1.   Dressage is never boring

I live on the Isle of Texel in the north of Holland. Horse riding on the beach is a dream for many and it is exactly that…. I do it often. It is great, at least when the tide is low and the beach is wide enough to gallop along the shoreline or to walk through the surf. I have twenty kilometres of aquatraining available close to my home. Which makes me think… no matter how well behaved your horse is, you must pay attention if you have the opportunity to ride at the beach. Sometimes the sea is treacherous. Suddenly there can be a hole or something like a piece of wood or plastic that washes against the legs of your horse, which may react with an enormous jump.

I speak from experience!!!

I’ve been riding all my life and think I’m pretty secure in the saddle. Yet nowadays I even use a neck strap for my most reliable horses. It has nothing to do with fear and everything to do with wisdom. If one takes an unexpected leap in the air, because a wave breaks, a duck flies or there is a monster hidden in the bushes, I do not pull the reins, so he won’t feel a pull in his mouth and reacts even more violently because of the pain. It also helps me to keep my balance and it makes me feel safer in exciting situations, so I can stay in control.

William Fox-Pitt does it too

This was not my idea to begin with. Years ago I did an interview for a Dutch horse magazine with the world famous eventer William Fox Pitt (very nice guy).  For the pictures he cantered in circles with the relaxed stallion “Chilli Morning”.

However, the horse had a neck strap. I asked William (slightly surprised) why he used the neck strap, because the horse didn’t look very spooky and the status of the man in question. He is one of the best eventers in the world and easily jumps obstacles I don’t even dare to look at.  Amused, he explained that he is actually not such a good rider at all. He said he was not really good at dressage and showjumping so he had become an eventer.  With his long upper body, balance in unexpected movements was a problem. He didn’t want to pull the horse’s mouth when he was “clumsy”. Well, I’ve been to the Badminton Horse Trials and if you know how to get around there flawlessly, you really are a tremendous rider. So in my book he’s is not so clumsy at all. This got me thinking. If the great William Fox Pitt rides around with such a neck strap, even on an obedient horse, then why does our ego get in the way of using one? Is it because maybe someone else thinks we are scared or that we can’t ride? I have been using one ever since and I can assure you that it has already saved me from a lot of misery.

Be careful with Aqua Training

Let me digress and I will continue with that, but firstly I want to talk about Aqua Training. Walking in the sea is great for a horse. Not only is the salt water beneficial when there are wounds or skin problems, but it is also super training. A horse lifts his legs higher and because of the resistance of the water this causes them to use their muscles more intensively. The effect is greatest when you go to about front knee or hock depth, so that he really lifts his legs and does not wade through the water. Going in deeper is nice for a while when it is warm, but has less training effect.

This beneficial effect is nowadays imitated in “AquaTrainers”. These are a kind of treadmills in watertight boxes. Good idea, you might think and it is, provided there are experts with a great deal of expertise.  A horse on a treadmill must continue to move and the risk is overloading the muscles in a terrible way. When you are not sitting on your horse, you don’t feel anything. If a horse walking in the sea finds it too heavy you will notice that something is off.  This has been my experience.

Dressage on a hack

Hacking out is good for horses. It clears their minds. If you are afraid to go out alone then ride with others who have reliable horses. I try to go out on a hack at least once a week. If I’m bored in the school or it is too hot I sometimes hack out on a daily basis.

You can do all your flatwork in the forest or along the beach. In my past I didn’t have a school so I always trained in the woods and still made it to advanced levels. You can do transitions, leg yield, half pass, changes… it’s all possible.

When I was very young I even got dressage lessons in the woods. On my daily tours I encountered the famous Dutch showjumping trainer Lammert Brouwer from Oranjewoud. He was the man that started the career of Franke Sloothaak. At that time Lammert Brouwer was already an elderly man, but he rode the most fantastic showjumping horses in the forest. I must have been about 14 years old and I had a chestnut mare. I was in awe of Mr. Brouwer, who was always in a tweed jacket with a cap on. He accompanied me for a bit and encouraged me to canter around some trees, which were fairly close together. Of course I did not succeed and he laughed his characteristic high giggle. So I practiced and practiced and when I ran into him again after a while I was able to do it. He often had a new challenge for me. We only had six shows a year in that time, but because of all the exercises he made me do I always found the dressage tests were easy for me.

Although I am still a great fan of hacking out and I want to encourage everyone to do the same, I enjoy riding in a school. I can play around with a horse for years until he feels “nice”. It is the feeling of harmony when a horse carries you and everything seems to go by itself. No pressure in your hands. If you think of something it just happens. Nowadays, I have the patience to wait for a horse to offer this, but you don’t get to that point by just fiddling around. You need to think about it.

Every horse in the stable should be trained properly

We never used to have a lot of money. Buying top horses was never possible. I got the left overs nobody could ride or which had other issues. “Everything in the stable should be trained properly” was the motto. It meant I needed perseverance and had to use my brain.

