The Key to Success ~
Dressage Schooling Based on Your Horse’s Temperament and Conformation ~ Part 2 Temperament by Nikki Alvin-Smith

The Key to Success ~ 
Dressage Schooling Based on Your Horse’s Temperament and Conformation ~ Part 2 Temperament
by Nikki Alvin-Smith

In the last edition of Catskill Horse magazine we discussed how to conduct your dressage schooling based on your horse’s conformation. The other huge factor in dressage training is your horse’s temperament. Whenever we are training we must always account for our horse as an individual.

If you ask an advanced rider what they look for in a top dressage prospect you will probably encounter words and phrases like sensitivity, good work ethic, forward thinking, intelligence and perseverance. Basically they want a ‘can do’ attitude. Your horse may exhibit these traits or fall into a different category altogether. It doesn’t matter. The important factor is that you, as his trainer, are aware of his foibles and personality, of what makes him tick, what makes him confident and happy to work.

Is Your Horse on the Aids?

When you are starting out riding or training in dressage the most important factor is that the horse is safe for you and that your horse is forward of your leg. It doesn’t matter what breed your horse is or what discipline you follow, these edicts remain the same.

A lazy or dull horse should be ridden to brighten him up. In dressage terms he should be quick off the leg. You must encourage this horse just as with a hotter horse, to ‘stay with you’ and to be mentally engaged and keep him ‘popping.’ Training this horse will require some energy on your part. Whenever working under saddle ensure you make lots of transitions between gaits. With any dressage training it goes without saying that you will also make transitions within the gaits as the horse progresses in his training always yielding to his cadence as a primary objective throughout collected, medium and extended work.
As a clinician I see plenty of horses that are not truly in front of the leg. My method to resolve this issue is the 1/2/3 rule. The first time you ask the horse to go forward you will squeeze with your calf momentarily and most importantly then release the aid. Ideally he pops forward and you don’t bang him in the mouth with the bit with hard or unforgiving hands, as this is the quickest way to dull your horse.

If your beast does not oblige and pop forward in a sprightly fashion then you must ask again. This time with a small kick of your heel and a quick release. Do not grip the horse with your leg anywhere or he will become insistently dull. Use your voice also, as this is a most valuable tool. Suggestions in an assertive voice would be, ‘Walk on,’ or ‘ Get up.’

In the event your horse still does not respond then the whip must come into play. Ask him again, squeeze your calf and give him a sharp tap with the whip just behind your heel. Be careful not to use the whip on his haunch as this will encourage him to kick out or even buck. It is imperative that when he moves forward you do not bang him in the mouth. As long as he goes forward, even if he runs or steps into another gait he has moved forward and this is wonderful. Give him a few steps, reward him with a pat or a verbal cue and then take a few light half halts on the outside rein only, to bring him back to some connection.

Your horse may be a hotter type and you may consider him very forward. He may even be spooky.

This horse may fool you into thinking he is in front of your leg when in actuality he is ‘blowing off’ your leg aid. Test the theory by giving your horse a leg aid. Does he explode forward and run through the tack? If the answer is yes place your horse on a small circle at the walk with his head to the inside. Tap him with increasing pressure with the inside leg and keep a light give and take pressure on the outside rein. The inside rein must be soft. Your outside leg should be just behind the girth keeping his haunches on the circle. As he yields in his rib cage to the tapping inside leg, which ideally you should use as his inside hind leg comes off the ground asking it to step further under his body, you can allow him to spiral out one step to make the circle bigger. This should be done on both reins at the walk and then at the trot.

If this exercise has not facilitated his yielding in his poll to the rein and yielding of his ribcage to your leg you can try this different exercise.

