Showing posts with label Dressage Today. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dressage Today. Show all posts

Monday, October 29, 2018

Learn How to Be More in the Moment When Riding

Author and dressage trainer Dominique Barbier offers advice on how to be more focused when working with your dressage horse.


Q: I am trying to be more at one with my horse mentally. I try to be in the moment, but I’m not always successful. Any tips would be appreciated.
Name withheld by request

Dominique Barbier

A: If I may rephrase the question, perhaps it would be better to say, “I would like to be one with my horse. What tips can you offer?” For if we are not in the moment, we cannot be one with the horse, and if we are not in the moment, we cannot be focused. Therefore, the questions should be how to be present, how to be available and how to be capable of being one:

First of all, you need to be one with yourself before you attempt to be one with another being. This is beyond the mechanical, physical aspects of riding. Your mental attitude is more important than your physical attitude. Meditation, breathing, a good understanding of yoga, contemplation—each of these techniques allows you to know yourself better and be able to feel a calmness and a freedom that will allow you to feel closer to a greater consciousness. All this means is that if you are able to breathe correctly with your horse and stay mentally with him, slowly the process will bring you to a common understanding and a greater unity. There is no need to ride, there is only a need to be. Slowly and progressively you will feel a completeness and a union of the mind that will help you to feel closer to your goal.

The simple exercise of longeing and work in-hand will create the foundation for your mental communication and deepen your sense of being together. Later, when you ride with your concentration on very basic points (direction, rhythm, bend, lightness), the use of simple breathing exercises, while on the horse, will help you to put your body in a union with his movement. Then the mind will help you to project your vision through shoulder-in, haunches-in and pirouette at the walk first, then shoulder-in and haunches-in at the trot. By then, if you get a correct (rhythmic and energetic) shoulder-in at the walk and trot and correct haunches-in at the walk and trot, with your horse on the bit and in lightness, you should have a good feel of togetherness with your horse. A horse cannot be in lightness if he is not on the bit. To me, “on the bit” means the horse is 100 percent mentally and physically with you.

Things you should avoid: If you are pushing or kicking your friend in the belly with the leg or using spurs, you have a recipe for separation. If you kick your friend, pull on the reins and tell him mentally what you want to do, you will never be able to fulfill your goal. Riding a horse is strictly communication between beings. If you have any sort of aggressive attitude, mentally or physically, you will not achieve oneness. Happiness and joy are the best ingredients for oneness.

Dominique Barbier is a native of France who trained with the late Nuno Oliveira in Portugal. The author of numerous books, including his latest, Meditation for Two, he and his wife, Debra, run Barbier Farms in Healdsburg, California (

Friday, August 24, 2018

Increase Your Horse's Responsiveness to Your Aids

Sabine Rijssenbeek explains how to improve this aspect of communication between horse and rider.


Q: My 10-year-old warmblood mare is quite lazy. She does not respond to the whip. She simply ignores it. She never puts her ears back or gets angry. While I love that she hardly ever spooks and is not really excitable, I would like some advice on how I can get her more responsive to the whip. She has excellent breeding, and the vet can’t find anything wrong with her.

Janet Lorenz
Aurora, Illinois

Sabine Rijssenbeek

A: Good communication between a horse and rider is a basic foundation in proper training. The horse’s willingness to move forward is essential. To improve your mare’s response to the whip, I suggest the following procedure. Keep in mind that to develop throughness and good impulsion, the horse needs to respond to the leg aids with the whip as additional support. I have used this procedure successfully many times to develop the desired response between horse and rider.

Step 1: You will first need to longe your mare on a 15-meter circle. The goal is to bring her into a very light frame on the bit. Use a longer-than-normal longe whip with a long lash and simple side reins. The whip needs to be able to reach the haunches of the horse, and the side reins should be long enough that the mare can achieve the desired roundness under saddle with her nose not behind the vertical. She should be able to move freely forward with a light connection. Adjust the size of the circle accordingly. After warming up at the walk, send your mare into a nice forward trot. When she slows down, use the whip at or around her haunches to encourage forward movement. Longe in both directions and do transitions between trot and canter. The goal of this exercise is to get your horse active using the whip, which will be helpful once under saddle.

Step 2: The next step is to bring the horse alongside you, in the middle of the arena, still in side reins. Using an extra-long dressage whip, tap your mare just behind the girth, then move the whip toward her haunches to determine where she is most sensitive. The goal is to get the horse to move sideways away from the whip. If the side reins inhibit sideways movement, remove them. To tap your horse, use a quick double-tap rhythm. An assertive double tap is always more effective than one hard crack of the whip. After completing the exercise in both directions, you should be able to determine where your horse is most sensitive to the whip.

Step 3: Now you will need the help of a trainer or trusted, experienced rider. The rider should be in the saddle, with no side reins and the reins in light connection. The helper on the ground should have the longe line attached to the bit. The helper will double tap your horse (as with Step 2) in the most sensitive area, prompting sideways, not forward, movement. One side will be more sensitive than the other. The goal is to get the hind legs to make quick, almost trot-like steps away from the whip. When your horse responds, the helper will tap her when the inside hind leg is in the process of leaving the ground. This is extremely important. My experience is that horses react better with this exercise when they can move sideways rather than forward. Don’t ask for more than five steps at this point.

Step 4: Next, with the helper still holding the horse from the ground, the rider will use a dressage whip, in the exact same spot and with the same double-tap rhythm and intensity, to get the same reaction. But now she will also incorporate the leg aid. If your horse does not react with the same sideways movement, the helper on the ground will immediately double tap with her whip to get the reaction.

Step 5: Next, the rider and helper will move to the rail and remove the longe line. With the helper positioned at a safe distance at the shoulder of your horse, the rider will again double tap your horse while using leg aids in the same rhythm to get forward movement. Remember that the helper should use the same intensity and rhythm with the whip. If your horse does not immediately move forward, the helper will again double tap her from the ground.

Once your horse moves swiftly forward, both rider and helper should stop right away and praise the horse by using the voice, pats on the neck or treats. Repeat the exercise six or seven times with the helper on the ground to ensure your horse understands and receives praise. The goal is to get your mare to react more quickly each time. Be sure that the rider changes reins and repeats the exercise in the other direction and uses the whip on the opposite side of the horse’s body. Don’t be alarmed if your horse takes quick trot steps—this is exactly the reaction you want.

Step 6: Once your horse understands the exercise, ask again for forward trot from the saddle, but this time do not stop. Instead, double tap the horse again and ask for a quicker tempo. Be sure you are using your other driving aids in the same rhythm of the whip. Every time your horse begins to slow, use the whip and aids to again encourage a quicker tempo. Try to ride as many straight lines as possible during this exercise and don’t change direction until you are certain your horse understands. The reason you need to ride straight lines is that you want your horse to focus only on reacting quickly and moving straight forward in response to the aids. Be sure to keep your horse at the desired pace for at least a few minutes in each direction. Repeat the exercise at the canter going in both directions. Be sure to continue to praise your horse when she responds.

Horses respond well and like routine work. It is extremely important to repeat these exercises over and over again until the forward movement becomes confirmed in your horse.

Sabine Rijssenbeek is a native of the Netherlands and holds a Level 3 International Trainer’s Passport (highest level in the Netherlands). She was short-listed for the 1980 Moscow Olympics and has trained Olympic and Dutch National Championship horses. She is located in California.

Friday, July 20, 2018

An Inside Look at Top Dressage Show Management

Learn what keeps some of the country’s largest showgrounds ready for competition.

Jennifer Mellace

Credit: Terri Miller The HITS showground in Saugerties, New York, hosts dressage events, including international CDIs.

When you travel to a dressage show for the day or weekend, do you ever wonder what is behind keeping the grounds show-ready? With the cost of high-end footing and the amount of thought that goes into keeping horse and rider safe, it’s no wonder there are only a handful of world-class facilities available for international-level competitions (CDIs). Here are some of the costs and challenges faced by the country’s largest facilities.

Footing is one of the largest investments a showground can make. Dianne Boyd is the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Show Manager at Dressage at Devon (DAD) and manages a number of shows at other facilities. “In general, footing and stabling are the two most expensive components of maintaining a show facility,” she says. “The footing needs to be maintained at least twice a day, weather permitting. Drags may be required more often, depending on specific show requirements [like a regional championship or CDI]. Footing also needs to be prepped before the show management arrives, and this can involve dragging and watering over several days before show setup.”

Although DAD rents the Pennsylvania-based showgrounds, it is responsible for the new footing that has gone in over recent years. Lori Kaminski, president and CEO of DAD, believes that if a showground is going to stay competitive, it must keep its footing up to standards. In 2010 and 2011, DAD replaced the old sand footing in both main arenas with state-of-the-art EuroFelt. After that work had been completed, new USEF rules for footing stated that all CDI horses must be able to warm up on the same footing on which they will be competing. Fortunately, through many generous donations, DAD was able to raise the estimated $300,000 it took to replace the footing in the warm-up arenas to bring it up to the standard of the others.

