What Is Real Dressage Riding?

There is one phrase that sums up the true relevance of dressage riding, written by one of the greatest minds in dressage:

"In horsemanship there is no neutrality. You are either furthering your horse's wellbeing or destroying it." - Charles de Kunffy

Whether dressage riding or another equestrian discipline is your interest, do you feel that despite your best efforts there is more struggle going on between you and your horse than the harmonious unity that good riding is supposed to represent?

Modern dressage has perhaps become more about the art of hiding this struggle than finding a genuine union between horse and rider. Whether through forceful aiding with spurs and double bridle, or by seeking the ever more talented horse whose spectacular movement overshadows the quality of the riding, this approach is taking us further and further away from what dressage, or simply good riding, is really about.

Real dressage is about addressing gymnastically the unbalanced forces that create all feeling of struggle between horse and rider, not just presenting a pretty picture. It is the unique art of channeling the power from the hind-leg through the horse's body to create a beautiful and balanced flow of movement.

As a rider you can learn how to use your posture in such a way as to resolve the lack of balance inherent in the horse's natural way of going, so that you don't end up having to control the horse with the bit. Go to The Importance of the Posture in Riding to find out more about this.

It might take some hard work, but when you get the feeling of becoming part of your horse's movement with the ability to bring out its harmony and power, you'll never want to go back to holding on!

How do you make this happen?

  • Make some simple but fundamental changes in your riding position
  • Understand the process of developing your body for good riding allowing you to tackle each part in the right order
  • Recognize the right responses from the horse that consolidate what you are doing

Have a look at Real Dressage Training Tips for some useful pointers in riding and training for engagement.

Amy engaged trot

On the bit

Real dressage riding is founded on engagement, described commonly as the horse being 'on the bit'. This is, in fact, a wonderful gymnastic phenomenon involving specific muscles that takes place in both horse and rider - yes, did you know that to bring about engagement in the horse, the rider also engages a very similar set of muscles in their own body? click on the link to find out more. See also Rider Biomechanics.

Rider Biomechanics

When you ride, do you find yourself (and perhaps your instructor too!) spending most of the time focusing on what the horse is doing, instead of being aware of and correcting your own body?

It's so easy to forget that the only way we can truly improve the horse is through the correct riding position and aiding. For example in order to achieve straightness in the horse, you first have to straighten yourself, starting by becoming aware of your own crookedness before you can even tell in what way the horse is crooked.

The rider first: are you forming your horse, or is he forming you?!

The rider's posture is fundamental to the horse's way of going. There is a specific gymnastic development that every dressage rider needs to go through in order to strengthen their body enough to truly influence the horse in the right way - that is without a holding hand and nagging spur.

Happily you can train your body in this way as you are training your horse, and the best way to know you are doing the right thing is to feel the right response in the horse. However, even though the horse gives the right response when you ride well, he won't give you much help in knowing what to do when things are not going well!

In fact a horse who is unbalanced, crooked and not engaged (as all horses start out naturally, and many 'trained' ones are too!) makes you want to do precisely the wrong things with your body.

This is where you need to know for sure what to do with the different parts of your riding position, so that you have the confidence to stick to it for long enough to get the right response from the horse (it doesn't always happen immediately!)

Look at The Ultimate Dressage Solution for a detailed discussion of the true relevance of straightness to dressage riding.

The wonderful rewards…

The great thing about riding well is that once you've managed to tip the balance towards the horse carrying himself correctly, i.e. in engagement, this supports your riding in all the right ways, and things get so much easier. This is when you start to feel like you are a part of the horse, and once you get that feeling you won't want anything else!

Training Philosophy: A tale of two boats uses an analogy to explain the difference between committing yourself to the horse's movement to achieve true engagement, and resorting to the 'easy option' of holding-on with the reins.

real dressage riding: odette trot longside

The correct dressage seat: an amazing but rare tool

In good dressage riding, the seat is one of the mains ways the rider influences the horse. This is because the correct independent seat allows you to re-balance the naturally 'on the forehand' horse. When they are applied in the right way, the correct seat aids have the power to control the engagement, longitudinal stretching, and collection of the horse, with no need for a holding rein.