Take your horse large on the arena at the walk and put him in counter flexion on each long side. That is to say reverse your aids. Take his head to the outside until you can just see his eye. Put your leg nearest the outside of the ring on the girth and your leg nearest the center of the ring behind the girth. Your rein nearest the outside of the ring should be light in contact, your rein nearest the center of the ring should have a light relaxed pressure and you should give tiny half halts. There! You have reversed your aids and now have your horse in counter flexion. Now, use your leg nearest the outside of the ring and tap on the girth. This is your new inside leg (the inside of the horse is always on the inside curve of the horse). The result should be your horse should yield in his poll and soften in his ribcage. If it didn’t happen it is because you did not tap your leg and release but you held it there. Remember, riding is all in the release. If you don’t release your aids, you cannot use them again.

When you feel your horse soften, you can revert the aids back with his head to the inside of the ring and the aids back to normal.

This exercise should be completed in both directions of the ring first at the walk and then the trot.

For a very obstinate or stiff horse you can complete this exercise on the ¼ line. Start with him flexed and on inside aids toward the center of the ring and half way down the long side switch them the other way. Do not allow you horse to ever have his head straight. This will encourage him to blow off your leg aids and run through the tack.

So hopefully now you have your horse on the aids and listening to you.

A dull horse should be taught to accept minimal leg aids while a hot horse should be taught to accept very active though quiet leg aids.

When riding a more forward or hotter type of horse it is a good idea to ride transitions less frequently and stay in each gait longer especially when warming up as this may calm him. If you find he rushes simply post the trot a little behind the movement. Your horse must come back to you. Always. In clinics I call this ‘creating his safe place.’ In actuality it is also of course creating a safe place for both horse and rider.

We are taught to post with the gait and in rhythm with our horse, which is entirely correct. However when we move past learning to ride and begin to train our horses they need our help to relax. If your horse trots faster and you trot with him you will find yourself in a vicious circle of a faster and faster gait. It is impossible for a horse, or rider for that matter, to learn anything without being in a state of relaxation. This is also a method to find the correct cadence for your horse.

A hot horse will require lots of attention. When schooling you will need to keep this horse busy and attentive to you at all times. He may be spooky and look at everything and the counter flexion exercise is a great method to work your hot or spooky horse. For dressage showing it is important to be able to bring your horse into a calm state whenever you need it. Many hotter horses can be taught that the ring is a place of calm and their angst and difficulties with life in general can be overcome with considerate and attentive riding in the arena.

To keep the hot horse ‘with you’ at all times there are many small and potentially invisible cues you can teach him. You can flicker the rein with your pinky to say listen to me, you can squeeze lightly with your inside leg and give small frequent half halts on the outside rein, you can use your voice. Mentally it is important that you are always focused on your horse. I don’t mean looking at his ears or looking down, just mentally engaged with keeping your seat open, closing or opening reins. In general think of this horse as a naughty child that needs to be distracted and redirected all the time.

As you progress in your riding abilities you will find yourself seeking out the more sensitive variety of horses. This is because more sensitive horses generally also have a better ability to learn and you are more confident and have a better ability to educate them.

When I am starting a young horse under saddle I can usually tell within a few weeks of work whether this horse is going to be able to attain success in advanced dressage. How? By how fast he learns. The horse may not always be paying attention to me, indeed many times the top horses are challenging to start in work. However if as I make requests of the horse and give him new aids or exercises to digest he picks them up quickly and comes out the next day remembering the exercise, then I know he will go far in dressage level terms. Given of course, he receives correct training.

The sensitive horse with a good work ethic is very easy to abuse in a training sense. This horse will always give his all no matter what. We have all been guilty of the over ask. You feel those wonderful feelings and ask for more and ride for longer than you should. You forge ahead with new exercises without giving the horse the necessary time to build the muscles to move to the next exercise. This takes humility on the trainer’s part to overcome.

As a clinician or as a trainer that sees a student for a lesson just once a month you want to give them things to work on in your absence and give them the wealth of advice you can see they need not just for this particular moment, but in the next thirty days or several months. It is easy to overdo the input and become too enthusiastic and as a trainer it is important to always guard against overwhelming the horse and rider in these situations.

