Training in the Right Way: 12 Dressage Exercises and Their Training Purposes

“What almost everyone has forgotten, or may have never learned, is that dressage is a training system, based on the European cultures and horse types of antiquity, and it was created over centuries to develop horses for war and for ceremonial purposes.”

 This week’s article takes a look at the training purpose behind specific dressage exercises and how they are meant to aid in the overall development of the horse.

When asked, most horse people will say that dressage is an equestrian sport (the one where they don’t jump). Some will say it’s a classical art (ironically, they’re referring to the version where they DO jump). What almost everyone has forgotten, or may have never learned, is that dressage is a training system, based on the European cultures and horse types of antiquity, and it was created over centuries to develop horses for war and for ceremonial purposes. You know — back when we didn’t have fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, and fighting vehicles, or fancy luxury cars and sports cars. And when people relied on horses for transportation and a galloping horse was the fastest a human could go. This was not all that long ago. History buffs will tell us that horses were still in use as recently as the Korean War (more often as draft animals carrying ammunition – think Sergeant Reckless) but they were both fighting partners and draft animals in World War II. There’s a lot to unpack there about how we got to our current Euro-centric breeding and the development of the sport horse as we know it today, but for the purposes of this article, we are going to consider why we do the things we do in dressage.

When I teach a new student, I often find that they have been led to believe that dressage exercises are “for the test,” and that each level is based on the completion of the last level. And also, of course, that not all horses can be Grand Prix horses.

These statements are all true, but they are not all entirely correct. Each of the exercises that you find in competitive dressage tests actually are exercises that teach the horse something about being ridden by a human. And, often, these exercises teach a human something about riding a horse. This is, in fact, what dressage actually is: a system to train people to ride horses and horses to be ridden by people. And each exercise is a building block for these end results. By the way, this is not my opinion. This is actually historical information.

Dressage training is a systematic approach to teaching horses how to balance under, and respond to the aids of, a human sitting on their back.

  • A dressage test is meant to be the opportunity for a rider/trainer to receive feedback on the quality of their training.
  • The judge is trained to watch each movement in the test and score it on its resemblance to the ideal production of that exercise.
  • This ideal is derived from the usefulness of the way the exercise is being ridden/presented.
  • Usefulness is based on whether, when it is ridden in that way, the horse is getting the muscle-building/suppling/educational benefits from the exercise.

So essentially, these exercises work similarly to stretching and strengthening exercises that human athletes use to become stronger, fitter, more supple and more proficient in their preferred activities and sports. Consider squats or push-ups or weightlifting. The “correct” form for each of these exercises is based on strengthening specific muscle groups. The same goes for stretches. The correct form for those is based on suppling specific muscle groups. In dressage, the exercises are judged based on whether the exercises are being performed in a way that the horse is being developed into a stronger, better balanced, more supple athlete. Yes, I know it doesn’t always work this way — I’m talking about what is supposed to be occurring.

School figures from “The Maneige Royal” by Antoine de Pluvinel published in 1626. Facsimile published in English translation by J. A. Allen in 1989 and 2010. 

To illustrate the above points, I’ve selected some exercises from the USEF and FEI dressage tests to discuss. Just because they are not listed here does not mean that other exercises do not have purpose too.

1. Circles are suppling exercises. They require the horse to bend through its whole body and step toward its midline with its inside hind leg. The bigger the circle, the easier the suppling exercise because less bend and throughness are required. The smaller circles are more advanced because they require more suppleness and balance to perform. Large circles help younger and less trained horses develop their balance under a rider because there is one continuous line of travel. Straight lines punctuated by corners naturally cause changes in balance each time the horse transitions from one to the other. The reason circles are judged on roundness and size is that the horse benefits from training on a circle when the line of travel is continuously the same throughout the circle. Being able to perform the correct size in the test helps to prove that the horse is supple and balanced enough for that level.

Eskandar schooling at Training Level on the 20m circle. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

2. Corners are meant to be ridden through in a similar fashion to how one rides a circle. The depth of the corner directly correlates with the level of training. The smaller the circle that the horse can perform, the deeper one may ride into the corner. Therefore, the arc of both corners and circles at any given level will be similar, but when competing one must show a difference between them. Corners therefore have a suppling component but they are also valuable as a re-balancing exercise. As the horse moves up through the levels, corners are also a collecting exercise. The judge is looking for the rider to use the corner as a place to push the horse through and maybe up-hill. They also want to see the horse turning on the aids of the rider not just managing to avoid hitting the fence in front of them.