Most riders, even at the top level of competition, unfortunately never develop this ability in their seat for simple avoidable reasons. They are obliged to compensate by using forceful equipment such as the double bridle and spurs, not to mention draw-reins and other harmful contraptions used in training dressage horses.

The true meaning of the dressage movements

Shifting your riding focus off what the horse is doing and more onto the quality of how it is doing it through own your riding, also leads to a fundamental change in the way you think about the dressage movements themselves.

phoenix shoulder-in

Do you really know, or more importantly can you feel why you are asking your horse to do certain movements, beyond their requirement in dressage tests? Unfortunately, for many dressage riders, the true relevance of the movements in the training process is often lost due to their absolute focus on competition success.

Remember, real dressage riding is just good riding, the movements are the means not the end! What is the end then? The beauty created by quality and purity of movement, and the amazing gymnastic connection between two living beings that can't be found in any other sport.

Classical, natural, competitive… What kind of dressage riding?

As an equestrian discipline, dressage riding has always found itself divided into different schools, each with their own gurus and differing approaches, often in direct conflict with each other right down to the basic philosophy behind them.

This is really a pity, when in its essence dressage riding is about unity, bringing things together, and finding the greatest potential in every moment for any possible horse and rider.

real dressage riding: a profound gymnastic connection We believe that good riding is good riding, full stop, and that this is what defines dressage, nothing else. The true essence of dressage is in the gymnastic connection between horse and rider, and what makes work correct is when it feels good to both horse and rider.

There are no styles or schools of thought to pure gymnastic equilibrium - it is a physical state which is either there or not. Engagement is the phenomenon which characterizes this state, with its specific characteristics.

In fact it could be said that the different schools of dressage are only defined by the particular way in which they diverge from what is universally correct about good riding.

For example, Classical dressage very often shows a lack of true athletic development of the horse and rider as a result of its fixation on 'lightness'.

So-called natural dressage is also prone to losing the relevance of the gymnastic dimension of training by focusing on conditioning the horse's mind rather then developing his body in the right way. Look at Dressage and Natural Horsemanship for a discussion on the differences between these two training techniques. Another HHT page, Natural Dressage: A True Definition, explains what we think a genuinely natural approach to dressage is, without either physical force or mental conditioning.

Competitive dressage in turn has to a large extent lost the emphasis on true quality and purity of movement through engagement by favoring the spectacular display, and meaningless precision achieved through force (see Rollkur: A Valid Debate?) rather than a genuine unity between horse and rider.

All of these divergences result in a parody of true dressage when they lose their foundation in correct riding, and the love and respect of the horse.

However when quality is made the priority over surface appearances good riding in engagement can apply itself to any setting or discipline, not just dressage riding, with its principles remaining unchanged.

Riding in this way (what we call 'Real Dressage'), with postural engagement as the means of bringing the horse's movement into balance, is not about quick-fix tips, or what kind of bit you use. It depends on the rider developing and applying their own body in a specific way, a way that is rarely clearly explained in dressage teaching. If you would like to know how to do this, in a fully detailed step-by-step way, then The Gymnastic Rider eBook can show you how to go about it, or fill in any gaps you may have in your understanding and technique.

How To Ride A Horse In Balance gives you full details of the book, and the philosophy behind it, as well as the opportunity to download the 15-page introduction to the book for free.

Relevant pages on Happy Horse Training that may interest you:

What does 'on the bit' really mean?
Rider Biomechanics
The Independent Seat
The Importance of the Posture in Riding
Natural Dressage: A True Definition
Training Philosophy: A tale of two boats
Real Dressage Training Tips
Dressage Double Bridle Misconceptions
The Ultimate Dressage Solution
Rollkur: A Valid Debate?
Dressage And Natural Horsemanship - What's the Difference?
Dressage Saddles: Help or Hindrance?
Training horses: the whole way!
Training Young Horses: Important Attributes in Trainer
Achieving Suppleness in Horse and Rider
The Bit

Return from Real Dressage Riding to Happy Horse Training home

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