Dressage? Or Orbitss?

Dressage? Or Orbitss?

Dressage means different things to different people.  Even the word sounds complicated and off-putting to some people!  In simple terms Dressage means to train or “dress” the horse.  For some people, dressage is what you do with your pony only if you don’t want to jump, who would go round and round in circles by choice?!  Maybe it’s time to think again…

Think about what happens when you go to a jumping show. You’ll spend about 3 minutes inside the arena.  Of that time you’ll actually be jumping for about 15 seconds. The rest of the time you’ll be asking your pony to slow down (shorten his stride), speed up (lengthen his stride), turn right and left, keep in canter, change the rein, all in a balanced, even, obedient way.  That is a fairly good description of dressage!

When you take your pony on an outride and he sees a terrible horse–eating plastic bag monster waiting in the hedge to attack him, his easiest escape route is to leap into the middle of the road.  If there is a car coming this isn’t really where you want to be.  If your pony has done some dressage and is a responsive, trained pony you’ll be able to push him back towards the verge of the road with your legs (called leg yielding) and so avoid being squashed.  Most of the gates you come across these days are electric but the common old farm gate is much easier to open and close if your pony will move around the gate listening to your legs (turn on the forehand).

So, dressage is just a way of saying that you’re training your pony to be a safe, easy, responsive ride, making it more pleasant for both of you to have some fun in whatever you do.

How do you start?  In Germany, there was developed (many years ago) something called the Scales of Training.  It begins by saying that the horse must travel forward with energy (impulsion) and go straight.  At the top end of the scale, your horse has developed enough gymnastic ability (power, flexibility, balance) and knowledge to be able to perform the highest movements.  Let’s look at a simpler way to get started…

To start with, work through the word ORBITSS.  Each letter of ORBITSS represents something that you and your pony can work on improving.

Obedience

Obedience starts orbitss off.  Think about what obedience means.  If your Mom asks you to do your homework and you go and do it, you’re being obedient. If you carry on playing your computer game, your not!  Now think about how that works with your pony.  If you close your leg and ask him to step forward, and he does step forward, it’s an obedient response.  If he ignores you and carries on snoozing in the sun he’s disobedient.  Ride your pony around for a few minutes just thinking about whether or not he listens to you.  Ride some transitions (changes of pace, e.g., walk to trot).  Most ponies are either more obedient to going faster or going slower, it’s your job to work out which and try and teach your pony to be obedient to both sets of instructions.  Think about what else you ask your pony – turn right, turn left, circle, go past the gate, go away from his friends, stand still – and work out how obedient or disobedient your pony is?  This is the first step of having a pony who is a pleasure to ride.

Rhythm

Rhythm comes up next.  Which is what?  Listen to your favorite song.  Chances are that in the background there is a drummer who is holding the beat of the song and helping everyone else stay together.  That’s the rhythm.  When your pony walks he moves each leg on its own, so if he walks on a hard surface you’ll hear 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 as each foot touches the ground.  If your pony holds a good rhythm he’ll sound like the drummer – even and regular.  His walk will be 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4.  If his rhythm isn’t as good it’ll be more like 1 – 23412 – – – 341 –  2 – 3  – 4 -1234.  See the difference?  This works for all your pony’s paces, the walk being 4 beat, trot 2 beat, canter 3 beat and gallop 4 beat.  All the winning show jumpers, eventers, even race horses’ can hold a good, even rhythm.  The easiest way for you to start feeling rhythm is to ride to music.  Next time you school your pony, put the radio or a CD on.  The walk, trot and canter all have different rhythms so different music will be better with different paces and some music won’t fit with anything at all!  A word of warning – don’t ride with earphones on, attached to your MP3 player.  If your pony leaps in the air because of a sudden loud noise that you didn’t hear, the chances are that you’ll part company!  Also, the pony often gets the idea, listens to the music and starts holding a better rhythm, give him a chance to try!  Stick to having a portable CD player on the fence or have a car with loud speakers parked by the arena with its door open.  Start the music quite softly and turn the volume up as your pony gets used to it.

Balance

Balance is Orbitss “B”.  Balance is what keeps tight rope walkers on their wire 20m off the ground, and keeps you on your bike.  In dressage, balance is described as the pony having his weight equally carried on all four legs, easier for him to do on his own then when we add tack and a rider.  Remember when you ran down a really steep hill?  The further down the hill you went, the more your body ran away with your legs and the more you felt like you were going to topple over and roll down the hill?  That’s what happens when you lose your balance.  Ponies are normally balanced when they are loose in their paddock.  There is equal weight on all four legs.  When we start training a young pony he often starts off carrying more weight on his front legs then his back legs.  If we train him correctly with the help of dressage he’ll gradually develop the strength to balance himself (and you) on all four legs again.  The advanced pony will end up carrying most of his weight (and yours) on his back legs, making balance easier.  Balance comes from a mixture of all the letters in Orbitss.  Read and work on the others and you’ll find balance will come.  The most common type of lack of balance you’ll feel is when a pony leans on your hands and pulls you forward. This is called being “On the Forehand” and is because the pony’s weight is all being carried on his front legs.  Imagine that you are riding over a frozen lake, a thick layer of ice over the water underneath.  A balanced pony is light on his feet and could canter over the lake without cracking the ice.  An unbalanced pony will be heavy and hard on the ice, crack it and fall through.  The more balanced your pony, the quieter his footfalls sound.  Think especially about the next letter’s word….

