English Riding: Dressage Exercises

                Dressage is a sophisticated style of riding that requires a deep communicative connection between horse and rider. In dressage, the horse and rider flow together effortlessly as they perform a dance-like routine to the sounds of different types of music. A dressage horse has to be very obedient and supple to the rider. Suppleness comes when the horse is able to bend and transition smoothly. A stiff/disobedient horse is not going to have the flexible bend that is needed for Dressage riding. Dressage is all about gliding across the arena floor and flowing from move to move. In order to achieve this effortless flow of motion, both horse and rider have to work together to establish that suppleness during their routine.

                In order for you horse to achieve that suppleness/flexibility that he needs, there are three different types of changes that have to be accomplished: Change of bend, change of gait, and a lateral change. In order for your horse to achieve these different changes, there are a couple exercises that you can do with your horse to get him used to being more flexible and supple.

Exercise #1: Inside Outside

                One of the first things you need to do as a rider is re-learn the meaning of “Inside” “Outside.” For normal riding, the outside leg refers to the leg that is facing the fence and the inside leg is the leg that is facing the arena. For Dressage, these terms are totally different. The “Inside” “outside” terms for Dressage refer to the horse’s concave and convex motions. The term concave means to curve inward and the term convex means curving outward. In Dressage the concave (curving inward) side of the horse is always referred to as the inside. The convex (curving outward) side of the horse is always referred to the outside. So no matter where the fence is, the concave side is the inside and the convex side is the outside. Once you have retrained your riding brain for the Dressage terms of “Inside” “Outside,” you can start to begin your Dressage exercises.  

Exercise #2:  Turning on the Forehand

                Turning on the forehand is one of the most common/basic lateral movements that you and your horse will learn for Dressage. In this exercise, the horse’s front feet will stay in the same place while his hindquarters form a semi-circle around them. For this exercise, the horse will be asked to bend slightly in the opposite direction of his movement. For example when your horse is moving his backside to the right, he will be bent to the left. This exercise will help your horse become more familiar with leg aids and teach him how to move sideways. This exercise also helps you, as a rider, gain more control over your horse’s movements.

Step 1: Bend your horse slightly to the left with your left rein. Only bend him until you can see the bulge of your horse’s eye. You want to make sure that you release your inside rein once your horse starts to bend in the right direction (Left rein = inside rein = concave side). You don’t want to end up pulling your horse around with the use of your bending rein. You just want to make sure that your horse is slightly bent with your rein and he is turning with his hindquarters.

Step 2: Keep your right rein secure. This will help to keep your horse from moving forward or bending too far to the left.

Step 3: Apply pressure with your left leg, just behind the girth, and drive your horse’s backside to the right.

                This exercise is going to feel strange to your horse for the first couple of times. Don’t get upset and punish him if he doesn’t get it right the first time. Things like this take practice and make sure you are going at an even pace. Doing this exercise as fast as you can is not going to help your horse learn the proper way of doing the turn on the forehand exercise.

Exercise #3: Leg Yield

                The leg yield is very similar to the turn on the forehand. Unlike the turn on the forehand where the horse is stopped and only moves his hindquarters, with the leg yield you continue to move forward while you are stepping laterally. The leg yields moves your horse forward and sideways. This is a great exercise to help teach your horse how to walk sideways and also help the rider to achieve that increased control over the horse.

                Step 1: Move your horse forward at a walking pace.

Step 2: Just like the turn on the forehand, slightly bend your horse in the opposite direction that you are asking your horse to go. If you are driving your horse to the right, bend to the left. If you are driving your horse to the right, bend to the left.

Step 3: Apply pressure with your driving leg, just behind the girth, and ask your horse to step sideways. Your horse with feel your leg pressure and will step away from it. Thus resulting in the sideways stepping. Make sure that you keep your horse moving forward and that his spine is in a straight line with his hindquarters. If your horse is going more sideways and not forward, you will lose that forward momentum. This will result in your horse getting tangled up in his feet and stepping over himself.

Exercise #4: Circle Bends and Counter Bends

                This exercise helps to improve your horse’s connection with his hindquarters and help to be suppler in his bends. Just like the turn on the forehand, you will be asking your horse to bend in the opposite direction that he will be turning. By doing this, your horse will learn how to turn from his shoulders instead of following his nose. This results in teaching your horse to expand his suppleness and carry the power in his backside. You can practice this exercise each time you ride. Just take a few minutes and run your horse through some counter bends.

                Step 1: Take your horse to the center of the arena

Step 2: Use your left rein and gently pull straight back while you have your horse bend around your left leg. The left rein is pulled to gently bend the horse’s spine.

Step 3: Apply pressure with your left leg just behind the girth. This will help to push your horse to the right, for a right turn, while his head is bending left.

Step 4: While your left leg is aiding pressure, use your right rein to aid your horse to turn his body right. This will force him to lead/turn with his shoulder instead of his head.

                Make sure you practice this exercise on both the left and right side. Having your horse practice on each side will help to stretch his muscles and make him suppler on each side. The suppler your horse is, the less amount of muscles stress your horse will have!

Exercise #5: Circle Spirals

                Riding in a spiral pattern is a great way to get more control over your horse’s hindquarters. The smaller the circle, the more backside control is required. This exercise requires you to ride in circles and do a spiral pattern from circle to circle and the circle size usually decreases from circle to circle. This exercise teaches your horse to change his balance and body motion as the circle patterns get smaller.  By spiraling inward and asking your horse to keep the same bend and rhythm, your horse will have to adjust and increase the bend in his backside to stay in a comfortable balance. This results in your horse achieving the proper collected riding frame!

Step 1: Place an object in the center of the arena. This can be a block, a cone, or anything that can be used as a visual marker.

Step 2: Begin with a large circle going around your visual marker.

Step 3: After each lap of the circle, spiral inward and make a smaller circle.

Step 4: After each lap, make the circle pattern smaller and smaller.

Step 5: Use your body rhythm to keep your horse going at the same speed as your circles get smaller.  

Step 6: Once you have made it to the center, continue and spiral back out. You want to make sure that each lap of the circle gets bigger and bigger as you make your way to where you started.

                Make sure that you are use your outside rein and leg to push your horse laterally from circle to circle. Don’t rely on the inside rein to steer your horse into the smaller circle. You also want to make sure that your horse doesn’t slow his pace down as your circles get smaller. If your horse slows down, he will lose that collected momentum in his hindquarters and will lose the correct bend that he needs to achieve his collected frame.

                Dressage is all about teaching your horse to move forward in a relaxed/supple way and to achieve the perfect rider- to- horse connection. By using these exercises, they will help both you and your horse to think about bend/form and the direction of the motion. Once you and your horse are aware of the different ways to bend and move collectedly, you can then go on to achieve that connection that needs to be established. Check out SaddleOnline today for all your Dressage needs!