Glenda McElroy, of Cornerstone Event Management in California, runs many dressage CDIs at public facilities on the West Coast. “Footing is an ongoing issue at most public facilities because so many different types of horse shows want to rent the facilities, and they all have their own requirements for footing,” she says. “While I don’t have to keep up the grounds, many times I do have to pay to tractor and level the ground and then pay to add footing.”

Tenants and owners of showgrounds agree that in order for dressage shows to be successful, the footing must be up to par. “Proper footing is a wonderful investment,” says Ginny Rattner, owner of DevonWood Equestrian Center in Sherwood, Oregon, home to Dressage at DevonWood, one of the largest dressage competitions in the Northwest. “We want our show attendees to know there is no safer place for you and your horse. We haven’t had suspensory problems or other troubles related to poor footing. And we never lacked for attendance even at the worst of times.”

Rattner found a new footing product for her state-of-the-art dressage facility that came from Germany. Even with shipping costs of $45,000, the footing was more cost-effective than if it had been produced in the United States. “In Germany the product is subsidized, helping to make the cost to the end-user less,” explains Rattner. “This was a tried-and-true product [used at the 2008 Olympics] that consists of wall-to-wall rubber matting underneath a layer of sand and geotechnical material. Devonwood was the first American facility to use the product in two of our arenas. It takes terrible abuse without watering, and the ring holds level without much grooming. We spent $100,000 five years ago.”

Fifteen years ago, Rattner was introduced to an ebb-and-flow footing concept while in Aachen, Germany. Once again, she opted to use the model at DevonWood. “The system consists of conduits and pumps that line the arena and keep the water level consistent,” she says. “If it rains, the excess water is drained to the level it needs to be. If the weather is dry, the water isn’t released. It’s like walking on the sand right near where the waves recede back into the ocean. If you go too far into the dry sand, it’s strenuous on your knees and ankles; same if you go too far into the water. This system keeps the constant consistency.” The showground has this system in two rings, including a large arena used for FEI-level competition. The cost was $60,000 per arena, but has lasted 15 years. “We maintain our rings every six months. They are all laser-leveled by an excavator that grooms and aerates the rings. The cost is $500 each time.”

Thomas Struzzieri is the president and CEO of HITS, Inc., the largest hunter/jumper horse-show management company in the United States. In recent years, the Saugerties, New York, location has been rented for dressage events, including international CDIs. Struzzieri admits that there are challenges to running such large show facilities but the benefits far outweigh them.

Credit: Mary Cornelius DevonWood Equestrian Centre in Sherwood, Oregon.

“I’ve owned my show facilities for the past 15 to 20 years,” says Struzzieri. “Being the owner means I control the footing, the schedule, the stabling and everything else that comes with being a show manager. It’s everything I love about my job. Some of the bigger challenges for any facility owner are the maintenance of the grounds, the permanent stabling [HITS facilities have 1,100 permanent stalls], taxes, water and sewer bills—things that many folks who rent showgrounds don’t need to consider. Of course, footing still prevails over the cost of most everything else. It’s the lion’s share of our capital expenditures—I’d say 75 percent,” he explains. “Proper footing is a moving target. We’re constantly reassessing to keep it the same or better. We’ve successfully done this at Saugerties—having the dressage shows renting the grounds is evidence of this.”

While footing remains the largest expense, showground owners and managers face many other issues. In fact, when asked what is the biggest threat to showgrounds today, folks agreed that it’s infectious diseases. “Frankly, I’m terrified of that,” admits Rattner. “We are diligent about keeping our ear to the ground and knowing what is happening. During the herpes outbreak, we didn’t hold shows. We always keep the walls of our stalls sterilized and remain proactive to prevent any problems.”

Struzzieri agrees, noting that not only are the horses’ lives at risk but also the livelihoods of many trainers. “If a disease like equine herpes spreads, we would all lose weeks, if not months, of income. We must have a proactive program with stringent standards set up to protect everyone involved.”

The cost of maintaining an equestrian-use-only facility is another looming problem. “The business model does not have a good profit margin, and most facilities have difficulty covering their operating costs with just equestrian events,” says Boyd. “This low-profit/high-cost model also makes it difficult to acquire and develop new facilities without significant government or donor support.”

Sadly, the threat of being sued is another concern. “We are a litigious society, so we need to protect ourselves,” says Struzzieri. “We [HITS] use the top insurance firms, make sure our grounds are properly maintained and pay attention to the size of the shows, making sure they are appropriate for the particular showground. This helps prevent accidents from happening.”

While many have seen increases in insurance rates, Rattner hasn’t and believes that proper planning has played a large part in this. “Our insurance costs truly haven’t changed much over the years. If anything, they’ve dropped some because we’ve had a great track record for safety. We have planned for everything, from stabling to parking, and have a great relationship with our insurance provider. Prior proper planning has allowed us to cover everything and keep everyone safe.”

In the end, those involved with keeping showgrounds ready for the next event agree that there is no better feeling than seeing everyone enjoy their day. “It’s fascinating to me how well-run the dressage shows are,” says Struzzieri. “There are so many volunteers and competitors who care deeply about the sport.”

Monday, April 9, 2018

What Are the Elements of a Balanced Canter Depart?

Canadian "S" dressage judge explains what is most important about a canter depart.

Q: One of the comments I received in my last test was that my horse shouldn’t jump into the canter. This completely confused me. How is a horse supposed to canter on? How would you like to see an upward transition into the canter?

Jo Barbour
Redmont, Washington

A: It is understandable that you might be confused by the comment “shouldn’t jump into the canter.” The canter is a jumping movement. When the hind legs are sluggish due to a lack of engagement, judges may suggest the quality of the canter would improve with more jump behind.

In response to your question about how I would like to see an upward transition into the canter, I will reference the USEF Rulebook, which reads: “The changes of pace should be clearly shown at the prescribed marker; they should be quickly made yet must be smooth, not abrupt. The cadence of the pace must be maintained up to the moment when the gait or pace is changed or the horse halts. The horse should remain light in hand, calm and maintain correct position.”

There is more to riding a canter transition than just giving the canter aid. It is important to establish a quality trot or walk first. The horse must be working in a steady rhythm with a forward attitude and the degree of suppleness, contact and straightness relative to his level of training. In order to execute a transition with harmony, lightness and ease, you must have a secure, balanced, deep seat and independent hands with the ability to follow the movement.

Preparation is the key to achieving balanced, fluid transitions. In preparation, your horse must respond to a balancing half halt. You should feel a slight shift of weight to the hindquarters with your horse stepping under, rounding his back and lightening his forehand. The horse is now rebalanced, on the aids and capable of a calm, fluid transition.

Half halting is important before every transition you ride. It serves three purposes that directly relate to the section of the Rulebook previously quoted:

1. “Transitions should be quickly made yet must be smooth not abrupt.” Horses hate to be surprised. The half halt acts as a wake-up call, warning the horse that he is about to be asked for a transition. The horse will be ready to respond to a quieter, softer aid, enabling a smooth transition.

Too strong an aid or overriding causes the horse to overreact, resulting in an abrupt transition with the horse hollowing his back and coming above the bit or “jumping into the canter.”

2. “The cadence of the pace must be maintained up to the moment when the pace or gait changes.” The trot quickening or the walk becoming tense and lateral when asked for a canter transition is a common fault. It is important to maintain a balanced, energetic trot or walk without altering the tempo. Balancing half halts will help to regulate the tempo.

3. “The horse must remain light in hand, calm and maintain correct position.” The half halts keep your horse relaxed and create the engagement needed to encourage him to work through his topline, maintain a supple back and flex at the poll with an elastic connection from behind.

In answer to your question about what the judge would like to see in an upward transition into the canter: The quality of the pace before and after the transition must be maintained. The horse’s frame remains supple, the energy comes from well-engaged hind legs and flows up through a round back into the contact, maintaining a soft, elastic connection. The horse shows complete straightness, self-carriage, confidence and acceptance of your aids.

Doreen Horsey is an Equine Canada “S” dressage judge, a USEF “S” judge and a member of Dressage Canada’s Officials Committee. She has won many national awards to Grand Prix and was on Canada’s international long list in 1989 and 1990. She is based in Alberta, Canada.

Re-published article with permission from Dressage Today.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Can Dressage Judges Really be Fair?

USEF "S" dressage judge Kathy Rowse discusses the dedication it takes to be a judge

Q: Do dressage judges take into account the different ways different breeds are moving? Can a dressage judge be really fair when faced with such a variety of breeds, especially at the lower levels of dressage? It seems to me that the fancy sport horse breeds are always the ones with the best scores. What, in your opinion, makes a good dressage judge?

