Classical Dressage

Training according to the Dressage masters; for the health of the horse

Often misunderstood: ‘on the bit’

Posted By Iris on May 27, 2010

Big misunderstanding in Dressage world is the term ‘on the bit’. What does this imply, ‘on the bit’? First of all the term has the word ‘bit’ in it so it starts with giving the assumption you need a bit. Then with that  it actually also gives the assumption that the ‘bit’ is active in this, in other words, that you use the bit to get the result of whatever the term means. This makes for SO many unhappy horses in ‘modern’ Dressage! Pulling the reins to achieve for the horse to be ‘on the bit’, tight necks and clenched jaws as a result. This in turn gives a horse that is far from collection, since a horse that is not totally relaxed cannot collect properly!

The origin of the term ‘on the bit’ is the French term ‘dans la main’. There is not one word in that term that means ‘bit’! ‘. Dans la main’ means ‘in the hand’! In the hand gives for a much softer image if you ask me! In the hand, for me means holding something, not fighting or anything, but like holding a baby bird that is laying in the hand. Holding this bird as you should hold the horses’ mouth! Tighten your grip and the bird dies.

A horse that is literally ‘on the bit’ can be ‘on the bit’ when totally tight. A horse that is (laying) ‘in the hand’, to me sounds more like it can only be relaxed in a soft hand. At least a lot more relaxed than ‘on the bit’. Also, ‘in the hand’ tells me that the activity lays in the hand. It is the hand that does the work, not the bit.

Ok, we are talking semantics here, but it is an important one. Since the ‘on the bit’ phrase leads to so much misunderstanding, and not innocent ones either!

Another thing is, some of you know this too; there are people who are perfectly capable of collecting their horse WHITHOUT bit or sometimes even without bridle in total! Some of these people have tried to enter Dressage competitions but were rejected because others told them that it is not possible to have your horse ‘on the bit’ without bit…!? Excuse me my ‘French’, how shortsighted can you be if you think that?

This is why I think ‘they’/ we should seriously consider rewriting some of the rules, especially the English translation (the Dutch translation is not a lot better btw).

I suggest using either ‘in the hand’ or better maybe (for the bridle less people) ‘on the aid’. ‘On the aid’ gives me an image of a horse that is totally focused on the rider and communicating with him or her. A horse that is in anticipation of the next aid. Sounds a lot better if you ask me… What do you think??

Training the young horse according to its conformation

Posted By Iris on May 11, 2010

When you start a horse, it is a very good idea to longe a horse first for a while until the back is stronger and more capable of carrying a person. When you start longeing your horse, the horse is still very untrained (obviously) and we tend to forget sometimes that going in circles is pretty hard work for a horse that has not done anything a lot. Even when you have a horse that already has been ridden in straight lines (trails) it is very hard for him or her to start doing circles. So when you start longeing it is very important to start a horse slowly and for short periods. But what is ‘slowly’? What is more easy for one horse is still hard for another, and most of that has to do with the way the horse is build, his or her conformation.

Though conformation does not determine a horses’ suitability on the long run (this is mostly dependable on the horses’ attitude as well). The training regime when starting a horse does depend on its conformation.

Like you might know (if you have read my ‘about’ page) I have a Spanish horse. I have started him and I have trained him towards ‘being ridden’.  He has a short back and his neck is set high. For him it is fairly easy to collect and fairly easy to go on the circle. With him I could start training on the longe pretty much straight away. The one time he was a bit sore, he was sore in the knees. His back however was fine.

When a horse is sore, it is important you give a few days rest, especially in this stage of training. Muscles that are sore have been worked harder and the soreness means tiny little rips in the muscles (from the acid). This is not bad but the muscles do need a bit of proper rest. Walking the horse is very good when he is sore, because that will keep the blood flow and heal faster, but not to much work for a day or two.

Also, with a young horse, I think it is a lot better to train every other day and give the muscles and the young horses mind a day to recuperate. Sometimes I even give two days rest in between, after a week every other day longework often. (But I do have to say, my horses are not confined in a stall. I think it is very unhealthy for a horse to be in a stall without the ability to walk whenever they want. My horses are in a large paddock all day, have 24/7 hay and 3 hours of grass field every morning. This is another story though.)

Anyway, when I started my Spanish horse I started with some work without the longe, but soon enough I started on the longe in wide circles. On the contrary of what I said about the ‘every other day’, because my Spanish horse was already a bit older (4.5) and because he was a young stallion that needed to get out more, I worked him every day for 5 days and two days a week I would just let him run without the longeline or I would take him on a walk. Like I said he only was a bit sore in the knees ones.

Now with my Thoroughbred mare however it is different. Here you really see the difference in conformation and how this can lead to problems if you don’t take it in consideration. TB’s often have a longer back; it is a bit to long for their body. As with my mare; her back is just a tad bit on the long side, not extreme, but still. When I just got her (hadn’t done anything with her yet) she had serious pain/ soreness in her back. Since I started trimming her (she has been trimmed the regular way before I got her, I trim according to the ‘natural’ way now, I trim professional as well), her back has gotten a lot better. But I still have to take in consideration her conformation with training in order for it to stay painless, ones she will get more trained this will get even better, as long as I start her correct for her conformation in this period of her life.

