Training in the Right Way: What to Look for in a Dressage Horse, Part 4 — Exercises for the Imperfect Horse

This final installment of the four-part series on choosing a dressage horse takes a closer look at how specific dressage exercises can be used to improve the ride-ability of a less-than-perfect horse.

Catch up on the first, second, and third parts of this series. 

Dressage training is supposed to be the process of training ANY horse to be a better riding horse. The more the horse learns, in theory, the easier it is to communicate with and therefore complete more complex tasks with. Although competition dressage training often is more focused on training for the dressage test, that is not what the original intention (and original judging requirements) were for competitive dressage. Initially, it was designed to give riders and trainers a way to determine how their training measured up to the theoretical ideal of the training process. That said, it is critically important to understand the meanings and reasons for some of the terms we use to describe dressage training and what to look for when observing training and competition (and videos and photos), regardless of whether you intend to compete or just train your horse to be a better whatever you do with him. That, ultimately, is the main purpose of my articles. To provide education and knowledge for riders to understand and improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training is supposed to be. While there will always be some differences in practice and theory, good horse training is always recognizable to the educated eye. That said, it absolutely is necessary that we remember and understand that limited knowledge is limited judgment.

Dressage is for all horses but not all horses are for dressage.

Apollo, a 14.3 hh quarter horse schooling Spanish Trot to develop cadence and suppleness. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson

In this series, we have been discussing what to look for in your next dressage horse. The main aspects to consider when choosing your dressage horse are conformation, movement, and temperament. The past three articles have focused on the specifics of what to look for in these areas when choosing a horse. However, in this article we focus on what you can do if you already have a horse that does not have perfect conformation or perfect movement. In those instances especially, temperament and “trainability” can be the mitigating factor for less-than-perfect horses to be trained as dressage horses. Excellent dressage training can still help a horse that is not suitable for dressage to be a better riding horse, and sometimes it can make that horse a competitive dressage horse.

In consideration of that, we should ask what qualities are necessary for a top-level dressage horse?

  • Excellent conformation
  • Top-quality movement
  • A temperament that allows the horse to work with humans
  • Good energy (enjoys exercise)
  • Intelligence (enough to be trained)

A horse with an excellent temperament shows an interest in people and a willingness to engage. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Before we dive into how the training process can improve on a less than perfect horse, let’s look more closely at the qualities specific to temperament mentioned above.

The horse wants to work with humans. Any horse that enjoys human companionship (for reasons other than eating) will be easier to train than one that does not. Horses that like to hang around humans, seek attention, are aware of where people are in the space around them, and are easy to lead and move around from cues on the ground, will be easier to train under saddle. Horses that turn away from approaching humans, lash out at people, resist cues to lead, and step away from the person on the ground will be harder to train. This is one area that can often be improved with proper handling and ground training. However, if all that is in place, and your horse is still hard to be around in the barn and leading, he will certainly be hard to ride and train from the saddle. We actually have a saying that “dressage starts in the stall.” That phrase embodies those concepts.

The horse enjoys exercise (has energy). In order to be an athlete (regardless of species) one must enjoy expending energy. Never once was there a Kentucky Derby winner that didn’t love to run as fast as possible. Nor has there ever been a human Olympic athlete that does not enjoy exercise. The same holds true for dressage horses. We have already discussed in a previous article what constitutes athleticism in a dressage horse. In this context we are concerned with whether the horse enjoys (at least enough) using his body in motion to actually do the things his body is capable of. There are plenty of horses out there that have all desire to perform athletically but have been ridden in a way that took this desire away. And there are plenty of horses that have the desire and haven’t been trained to use it constructively under human guidance. And then there are horses who just would rather stick to walking and halting. Excellent dressage training can improve all of these problems, but the only one it cannot completely eradicate is the horse that has no desire to expend energy (the walk-halt horse).

The horse shows Intelligence. Intelligence is inherent. Either you have enough of it to learn the things you need to learn, or you don’t. Education is a variable that can be increased, but education is dependent on a certain level of mental dexterity to be successful. This is true for all creatures and humans. What this means is that you can increase the education of a horse, but you cannot increase his intelligence. The more the horse learns, the smarter he seems, but he has to have enough intelligence to learn what he is taught. This is a hard thing to judge sometimes, especially when you just meet an animal. Often intelligence in a young or lesser trained horse can look like misbehavior. This makes judging temperament in a horse you barely know quite challenging. Look for an inquisitive animal that wants to engage with you and tries to do the things you ask him to do when you are handling him. These behaviors will give you insight into the horse’s intelligence.

Sidenote: Most horses that naturally have no desire to expend energy are often also not very smart. They may be very sweet and kind, but that, in the absence of intelligence and desire to expend energy, will not help you make a dressage horse.

If you are choosing a dressage horse, it is critical that your horse has these qualities of temperament. Sometimes you can develop some of these qualities in a horse that does not immediately present them to you. But, if you can develop them, it means these qualities were inherent and already existed in the animal and you brought them to the surface through training. Otherwise, it won’t matter how beautifully put together the conformation is, or how amazing the gaits are, if the temperament will not allow you to train your horse. Essentially though, if you have a horse already that is not very well put together (but is not so poorly put together that it is not sound and therefore can be ridden) but he has three distinct gaits that look like a walk, a trot, and a canter, and he loves to work, is super smart, and likes spending time with you, you should be able to overcome many of his physical faults with really good training.