Katie McIntosh

Newton, Massachusetts

Kathy Rouse

A: A dressage judge always has to judge according to the Training Scale and the standards/criteria set forth by the FEI. It takes most judges our entire career to develop, review and update our scale to both evolve it according to our experience and understanding and then keep it at the highest level. That means that all dressage performances are subject to the same standard, regardless of the breed of the horse, the experience of the rider or the level of the show.

Judges should always evaluate the correctness of the Training Scale (the methodology), and then use this formula of the basics in addition to the criteria of the movements (when you look on your test, it describes how you do certain arena figures and movements) and the modifiers (which includes things that are not in the essence of the movements such as geometry). The more correct and thorough the training is, the higher the score will be.

There is some subjectivity in judging as judges will sometimes see movements a little differently or emphasize certain modifiers more or less than one of their colleagues. This can also happen when a rider is judged by a panel of judges who are viewing a performance from different vantage points around the arena. Evaluating your tests from a variety of judges over an entire show season should give you a good idea of your strengths and weaknesses.

Dressage judges can be fair and objective when judging a variety of breeds as long as they stick to their standards, which help them to evaluate each performance on its own merits. The “fancy” movers will not score higher if they are demonstrating incorrect training. An “average” mover will score higher if the training standard is demonstrated at a high level. However, it is true that the “exceptional” mover with exceptional, correct training will be rewarded the highest scores.

Remember there are also “non-brilliant” moves in every dressage test, which include halts, rein backs, turns on the haunches and walk pirouettes. These movements get a score and allow the average horse to earn points. The ever-important corners also will show a well-trained horse but by themselves don’t change the score. These moves are mainly dependent on the skill of the rider, not on the brilliance of the horse, and the execution in the ring will tell you a lot about the correct basics of the rider with the horse.

There is a lot required of a good dressage judge. They need experience, a good knowledge of the rules (USDF Rule Book), the basics (the judge has to understand the application of the basics as explained above) and the criteria of each level and of each movement (which tells you what’s expected at each level). They develop and maintain their methodology, they work to improve and they should always be humble. A judge has many responsibilities: to the sport, to horses and riders, to the federation and to the show management. They have to be able to formulate clear, encouraging comments that are useful to guide the rider and address the most important aspect of the movement and the test in a concise manner. The comments must match the scores, and the collective marks must collate to the body of the test they have judged. They place the class in the right order and give appropriate scores for the performance they have evaluated.

It requires a lot of dedication and focus to be a dressage judge. But it gives back to the sport and to the riders, which is well worth the effort.

Kathy Rowse is a USEF “S” dressage judge and has received her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals. A popular clinician active with the FEI Junior and Young Rider programs, she has coached numerous riders to win their USDF medals. She lives in Suffolk, Virginia.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Tips on Choosing a Riding Instructor with Courtney King-Dye

How to find the best fit
Courtney King-Dye

There's a big difference between choosing a good instructor for you and a good trainer for your horse. If your horse needs a trainer then, of course, you'll want to choose the best rider, but if you want someone to teach you, I suggest evaluating other things.

Ask yourself why you are riding, and choose the instructor who will help you toward that goal. Not everyone wants to go to the Olympics. You may just want to learn the movements and enjoy your horse, and that is absolutely fine. Some instructors happily accommodate this goal, but some (like me) cannot tear themselves away from perfecting the basics before moving on. A good instructor should be able to explain things in a clear, comprehensible way that allows you to progress toward whatever goal you may have.

Choose someone who suits your needs. When I was competing a lot, I knew I couldn't give people a lot of attention and was surprised at how many who despite telling me they wanted a great deal and me telling them I couldn't supply it still wanted to come. I had to turn people down because I knew I couldn't make them happy. Try to make this decision on your own.

Be sure to choose someone you want to be like, both in riding position and in attitude. This is not just to ensure that they teach you the correct things. Even if you don't do it purposely, your brain is telling your muscles to mimic what it sees. The attitude toward the horse is equally as transferable through the eyes. You want to see balance between correction and reward. At the end of a ride, you want to see both the horse and the instructor motivated for the next ride even if they had trouble. So I recommend only watching riders you want to emulate.

It's also important to know how you learn. Some people learn from "yellers," while others get tied up and can't react when someone yells at them. Some people learn from gentle coaxing; others need a kick in the butt. Some instructors are methodological explainers, and there are some who don't know the "why," they just know what to do. There are very few trainers who can adjust their method, so choose someone with a teaching style you can learn from. And remember not to train with someone long-term just because a friend said that person is great. Go and watch a couple of lessons before you decide.

Courtney King-Dye represented the United States at the 2008 Olympic Games riding Harmony's Mythilus and at two World Cup Finals riding Idocus. She is a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Certified Instructor through Fourth Level and USDF gold medalist (

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Find Your Focus in the Dressage Show Ring

USDF gold medalist Kim Herslow explains dressage riding as a mental sport.

Credit: © juiceteam2013 - Fotolia Preparing yourself mentally means staying completely focused on the movie of your perfect test that is playing in your mind. The trick is to avoid letting anything cause the pause button to go on, even when you make a mistake.

Dressage riding is a mental sport. I wish I had known then that preparing oneself mentally helps make your performance more successful in the show ring.

Preparing yourself mentally means staying completely focused on the movie of your perfect test that is playing over and over in your mind. The trick is to avoid letting anything cause the pause or stop button to go on, even when you realize you have made a mistake or executed a few subpar strides. Many amateurs make the mistake of focusing only on riding all the movements, instead of seamlessly blending them together with the steps between the movements, such as setting up a clear transition between extended and collected trot, for which you are scored.

When you focus on your perfect test mental movie, you are always riding as though a magnet is drawing you forward. Always be four seconds ahead of what’s coming up. It makes it easier to block out external distractions, which every dressage rider faces sooner or later—the horse suddenly leaning, an open, scary-looking umbrella, a noise, another horse walking by. Adjust to the situation by having a plan in your head of how to respond to such challenges, like a tool you pull out from your toolbox when a screw becomes loose. If you know your horse well, you know that he will likely cut the next corner. So be prepared before the corner, setting your horse up for the corner to prevent the situation from happening. If you still feel your horse is about to cut the corner and is leaning in, simply adjust him. For instance, brace your back, half halt with your reins and ask him to move off your inside leg.

Include in your plan the possibility that your horse might spook, yet don’t dwell on it. Focus on your movie! If your horse spooks, simply ask him to look away from the ghost and move him toward the spooky object with your inside leg, as you would when increasing the size of a circle, while remaining focused on your mental movie. Then look ahead to the next steps without dwelling on what just happened or how many points you might have lost or how many mistakes you have made.

It is also important to breathe deeply and deliberately throughout your test. Deep breathing prevents tension from creeping into your body and helps you to focus on your mental movie. It also prevents you from getting anxious, nervous or overriding your horse, which often happens when the rider is tense. When your horse spooks, loses his balance or makes some sort of mistake, adjust him while keeping up the deep breathing. You have to be the rock in the ring for him, and a consistent, reliable one at that. If you feed off of your horse’s tension, the tension in both of you will triple. Tension, by the way, makes you top-heavy and stiff, preventing you from feeling your horse, whereas staying relaxed helps you have a stable yet deep seat and keep an elastic connection to the bit.

Dressage riding is a cerebral sport, and you have to be in a good place mentally to be effective and in harmony with your horse, especially in the show ring. Visualizing and feeling your perfect ride while keeping your breathing deep will help you achieve better results.

Kim Herslow is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. She has won many regional and national awards including a team gold medal at the 2014 Wellington CDIO3* Nations Cup and the 2013 Dutta Corp/USEF Intermediaire I Dressage National Championship. A graduate of Delaware Valley College with a degree in equine science, she trains with noted professionals, including Lars Petersen, Robert Dover, Guenter Seidel, Debbie McDonald, Scott Hassler and Anne Gribbons, and operates Upper Creek Farm, a training facility in Stockton, New Jersey.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Pest Control

Riders offer advice on how to rid your farm of unwanted guests without the use of harmful chemicals.

Where there are horses, there’s sure to be pests: Ants—including the dreaded fire ants—and other insects and wildlife can run amok in a barn. They are annoying at best, dangerous at worst, and almost always an unhealthy contribution to the stable environment for horses and humans.

Dressage Today polled professional and amateur riders and longtime farm owners for successful strategies on managing unwelcome visitors without the use of harmful chemicals. The tips they offered include all-natural remedies to rid farms of pests, including fire ants, flies and mice.