3. Straight lines are areas where we develop impulsion. Sometimes with a specific impulsion building exercise, sometimes just adding a little more impulsion because we have an open space ahead of us. Sometimes it’s more a matter of needing a long line to perform an exercise that requires more impulsion than can be achieved on a short line (think tempi-changes). Being able to ride a straight line shows the judge that the horse is responding to both sides of the rider’s aids (rein aids and legs aids) equally well.When riding down the center line, you are supposed to be proving that you can steer well-enough to not weave all over the middle of the ring and that your horse is supple enough to not have its haunches or shoulder permanently to the left or right of your line of travel. When you are being judged on a diagonal line, you are being judged for the performance of the exercise on that line as well as the line itself. At the upper FEI levels, you start performing exercises on the centerline as well.

4. Lengthenings (all types) are impulsion building exercises. Lengthening the horse’s stride teaches the horse to swing the hind leg under and push with more power and therefore elevation. Impulsion is a necessary building block of collection. Without the strength and power that lengthenings develop, sustained collection is not possible.What I mean by “all types” is that the development of impulsion starts with lengthening (First Level) and proceeds through medium gaits (Second Level) and then we add extended gaits at Third Level. The differences between these different types of lengthening is in the amount of impulsion and, therefore, collection (elevation) the horse shows.

Lengthening must be performed simply not on the forehand and, when proficient, start to show more “lift” of the front end. Medium gaits are clearly “up-hill” and extended gaits are mediums but with more elevation, longer strides, more “air-time” and generally more power. Walk lengthening (all types) technically do not increase impulsion because there is no “air-time” in the walk, but it has a similar effect on the gait and also shows the horse’s ability to stretch the topline and the lengthen the stride. This is absolutely a necessary part of proving the correct contact and suppleness is present in all aspects of the training.

5. Leg yield is the first exercise where a horse must cross its legs and move sideways from one of the rider’s legs. There is no added bend in leg yield. The horse must appear similar in its positioning as on a straight line. The reason (essentially) no bend is required is because going sideways with a bend creates a degree of collection. Leg yield is meant to be THE FIRST lateral exercise the horse learns because it is EASIER for them to step sideways with no collection. The amount of bend, as on a straight line, is only enough that the rider and the horse are aware of which aids are on “the inside” of the bend and which aids are on the “outside” of the bend. Hence the bend is barely visible.

Collection cannot be achieved without suppleness. Leg yielding is an entry-level suppling exercise, second to the circle. When a horse crosses it hind legs, he loosens and stretches the muscles in his hind-quarters and lower back. The judge will want to see the clear crossing of the hind leg (and in leg yield, therefore the front leg) and control of the line (no weaving or missing the start or end point). The angle of the leg yield is derived from the positioning the horse needs to be become more supple. Too much angle can potentially be injurious. Too little angle has little to no effect on the training.

Chopard Schooling a leg yield before a First Level Test. Photo (c)

6. Shoulder in is the next suppling exercise after leg yield. It is more complex lateral movement than leg yield because it requires more bending through the horse’s body. This starts to develop collection. This is the first exercise that the horse is required to respond to bilateral active aids (inside leg and outside rein), in leg yield the primary active aid is just inside leg (the other aids are present and help guide the horse but are not the aids creating the exercise). The angle and bend of the shoulder in are clearly illustrated and discussed in multiple texts and the USEF rulebook, so I will be brief: the shoulder in is not just a leg yield on the wall with the shoulders to the inside and it is not just get the shoulders in as far as possible. It works to develop suppleness and collection because the horse brings the shoulders over the inside hindleg, just enough to elevate his forehand slightly. The angle is just so that the outside front leg and the inside hindleg are on the same line. The bend in the neck and back are what makes it not a leg yield.

7. Haunches in is also a suppling and collecting exercise. It is trained after shoulder in because it is created with a more complex combination of 3 active aids (inside rein, inside leg, outside leg). This is the first exercise where the horse must step his hind leg through to the midline AND directly into the bit. The outside hind leg of the horse should travel on the same line as the inside front leg and the horse should be bent in the direction of that line.Therefore, haunches in must show bend to not be a leg yield and it is not simply “shove the haunches in as far as possible.” Again, the angle is judged based on that being where the horse has the best opportunity to develop suppleness and collection. Too much or too little of these qualities are only based on the loss of the effect of the strengthening, balancing and suppleness that can be derived from the exercise. That said, there are reasons to increase and decrease bend and angle in any exercise. But there is always a line where it is simply way too much or way too little.

