This morning after doing all of the barn chores I taught my hard-working working student. She has entrusted me with her adorable (and very talented) Morgan gelding, Rakke (pronounced “Rocky”). I have been riding their hides (Rakke's more literally) about riding from back to front and allowing the neck out as long as it can go. My student has been a great sport and trying her butt off, riding any horse she can on the property to practice the feeling she needs for her own horse and riding well-being. In a particularly hard moment in the canter to the left, she joked to her horse that if he would just relax she could ride better and this horrible boring Dressage stuff would be over. I laughed because I knew she was joking but it got me thinking about the general attitudes toward Dressage I have encountered in my career. The people that think Dressage is just a type of saddle that you put on a horse. It’s just a flat class you endure at a show. It’s just the horse’s head high and tucked in.
But it’s not.
Dressage is French. The word “Dressage" is a noun for training but it evolved from the verb "dresseur" meaning to train. To train. More often than not I am reminded regularly that the movements required in a Dressage test were specifically designed for the suppleness, soundness and correctness of a horse and their training. Yes, the high school movements such as Piaffe, Passage, Capriole etc were actual battle tactics to stomp enemy soldiers into the ground or kick bayonets from their hands but the shoulder in, half pass, volte, leg yield, even the rein-back were created to help the horse. They are not just something you get to do or have to do at a certain level. The Dressage tests are a beautiful and flowing example (except for you 4-3, I don’t know what fresh hell you came from but you can step right back to it!) of the progression our horses should be making with correct training.
George Morris, the Hunter God, has been known to school lateral work with his students. Heck, he even wrote a book about utilizing Dressage in his training and riding. Most reiners worth their weight (hahaha, get it?) use Dressage principles in their horses’ training. Take a look at the FEI Top Ranked Reiners. Not an American on the list (until 25th place). Germans, Swedes, Austria. All countries that take pride in their Dressage roots and use it train a horse for anything.
I don’t sell horses as a business. I don’t like it and all the baggage it entails. Occasionally though, for a good client who really just needs help, I will break down and help them move their horse. A while ago I was asked to help someone who had lost interest in a horse they bought and put in to training with me and I said okay. The horse came to me with so many holes in his foundation it was practically unsafe to ride. I spent months on the ground, then the long slow process under saddle. All working on the horse stretching to my hand, lifting it’s back and just letting his breath go. My goals nor did my training style stop when I was told the horse will be for sale. To me, this is the training a horse needs and it is what they are paying me for. To train their horse. When the horse wasn’t moving I got a message that said “Why don’t you start jumping him and I can sell him as a jumper? He obviously doesn’t like Dressage.”
I’m pretty sure I have a divot in my skull the shape of my palm. Lady, this isn’t even Dressage. This is just me building a better and more solid foundation for your horse! I used to have a trainer who would yell at us over a microphone when our heads would get too big after a nicely ridden corner or a straight leg yield, “It’s not real Dressage until at least second level!" and I tend to agree with that. The rest is just training. It’s a foundation. Just because my barn is full of County Dressage saddles does not mean every horse is doing shoulder-in and half pass or tempis and pirouettes. Shoot, I do almost all of the second level movements on this gorgeous OTTB I have in my barn in her owner’s County Stabilizer because it’s custom fit to her back. I do all that second level work to make her jumping better.
I had another client, whom I love dearly, tell me she just wants to move on from First Level because she "hates those pesky leg yields". From there I started the conversation of how in the heck do you think you'll get correct shoulder-in, haunches-in or transitions without "those pesky leg yields"?! She's a great and intuitive rider but came more from a "breed show" background where disciplines really are only about the saddle you're riding in, not why you're riding in it.
Maybe I’m too sensitive about my passion. Or maybe I have been enlightened to this secret society that has lasted for hundreds of years and I can see some riders have really lost their way. I’m not trying to save the world here, people, I just want those that enter my bubble to understand. The saddle doth not maketh the horse, Dressage does.