Ants: Amateur rider Nan Meek keeps her 20-year-old schoolmaster at a private stable near her home in Moss Beach, California. Like many riders, she often keeps sugar cubes on hand as a treat for her horse. “Sugar in the tack room attracts ants as reliably as sugar in the kitchen,” Meek says. “But a friend who is allergic to chemical products gave me a great tip: scatter a line of ground cloves across the path where the ants are entering, and they will go elsewhere. It doesn’t kill them, and they may try to go after the sugar from another entry point, but a few applications seem to send them elsewhere. An airtight container for the sugar removes their goal. Now, if I could only find a coyote deterrent! We are seeing more of them this winter than ever before.”

Flies: Ellie Jensen, who owned and managed Checkered Flag Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, before retiring to a smaller farm, learned key strategies for maintaining a healthy environment for her trainers and horses. One found her switching to natural pest control tactics many years ago after a fly-spray scare with a beautiful filly.
As the weather warmed up in the yearling’s first summer, Jensen applied a conventional fly spray of the time. “Within 20 seconds, she started to shake all over, then she went down,” Jensen recounts. “I knew it was a reaction to the fly spray. I hosed her down with water and was able to save her. And that made me more determined to look into natural products.”
Jensen is a big fan of cedar-oil spray, which was dispensed through an automatic misting system at Checkered Flag. “It has a water base and works just as well as the toxic stuff,” she notes. Cedar also has antifungal properties that can help heal hot spots on the skin and it has a woody scent.
Not all cedar-based pest-control products are equal, Jensen cautions. Like many natural ingredients, they, too, can be irritating and/or harmful if used in too-highly concentrated forms.
Fly strips are another tool often used to trap and kill flies in and around farms. While not the most attractive decor, they can serve a purpose. To ensure your strips are safe and nontoxic, try making your own sticky traps by mixing a one-quarter cup of corn syrup, one tablespoon of granulated sugar and one tablespoon of brown sugar in a small bowl. Next, cut strips of brown kraft paper and soak them in the sugar mixture. Give them 12 hours to dry and then poke a small hole at the top of each strip. Run a piece of string through the hole and the strip will be ready to hang.

Fire ants: These pests are a nightmare for Florida’s horse keepers. The ants love open, sunny spaces, like pastures, where they typically colonize in dirt mounds under the reign of one or more queens. A bite from a fire ant stings and can cause blisters on the skin of horses and people. “Enough bites can kill an animal, and a lot of people and animals are allergic to them,” Jensen says.
The most effective strategy she found was spreading nontoxic pellets that target the ant queen. “They sterilizes the queen ant so that within six weeks, you have no more ants,” she reports. They actually worked faster at Checkered Flag. “A week after we first had the pellets in our pasture, I noticed that the ants were staying out of a station where I fed four feral cats.” The pellets don’t harm other critters, including grazing horses and birds.
Relative to other treatments she tried, the pellets were cost-effective at $100 for the first acre, then $30 an acre after that for a treatment that Jensen’s property needed just twice a year.

Mice: Grand Prix riders Shannon Peters and Sharon McCusker happily report that their barns have very few problematic pests. Mice are the biggest menace at the Peter’s San Diego, California, stable and at McCusker’s property in Ashby, Massachusetts. In both cases, barn cats are an effective defense force.
In eradicating rodents, cats do a great service for their equine stablemates. However, because mice and rats can carry diseases, insects and parasites, their predators need regular veterinary care to prevent them from becoming conduits for those health risks. A strict deworming and vaccination regimen for the cats is important; so is spaying and neutering to keep their population under control.
Feeding cats in the barn will keep them on the job. If they have to rely only on their hunting skills for food, they may wander off to areas where mice haven’t been so well controlled.
Pest problems vary greatly across the country, but early action and consistent preventive practices and maintenance treatments will help to minimize the insects and animals that threaten to bug your horse. Old-fashioned, low-tech tactics always help: Keep the manure pile far from the stable, keep nooks and crannies clean, use tightly sealed containers in the feed room and eliminate pooled water whenever possible. A ship-shape stable is your best defense.

Credit: Cat: © Brenda Carson - and Fire Ants: © seagames50 - Cats might just be your best defense against pesky rodents.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Dressage Today. It is reprinted here by permission.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Balanced Horse

Book Excerpt: Sylvia Loch explains the aids by feel, not force.

In her new book, The Balanced Horse: The Aids by Feel, Not Force, author Sylvia Loch—an international dressage trainer and co-founder of the Lusitano Breed Society of Great Britain—confirms what equestrians should be doing and what they should avoid when it comes to each and every request they give their horse. Intended for those seeking the elusive art of riding versus competing, this valuable resource will help equestrians develop a better relationship with their horses. In the following excerpt, adapted from her book, Loch discusses the effects of a rider’s upper body and how it affects the seat. Used with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.

With the young or novice horse, our main preoccupation has been to allow him to go forward within the gentle framework of our hands and legs. Transitions require the interaction of the whole body, the legs playing a bigger part than the hands. The take and give of the fingers for an upward or downward transition is generally accompanied by the take and give of the rider’s legs, seat and upper body, which influence the whole — although not necessarily in the same moment.

As the horse matures, we should become more aware of the effects of our upper body and how it affects the seat. As with the aids of hand and leg, the seat can either take or give. The “take,” of course, refers to collection. If more lessons for the higher-level student were devoted to the seat aids, we might see much kinder hands and there would be less inclination to shorten horses through the neck in order to remain in control.

So what exactly do we mean by the take and give of the rider’s seat? First, let us clarify that this has absolutely nothing to do with pushing, which may well hollow the horse’s spine. On the contrary, the seat aids should be subtle and almost invisible since they rely on the tone and elasticity of the rider’s abdominal, back and adductor muscles, which are not so easily observed.

Second, no seat aid can be given with real precision unless the rider sits still! This may sound like a contradiction but, as with the hands and legs, unless we are quiet to start with, the horse will not notice when an aid is given. It is also vital that we sit as close as possible over the horse’s center of gravity, i.e., up to the pommel (waist to hands) with the seat bones resting in the center of the saddle.

Up the Body

The rider’s body acts on that of a horse rather like a bridge. The bridge must, of course, allow energy to pass through and under. For this reason it requires a supportive structure and firm foundations. When it is vertical and well-rooted, gravity keeps it in place but, in relation to the horse, this can only work when the rider sits up with supple loins and learns to let go with the legs.

From open hip joints and relaxed legs, you are more able to stimulate the horse sufficiently to produce and gather the energy required in collection. Ask at the girth with light, swift touches of the lower leg to bring the horse’s back up and think of sitting up and remaining above it all. Never ever push down; instead allow gravity to keep you in place.

From now on, everything we do with the upper body and legs will change the feel and the pressures of our seat on the horse’s back. The bridge will collapse if the abdominal muscles are slack; by firming up with the shoulders, back and sternum and with the navel to the fore, you can control this stored energy at will. “Up the body, down the weight!” is the maxim at Vienna at the Spanish Riding School.

Down the Weight

To stay in balance, the entire underside of the pelvis from front to back must contact the saddle. A good saddle, rising at the twist to support the crotch, will direct the rider’s weight to its lowest point through the seat bones (i.e., a good hand’s breadth from the cantle) and as close as possible to the horse’s center of balance. This all-embracing contact of the rider’s seat promotes a quiet, elegant and upright position which allows for subtle changes. It has come to be known as the three-point seat, with numerous references in both ancient and modern classical books, and it is practiced at the great riding academies of the world.

The taller we sit, the greater the downward pull of the legs. The stretch should be through the front of our thighs, into our knees and thence to the ground. This keeps our seat central, making it easy to “let go” with our legs—so important for the gathering or collection of the horse as we advance his education. The feeling is not unlike that of riding without stirrups. Once we tune in to gravity, the sheer weight of the leg falling away keeps us rooted. We should never worry about losing our stirrups again.

Opening and Closing

Whilst the seat should remain more or less neutral for riding the young horse forward or for hacking, dressage proper requires greater awareness. How we use our seat should never be forced or contrived, but every change of balance and gait will rely on subtle changes within ourselves. With practice, these fine aids should develop naturally, since every movement we make on the ground is based on similar principles.

In simple terms, the pelvis acts rather like a gearbox. In riding, its position—our seat—can regulate just how much energy we retain or let through. For example, in bringing our shoulders fractionally behind the vertical, the pelvis “opens,” allowing more energy to be released from the hindquarters to the forehand. When correctly done and assisted with appropriate leg aids, we now have an effective driving aid. This is, of course, the opposite of how we use the seat for collection.

By contrast, when we sit in the vertical, knees down, legs back a little, the pelvis is more closed in front. This complements the bringing together of the horse’s energy—the word “collection” being very appropriate. Tilting the balance to the front of the saddle allows the horse to flex his back, step deep underneath and produce shorter, more elevated steps. The more we draw up, the more we take his energy up with us. This, in turn, brings control, cadence and balance to the gaits.

