Poor, much-maligned dressage. It’s the very antithesis of everything an endurance rider holds dear. Who wants to celebrate the anality of the quest for the perfect 20-metre circle, when you could be heading down the trail, tackling the terrain and coping with the weather and never being judged on what you’re wearing and how many fussy little braids are in your horse’s mane?
It’s true. Dressage sounds stuffy, boring, and more than a little OCD to lots of people. It’s not just you. I’m an eventer (and a certified coach, for the past 30 years or so), and I get it. I do. Historically, dressage was the part of eventing that you had to suffer through in order to get to the good stuff: the running and jumping, hell-for-leather parts.
But here’s the thing. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that it was the dressage which enabled me to live to see dinner on a cross-country course. And that’s a wee revelation I’d like to share with more endurance riders.
Loosely translated, dressage, after all, means simply, “training”. Think of it as installing some buttons on your horse. Buttons which improve his rideability, and make him a joy to ride instead of a struggle. I don’t know about you, but the longer I am in the saddle on a given day, the more I want my partner to be a pleasure, not a pain in the tuckus!
You can definitely do long-distance riding without knowing a single, solitary thing about dressage. Many do. Thanks to my students, some of whom are competitive endurance riders, I have been dabbling in the sport myself over the past few years — it’s great conditioning for my event horses — and I can generally spot the riders for whom dressage is a foreign concept, as well as the ones who know a bit about it.
Guess which ones generally look like they have a truly rewarding partnership with their horses?
I’m aware that the very reason some people get into endurance is that they can’t stand riding in an enclosed ring. (By the way, you can just as easily incorporate dressage out on the trail — you do not need to be trapped in an arena!) But I’d like to give you some food for thought. Herewith, nine reasons why you should consider incorporating some “stress-age” into your preparation for any long-distance ride, competitive or otherwise.
#1: Comfort: Dressage teaches your horse to willingly accept the guidance, or aids, of your legs, seat, and hands. With dressage training, he learns to push with the big muscles of the hindquarters, lift and engage his ribcage and his spine to better support your weight, and softly accept contact. The end result is a horse who isn’t fighting your hands all the time, doesn’t have his head in your lap or tucked up against his chest in an effort to avoid the contact, and goes willingly forward in a straight line. Bliss!
#2: Communication: A horse who moves ‘from leg to hand’ and softly accepts contact with the bit, is way, way easier to steer and to stop than one who doesn’t understand contact or has learned to avoid it. And one of the aims of more advanced dressage is to teach your horse to position his shoulders, his barrel, and his hindquarters independently, so you can show him exactly where you want all his body parts to be. Imagine how useful that might be on a narrow, cliffside trail or a steep hillside where there’s really only one safe route up or down! Or here’s a more common scenario: How about being able to safely pass other horses on the trail (or have them pass you), without your horse swinging his quarters to kick or crowd your fellow competitors?
#3: Strength: Dressage is largely about teaching your horse to use the ‘engine’ of the hindquarters to propel him forward, and lift and carry himself as well as you. Left to his own devices, your horse carries about 65% of his weight over his front legs, and only 35% over the hind, but shifting that balance back has huge benefits when he’s being asked to carry a rider. A horse who’s pushing from behind also lifts his belly and rounds his spine (again, supporting your weight better), arches his neck and flexes at the poll. He seeks and reaches for the contact instead of doing everything in his power to avoid it. All of this builds essential muscle along his topline, from head to tail, making him stronger and more up to the task of packing you over hill and dale for miles and miles and miles. He’s going to work longer, with less fatigue, than a horse who hasn’t had this strength training.
#4: Balance (His): One of the other building blocks of dressage is teaching your horse to carry himself in balance and with straightness. Horses are ‘sided’, just like humans, and also like us they are inherently lazy: they don’t want to work the weaker side, and given their druthers, will avoid it. But you can gently persuade your horse to make that weaker side just as strong as the one he prefers to use (most horses are left-‘handed’). That means he’s going to push more evenly with both hind legs as he sends both of you forward. And when he’s pushing evenly with the hind end, he’s sparing some concussion on the front legs — and that can mean fewer soundness problems than a horse who’s always pounding his front joints. It also means he’s going to have an easier (and safer) time going up and down hills, and handling slick footing.
