophy by Melodye Sweetin

Dressage Training Philosophy by Melodye Sweetin

Submitted by: Melodye Sweetin
Phone: 804-639-3488
Email Address: MelodyeSweetin(at)earthlink.net
Date Added: 11/15/2009

"We shall take care not to annoy the horse & spoil his friendly charm, for it is like the scent of a rose, once gone it will never return." Pluvinel


The System

These words should be foremost in the mind of the dressage rider. For the overall development of a young horse, it is crucial that a trainer not inflict the mental & physical damage that misguided training can so easily create. Then she must be able to improve the horse's willingness to work while building the cornerstones of training: relaxation & suppleness. Only when these can be achieved with light aids has the ultimate goal been achieved.

Proper training can only take place when a rider works with her horse and they can form a partnership. For the rider, this involves a high degree of training & concentration in order to achieve a constant state of awareness of the horse she is riding, and the effect of the aids on the horse. This state of awareness must begin with an accurate assessment of the horse's potential. Then, every aid that is given must be done very carefully & specifically. Any positive reaction of the horse should be praised and rewarded immediately. Likewise, a negative reaction should more likely be assumed to be the result of confusion rather than disobedience, and should not serve as cause for immediate punishment.

Any aspect of training that doesn't involve a straight & supple horse is completely useless. It is imperative to constantly stretch and ride every horse over his back, that is from back to front & back again at every step of the training process. There has been a lot of confusion on the subject of stretching. Many people have interpreted stretching to mean pulling backwards on the reins and bringing the horse's head down toward the front legs. A horse ridden in in this manner can only curl in his neck & can never loosen his back. He will always stiffen and draw his back down & away from the rider's weight. The result is stiff & powerless haunches, which can never develop carrying ability. In a properly stretching horse, the horse's head is carried low and the horse's back is raised to a position where the pushing aids can influence the horse to the utmost degree. The hands serve as a guiding aid and the seat serves as the primary aid.

In order to prevent the young horse from losing his confidence, a rider must recognize precisely when and why to give each aid so that the horse will never be confused by mixed signals. By the same token, older and more experienced horses will only be happy and confident when ridden in a clear and thoughtful fashion. Older horses must be ridden over their backs at all times, during the warm up, as well as during all exercises. It is also important that exercises be used to enhance suppleness, rather than for their own sake. Correctly performed work must quickly be rewarded. School movements must be finished once they have been properly executed because excessive repetitions make the horse dull & bored, and thus interfere with the ultimate goal of ever increasing lightness of the aids and harmony between horse & rider.

The methods I use are based on a single principle: A horse can only develop as an athlete if he can become round and allow his back to accept the pushing aids of the seat. This training system begins with teaching the horse to stretch and thus be able to be truly influenced by the rider's seat. Once the horse is stretching properly, the rider must then become aware of the tremendous influence in a positive way to develop the horse's athleticism, work ethic, and way of going. I strive to teach riders to use their aids with great care & effectiveness in order to produce a true equine partner.


To come down from our human pedestal and put ourselves in the horse's shoes may be difficult, but it will prove to be rewarding. One of the major problems throughout the entire training process of the horse is that riders are unaware of their own weak and strong points. By neglecting to do so, the rider looses sight of their end of the partnership. When a horse is allowed to work with his rider in a partnership of mutual understanding, he will be able to do far better than the horse whose rider has only the perfection of exercises in mind. For this partnership to happen, the desire of a human being to understand the horse's mentality is a prerequisite.

A rider who can only see and think in a human way will continuously misdiagnose situations and frustrate her horse. The next time we find ourselves in a situation where we seem to be getting nowhere, we should try to remember this: MOST DISOBEDIENCES ARE ACTUALLY MISUNDERSTANDINGS. THEY ARE DIRECTLY RELATED To A RIDER'S INCAPACITY TO COMMUNICATE FAIRLY AND CONSISTENTLY WITH HER HORSE. Maybe we should bring the horse back to his stall and take an honest look at how we ourselves have been communicating. Have we been asking for too much, or asking in a way the horse can't understand? Just how often are we truly functioning at our peak, yet every day we expect such a performance from our horse. The various ways of making the horse understand what we are asking for should be discussed. Every horse is different. There is no such thing as a perfect horse. Every horse can only respond correctly when a rider asks correctly. Horses are not always going to be thrilled to have to learn new things. He might not even seem to respond initially to even a perfectly timed & applied aid, but a thinking rider will be patient. She will wait for the exact moment when the horse submits mentally & physically and respond in a rewarding manner immediately. That is where the rider has the chance to turn that submission into a desire on the part of the horse to work together. So begins the true partnership between horse & rider.

If on the other hand, the rider doesn't accurately read her horse & lets that moment of submission pass with no reward, she will never be able to form a harmonious partnership with the horse. Through constant repetition and drilling she may eventually be able to persuade or even force the horse to do certain things, from lateral work to Grand Prix exercises. She may think that she has won, when in fact she has lost her partner & friend.


The application of an aid must be a means of "aiding" the horse in understanding what the rider wants to do. The better the rider has been trained to give these aids in a way that hoses can understand, the less chance of conflict arises between horse & rider. Aids can only make sense to the horse when the rider understands that each aid does not merely stand by itself, but influences the horse's entire being. They neither limit themselves to a single body part nor do they stand by themselves. Aids can be separated into two different categories, direct & indirect. The seat, rein, and leg aids are physical, or direct aids, because they involve a direct contact between horse & rider. The mechanical aids that do not involve this direct contact are what we call indirect aids (spurs & whip.) The more that a rider has to rely on these aids the less real progress he will make. This is because only a meaningful coordination of the direct aids used at exactly the right moment can properly evoke the desired response from the horse.