As already discussed, moving the legs too much behind the vertical may put on the handbrake. This works very nicely for rein-back as we relieve pressure from the back of the saddle, but we must always release, sit up and return to neutral the moment we want to go forward again. All these nuances work together to produce a fine balancing act, but take care never to overdo things. The seat aids should be virtually invisible to anyone watching.

Higher and Higher

Later in the horse’s training (and always subtly counterbalanced by the raising of the rider’s center of gravity), a further redirection of his energy can lead us to the high school airs. Freeing up the horse’s loins facilitates the piaffe and passage—when the impulsion is held in a state of bubbling suspension—and all this will be an evolving process. We must never rush collection. “Contained” energy transforms itself into beautiful movements in its own time and according to the strength and the ability of the horse. Having said that, often the most collected movements are offered quite spontaneously by a fit and generous horse.


At this stage of riding, it is important always to have a mental picture of your entire body and how it impacts the horse’s back. Make no mistake, despite the latest numnah [saddle pad], or the stuffing and padding of a beautifully crafted saddle, every move we make is felt.

Disciplining oneself should translate into feeling what the horse is feeling. We have to listen as well as act. Any form of tension or imbalance should be relayed back through the seat of the pants. We learn to make small but meaningful changes of weight, always returning to neutral in between. Personally, I tend to “look down” on myself when I ride. Others prefer a series of checks: Am I sitting square? Am I vertical? Have I kept my navel and sternum forward? Has my inside hip maintained position? Has my outside hip opened sufficiently? Are my knees sufficiently deep?

Is my neck at the back of my collar? Are my fingers and ankles relaxed? All these, practiced on a daily basis, are very useful.


Of course, many riders use the seat aids without ever thinking about it. They may never have had a lesson in their life, but by conditioning themselves and their horse to what works, they develop the feel for opening or closing the door. Good riders will scarcely use the rein for halt since the combined aid of seat, legs and upper body does it much better. Their downward transitions will be smooth and seamless.

Bad riders think impulsion can only be stopped at the horse’s mouth—by which time it has generally gone too far. They have no comprehension of controlling it from the center and have to rely on stronger bits and harsher aids, which invariably hollow the horse. As French riding master Francois Baucher famously wrote: “I like the horse to be behind the hand and in front of the legs, so that the center of gravity is placed between these two aids, as it is only on this condition that the horse is absolutely under the control of the rider.”

Collection First

Clearly, the more we are able to develop the weight aids, the better our riding. For me, collection has to come before extension, since without the gathering of energy there can be no serious releasing or lengthening. It should go without saying that the more we wish to collect the horse, the more we need impulsion.

To start, it may require something of a juggling act to preserve the flow of energy from the hind legs and to collect or keep it at the ready for the next movement, be it sideways, upward, backward or simply more forward. No one can teach you how to do this, but riding a fully trained and collected horse can at least give you the feel, so you can gradually develop it for yourself.

Half Halt

It is not just in riding that we learn to harness energy. Most athletes, and particularly dancers, ice skaters and gymnasts, know when to keep it in reserve—to hold or fix with their bodies—and when and how to allow it out—sometimes in a great surge! And, of course, all this has nothing to do with the hands!

The half halt can be like this. Remember this is not a full transition, but the feeling could be described as preparing for a transition. It should be a momentary instruction—a second’s check or fix—prior to sending forward or rechanneling the impulsion for whatever is required next. Try not to lean back in the half halt. Rather, sit up with shoulders back! A consequence of the half halt will be a reduction in the length of stride, but we are rewarded with higher, lighter steps. In the early days, do not be greedy with these or you will end up with choppy gaits. As with everything in riding, we must work the horse both ways—forward and more together—to develop his strength and understanding. It’s a very gradual process.


Unfortunately, many people think the half halt is only to do with the hands. Many draw the hand back, which only invites resistance. Try instead to think of half-halting through your core as you close the fingers. This will be felt down the length of the rein and if this is not sufficient, then raise the hand gently, but only an inch or so. As you do so, breathe, draw up and hold—through the small of the back. Let the breath out when the horse obeys and your hand will automatically give again.

This feeling is generally transmitted all the way through the seat. A correct half halt allows the horse to draw the hindquarters deeper under the rider’s center of gravity. In so doing, the well-schooled horse will bend his joints to greater effect and learn to “sit.”

As with a ballerina, it is from those moments of “hold” through the rider’s core, back and pelvis that the balance is perfected—for whatever maneuver is requested next. In the shoulder-in, for example, I always think of a moment of fix, to allow the horse time to step under, to flex his joints and to take his weight back. In this movement, and in half pass and canter strike-off, I would half halt with the outside rein alone.

Fix, Take and Give

It was [riding master] Nuno Oliveira who introduced us to this perceptive little saying. Anyone who attended the Annual Conference of the Association of British Riding Schools (ABRS) in 1987 and 1988 will remember this advice being given out to every rider on every horse. If the horse is heavy on the hands and powering on rather too much, say in trot on a straight line, one would probably use both hands. The feeling is subtle. The fingers close very firmly, very quickly.

With some horses, a slight rotation of the wrists might help, and there should be a very slight upward influence to the action, but never at the risk of jerking. With it comes a corresponding “hold” through the wrists, elbows and shoulder joints. The “fix” feeling transfers right down the rider’s back and, if anything, the seat bones should move a little forward.

The moment the horse changes his posture, the hands must give again. Once accepted and understood, half halts will gradually be employed more and more as we progress toward full collection. They eventually become so refined that they comprise a vital part of the collection process.

Weight Back

Strength and suppleness behind come from the judicious and repeated practice of many different maneuvers—start and stop, straight and bend, forward and back, right and left, together and stretched. Now that we understand the main principles of the aiding process, we will be in a much better position to ride the lateral exercises accurately and with a deeper understanding. The shoulder-in is always considered the first of these, since it not only transfers weight to the haunches but, done correctly, will engage the horse’s hip, stifle, hock and fetlock joints. That is the key to lightness and collection.

Everything Is Connected to Everything

To understand the different “feels” required to bring about collection is very personal. We have concentrated on the seat here, but remember—nothing in your body works in isolation. Every single part of you, even the way you carry your head, will have an effect on the feel of the seat in the saddle. Collection comes from knowing how much to regulate the flow from behind, but without energy you have nothing to play with. Bringing the weight back must never restrict the horse; it simply allows us to gather him so that the work can flow with more brilliance the moment we release. In human terms, it’s similar to “setting one back on one’s heels”—a momentary pause before doing something extraordinary.

Things to Guard Against

Remember, too much of any one exercise will tire your horse’s muscles, ligaments and joints. There can be no true collection where tension or discomfort is present. Solution: Introduce variety in everything you do and collection will develop as the horse becomes more elastic and fluid.

Think Positive

Look ahead at all times; if our eyes help us control our bodies on the ground, so they will on horseback. Feel for the balance and make small adjustments only as required. Between each and every request, remember to return to neutral. Remember, less is more!

Sylvia Loch has written seven books on dressage training. She studied in Portugal and became an accredited instructor by the Portuguese National School of Equestrian Art. Based in Scotland, she teaches and gives clinics worldwide.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Dressage Today. It is reprinted here by permission.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

How to Ride Travers and Half Pass

By Janet Foy

4* dressage judge Janet Foy explains how to judge and ride these required movements.

The travers (haunches-in) is the first movement we teach a horse in which he bends in the direction of the line of travel. Learning travers is a prelude to teaching half pass, which requires quite a lot of lateral suppleness and cadence. These movements are the only two in dressage where the forehand is on the line of travel with the haunches displaced.

I was always taught that half pass was really travers on a diagonal line. In the past, travers was defined as a three-track movement, however, if you stand at C and watch a three-track travers on the diagonal, it looks like the haunches are badly trailing.

Within the past rule-change cycle, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the international governing body for equestrian sport, and the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF), our national organization, changed the definition. Now travers is to be ridden as a four-track movement at approximately a 35-degree angle. (Remember shoulder-in is ridden on three tracks with approximately a 30-degree angle.) To me, this makes much more sense as the horse’s body in travers (and consequently the half pass) should have more bend than it does in a shoulder-in.

Judging Travers and Half Pass

When you judge the travers, keep these points in mind:

l. Willingness. Is the horse willing to displace his haunches? To me the willingness is more important than a four-track angle with resistance and lack
of a quality trot.

2. Consistency of angle. Does the angle vary? At Second Level, it can happen. Perhaps it does not deserve an 8 or above, but again willingness and training going in the right way are important.

3. Rider position. Is the rider’s position making it impossible for the horse to succeed? If so, then I will lower the rider-effectiveness score in the Collective Marks.

