Small changes, BIG results: 12 top dressage tips

Vanessa Way shares 12 top young horse schooling tips to help you improve your overall dressage performance. (Images: Trish Dunell)

7005 training sep11hp1. Take time to warm up

6836 training sep11hpIn my warm-up, I think of keeping the walk in a good four-beat and the horse free and swinging over the back. It’s much better to spend too much time in walk than not enough, as it takes 10 minutes for the synovial fluid to go around the joints. It’s also good to give the young horse time to settle in a new environment.

I don’t believe in pushing a horse into a shape – the horse has to learn to carry itself. When the young horse is bouncing on and off the contact in the beginning, I’m not too disturbed. I want the neck long and low: you’ve got to have the horse long and supple before you ever make it short. The connection has to be with the whole horse, not just the front.

2. Forward first

6908 training sep11hpAt first I ride my trot forward, and longer in the frame. The rhythm on a young horse tends to be more forward and you’re way better to go forward than ride backwards. I really emphasis looseness and swinging of the hind legs, as a lot of the problems I see are because people have shut down the movement. If there’s no track-up in the working trot, something is drastically wrong.

I want the horse even in the contact. I like to use a lot of straight lines, in particular the ¾ line, to really straighten the horse and see if you can keep him between both legs and reins.

My warm-up tends to include leg-yield, serpentines and testing the response to the leg. If at any point you feel you’re doing more than the horse is, get out of there and go for a gallop.

3. Baby horse collection7122 training sep11hp

The middle phase of the work is introducing sitting trot, trot-walk and trot-canter transitions, working towards counter-canter and 10-metre circles. This is my baby horse ‘collecting phase’. Of course we break this work up with stretches and walk breaks.

4. Keep your cool

7025 training sep11hpThis was an exuberant transition into canter, but I’m not emotional about it. Horses are like children – you have to be so consistent in your aids and your attitude. There is no emotion in training, just response to the aid, so keep working until you get a good response. Here I had to break it up and decide, ‘What was the issue?’ Going forward was the issue. So I got off the circle and made it clear: gallop forward. If something doesn’t work, you’ve got to break down the exercise and get a response to whatever is missing. The other thing is canter aids are so unique to the rider – they are one of the most difficult aspects of a pick-up ride.

5. Self-carriage

7093 training sep11hpI like to put the reins in one hand and give the horse a pat in canter to test that he is carrying himself and to give him a good feeling.

Even with the baby horse, he’s got to be on his own. I’m not going to carry him around. The whole aim is for the horse to do every exercise with as little help from you as possible.

6. Rider balance

Riders who have bad balance affect the horse 100%, because the horse can never be in better balance than the rider. Unbalanced green riders can destroy the balance of a young horse. If you can’t ride walk, trot, canter sitting on a lunge with no interference, then don’t get on a young horse; it’s not fair.

7.  Falling out of canter

6936 training sep11hpIf your horse falls out of canter into trot, don’t rise, because that would be a reward in itself. Sit really balanced and go immediately back into canter. If you don’t correct him, he doesn’t know he’s done anything wrong. He’s got to learn to stay in canter by himself.

8. Pressure on, pressure off

I’m not into thrashing young horses – I keep it short, sharp and sweet. With my four-year-old I just go walk, trot and canter both ways, a bit of leg-yield and then I leave it. I don’t do that every day; sometimes I just jump on and go up the road.

Young horses can’t cope with much schooling, and hacking is long aerobic build-up and is good for them mentally. If horses hack out every day, then going to a show is no big deal. Young horses have to learn to use all their muscles and their minds as well.

9. Sitting trot

7160 training sep11hpI don’t do heaps of sitting trot on a young horse, because we’ve got to gradually build up the strength. But at age four, I usually start to put little bits in.

I like to make my students do sitting trot in the stretch, because so many of them tend to shut the back down.

The horse should be comfortable – you can see here the ears remain forwards and he’s quite happy. The rider should not change the balance of the horse. Don’t try too hard in the sitting trot, because that creates tension. If you watch the good riders, they move and there’s bouncing – they don’t sit like a rigid soldier.

10. Regular walk breaks

When I went to Hong Kong for the Olympics, I timed all the work-outs of the top dressage riders. None of them went for longer than six minutes before a one-minute walk break. Yes, the horses are a lot more collected than what we’re doing here, but I think people tend to muscle-fatigue their horses, going around and around doing the same thing, and they don’t give the muscles a break. You must change the horse’s frame. You can’t keep the horse in one position forever, as that causes stiffness.

11. Get up in two-point

7325 training sep11hpIf your young horse gets behind you in canter, use a forward seat. It makes sense: if I sat on your shoulders and leaned forward, you would go forward. If I leaned back, you would stop. If you start diving into the horse’s back and pushing him, the horse gets a bad feeling – it’s wrong. Get off the horse’s back and go forward.

12. Lateral work

7382 training sep11hpI like to teach leg-yield on the ¾ line, moving towards the rails. For me, the leg aid to go forwards is a short, sharp aid, and the lateral aid is more of a pressing leg. The big thing is to keep the forward momentum – my pet hate is when people do lateral work and start trotting slower. 

With the young horse, it’s all about getting this basic stuff really good and then everything else follows. I don’t find teaching the Advanced work hard – the problems are nearly always in the basic way of going. You’ve got to look at what you’re doing – why is the horse tight, why is it tense? You hear so many people blaming the judges, but you’ve got to take a little bit more responsibility as a rider. The schooling has to be good. I have learned through experience that a little crack in the basics becomes a massive hole when you go up the grades. You have to have everything really strong at this basic level, or the crack will become a crater.

About Vanessa

7528 training sep11hpVanessa Way is a former Grand Prix Dressage Horse of the Year and National Champion, both with her self-produced KH Arvan. She is well-known as a sympathetic and successful trainer of young horses, and has produced numerous national champions through the grades. For this story, she rides the five-year-old Trakehner-cross gelding Tango, who belongs to one of her students.

  • This article first appeared in the September 2011 issue of NZ Horse & Pony