There are specific exercises that can improve a horse’s physical capabilities if he has a trainable temperament. The following are some of those exercises that can help a mentally trainable horse overcome some not too severe conformational and movement problems. As always, these exercises only work when they are being done in the right way. Having a full working understanding of them is completely necessary for them to work. If you do not know how to train these exercises, you have to find someone who does, that has examples of their work (trained horses already doing the exercises), to help you.

*Before we discuss the exercises, it is important that anyone reading beyond this point absolutely and fully understands that the process of training the horse to do these exercises is what makes the horse better, NOT doing them the way you would expect a fully trained, highly competent, upper-level horse to do them. For example, there is an enormous difference between INTRODUCING and DEVELOPING the piaffe and the finished product. If you do not know the difference between how to start the exercise and producing the final product, then you do not know how to train the exercise and should not attempt it.

Spanish Walk: Developing Spanish walk can loosen up a horse with upright or stiff shoulders. It also helps a horse with a long back develop a sense of how to shift weight to the hind legs. Spanish walk can improve the horse’s ability to use his body in a more athletic way when his conformation takes away the freedom of movement in the walk. This exercise is not seen in dressage tests as it has very little forward energy and is therefore defined as a trick instead of an exercise. I often hear people say that you shouldn’t teach Spanish walk because the horse might do it in the test. I have two responses to that. 1) When you teach Spanish walk, you do it from an AID (like all the other things we teach horses to do and they sometimes do without us asking), AND if you know how to teach Spanish walk, you also know the AID to stop it…. 2) Of all the things that can go wrong in a dressage test, Spanish walk is the least my concerns. I have never lost points for a little accidental Spanish walk. I have lost many points over the years for flying changes in the wrong places. But I still train horses to do those.

Dio performing Spanish walk. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Spanish Trot: You can only train Spanish trot if you have trained Spanish walk first. This exercise does the same things as Spanish walk with the addition of teaching the horse about cadence and “airtime.” A horse with a short, earthbound trot, can develop a good trot through the use of this exercise. As with Spanish walk, there is an AID for this, and an AID to turn it off. Therefore, the horse must be taught both of these aids to get the full effect of the exercise. Also, as with Spanish walk, this movement is never seen in a dressage test for the same reasons. Over time, the trainer adds more impulsion within the steps of Spanish trot, and under proper training, the horse can develop both a passage, and a collected trot. These two exercises will help develop a medium or extended trot.

Dio in Spanish trot. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Piaffe/Halt/Reinback: These three exercises have closely related effects on the horse (when ridden in the right way). They all assist the horse in learning collection. For horses that have long backs, and/or have slow or “pushing” hind-legs, the process of properly teaching these exercises (not just trying to do them) will help the horse learn to bring the hind-leg more under the rider’s weight. It will also help the horse learn to shift his weight to the hind-legs.

Double Smart Money (RR Moondog), an AQHA gelding with a typical quarter horse trot, in cadenced trot (schooling passage). Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Lateral work: Honestly, lateral work is for ALL horses to become more supple, and more in collection. Horses who are long backed, have slow hind-legs or pushing hind-legs, can be gently transformed with good (well-trained and well-ridden lateral work. Horses that are inherently stiff, or stiff from incorrect training, need lateral work to help them improve their athletic ability and therefore the quality of their gaits.

Hes a Hollywood Jac in a leg yield. Photo (c) Morgane Schmidt.

Counter Canter: This exercise is also really necessary for all horses. However, horses that have a four-beat canter, or very little air-time in the canter, will improve markedly as they become proficient in counter-canter. This exercise is HARD for a horse with these problems in the canter. Therefore, it will take a lot of patience and cheer-leading from the rider to get the horse to develop this ability. This is a good moment to point out that the “process” of training the exercise so that the horse develops the balance, muscle, and understanding of (and therefore confidence in) the exercise is much more important than how long the horse can sustain the exercise. I feel like this is may be the subject of a future article.

Stretching: This is another exercise that really all horses need to be proficient in. A horse with a short neck, or a long or low back, or that generally appears stiff in its body and gaits, really needs to learn to stretch his neck down, in the contact, so his nose is about fetlock height. This is first taught in the walk, and then in the trot. This will help the horse raise his back and swing more through his body, making him more supple and improving all three gaits. Do NOT ride a horse like this in the canter. The danger of the unbalanced or unathletic horse tripping and having a rotational fall is too great. The canter will benefit from the work in the walk and the trot, and the other exercises already mentioned.

For Willie beginning a stretchy trot. Photo (c) Morgane Schmidt.

Because dressage training is meant to improve all horses, and not just be the territory of the ultra-talented athletes, each exercise within the discipline has been developed over centuries to help horses be better riding horses, regardless of the flaws they may be starting out with. Some flaws in conformation and movement can be fairly easily, and quickly, overcome with good training. Some, however, require more knowledge and skill to improve. This is where finding an appropriate trainer to help guide you and your horse is especially helpful; remember, just because someone is a gifted rider, does not mean that they have the necessary knowledge and skill to systematically train a horse.

Certainly— in a perfect world where budgets and time are unlimited—when you are in the process of actively choosing a horse specifically for dressage, you should adhere as closely as possible to the aforementioned traits indicative of a horse that is “built for the job.” This will undoubtably make training a bit (though how much is debatable) easier. That being said, if you already have a horse you enjoy, and you want to do dressage with him, the systematic training that is dressage is made up of exercises that can help overcome many common conformation and movement problems provided that the horse has a good enough temperament. In that scenario, you should seek out a knowledgeable trainer to assist you in the process. You may very well be surprised just how far you and your horse can go with excellent help.

Remember: Limited knowledge is limited judgment.

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.