When you judge the half pass, keep in mind these questions:

l. Preparation. Does the rider clearly prepare and start with the shoulders leading? Or do they come down centerline and start going sideways as soon as the front legs hit centerline? Haunches leading can rarely score more than 6.

2. Accuracy. Does the rider start and end at the correct location? Remember judges, ending early does not give the rider extra credit. The point is that the rider has control of the lateral movement as well as the forward impulsion and cadence.

3. Rider position. Is the riding correctly influencing the horse or not? We judges now have a score for that.

4. Cadence and submission to the bend are of utmost importance. The well-executed half pass has lateral reach and elevation of the shoulders as well as a correct cadence and uphill balance.

Riding the Movements

Travers. The most common mistake I see is a rider who does not keep the horse’s forehand moving straight down the track. Riders often turn the horse’s shoulders toward the rail, struggling to displace the hindquarters. They also twist their upper bodies, sitting to the outside in an attempt to create more displacement of the haunches with the outside leg.

I feel it is best to teach this exercise in walk. Think about coming straight out of the corner first. Keep the forehand walking straight down the track (the front legs do not cross) with a slight bend in the neck to the inside. Then shift your weight to the inside and move your outside leg slightly behind the girth.

Be aware of and avoid moving your hips to the outside. Don’t put your outside leg too far back either. The horse should be quite sensitive to the outside leg and should move the hindquarters quickly to the inside. If you do not have this reaction, you must go back and get the horse more sensitive to your outside leg aid. Without it, he will never succeed in travers or half pass.

Start with only a few strides as it is quite difficult for the horse to stay forward and supple. When he slows down too much or gets a bit stiff, straighten or walk a 10-meter circle and ask for a few more strides. Reinforce your inside leg as the “go forward” leg. Try not to use both legs actively at the same time. Think about which leg your horse needs to react to more quickly.

Think of this as a stretching exercise, much as you would do if you wanted to touch your toes. You would not succeed the first day. However, you would need to stretch several times a day, every day to succeed. It is always a good idea to go back to the more simple the head-to-the-wall leg-yield exercise, if you have difficulty getting the haunches to react enough.

Remember, in the finished product, your horse’s shoulders and your shoulders are perpendicular to the long side and your outside hip is slightly back with weight in the direction of the bend. A correct rider position will create a lot of stretch through the outside of your body, too.

The finished movement will have the rider using the outside leg to displace the haunches and then the inside leg to ride the horse forward and create cadence. Don’t drive the horse with your outside leg for the entire movement. This will cause many problems in the half pass.

Half pass. The half pass should be moving forward and sideways with the rider always in control of the line of travel. Practice riding different angles so you can test the horse and see if you can go more sideways or if you can go on a longer angle and more forward. Do not let the horse take control because he will learn to fall sideways, usually with the haunches leading, and you will never develop cadence.

For the rider’s position, half pass is a bit easier, and the shoulders and hips will sit in the same position. For me, the most simple explanation about the rider’s position is to think about starting in a shoulder-in (putting the horse’s forehand on the line of travel or pointing the shoulders to the letter where you want to arrive) and then putting your weight to the inside and bringing the horse over with your weight and the outside leg. Always remember the shoulders must lead in the finished product.

A good exercise to test your horse is to start straight on the diagonal line. Then ride a few strides of a three-track travers. Over X, ride a four-track travers. Go back to three tracks and then straight before the corner. I don’t even mind in this exercise if you push the haunches ahead a few strides just to test the reaction to your outside leg. Just remember that in the final product you want to have control of the haunches and the angle in order to produce more cadence.

Personally, I am not a big fan of working a lot of travers on the long side. I feel it can put the horse onto his shoulders quite easily. I prefer to use the half pass or the travers on the circle to make my point. Also remember that the goal is increased lateral suppleness and reach through the shoulders, and therefore, more cadence and expression in trot and canter. If the rider pushes the haunches ahead in the half pass, the result will be the loss of cadence and the benefit of the movement will be lost.

Janet Foy is an FEI 4* and USEF “S” dressage judge and an “R” sport horse breed judge. A member of the USEF international High Performance Dressage Committee, she also teaches judges’ training programs nationwide. Author of the book Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse, she is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Dressage Today. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Learn How to Be More in the Moment When Riding

Author and dressage trainer Dominique Barbier offers advice on how to be more focused when working with your dressage horse.

Q: I am trying to be more at one with my horse mentally. I try to be in the moment, but I’m not always successful. Any tips would be appreciated.  - Name withheld by request 

A: If I may rephrase the question, perhaps it would be better to say, “I would like to be one with my horse. What tips can you offer?” For if we are not in the moment, we cannot be one with the horse, and if we are not in the moment, we cannot be focused. Therefore, the questions should be how to be present, how to be available and how to be capable of being one: 

First of all, you need to be one with yourself before you attempt to be one with another being. This is beyond the mechanical, physical aspects of riding. Your mental attitude is more important than your physical attitude. Meditation, breathing, a good understanding of yoga, contemplation—each of these techniques allows you to know yourself better and be able to feel a calmness and a freedom that will allow you to feel closer to a greater consciousness. All this means is that if you are able to breathe correctly with your horse and stay mentally with him, slowly the process will bring you to a common understanding and a greater unity. There is no need to ride, there is only a need to be. Slowly and progressively you will feel a completeness and a union of the mind that will help you to feel closer to your goal. 

The simple exercise of longeing and work in-hand will create the foundation for your mental communication and deepen your sense of being together. Later, when you ride with your concentration on very basic points (direction, rhythm, bend, lightness), the use of simple breathing exercises, while on the horse, will help you to put your body in a union with his movement. Then the mind will help you to project your vision through shoulder-in, haunches-in and pirouette at the walk first, then shoulder-in and haunches-in at the trot. By then, if you get a correct (rhythmic and energetic) shoulder-in at the walk and trot and correct haunches-in at the walk and trot, with your horse on the bit and in lightness, you should have a good feel of togetherness with your horse. A horse cannot be in lightness if he is not on the bit. To me, “on the bit” means the horse is 100 percent mentally and physically with you. 

Things you should avoid: If you are pushing or kicking your friend in the belly with the leg or using spurs, you have a recipe for separation. If you kick your friend, pull on the reins and tell him mentally what you want to do, you will never be able to fulfill your goal. Riding a horse is strictly communication between beings. If you have any sort of aggressive attitude, mentally or physically, you will not achieve oneness. Happiness and joy are the best ingredients for oneness.

Dominique Barbier is a native of France who trained with the late Nuno Oliveira in Portugal. The author of numerous books, including his latest, Meditation for Two, he and his wife, Debra, run Barbier Farms in Healdsburg, California (

 - Three Runs Plantation Equestrian Blog. Re-published article from Dressage Today.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Dressage Today. It is reprinted here by permission.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Science Behind Equitation

By Dominique Barbier With Maria Katsamanis Photographs By Keron Psillas
A book excerpt from The Alchemy of Lightness by Dominique Barbier and Maria Katsamanis

It is important that one learns how to be and not just how to do. We need to begin riding with a very simple task, one that is meant to initiate the relationship with the horse. It could be as simple as establishing a walk as we focus on knowing where we are going (direction) or find a particular rhythm.

We should not necessarily be focused on passage or piaffe, even when riding those movements is one of our goals. This is very tricky because we learn throughout our life that when we want to produce something, we have to do something.

The sequence of first focusing on pursuing small, simple tasks with our horse may seem, on the surface, as if nothing is happening. However, in the end, when all the basic building elements come together, we have something incredible.

I learned this from my grandfather. He was a locksmith by profession and knew everything about locks—he could pick every one. Consequently, his mind worked backward. When beginning a new project, he would not work on the project itself but on preparing for it: He would gather the necessary tools, the needed materials and organize the different parts. He carefully measured and weighed everything. To us children, it seemed that for days he was doing nothing, which drove us crazy. However, when my grandfather did, in fact, start working on the project itself, the job was done quickly because of all the preparations made beforehand. This was a great lesson for me.

When you approach a new lesson with your horse, do your thinking first. Use the power of your mind in the form of visualization (create a clear picture in your head of each interaction with your horse); work on your ability to be present; gather the basic building blocks of communication, that we just discussed. That way, when you are with your horse and beginning the communion that is riding, then everything is ready for your horse to meet you in the place where molecular change can occur.

There are many things you can do without your horse to prepare to be with him and prepare for the feeling you will experience when both of you come together. For example, you can sit in a quiet place and play a movie of your ride in your head. Do this with your eyes closed. This enables you to create a situation where you mentally ride your horse. Your movie can be as complete as you wish. It is a visual image of your state of being, your horse’s, and the feeling that is the result of both of you together. For you, this movie is like being a pilot in a flight simulator.

