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Horse Biomechanics & Dressage Training Success

The importance of focus on the horse and it's movement in your dressage training will put you on the right path in your dressage journey.

Vicki and I had an interesting conversation this morning.  Typically we talk about daily operation issues with regard to students, horses, and the practical matters that typically occupy trainers or farm owners such as lesson schedules, shows, farrier appointments, and saddles or tack issues.

We shifted gears a little and talked about the ideas she imparts on her students to help them understand dressage horse training, the journey of the horse and rider up the levels, and the importance of the right perspective or focus when engaging in dressage.

Dressage Takes Time, Effort, and Focus on Fundamentals

When you have not enjoyed decades of success at a difficult endeavor such as dressage training, if can be difficult to get perspective and really know where to begin, or for that matter where to go from here.  You may know someone who is a successful rider in the show ring, who is an USDF medalist, or X level judge or has other letters or designations affixed their name in the USDF roster.  What does it really mean?  Did the recognized historical dressage masters have a designation after their name?  Does it matter?

Keep Showing in Perspective

The point of dressage is not to show.  Competition dressage is different from dressage training.  While success in competition or the idea of competition itself can be the motivator for your hard work, dressage really is just about your horse and you, all by yourselves in the arena.  No trainers, judges, or shows.

A little historical perspective

Vicki has been training horses since the age of 4.  She might not have been a professional at this young age.  However, when someone gets on a horse or directs a horse from the ground, to engage in activities that the horse would not normally engage in on it's own, they are training the horse.  This fact is true whether the result is good or bad, and regardless of whether the 'trainer" is paid or unpaid.

By the time she was a teenager, Vicki was earning money as a professional.  In the 1970s she began taking dressage lessons from the early American influencers in the sport.

A Culture Shapes Dressage Focus

California has had an advantage with regard to dressage in many ways over the rest of the US.  It has a mild climate, wealthy population, it is well populated, and in general tends to have a very progressive forward thinking social makeup.  California attracts the top riders and dressage trainers from all over the world (Germany, Holland, Sweden, Denmark...), and was an early adopter in moving toward dressage from other equestrian disciplines.

From the 1970s through today these factors propelled the sport of dressage in California.  This early interest in dressage had an enormous impact on Vicki Kelley's training style during her formative years in the sport.

The Horse As the Focal Point

What did these early dressage trainers teach her that shaped the foundation of her training?

They conveyed the importance of the horse as the center of the focus.  In particular, that the biomechanics of the horse was the first thing to be addressed above all else, including the rider.  How the horse is moving and working is the most important thing to focus on when riding or ground working a dressage horse.

Only after the biomechanics of the horse has been addressed, should the rider's position be focused upon.  The concept of putting a horse on the bit if the horse is not moving well, should not be discussed.  The horse should be relaxed, moving evenly, and happy above all else.  This is in part, what the German dressage training scale or pyramid expresses.

During dressage training, the rider can and often does look or feel that his or her position is not good.  That's OK. 

Putting the dressage horse before the rider means you focus on the horse while training and worry less about how the rider looks initially.  Please don't think I am suggesting that one should not work on rider position.  Far from it.  We all need to strive to become better riders at all times, ensuring that we at the very least, do not get in the way of the horse.

Dressage Horse Showing

How does this all come together? Showing is a representation or demonstration of all that the rider and your horse have been working on.  When the rider or trainer is focused on the right fundamentals, it will come through in the show experience. 

I would like to say that your work will be rewarded by good scores and blue ribbons but this is not always the case.  In fact, you will have good and bad days, inconsistent scoring, and other factors that come in to play.  For the most part, your correct work and focus on the bio mechanics of the horse will be rewarded over time when you consistently receive good show scores, win classes and more importantly progressively move up the the levels and excel.

Some of the early trainers who Vicki has worked with related to horse centered dressage training include Sally Swift (author), Jeff Ashton Moore, Liz Searle, and Bill Woods. 

You can find Sally Swift and Bill Woods books, tapes, etc on Amazon and eBay although some are now out of print. Check out Centered Riding and Centered Riding 2 by Sally Swift.

What about the 'art of dressage?

One cannot be an artist of dressage without a horse centered focus and the use of classical dressage principles.  These principles, applied to create a well moving relaxed horse, that is visually inspiring, demonstrating the natural qualities of the horse in it's best form, represents a harmony that only the mastery of the fundamentals can afford.  Therein lies the art of dressage.


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