#5: Rhythm: In the sport of eventing, you quickly learn that a horse carrying himself at a steady, rhythmic pace fatigues himself far less than one who’s asked to sprint, throttle back, and surge forward again repeatedly. The same is true for endurance horses. Some horses naturally have better rhythm than others, but dressage can improve the awareness of rhythm (which goes hand in hand with balance), so that wherever the trail allows, you can let your horse cruise along at a steady pace, taking as little out of himself as possible.
#6: Balance (Yours): I’ve seen some wonderfully intuitive, balanced riders in the sport of endurance … and I’ve also seen some who ride like a 250 lb. bag of bricks. You are doing your horse no favours if you are not a) over his centre of gravity (which runs more or less through the heart-girth, just behind the scapula and the front legs), with b) your weight evenly distributed on either side of his spine. Leaning in on your turns, collapsing your weight over your active leg, habitually shifting harder into one stirrup than the other … all of these take their toll on your poor horse, who has to constantly compensate for your imbalances. Dressage is wonderful for teaching you to sit in the middle of your horse, distributing your weight accurately and evenly, with your legs underneath you, not out on the dashboard or so far back that you are pivoting on your knees and tipping over your horse’s shoulders. It also strengthens those all-important abdominal core muscles, which enable you to keep that balanced position, longer. (Full-time dressage riders have crazy core.)
#7: Maneuverability: The afore-mentioned ability to position your horse’s shoulders, barrel, and hindquarters independently comes from practising lateral work, the blanket term for any movement where you ask your horse to move sideways. In terms of endurance horses and riders, I don’t really care whether your shoulder-in is textbook perfect and would get a 9 from any dressage judge in town — but I do care that your horse understands the basic principles of moving away from leg pressure. If you ever find yourself having to open and close a gate from horseback, you’ll immediately appreciate that your horse knows enough dressage to maneuver that obstacle — especially if you’re short, like me, and would really rather not dismount!
#8: Cross-Training: Another thing that eventing has taught me is the value of cross-training. Because eventing has three separate phases, there’s always something to work on — and as a result, event horses rarely get ‘sour’, either mentally or physically, unlike horses who are drilled day after day at one thing. Even a long-distance horse can benefit from different kinds of stimulation for his brain and his body. A little ring-work, every now and then, is an excellent complement to those long conditioning rides.
#9: Getting Rid of Nasty Gadgets: Maybe this sounds judgey, but when I see a lot of harsh equipment on a horse — severe bits, tight tie-downs, leverage nosebands, draw reins, and such — I assume that’s a horse (and probably, a rider) who hasn’t had much correct training. I’m not so much of a fanatic that I insist that every horse in the universe should go in a plain loose-ring snaffle — but 90% of dressage (up until the very highest levels, where double bridles are introduced) is done in a basic snaffle, with no martingales, shanked devices, or other gadgets allowed. With correct training, you shouldn’t need any of those. And really, if a relaxed, confident, and happy partnership is what you’re aiming for, wouldn’t you rather put the time in on learning to communicate with each other, rather than using adversarial equipment?
If anything I’ve said here has persuaded you, then consider seeking out some dressage lessons over the winter, while you’re waiting for the competitive season to start up again. Look for a coach who’s not too pedantic and has some understanding of the demands of your sport, and how dressage can be adapted for your needs. You might just find you forge a stronger relationship with your horse in the process. Let me know how it goes!
Karen Briggs is an Equestrian Canada certified Level II coach based in Alliston, Ontario. She has been coaching and training since the mid 1980s (eek!), and is available on a freelance basis to help you get your dressage on — contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s also a freelance journalist who has written for most of the world’s English-language horse magazines at one time or another; her sometimes-NSFW blog is Writing From the Right Side of the Stall.