Misconceptions Become Barriers

Molecular change will occur when we want it to, when we have a clear intention. For most people, this may seem too simple a formula because it involves debunking previous notions of what training should be. But because of the way I teach during my clinics, which are time-intensive, I am unable to be conventional. Years of working in this way have made me refine my ability to establish a quick rapport with a horse, assess his needs and consider the next step in his training.

My work differs from regular training offered by others because the emphasis is not on the systematic training of the horse, and this might be a point of criticism by some. Because my time is limited, my priority becomes the quality of the relationship formed with the horse, and that facilitates his ability to learn. We can accelerate his learning—and even help make things happen—when we use our mind. It is because I am forced to adhere to a schedule that I rely on creating change in myself and the horse through mental clarity. This kind of approach is quite different from what is currently out there; it is a result of the way I choose to be as a teacher, as a clinician.

Lessons from Mestre Nuno Oliveira

Very early one morning when I was in Portugal visiting the old picadero (riding school), Mestre Oliveira arrived riding an extremely large gray horse that was owned by a banker. He was a strange-looking horse: His back was slanted—I think he had once injured his haunches. Catching sight of me, Mestre asked me to ride the horse.

Wearing plain shoes and pants, I was not dressed properly, but still, I climbed into the saddle. The ring was very small, about 13.5 meters wide, maybe 27 meters long; just enough room for a circle at each end.

Mestre asked me to canter on a circle. He requested descente de mains, descente de jambes (let go with the hands and the legs). Then he said, “Reins on the buckle.” So I dropped the reins, and the horse stayed in the same position. Then he asked me to lengthen the stride down the long side, and in about five or six strides, I was at the other end. The gray was strong, and as I circled to the right, he was in a big canter. Mestre asked me to collect the horse. Of course, I went to grab the reins, but he said, “Oh no….” And that was about the extent of it.

Then I stretched upward and pulled my shoulders back, and the whole horse came back in a collected canter—without any rein. This became one of the most important experiences of my life. I decided that this was what I wanted to learn and what I wanted to teach.

Lightness, The Ultimate Connection

Lightness, true collection on the part of the horse with maximum impulsion and a slack rein, allows the horse to be himself. Rein contact and strong leg contact, in many ways, interfere with the physical movement of the horse, and totally destroy and alienate the horse’s mind. Only when he is comfortable in the correct position and light, do we have a chance to experience a superior understanding of the relationship between the two.

The horse is already light by nature. He experiences lightness under saddle only when he is ridden properly. In other words, it depends on how competent, tactful and refined we are in order for him to just be himself. When he is himself, he is light. When a horse has been pulled on for many years, a tactful rider is suddenly a new feeling. He must form a new understanding of being ridden that he no longer has to answer to all the pushing of the rider’s seat and legs and pulling of the hands. The horse has to learn that this is not part of the equation anymore, and sometimes this realization takes a certain amount of time. Once the horse does understand that the rider does not intend to interfere with his body or his mind, then it is only a matter of how clear the rider can continue to be…and molecular change will be able to happen at the discretion of the horse.

Lightness Is a Rider’s Perception

Lightness comes as a result of the rider’s body and mind. First, the rider has to get out of the way of what is (remember, the horse is already light). When the rider can do this and can put the horse in a correct position while maintaining enough energy to help the horse stay there, it is then that the dance will happen. The quality of the dance is dependent on the quality of the dancer, especially of he who leads.

A monk once said that inviting God in is not enough. You have to get out first—there is only space for one. Getting out is the challenge.

Teachers as Facilitators of Molecular Change

While our horses are our best teachers, we cannot discount the importance of the simple human-to-human student-teacher relationship. There is much to be said about this as it allows for learning to go both ways. I think that a teacher can learn a lot from his student and vice-versa. The real master is the person who is able to show us the light, to direct us into a way that will allow us to understand what is happening as he does.

There is a great responsibility on a teacher to direct his student in a certain way—a way that awakens. When he imparts knowledge in an overwhelming way too quickly, for example, instead of liberating the student, he blocks understanding. Therefore, the timing of teaching is very fundamental. When it is done well, the student will blossom. If knowledge is given too soon, the teacher could end up blocking his student’s path to understanding with too much information before the student is ready to receive it. The responsibility of the teacher is to feed the student what is needed at the time that it is needed—a principle of importance to the masters of the past. In this way, learning is not just a present-day interaction between student and teacher, but an important part of a long tradition of riders who have worked with a master in a certain way. I think that when people are really dedicated to such a tradition, it gives them a strong feeling of continuity; a strength of belonging.

Learning Is Remembering

There is a Native American adage that says, “We do not learn, we remember,” meaning that at some point, we already knew all there is—our body, our mind, our soul already knows the subtleties of life and of riding. The only thing that we do is remember them through day-to-day experience.

We must think of being with our horse not as a matter of learning how to commune with him but as a matter of remembering what our higher self already knows. Remembering more and more each time we ride becomes yet another opportunity for refinement.

Old Perceptions Create Room For New Ones

To welcome in the new—new ideas, new potential—we need to consider the possibility that a different path to being with and riding a horse exists. Without judgment, with humility and compassion, we open ourselves to this possibility. We need to create change in ourselves in order to learn to look at things differently—let go of old perceptions and outdated knowledge. We need to be able to recognize that even very little change in the way we look at things can make a big difference.

What follows are just some examples of misconceptions about horses that we hold as being true. These are the very things that prevent us from creating a different reality with our horse—that of a vision nested in openness, a communion. 1. The horse is, for the most part, on the forehand. 2. A young horse cannot be light. 3. The horse’s conformation is a barrier to lightness. 4. Lightness is achieved as an end goal of training. 5. Lightness (in the horse) comes from a lot of hard work (on the part of the rider), namely pulling and pushing.

Any changes in our understanding or consciousness are a result of self-discipline and practice.

Understanding lightness and how it is attained is no different. We must practice being with our horse as we might practice meditation: every day in the same position, mind and spirit.

Dominique Barbier is a certified British Horse Society assistant instructor and has trained at a number of highly regarded facilities throughout Europe, including an internship with Mestre Nuno Oliveira. He is the author of Dressage for the New Age and Meditation for Two. He has been teaching his art of dressage training philosophy across the world for the last 40 years. He lives in Healdsburg, California.

Maria Katsamanis is a licensed clinical psychologist and is the co-founder of an equine-based psychotherapy and learning program. She lives in Lambertville, New Jersey.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Dressage Today. It is reprinted here by permission.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Origins of the Dressage Training Scale

USDF gold medalist Bruno Greber explains why the dressage training scale was developed.

Q: I often read about the German training scale and the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) pyramid of training. But what is the history of the training scale and why is it structured as it is?

Bruno Greber

A: The training scale developed from the manual for the German cavalry, "Heeresdienstvorschrift H.Dv. 1912, 1937," whereas the term "Skala der Ausbildung" (literally translated "Training Scale") only started being used in the 1950s. The H.Dv. 12/37 named the goals and principles for the training of a horse. It provided a detailed plan as guiding rules for the training of a military horse. The H.Dv. defined the training steps as follows:
  • accustoming the horse to the rider's weight
  • rhythm, relaxation
  • development of thrust and development of the gaits, contact
  • straightness
  • throughness, keeping the horse on the bit and in a frame
  • development of carrying power, collection
  • origination of elevation
  • working frame (standard rule)
  • dressage frame (may be asked only for a brief time)
The forerunner of today's training scale is found in Siegfried von Haugk's book, The Training of the Recruit in Horseback Riding (1940). Haugk defines, in the appendix for instructors, the training goals in the same order as we know them in today's training scale:
  • Takt (Rhythm)
  • Losgelassenheit (Relaxation)
  • Anlehnung (Contact)
  • Schwung (Impulsion)
  • Geraderichtem (Straightness)
  • Versammlung (Collection)
In the training process of the horse, six elements are divided into three overlapping training phases:
Phase 1: Rhythm, relaxation and contact form the accustoming phase. In this part of the training, the horse is supposed to get accustomed to the rider and his aids. This phase is used for the warm-up in the daily work.

Phase 2: Relaxation, contact, impulsion and straightness serve in the development of driving power (thrust) of the hind legs. In this phase, the horse is supposed to work more from behind and step diligently forward to the bit. This phase focuses on versatile gymnastic work to get a flexible and athletic horse.

Phase 3: Impulsion, straightness and collection aim to develop the carrying power of the hind legs. The horse is supposed to bear more weight over his hindquarters, which is mandatory for true collection and relative elevation. Both are necessary to reach higher goals in dressage training. Some older books mention elevation as a seventh element of the training scale. Since relative elevation (the head carriage and elevation of the withers are directly related to the degree of collection) is a direct consequence of correct collection, it has not been considered in today's version.