In advanced dressage training the dull or lazy horse will also benefit from frequent changes in movements and directions. You want to engage his mind and also his body and ask him to quicken his responses. The more sensitive horse will benefit from more subtle changes of movements and exercises.

The Happy Horse

The happy horse is one that is relaxed, attentive and shows no adverse tension to the rider or his environment. When a horse is happy in his work he may ‘switch on’ his high energy or ‘presence’ when he enters the ring. A horse that enjoys showing off is one that does not waste his energy for ninety percent of the time, saving it for his time in the ring. Many great horses in history have this ability and the question is was it learned or innate behavior or a bit of both. In my humble opinion it is a bit of both.

When training a horse or rider it is important to consistently honor confidence. The happy horse will understand his task and happily show off his ability to complete it whenever asked. This is something a trainer must strive to constantly build.

When training a horse or rider it is important to consistently honor confidence.

We have already discussed relaxation in relation to learning. It is also important to discuss reward and punishment in regard to the temperament of our horse.

In general as I have progressed in my dressage training methods I can say that I use much more reward than punishment than when I was younger. When I talk to colleagues they tell me the same thing. Is this because we are training our horses in better ways because of experience or has age made us soft! Or are the horses we generally ride now more sensitive, intelligent or have a better work ethic?

Punishment can be the use of the whip, the voice or stronger aids. Never should there be any harshness or anger in ourselves as a trainer. Frustration or fear can quickly produce an angry response. As we get older we hopefully learn to better control ourselves and to admit when a training moment is not being positive and productive.

Reward can be in the release of the aids, a softening of the body or voice. The lightening or release of the aid is probably the most important thing to learn in any type of riding.

When training a horse of a dull or lazy nature it is too easy to believe that more aid is better. In fact quite the opposite is true. As mentioned earlier in this article, this horse should be trained to be as light as possible with the least amount if interference from the rider. Horses that are stoic in nature are not necessarily less intelligent. Stubborn horses are often horses that were simply born with a high level of intelligence but have been poorly started and trained. All horses (and riders) respond best to mostly reward versus punishment.

When starting any new exercise or movement it is always good to allow the first try to be a ‘throw away.’ You do not expect the horse to be able to just do it. Occasionally it does happen but it usually takes some tact, patience and self-examination to achieve the desired result. When a horse misbehaves dangerously such as rearing or bucking it is wise to make careful study before administering a punishment with the whip. It is important to have a clear understanding of whether the action was induced by fear or resistance due to soundness issues. If the answer to both of these questions is negative then administering punishment may be needed. This is best left to a professional who has the experience to resolve the issue quickly and fairly.

When a horse simply doesn’t respond to the aids, as in the 1/2/3 rule suggested above regarding moving forward, or perhaps when you ask the horse to pop off your outside leg and move away from the pressure in a half pass and he declines, the flick of the whip is an invaluable asset in reminding him to wake up to the leg aid. The 1/2/3 rule can be used for any lack of effort on the horse’s part in response to the leg aid in any movement. What you do after you have used the whip is also paramount. You must release pressure so that the horse can answer your request and give him the time to do so.

Whether the horse is hot or lazy or like many horses falls somewhere in-between, you should always endeavor to use reward wherever possible and seek to minimize punishment.

A sensitive and intelligent horse can quickly become ‘undone’ and unruly if he is wrongly punished. A lazy or dull horse may just shut down altogether. Be certain before any punishment that the horse understood the request. Think of the worst type of trainer you have ever experienced. It was probably the one that just shouted the instruction louder and louder at you as you failed to achieve their directive. It was indubitably because you did not understand what you were supposed to be doing. The trainer repeated the same words louder and louder, you became more and more tense and less likely than ever to understand what was being asked. It is the same for every horse. Always try to find a different way to achieve the same result in your training and find a route that your horse will understand.

The temperament of your horse is partly shaped by nature and to a huge degree by his interaction with other horses and humans. Everything factors in to the equation. It is also true that a happy rider/trainer with positive energy will also produce the same in their horses. I wonder why that is? Not!