The last century has been a time of change for the horse’s role with humanity. They went from being the backbone of society to being an object of hobby, sport, and even status. That’s not to say horses don’t still serve a purpose. Quite the opposite! During these times, they give us their healing presence and friendship. We see people’s lives change because of horses, and some jobs are still left to the horse over more modern technology.
So what practicality does the artistic expression of dressage have? After all, it just looks like the horse is dancing around. Many people don’t realize that dressage simply is a French word for “training.” Dressage was once the foundation to all the disciplines. It was vital for the battlefield, working cattle, and even good basic transportation. It was only later in the 19th and 20th centuries that disciplines started to really split off from each other. Now, many look at dressage as that “fancy” stuff.
That’s not what dressage is about. Dressage’s best human counterpart is gymnastics. Everyone has to do some form of gymnastics at some point in their lives. Have you done push-ups, sit-ups, lunges, and other calisthenics? You’ve done gymnastics! It is still a standard method of physical training some 2500 years (or more) after the Greeks invented it. If you really enjoy gymnastics, you can pursue it as a discipline, as we can see at the Olympics. If you don’t, you still will use it through life to stay fit.
Likewise, every discipline uses dressage. The “fancy” movements where the horse moves sideways are helpful for developing the horse’s maneuverability on the jump course, around barrels, or even on the trails. Through dressage training, the horse should become easier to ride and more controllable with less effort. The rider likewise becomes softer and more at ease with the horse. In the long run, developing the full body of the horse means that there’s less chance of arthritis or injury due to less-than-healthy movement patterns. A good dressage seat also keeps the rider healthier in the saddle longer.
But what if I only want to ride trails?
This is where a lot of people make a big assumption. Riding trails doesn’t require less training of the horse; if anything, it requires more! Your horse has to trust that you’ll keep him or her safe, no matter what you find on the trails. The horse also needs quite a bit of fitness to be able to stand up to several hours of riding. After all, you don’t sit around all day and then go for an 8-hour hike and not expect to be sore, right? Why should the horse be any different?
There are also a number of circumstances that force us as riders to maneuver the horse. For example, if a tree fell on the trail, and the trail itself isn’t wide enough to just turn around, what would you do to get out? Perhaps you could ride a turn on the haunches (pirouette) or turn on the forehand to get out. If your horse notices something but isn’t completely sure if he needs to spook, you can ride shoulder-in or haunches in (travers) past the scary obstacle. The horse does these kinds of movements in the pasture every day, so why not use them?
The whole concern of “on the bit” or “neck frame” also comes into question here. Why is that position so often used in dressage? Here’s a hint: it’s not the position itself. True connection and being “on the bit” comes from relaxation and softness while the horse carries itself. While we don’t have to make the horse hold this frame the whole trail ride, we can find that if the horse is relaxed but carrying itself, it will adopt this posture, though the nose may be a little more ahead of the vertical. Soft, following hands are necessary both for allowing the horse to find whatever position is best for it, and keeping that soft connection with the horse means that when you do need to use the reins, you can do so with subtlety instead of suddenly choking up on the reins and pulling.
What if I really want to ride a different discipline?
Great! Dressage is the foundation to all the other disciplines. As such, in its original form, it is full of variety. Dressage can be used for working cattle, jumping, trail riding, endurance, mounted martial arts, eventing… anything really! An expression of dressage that I personally enjoy is working equitation, which shows how dressage is so useful with common trail obstacles and with working cattle. To me, it is not a separate discipline at all, just a different perspective. There is a rider who competed in the Olympics for Spain in show jumping whose real talent is in dressage; one video showed him ride a Grand Prix pattern and then go straight to an advanced jump course on the same horse! Good dressage can only help your riding in other disciplines, especially if your horse isn’t gifted with perfect conformation or movement.
What if my horse is gaited?
Dressage sees very few gaited horses, which really is a shame. There are many debates between the gaited world and the dressage world on whether they belong together. In my experience, dressage can benefit gaited horses just as much as trotting horses. Dressage can correct rhythm problems in the gaited horse, even in their special gait, through developing suppleness and hindquarter strength. I find that gaited horses trained in dressage tend to be more relaxed about their gaiting and more “in tune” to the seat and finer aids. Lateral work doesn’t harm the gait; if anything, it makes it clearer! Coming “on the bit” helps the gait flow more easily and makes for a smoother ride. There are now more classes for “gaited dressage,” though these haven’t quite taken off like I’d hope. Fortunately, working equitation now has a rule and allowance for gaited horses in their classes.
While dressage looks like “fancy movements,” it has a huge practical impact. Horses and riders that struggle in other areas of their riding can find that good basic (and even intermediate-advanced) dressage can help them immensely in their regular discipline. Riders who “just” want to ride the trails also find that they can ride their horse more easily and really enjoy the trails. The potential for applying dressage to your riding is limitless! There are even “intermediate” disciplines that more blatantly combine dressage with another discipline, like working equitation and prix caprilli. If you have wondered whether dressage can help you and your riding, give it a try. You’ll be so glad you did.