None of the six elements of the training scale stands by itself. They interact and depend on one another. The individual qualities are systematically incorporated into the training of the horse. The overlapping of the three training phases mentioned previously is a clear indication of the intermittent dynamics of the single components of the training scale. It may help you understand how the training scale contributes to your horse's training if you visualize it as a pyramid, with rhythm at the base and every layer built upon the next.

There is a logical reason for the order in which the six elements of the training scale are listed. The horse needs to reach a minimum of one element in order to have access to the next element. But, in practice, you'll feel that there is a flow between the elements, and you have to be open to listen to your horse; he'll tell you what needs to be considered the most in that particular moment.The goal in training a horse is to reach the best possible level of throughness.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Dressage Today. It is reprinted here by permission.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Are Tempo and Rhythm the Same?

By Heather Blitz

Heather Blitz, 2011 Pan American Games team gold and individual silver medalist explains the difference.

Q: I’m confused about the terms tempo and rhythm. I understand I’m supposed to always keep the same tempo, but what about the rhythm? When I ride at a faster tempo, the rhythm surely must change. I don’t understand how else I could ride a transition between working and extended trot.

Jeannette Shaw Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.


A: First of all, let’s define the terms. Tempo: The rate or speed of motion or activity. Rhythm: is a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound. There tends to be a lot of confusion like yours about these two concepts, but they are actually completely different concepts. One is sequence (rhythm) and one is speed (tempo).

If you think about the gaits of a horse, the walk has a four-beat rhythm, the trot has a two-beat rhythm of diagonal pairs of legs and the canter has a three-beat rhythm of the outside hind leg ?rst, then the diagonal pair together and then the lead inside foreleg.

Varying the tempo of the gaits does not change the rhythm unless your horse makes an actual error or does something unusual such as stumbling, skipping or dramatically losing his balance. Rhythm just describes the sequence of the footfalls per stride, but has nothing to do with speed. There are many cases where the two terms are mistakenly used interchangeably.

The main focus in your trot extensions is to not allow the speed of your horse’s steps (beats per minute, BPM) to change. He should learn how to extend his frame and length of step only, maintaining enough balance and strength to keep the number of beats per minute the same as in his collected trot. This is a big challenge, and you actually may not see many horses do it well.

It would give you a good idea of how to do this if you rode with the help of a metronome (I have an app for this on my iPhone). Set the metronome to equal your horse’s collected trot, and then see what happens when you extend the trot. You may quickly ?nd that your horse quickens the tempo rather than keeps the same tempo and lengthens his stride. It’s much easier to simply get quicker.

The majority of horses will opt to simply get quicker when you ask them to start medium and extended trot at ?rst. When I start my horses into levels of work where they are required to learn this, I use only short distances and will use the corners of the arena to help me. I ask for a few steps of more “go” in the trot, and then remind them quickly of the balance to come back into collection, preferably coming into a corner.

Again, most horses will initially try to run away and get too fast in the tempo. Once they realize that the answer is not to go for a long distance, but to go more for only a few strides, they get the idea that it’s not about speed but about power and balance.

If your horse actually loses rhythm, it would feel almost like a different gait or an error. If you hop along a sidewalk and then all of a sudden just jog, that’s a change of rhythm. Without seeing what’s happening with you and your horse in person, I’m assuming you’re struggling with the tempo (and not rhythm) as are most horses and riders.

Heather Blitz won team gold and individual silver medals at the 2011 Pan American Games and was an alternate for the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) 2012 Olympic dressage team. Based in Massachusetts and Florida, she teaches in Denmark, England and the U.S. (

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Dressage Today. It is reprinted here by permission.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Balance in the Canter

By Lisa Pierson

Lisa Pierson explains how to balance your horse in the canter with exercises to improve engagement.

How Can I Balance My Horse in the Canter?

A few weeks ago my horse fell down with me when cantering through a corner. Ever since then, I’m afraid of cantering through corners. My horse, a 13-year-old Hanoverian, didn’t bolt, he just lost traction with his hind legs in the canter. He is 18 hands and has a huge stride. I’m a First Level rider, but he is trained to the FEI levels. How can I avoid this problem in the future? How can I get my horse sure-footed in the canter? Our indoor arena measures 20 by 60 meters.
Sam Cochran 
Petaluma, California

Lisa Pierson

It is a very scary and dangerous situation when a horse falls down. The first thing to consider is whether your horse is sound and strong enough to do his job, pain-free and without neurological problems. Neurological problems can affect your horse’s coordination, and pain and stiffness can make him reluctant to use his joints to bend and balance or load a sore limb. Back pain, neck pain as well as vision problems are all important to rule out. A veterinarian should evaluate your horse.

Most of our schoolmasters are older and may need extra care for their older bodies. They may also need extra time for loosening up. Fatigue also can make a horse struggle to balance himself. It is also important to consider the footing you work your horse on; slippery, wet, shifting or uneven footing can be very risky.

If your horse is able to longe, observe him on the longe line without tack. Watch him in the canter. Does he lose his balance? Does he have difficulty maintaining the canter? Is one direction worse than the other? Is he different with tack on when longeing? Ill-fitting tack can make a horse stiff or sore in his topline, inhibiting his ability or willingness to balance through his core.

Occasionally horses do lose their balance—tripping or misstepping, even falling down. The bigger, more powerful movers can be more difficult to keep in balance. The rider needs to be able to manage the amount of pushing power these horses have through the strength of their own position (core) and by using half halts to engage and collect the horse from behind. When the push from the horse’s hind legs is stiff and the hocks are out behind, this pushes the horse more on the forehand, downhill. You can usually feel this in your contact—very strong and heavy on your hands.

In the canter it can be even more difficult to keep a horse in balance because it is hard to keep the hindquarters level and not tilting (due to the inside hind leading ahead of the outside hind), twisting the hips up and out behind and causing loss of traction. Overflexing the neck can also cause the horse to lose traction much like turning the steering wheel of a car too sharply can cause the car to fishtail.

It’s best to use the Training Scale to problem-solve:

Rhythm: Does your horse lose rhythm or tempo in corners and on smaller circles by scrambling, stalling or rushing?

Suppleness and Relaxation: Does your horse stiffen or brace through his body or have tension through corners and circles?

Contact: Is your horse heavy on the forehand, leaning on your hands for balance instead of carrying himself?

Impulsion: The release (thrust) of energy should be stored by the engagement of the hind legs, not downhill speed.

Straightness: Is your horse able to bend through a corner or circle and stay level, with his hind legs on the same track as his shoulders (in alignment even while bending) or is he crooked, jackknifing and falling out through his shoulder or hind end?

Collection: Is your horse able to bring his hindquarters under his center of gravity to balance for a corner in the canter?

To properly ride your horse through corners, you need to half halt as you approach the corner, roughly 6 meters, or 20 feet, before the approaching arena wall, and you need to establish true bending that engages your horse’s inside hind leg to balance him for your turns, circles and corners.

Before turning, weight your inside seat bone by pushing your inside hip forward and lowering your inside knee, not collapsing your inside hip. This begins bending your horse’s body for the corner, with the inside leg at the girth to bring his inside hind leg farther forward.

The horse should be flexed slightly to the inside with the inside rein (you should be able to see his inside eye, but he should not be flexed past his inside shoulder). The outside rein prevents the horse’s outside shoulder from falling out but still allows him to flex to the inside. The rider’s outside leg, slightly behind the girth, keeps the hindquarters from swinging out. Remember that the horse’s hind feet must track in the path of the front feet, so the amount of bend you ask for cannot disturb this alignment.

Think of your corners as a quarter of a circle, however small you can accurately ride without losing the proper bend and alignment—20 meters, 15, 10 or 6. A shallower corner is safer until you can reliably ride smaller circles while maintaining steady bend, alignment and balance.

To build your confidence, you need to be able to engage your horse’s hind end to control his balance. Your position must be strong enough so that you hold your horse together through your leg and seat, not from your hands. The bigger the movement of your horse, the harder this can be to do.

The following exercises will improve engagement:

  • Ride transitions before your corners, teaching the horse to listen to your aids for coming back, then engage to go forward through the corner. 
  • Try riding a step or two of turn on the forehand at the walk before each corner to engage your horse’s inside hind leg for bending into corners.
  • Add an extra step or two in each corner in your canter to collect your horse. 
  • Maintain the tempo and rhythm in your canter while adding extra steps between letters or markers.
  • Ride transitions in shoulder-in. They are a great exercise for engaging your horse and maintaining the bend while collecting him.

Keep track of the tempo and rhythm when you are preparing your horse for a corner; slowing down becomes leaning, speeding up becomes downhill running. Neither of these accomplish better balance, although slowing down is safer.

Lisa Pierson is a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level, a USDF “L” Education Program graduate and a USDF bronze and silver medalist. An FEI-level trainer and competitor, she is based in New York State.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in an article of  Dressage TodayIt is reprinted here by permission.