Because I am only human, half April, I started her as I was used to with my Spanish horse, longeing circles. But soon enough she got pretty sore in her back, even though I did not longe her every day, only every other day. That is when I realized I had to put her on a different training ‘program’.

Like I said, I already trained her only every other day, but now I changed another very important thing… Because her sensitive back, I found out it is very important she gets a good warm up without any collection whatsoever. This means not on the longe (and long reins if you would be riding).

I start out working her in hand for a few steps (let her go shoulder in, I will write more about this in another article) then I start her loose in the pen and just let her gallop both ways.

In my case I use a square pen. I like the square pen better than the round one because when you work with longe they are more inclined to bend in the corners and go straight on the walls, this gives more working stretch for the horse.

Because I do want her to use her back I let her gallop in the pen. I let her stretch out this way, give her a good gallop. She likes that as well, since she is a horse with a bit more nerves (TB’s are bred to run) this is also good for her psyche. Depending on how active she is I do this 5 to 10 min. If she wants to buck or really take off, good, that is her way to let go of tension. Slowly she will come closer to me. When she is warm I work her in hand again for a few steps (don’t ask to much when you just start doing shoulders in, this will go better every time)

After this little routine she is warm for work on the longe.  I now put on one siderein on the inside (read about sidereins and why I use just one on the inside) obviously I did not use sidereins when I just started her; I started using it after a good month of training.

I start longeing with a wider circle both side and I do a lot of transitions from walk to trot and to walk again. Goal of longeing obviously is relaxation, bringing the hind leg under the belly and good usage of the back, the head is on the low side when the horse is relaxed (read more about longeing).

After I let her go both ways, I do a cool down in walk on a shorter circle just for a few circles per side. This last part I do for stretching and to practice for future more intense longe work and collection.

I have been training her like this for 2 months and now after each training session I will climb on her (I have worked her in the saddle since the last month or so, just to let her get used to a girth) and I go around the pen for a bit, steering, stopping etc until she lets me know she is tired. For now this is only 5 minutes but this will eventually build up.

She is not sore anymore and she does very well with this regime. Of course, like I said being a bit sore for a horse is not a bad thing, but when a horse is very sore the next day, you might want to think about taking it a step back like I did with this new regime. Like I said, it all depends on the conformation of your horse. Look at your horse and listen to what he or she tells you, though this is very important at every stage of training!

(If you have never longed before I advice taking lessons, especially when you want to use sidereins!)

“Descente de main et descente de jambe”: relaxing of the hands and relaxing of the legs. Part 2, the legs

Posted By Iris on April 23, 2010

Baucher said “make yourself understood and let it happen”. Ask and then let the horse do it without you interfering anymore.

What we see a lot in ‘modern’ dressage is the legs, always the legs… “The horse needs to be forward, so give leg”… “On the circle the horse needs to bend, so give leg”… And of course, the spur, because if the horse does not listen to the leg, he needs that extra little help… Ever asked yourself WHY the horse does not listen to the leg anymore??

When you give a lot of leg, after a while it does not mean anything anymore to the horse. A horse knows how to walk; you don’t have to push him. Better yet: if you keep pushing him, you let him know, you are not so convinced he will walk without you constant pushing… And as I explained in my other articles about ‘doubt’, as soon as you doubt, they horse is less inclined to see you as a good leader and in turn will not listen very well anymore.

Classical Dressage is a dance, you move together with the horse as one. Dominique Barbier says this very well: “When you dance with a partner (human) you don’t keep poking him in the ribs to make him dance”. You ask your partner if he wants to dance, and then you lead him.

What does this mean for the legs? For now just keep this in mind: NO LEGS!

Ok ok, it does not mean that Classical Dressage doesn’t use legs at all, they do, but NOT in the way you might think, and certainly not like the think with ‘modern’ dressage. If you start with Classical Dressage, better just leave the legs alone. When you get better and better, you will find out yourself when to use the legs, because it comes natural. As long as you still ask yourself “when do I use legs?” leave them alone!

I can lift a tip of the veil if you want, but promise me that you will immediately forget it after you finish this article..! The legs are basically only used as reinforcement and ‘support’ (support is meant VERY light here). But this should all happen in unity with your body, it ALL comes from the hips and torso. The whole body moves as one, and with the horse. So do not use a leg on its own.

The reason we don’t do this is because as soon as you use a leg on its own, this will tense up your hip and the rest of your body, and the whole unity of your body, and so also that of you and the horse AND of the horses’ body, is lost… So the whole intention of the Classical Dressage is lost.

Also read part 1 of “Descente de main et descente de jambe”: relaxing of the hands and relaxing of the legs: turning.

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