We all know how important “the basics” are when it comes to training. They are a common request during lessons, a common focus in training articles and books and a common subject of clinics and symposiums. I think that many riders know how important the basics are, but for some reason, their value is easily lost amongst all of the other things bouncing around in our brains during our daily rides.
I am 100% confident that everyone’s rides would improve if they kept the basics at the top of their list during every training session. So, what makes it so easy for them to slide lower and lower down the list as our rides progress? I believe that one of the main causes of this problem is the addition of “bigger” goals as we progress as riders. When I teach a beginner rider, the only thing that they can concentrate on are my simple instructions… hands closed and steady, two legs for trot, outside leg for canter, even weight in both stirrups and seat bones, look where you want to go… these simple directions fill a beginner riders mind up and that is all that they concentrate on. This often leads to huge leaps forward in improvement during a lesson. One of my favourite things to watch is how much steady, closed hands can absolutely transform a ride. Another favourite is how easily riders can achieve clarity during transitions when they put more emphasis on the actual order that each aid is given. I have had riders come to me after years of struggling to get one of their canter leads, who cannot explain to me the basic aids for picking up the canter. When you are unsure of the basics of an exercise or movement, this lack of clarity is more than enough to sabotage When you turn that situation around and look at it from the horses stand point, it is not hard to believe that this horse may become annoyed, frustrated or even mad after years of being asked for something unclearly and then corrected when he/she did not respond in the way you wanted. Often, riders believe that the remedy to their issue must include a very complicated exercise, when in reality, it is simply returning to the basics that will clarify the goal for both you and your horse.
Lets talk a little more about the reason that those “bigger” goals can take some of the emphasis off of the basics. In the last paragraph, I listed some of the things that I help beginner riders to focus on. Would you believe me if I told you that they are the exact same instructions that I use to help a client who is struggling to make a clean flying change or to ride a good piaffe? It is true! The same thing that can steady up a beginners wobbly posting trot is what can develop your “5” medium trot into an “8”. The basics are not developed and then out ranked as bigger and better things are added to your tool box, the basics ARE your tool box. The difference between the medium walk to working trot transition at Intro A and the collected walk to piaffe transition in the Grand Prix Special is a better developed response to the leg. They both require the same basic (a response every time your leg aid is applied), the second transition is just a highly developed version of that basic, but as we become capable of riding in a more advanced way, we tend to expand our options on why things aren’t successful. I love when I see a little child determined to get their pony into the canter. They just keep pecking away with their leg until the pony is in the canter. In comparison, I often see riders with more experience trying to calculate the exact position that their lower leg, upper leg, hip, inside arm, outside arm, shoulders, head and eye balls need to be in in order to accomplish the same goal. While these things are important, the odds are that none of them are the root of the reason why your horse didn’t canter. What is the root, you ask? It is a lack of response to your leg, just like that kid on the pony thought it was…
I think we often imagine dressage training like math was in school. The lower levels are like addition and subtraction and FEI is trigonometry and calculus, but this is not accurate. Does trigonometry professor often check if two plus two still equals four? Probably not. So, instead of thinking about a FEI horse and rider training toward something complicated like calculus, think about them becoming so good at addition that you could call out any two numbers and they would have an instant answer. Still the basics, but masters of them.
I recently returned from training in the Netherlands with one of the best riders in the world. My horse was difficult in the changes and was ready to work some passage, but we didn’t need to school either movement in order to improve them. We spent days perfecting the very basic ideals of responding to every leg aid and waiting with every rein aid and once these basics were improved, the changes were clean and she understood what I wanted for passage. The work spent on developing better basics was not mentally or physically stressful, it improved our connection both mentally and physically and could have been done by any horse and rider at any level of development. This is important for several reasons:
So, now it is time to start working on those basics! You may have noticed that this is part one of the Back to the Basics series. Over the next few weeks, we will begin focusing on different elements of the basics and some exercises that you can do to help develop them.
The first and most important basic is that your horse responds to your leg… always.
A proper response to the leg should be respectful, but not drastic and prompt, but not nervous. This type of response sounds lovely, doesn’t it? For some of you, maybe it sounds too good to be true? There is a reason that your horse may not respond to your leg in an ideal way. Even the nicest, sweetest horse in the world will only give you what you have historically set as your minimally accepted response level. Why would they do more? If your boss tells you that you can go home at 5pm, would you still be at the office at 7pm? I sure wouldn’t!
Now it is important to note that when I refer to the “minimally accepted response level”, I am not referring to an energy level, but a quality level. Most horses do not give enough of a response, but there are horses that resist by threatening or giving a dramatic response to the leg, both ends of the spectrum limit the level of clear communication that you and your horse can have during training. Your legs are your most influencial aid and when your horses response does not match your request, this disconnect seeps into all aspects of your work.