Impulsion

Impulsion is a fancy word for energy, power.  A race horse can travel at 35km an hour – he has great propulsion (forward movement) but not always much impulsion.  A highly trained dressage horse can trot on the spot (Piaffe). He has almost no propulsion (forward movement) but a massive amount of impulsion (power).  So, impulsion is not speed.  Impulsion comes from the pony bringing his back legs under his body and using their power to push forward.  A pony with impulsion will normally be balanced and move forwards obediently.  A pony lacking in impulsion will often be on the forehand and lazy about moving forward when you squeeze with your legs, because it’s an effort to drag himself forward with his front legs.  Think of a tractor dragging a plough.  The plough’s energy comes from the front (the tractor) and the sharp front part of the plough’s blades dig into the ground. If your pony’s movement comes from the front legs pulling forward, his nose and shoulders pull down towards the ground and your hands on the reins support him.  Now think of a plane going down the runway to take off.  All the power is from behind, pushing the plane forward and it takes a light touch from the pilot to lift the plane’s nose off the ground.  If this is your pony, his hindquarters are pushing him forward into a light contact with your hands and he finds it easy to do whatever you ask.  When developing impulsion your greatest tool is transitions – changes through walk, trot and canter.  Next time you ride, start by doing 100 quick transitions – all jumbled up, and you’ll find that as he pushes off his hind legs to go faster or swings his hind legs under himself to slow down his impulsion will improve.  It has great effect on obedience and balance to!

Tempo

Tempo comes up next and is often confused with rhythm because the two seem quite similar.  Rhythm was about the beat, Tempo is about the speed of the beat and just to make it take even more thought, tempo is often affected by balance!  Ride a canter to trot transition.  Remember the feeling of having a nice canter then riding to trot only to get a horrible, fast, running trot that you then had to slow down?  What happens there is the pony doesn’t use his hind legs to slow down, he loses his balance and all his weight ends up on his front legs (On the Forehand), so he has to rush with his front legs to stop his nose from ploughing into the ground.  Those horrible running steps are the change of tempo – his trot was really fast and then you slowed it down.  So, a pony with a bad tempo will go faster, slower, faster, slower in a pace.  The time between each beat can stay the same so his rhythm will be even but his speed isn’t.  The most common time for the tempo to change is in the strides following a transition.  Think about counting a beat in your head and often the pony will follow your lead and hold a more even tempo.

Straightness and Suppleness

Straightness and Suppleness come together at the end of Orbitss for the two S’s.  The pony’s two right legs should work on the same track and his left legs should work on their own track.  Think of a train – all the wheels on the right of each carriage follow the same length of steel track, the wheels on the left follow their track.  No matter how the track turns and twists around bends, straights and corners, each set of wheels follow their own track.  If you watch a pony coming toward you only the front legs should be visible.  If the pony is going away, only his hind legs.  Practice riding straight lines in your arena, up the centre, quarter lines or even just a metre or two in from the track.  See if you can keep your pony straight, if he wiggles like a worm or drifts back towards the fence.  Think of your two legs like the walls of a narrow tunnel, if he drifts to the right, the right wall (your right leg) pushes against his side to push him back toward the left.  If he drifts left, your left “wall” does the correcting.

Even on a circle, you want your pony to travel straight, that is, the hind legs following the front, – think of your railway tracks.  The hind legs follow in the same prints left by the front legs, the pony being supple enough in his body to follow the shape of the curve without throwing his shoulders or quarters to the outside.  A thick plank of wood isn’t supple; it has no bend in it to follow the line of a circle.  A dressage whip is supple; it can bend and flex to form a different shape.  Practice riding different circles, serpentines and curves, see if you can feel if his shoulders and quarters are following an even line.  To make it harder, draw a circle in the sand of an arena and try to keep your pony’s right and left legs evenly on either side of the line.

So, next time you ride, think of a letter or two and see if you can work out how well you and your pony are doing.  Once you get an idea of the whole of ORBITSS and can correct some of the weaker parts, you’re on track to ride a good dressage test, or improve your jumping.  Once it’s easy on your pony because you’ve got used to assessing him, get together with some friends and their ponies, swop around and give yourselves 20 min to assess the new pony.  Then compare ideas with his usual rider and see if you all agree.