8. Half pass is a collection exercise. It is the culmination of the previous lateral exercises and cannot be trained until the horse is proficient in the previous three lateral movements. This is because it combines the aids and positioning of all three in to one complex exercise. Half-pass must show (in its proficient form) an uphill tendency. It is proof of the suppleness, balance, and strengthening that the other three exercises created. Again, the angle and appearance of the exercise has been written about in many places, so I won’t get into great detail here. The main point to remember about the half-pass is that the outside hindleg is the hindleg the pushes through to the midline and it travels on the same line as the inside front leg with the horse bent in the direction of travel, across a diagonal line. The more the bend and the angle are increased, the exercise becomes significantly harder for the horse to perform.

9. Reinback is one of the few exercises that absolutely cannot be covered for by talent. It is only created through training and a good rein back can only be performed when all the other pieces are properly developed. The rein back is not simply going backwards. The rein back must be performed in an up-hill tendency, at a walk speed, in a TWO-BEAT rhythm, of diagonal pairs being lifted and set down at the same time for the prescribed number of steps.Teaching reinback helps develop suppleness, but it is primarily a collecting exercise. The finished result proves that all the preparatory work has been completed and the horse is supple enough and collected enough to perform it. Horses that are behind the vertical, on the forehand, resisting, or running backwards/rearing in the reinback are not supple and therefore also not in collection. We do not expect the perfect reinback on the first try (of course), but we use it to develop the qualities that it produces. The proof of the training is in the end-product.

10. Flying changes, believe it or not, are not just a nifty way of getting to the other lead without stopping the canter. Although they do that for sure. Flying changes, when they are performed to the standards of being up-hill, forward, through, and clean, actually improve the quality of the canter. The process of training in preparation for the flying changes (with knowledge and understanding of what exercises must be taught first, and why, and how much) helps the horse develop more collection, suppleness, throughness, impulsion, and balance. This develops a better canter, but once the horse has learned the changes themselves, the canter quality increases and becomes even more uphill, forward, through, and supple. I mean, if it is done right that is.

11. Piaffe is one of my favorite exercises to teach to riders and to horses. It has a very special place in the training for both. And it is often very misunderstood. The piaffe that we see in Grand Prix arena or being presented in performances in the classical dressage schools of Europe is the end product (Keep this in mind). It is the result of years of work. When we talk about teaching the horse to piaffe (in the right way), we are not expecting that degree of collection and balance as is required to do it in place (read that last bit again).The finished piaffe is proof that all the other work was done but the process of teaching the piaffe is about teaching the horse 2 things:

  • What the whip is actually for (Hint: it isn’t supposed to be punishment, it is supposed to be an aid to cue a specific response from the hindleg) and therefore the correct reaction to it.
  • How to make the hindlegs more active

Teaching the beginning aspects of piaffe starts long before we expect the horse to be proficient in it because we need the understanding it develops to train many other exercises. Again, knowledge of the correct preparation and development BEFORE starting to teach piaffe is critical for the horse’s understanding, and development in the exercise. The main problems we see in piaffe in competitive horses is that it gets introduced too late, and too much force is applied to try to create it.

Well Done Schooling the piaffe. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

12. Passage also has a value outside of being a fancy trot. Passage, like piaffe, is developed very slowly, over time, with the knowledge and understanding of what the horse must learn first in order to benefit from this exercise. It also has its own special purpose. Teaching passage to the horse, teaches the horse cadence. The elevation and air-time that is the hallmark of finished passage is basically the development of cadence. We need some cadence in extended trot and trot half-pass as cadence (air-time) is one of the hallmarks of collection. Passage in its finished form is not an exercise that you start training suddenly one day. Much like piaffe, it is slowly developed over many years and the process of this slow development is what teaches the horse what he needs to learn from it. 

Hopefully what this article has helped highlight is that knowledge of the training process and how the exercises in dressage are meant to develop the horse’s education and understanding is critical to training an animal to its greatest potential. The exercises that are judged in dressage tests are meant to be judged based on the criteria developed around what the exercise is supposed to teach the animal and what form of the exercise will have the best effect on that animal’s education. Misunderstanding the purpose of the exercise, the process required to get the animal ready for the exercise, or simply being too rushed or too delayed in the process leads to problems in the training.

Ultimately, it is key to bear in mind that the exercises themselves are only as educational or as destructive to the horse’s mind and body as the manner in which they are practiced. In this day and age, we have become more and more divided on dressage training. This is unfortunate as good training lies in the middle of the two ends of the spectrum; continuing to educate oneself is critical to gaining the appropriate knowledge necessary to not only train in the right way, but to also recognize training that’s been done in the right way. After all, limited knowledge means limited judgement.

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.