You have to be honest to yourself when you start. This is where is goes wrong sometimes these days. You have to consider your own abilities as a rider. I will be honest about that to you. I am not the greatest rider in the world, but perseverance for me is a superlative. I brood over a solution for days (never feeling too big to consult someone, if I think there is a useful answer there to be found).

You also have to look closely at the horse. What type is it in terms of confirmation and talent. You only truly get to know him after you have worked with him for some time. I did some training to become a Q4 Horse Profile coach, which opened up a whole new world for me about natural behavioural preferences of people and horses (it is also available in English). There is no such thing as a wrong match between horse and rider, as long as you know what type of person you are and are able to properly assess your horse, because then you can adapt. This makes communication more effective.

A nice puzzle

Considering the confirmation and talent it is important that you think about what training is needed for improvement. What are you going to work on and how are you going to do that. I don’t see that as a task, but as a fun puzzle. During an interview with Kyra Kyrklund she once spoke about a “toolbox” in which she collected more and more tools over the years as a top rider and trainer. Horses will always surprise you with new tricks for which you have to come up with solutions.

Collecting tools, you could say that is my hobby.
By doing specific exercises you can make a horse stronger in the right places and more flexible, so that he will move better and feels more comfortable to ride. Think about which exercises you will use for what. Learn how to teach them to your horse.

I like to think about that. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it.

In bed I sometimes make plans about what I want to do to solve a certain problem (for myself or a pupil). Horse riding is far more than just sitting on his back. If I come across something that I want to improve and I have no idea where to start I regularly call my “conscience” (my trainer Mischa Barrau-Jacometti).

She is almost 100 years old, but still manages to inspire and lecture me.

If you can’t go through the front door, take the back door…

There are riders who find dressage and flat work boring. They are bored in a school, have no idea what to do in there. I never have that problem. There is always something I want to work on to improve a horse.

In order to avoid this feeling it is useful to think ahead about what you are going to do. Make a plan before you get on. What needs improvement?

It can be a feeling. Quicker off the leg, a faster response or maybe less pressure in your hands. It can also be a specific exercise or a transition. What can you do to improve this? Be creative!

Ms. Barrau always says “if you can’t get through the front door, go through the back door.” Divide an exercise into small pieces and do it step-by-step. Only move on to the next exercise when you can do the former well. Do not repeat endlessly if something doesn’t work out. Think of another way to achieve your goal.

If it doesn’t work, ask yourself if your horse can’t do it physically or if he just doesn’t understand you. In both cases it is pointless to get angry. That has a negative effect on the trust between the two of you. Explain it better. Find another way and make it easier first. Horse riding is a mind sport, so use your brain!

Horse Riding is a mind sport

Even if a horse understands what you mean by your aids, he may not be so keen to respond. You get that for example when he is “bored to death”. How would you be if you had to make the same movements in the same room every day? You must keep the work interesting so that it is also “fun” to work with you.

Do not train in the school every day. Go on that hack. If the weather or situation does not allow you to go outside, then try varying the work in the school. Lunge for a day, or do something with poles. Even if you are not a hero with showjumps you can walk, trot or canter over them or put some cones or barrels in the school to do circles around. Use your imagination to create distraction and try to provide your horse with interesting things to think about. Learn to work your horse in hand. Do lots of fun things with him, so that you become his friend and not just his boss. Work on that bond between the two of you

Laid back horses can be motivated if you keep the work interesting.

“Davy” (my former star) was phlegmatic by nature. He didn’t look all that much when you saw him in the stable, but once under the saddle he blossomed and looked quite spectacular. I never trained him for a full hour. After the warm up we would practice an exercise or something I wanted to improve for about fifteen minutes. Then I relaxed him by stretching his neck forward-down in trot and canter. If I tried too many difficult exercises in one workout he would “shut off”.

With lazy horses it is important to change the pace and direction a lot. Think carefully about your aids. You may be inclined to give strong aids but horses usually go against that. That is why I am not in favor of sharper bits or spurs. It may seem to help for a while, but if forwardness and momentum do not come from the horse itself they will always go back to a “sticky state”. Light aids and a super consistent approach ensure that a horse is and remains forward always, even a “lazy one”. Force and pain are never the solution. It scares them rather than makes them more obedient. A flight animal only wants to get away from you if you cause him pain. He should enjoy working with you. So make sure you have fun, because that’s your job.

Dressage is the “Journey” not the “Destination”

Never say to me that dressage is boring. If you are really thinking about what you are doing, it cannot be. Dressage is the journey, the road, not the final destination. The challenge is to find the solution in collaboration with a being, who speaks a completely different language and who is many times stronger than you and has very different motives. It’s not about the competitions. Riding a dressage test in a show is a “measuring moment”. I don’t really need them anymore. I see dressage as the way to that ultimate feeling of harmony, that you only achieve if a horse is physically capable of what you ask for and you understand each other.

For me, dressage is an inseparable part of my life with horses.

• Set your ego aside, always use a neck strap

• Make a plan before you get on

• Deviate from it if necessary

• Divide an exercise into small parts

• Only proceed to the next exercise if the previous one succeeds (several times)

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