So now that we are all acutely aware of just how important this basic really is, we need a plan for developing it. This plan is going to be as simple as 1…2…3…
1.) Decide on the your own personal “minimum accepted response level”. Although this is completely up to you, allow me to offer some words of advice. If you go out and expect perfection today, you will have a great ride, but if you ride tomorrow and are happy with 80% of yesterdays ride and then ride the next day and forget to set your high expectation level and then over the weekend, go back to asking for perfection… although you may have had a few really good rides this week, in the end, your horse will not develop an improved response to your leg aids. Do you remember that third ride when you forgot to work on setting that “minimum accepted response level”? Well THAT is what your horse sees as the actual minimum. Now those good rides were beneficial, but good habits take consistency to develop and if you want your horse to believe that every response has to be a good one, then you have to be very clear about what you will be accepting from now on. The great Kathy Connelly says that your horse will always show the judge the lowest quality version of what you accept at home and I believe that this not only pertains to competition movements, but your basics as well.
2.) Begin treating this basic as important as it truly is during every ride. I would suggest making this your main or even only goal for your next few rides. It will only rise to the top of your list of important things to do in the saddle when you put it there… and trust me, when it IS the most important thing, every single ride, exercise and movement will improve because of it. Begin each ride with a big, forward walk and clarify the amount of leg you will “help” maintain this energy level with. My chosen amount of leg is none and it is not as impossible as it may sound. Get that walk marching around the arena and then relax your leg long and soft down into your stirrup iron. As soon as your horses energy level begins to dip below your “minimally accepted level”, close your leg and bring the energy back up quickly and then return to relaxation. Warning: This takes repetition and consistency. At first, your horse may think that this is just a joke or a temporary moment of insanity on your part, so you need to get beyond this mind set and into the phase in which this becomes the new way of doing things. Every horse gets to the point where they will take this as the new normal. Some take longer than others, but the quickest way to a new habit is consistency. Repeat this in the trot and canter as well. The reason that I am suggesting that this be your only goal is that it will take a lot of persistence and focus. The longer the ride goes, the more tired you and your horse will become and if you accept this is a reason for slower reactions, this will happen during every single ride. While you are setting this new habit, it would be better to have 25 minutes of great responses than 45 minutes with a peak and slow drop off.
Although this does sound like there is no room for error, there is some good news. Horses form habits very easily. Just as they formed the habit of not responding correctly to your leg aids, it is possible and can actually be pretty easy to create the habit of a good response to your leg aids. This basic will not only improve all elements of your training, but will make your rides more enjoyable as well… and who doesn’t love an enjoyable ride?
3.) Trust, but verify. As you are workings towards developing this basic, be sure that you give your horse room to take on the responsibility of consistently being in front of your leg. A horse is “in front of your leg” not only responds properly to your leg aids, but they should continue that response until directed otherwise. Of course, we don’t expect perfection from our horses, but if you need to remind your horse to keep cantering five seconds after you asked for that canter, your horse is not in front of your leg.
There are many degrees of being in front of your leg and this is why I want you to trust your horse by allowing them to work on their own, but verify that they will remain responsive with the use of transitions. One of my favourite exercises is to ride down a line several feet off of the rail in medium walk. At the top of the line, ask for a transition into working trot and then relax your leg and pay attention to your horses energy level. Count the amount of times that you needed to remind your horse to maintain this level of energy. Lets say that you needed to add more leg five times down that line, on the short side, ride a transition into medium walk and repeat the exercise. Each time, ask for a better reaction when you DO need to put your leg on and allow your horse to work longer in between leg aids. Once you are able to pick the trot up and trot down the entire line without needing to apply a big reminder, give your horse a pat and go the other direction. This exercise can be ridden in the canter as well and once each single line is consistency successful, you can work your way through the short side and back down the next long side. The reason that I ride these lines slightly off of the track is to prevent my horse from using the fence or wall for balance. I want them to really learn to work on their own. It is easier for all of to sit beautifully on a horse that is carrying us around the arena, it is more pleasant for the horse when we are not constantly gripping, squeezing or kicking them and it is the cornerstone of beautiful movements in the future.
Taking the time to develop this basic will pave the way for many exciting things in the future. A horse that reacts correctly to the leg aids will be much more successful when introduced to more advanced elements and movements. This is something that we as riders have control of. We have the ability to set our horses up for success, regardless of what our future goals may be.
Plus, once you have felt a horse carrying you around the arena in this way, you will never want to ride any other way…