Regardless of where one places a horse on the intelligence scale, one thing is certain: horses do not have the ability to think logically like humans. They think by means of association. They are herd animals, and need to feel present in their lives a very definite order of rank. Certain animals are in charge and certain animals are subordinate. When people are working with horses there should never be any doubt in the horse's mind that the human being is the one which is in charge. This is a situation that is normal to a horse. It gives him the security of knowing where he belongs. When he has this, he is in his optimal working climate. It is important to bear in mind that for it to be fully and properly attained, submission can never be achieved with the use of power. With this in mind, the rider must strive to use psychological rather than physical aids to the greatest degree possible to influence the horse.

In the daily work with horses, there are innumerable moments when the psychological signals from a human being can determine whether a training session ends up being a positive one or a negative one. The opposite of the psychological balance achieved as the result of the horse's trust in the rider's authority, is a state of over stimulation. Sometimes nervous excitement can merely mean over stimulation is caused by the rider asking too much of the horse. When that is the case, it is crucial that the rider take the pressure off until the horse can relax mentally. Here, it is very important that the rider stay in the leading role and exude a quiet calmness that the horse can "lean on".

A certain amount of nervous excitement can, in the hands of the experienced rider or trainer, be a positive tool that may stimulate the horse to higher levels of achievement. However, this all depends on the rider's ability to sense exactly how much excitement she can bring into play without losing the horse's psychological balance and keep it a positive experience.

The Seat

The degree of control we have over the horse from the saddle depends on the rider's command of the seat aids. The seat aids are physical or direct aids because they involve a direct contact between the horse and rider. A shortcoming in the training of many riders is the relatively superficial treatment of the influence of weight in the saddle. The correct seat is based on the principle that a rider must at all times have her center of gravity over that of the horses', regardless of the gait in which the horse is traveling, the type of movement which the rider is asking the horse to perform, or the type of (rising, sitting, light, or deep).The security and certitude of the correct seat come from an independent balance, which a rider gets when she is able to keep the three points of her seat in the saddle continuously. This should be seen as one of the rider's most important goals.

Once the seat and the rider's weight can be used as an aid, they must then be used with proper timing to have the full effect on the horse. When a rider can apply her seat aids and use her weight to "aid" the horses, it is possible to achieve real harmony. Practice shows us time and again that most horses will deal with the disturbances of the unbalanced rider kindheartedly if it doesn't interfere too harshly with the horse's ability to move. However, he will be truly thankful and rewarding to the rider who, by trying to "melt" herself to her horse, allows him to move naturally & freely.

The Reins

Flexion * Balance * Influence of the reins

After the initial familiarization with the reins, a rider should be taught to start using them as aids. Reins are primarily used in the process of gymnasticizing or bending the horse laterally as well as vertically. To be able to do this, a coordination of all physical aids is necessary. The ability to flex and bend correctly is one of the hallmarks of a truly supple horse. This flexion has to go to the same degree from the poll over the neck, back, and rib area, backwards to the dock. Even in the case of experienced Grand Prix horses, this gymnasticizing process is a continuous part of the daily work. The hallmark of a finely tuned cooperation between the mouth of the horse & the hand of the rider is that the pressure of the ring finger on the rein be all that is required to make the horse aware of the rider's wishes. Although use of the rein aids in turns or on bent lines to many riders seems to be an easy concept relative to the other aids, practice shows a very different picture. The timing of the rein aids must be as precise as the seat & leg aids, and the degree of this precision determines whether the horse will have a good or bad mouth. This has an extraordinary impact on whether the horse will end up overall a finely tuned, sensitive, and expressive animal, or a dull, sour and perhaps even stubborn school horse. Making the horse aware of the rider's wishes through the reins has to happen at the moment where it still gives the horse time to shift his weight & find his balance. The most important job of the reins is to make the horse attentive to the riders' wishes and then as support during their execution.

The reins must be used both together & individually. The outside rein fulfills a very important function, it controls the amount of bend. Therefore, it fulfills a governing function. It prevents the horse from only bending in the neck and falling out over the outside shoulder. The inside rein rein initiates the bend. The degree and amount of bend has to be adjusted to the situation and to each individual horse. In short one could say that the inside rein gives the command at a particular moment, and the outside rein governs and controls the amount of bend.

A further role of the outside rein is its' collecting function. For example, at the strike off, or in the maintaining of the canter, the collecting function of the outside rein makes the horse become temporarily more "pushed together", which makes it a key component of any higher dressage exercises. For example, the pirouette, when a horse is properly elasticized by the rein aids he becomes capable of bending in the rib area, and by doing so he can move his center of gravity over his inside pair of legs to an increasing degree. This leads us back to straightening the horse, since only a horse that is straight is able to collect to the highest degree. In short, once could say that all higher exercises are initiated with the outside rein.

A "breathing hand" must hold both reigns. A breathing hand gives direction by opening & closing depending on the needs of the situation, and never blocks or interferes with the natural movement of the head or neck. By the same token, softness can be just as detrimental as inappropriate forcefulness if it is allowed at the wrong instant. Therefore, in the giving of the rein aids, the ability of the rider to know precisely when to give them is crucial to the success or failure in training the horse.

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