I train powerful horses for little ladies with big dreams. In the dressage world, most of our horses are over 16 hands, over 1,100 pounds, and bred for athleticism and power. The majority of the owners of these horses are petite women, and a high percentage of them are mothers and grandmothers. These owners have fantasized about owning a huge moving and impressive dressage horse that can piaffe in a halter and do one tempis as playtime. Unicorn anyone?? This owner, whom I will name “Lady” for the sake of this article, has dreamed of having a highly trained horse her entire life. Lady has worked hard enough and long enough, has raised her beautiful family, and now has finally managed to acquire her dream horse. Lady has very little time for herself, is exhausted by the time she makes it to the barn, and is at an age where her body is starting to betray her at times. Lady is a women that many of my clients can relate to. That being said, many men can relate to the desire for a light and well trained horse as well. My job is to produce a horse that is a joy for Lady to ride.
A “Lady’s horse” is a term I remind myself to focus on when I train all horses. Some make it easier from the beginning, and others challenge me. A “Lady’s horse” should have a lightness and ease in the way it responds to the aids. It should react with suppleness, not resistance. A well trained horse should be rideable without harsh bits and spurs. It should be rideable with a loose rein or short. Obviously, all horses have their preferences, but they are not always lucky enough to have a rider that can give them their preferences all of the time. My job as a trainer, is to give the horse an education that enables them to have the confidence to try to understand whatever they encounter.
When I am on a horse, I often ask myself, “Can I stop helping them in this moment? Or will they fall apart without my support?”. Can I relax a bit, take my legs off, and soften my hands without the horse falling out of frame, behind the leg, and away from the seat? If not, that tells me that they are not in self carriage, not on my seat, and not truly committed to confidence in the training. I condition myself to “test” the horses. I quiet my aids, and watch to see what happens. I try changing my position, and notice if the horse loses confidence. I want the horses that I train to be reliable and correct, without squelching their personality and expression. There are two high priorities with me: They must use their hind end always, and they must listen to the half halts. Those two boundaries are never to be ignored. I will take a step back and recondition those aids, at any point, if there is a hint of losing them. The ease of ride-ability is paramount. Without the hind end engagement and respect of half halts, there is no place to progress.
Creating a horse that responds to the aids with ease is not EASY! It takes extreme attention to detail. You must not let a moment pass by where the horse learns to become heavy. Seize the moment as an opportunity to educate the horse on how to carry its own body. Half halt, engage it, rebalance, REMIND! Then be quiet....see if the horse understands...
Be clear, be definitive, be patient. Be willing to be sloppy and ugly for a moment, so that you are able to be quiet again with the horse in self carriage. Listen to the horse, when you have a moment where the horse tries out balancing on his own, REWARD! First with peace, then with praise! I truly feel that, the biggest key to making a horse that responds with ease, is to LISTEN for the moments to reward.