Training in the Right Way: Dressage Terminology and Why it is Important

This week’s article discusses dressage terminology and why it is an integral part of learning and training in the right way.

I travel a great deal to teach clinics. No matter where I go I teach riders that have quite a bit of education and riders that are new to the discipline of dressage. Regardless of which group the rider fits into, I find that teaching the student to use the terms and definitions of dressage training to be absolutely necessary in conveying knowledge about training. Making certain the riders have a working understanding of the terminology of dressage training is consistently my top priority in teaching. This is because it is what allows us to identify and improve the pair’s challenges instead of just blaming the rider or the horse for the things they are not doing “in the right way.”

There are three reasons that this is critically important:

1. In order for a rider to try to produce a specific effect, the rider must understand the deeper nuance of what I mean when I use a relatively brief specific word or phrase. Particularly, they must understand that the term that I use encompasses a certain quality and set of aids to create the right result. As an example, if I say the horse needs to be more forward, the rider needs to understand that the horse’s hind legs are not moving enough in the direction of the bit, not that the horse needs to go faster. Another example is the word enough, which is critical in the understanding of the training process. The horse never needs to be absolutely as supple as possible, or always in the perfect connection, or the most extremely forward as possible. He just needs enough of these qualities for him to do the exercise we are requiring him to do at that specific time. A training level horse only needs to be supple enough to trot a 20m circle with the same amount of bend as the arc of the circle at Training level; he does not need to be so supple that he folds up like a napkin.

2. Correct dressage terminology that describes good training is emotionless, it simply explains what qualities are and are not present in that moment of training. In comparison, if you think of many of the common (but often inaccurate) words and phrases used describe things that are going wrong in the training they are quite negative: “He’s not listening,” for example. In that case, what the rider is experiencing is often not the same thing as a person ignoring or dismissing their opinion. What they are experiencing is that the horse is “not on the aids,” which is ultimately the rider’s responsibility, not the horse’s. Describing things inaccurately with a negative connotation often results in more emotionally charged — and less effective — training.

It benefits the rider to understand what’s objectively happening so that they can adjust the training accordingly. Using appropriate terminology allows for this.In a similar vein, it’s key to note that the horse’s behavior and reactions in training and competition are ALWAYS the rider’s responsibility. That does not mean the same thing as the rider’s fault. It is not the rider’s fault if the horse comes off the aids when something very unexpected and scary happens, such as a pair of fighter jets flying low down into the valley that the horse show is in (this has, in fact, happened to me and it was instant pandemonium). It is the rider’s responsibility, however, to be riding the horse in a way that keeps the horse on the aids before this occurrence and that the rider knows how to put them back on the aids right afterward. Another example is when the trainer says “the horse needs to be more forward” it is the rider’s responsibility to create the right reaction by using the aids that produce the intended result of sending the horse’s hind legs more in the direction of the bit (more energy out the front), and not to kick the horse and hit it with the whip so hard that it bucks and takes off (not forward, but definitely a reaction to the aids given). This again highlights why proper, emotionless terminology is helpful.

Many times “fast” is misunderstood to be “forward.”

Forward is specifically concerned with the hindlegs moving in the direction of “the front”, particularly in the direction of the bit.

3. Using the terms that are widely understood amongst highly competent trainers allows the student to recognize excellent training when they hear these terms used by other trainers. Your trainer should not be using a made up term to describe something in their training process instead of using the widely accepted vocabulary. The exceptions for this would be when the term is meant in humor or is being used to help explain the more widely accepted vocabulary. When a trainer says the horse is “curling” they ought to say the horse is “behind the vertical” but they could describe the position of the horse’s neck when it is behind the vertical as “curling like a shrimp’s tail,” to help the rider better understand what “behind the vertical” translates into.

In consideration of the above, here are some examples of words and phrases that are often used and what terms should be used instead, or what the actual issue is that needs addressed, in order to improve the quality of training and understanding between the trainer and rider and, ultimately, between the rider and the horse.

  • He’s not listening/He’s dull = he’s not on the aids. The horse is not enough in submission to the rider’s aids which means that you know he is not supple enough, at the very least.
  • He’s lazy = He’s behind the leg and/or not forward enough.
  • He’s curling = He’s behind the vertical/dropping the bit. This can be caused by multiple things that you will have to determine in order to improve the situation.
  • He’s too strong = He is either not supple enough and/or not enough in the right connection.
  • He’s anticipating = He is not on the aids. The horse has learned, through repetition, that this exercise usually occurs at this time or place in the training or test and he is trying to do it to please you. If he is succeeding in performing the unasked for exercise, he is not on the aids.
  • He only likes to bend to the right (or left, doesn’t matter) = He’s not supple enough (are you seeing a pattern regarding how often a lack of suppleness is the issue?). The horse’s hollow in the direction he easily bends his neck toward and long on the side he is more difficult to bend toward. This is a normal condition that all horses have some degree of and can be addressed through suppling exercises in proper training.

This horse is clearly “not on the aids”. It is also because the rider (me) is doing nothing about it in the moment.

Having discussed above some of the more commonly used, problematic terms and phrases that often lead to incorrect thinking within the training process, I would like to take a moment to note a very important, correct way of thinking that you should be incorporating into your training: “He (or she) needs to be ___________.”

This must be part of your thinking. Good training identifies what needs to be adjusted to improve the overall quality of the exercise, movement, gait, etc. Instead of saying your horse is not “not listening,” you should replace it with “he needs to be more on the aids.” This gives you something to change and, if you have good training, you will have learned what exercises generally put horses more “on the aids.” In contrast, if you approach from the vantage point that your horse “is not listening,” psychologically you are handing over all the responsibility and all the power in the situation to him because if he is not listening, you can’t fix it because he’s not listening. But, if he is not on the aids, there are things that you can do to put him more on the aids.

Talent and feel can only get you so far. Knowing and understanding the correct terminology in dressage is vital to effectively training in the right way as utilizing these terms and the definitions/meanings behind them allows you to effectually communicate with your teacher, your student, your horse, and other riders, while enhancing your own training knowledge. It’s knowledge of the system and process that makes success possible. Let’s face it, not every horse and rider combination will be Grand Prix competitors. However, every student of dressage can most certainly learn the terms, concepts, and definitions behind the language of the discipline and use it to their advantage while in the saddle.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.