“A good dressage horse is neither large nor small, can be of any race and have any coat.” George Theodorescu
In choosing a dressage horse, at times personal preferences prevail in judging its physical appearance: some prefer rather athletic horses, some thoroughbreds, some tall horses, and others horses that are not too stout.
Since it is difficult to establish ideal, generally accepted standards, in this chapter I have decided to address the problems of conformation and temperament that can have a certain impact in deciding what horse to use in dressage, and to spend a few words on what should primarily be sought.
The main quality required of a young horse to be used in dressage is balance, what the English call “self-carriage” and the Germans “selbst haltung.” In addition to possessing this quality, the ideal horse should have a long and oblique shoulder, a light and expressive head, calm and trusting eyes, a long neckline with an excellent base oriented upwards, a pronounced withers, muscular quarters, and a correct inclination of the limbs.
Seen in movement, especially during canter, the ideal horse will show a good ability to carry itself, i.e. to maintain balance, with a good use of the quarters.
As concerns the three gaits, it should immediately be stressed that the one which can truly be improved, with very high percentages (up to 400-500%), is certainly the trot, while the canter can only be improved relatively, in my experience by around 20-30%. The walk, on the other hand, can be improved in line with the muscular development of the horse’s back, but can often be subject to “worsening.”
With these premises, in an ideal dressage horse it is thus necessary principally to discern self-carriage, the quality of the canter and walk, and the regularity of the trot. If in addition to all of this, the horse also has a long suspension time and a great engagement of the quarters in the trot, the horse is potentially very suited for dressage.
Considering this introduction, we will now review the principal defects in conformation and temperament that must be taken into consideration at the moment of choosing a horse to be trained for dressage.
Horse breeding has undergone significant improvement in quality terms over the past 20-25 years, and in general, that significant progress has been seen a bit all around the world, with high points in countries where breeding has always been given great importance, such as The Netherlands, and Germany in particular, and recently Denmark and also Italy.
That said, a horse with no defects does not exist, or it is very rare for one to exist. The person who decides to train a dressage horse would be happy to purchase a perfect horse, but it is also true that it is very difficult to find a specimen of that sort.
A good dressage rider and their trainer should be able to recognize the potential of a horse at the time of purchase and then, through correct and systematic work, be able to develop it to the maximum.
This chapter also seeks to help understand how and to what extent defects in conformation and temperament of a horse can be accepted and potentially eliminated.
It should immediately be stressed that the ideal would be to train a horse without these problems from the beginning, since resolving or mitigating defects of temperament and conformation require considerable experience on the rider’s part, that can be acquired only by training many different horses over a considerable period of time.
It is also necessary to realize that, although the training of each subject is in a certain sense different from that of other horses, in terms of methods used, and thus has “individual” characteristics, it is also indisputable that in general terms, the methods that can be applied are always those described in this book. However, there are particular tactics that can certainly be useful in the case of horses with a difficult temperament or with problems of conformation. This does not mean that the standard training is to be abandoned to make room for other methods, but rather that these tactics can supplement the basic system that is valid for almost all horses.
Each horse is born with its own temperament and physical conformation.
Both of these aspects can be improved with proper training and good treatment in the stable, so as to optimize and promote in the horse the qualities necessary for the final purpose to which it is destined. Naturally, the exact opposite can also occur if the horse is subjected to coercive methods in both the stable and during training.
The defects that a horse has from the time of birth or acquires due to inexperienced or bad training, especially in the initial breaking in phase, are very difficult to correct. Experience teaches us that even after patient and difficult retraining, those defects tend to reappear when an opportunity arises. Let us examine some of these defects:
- Nervous horses: these horses have the tendency to run away in the event of abnormal situations, strange sounds, and rapid movement by people, objects, or flags. This type of horse can be calmed down only with very careful work and great patience. The situation is even more complex if the rider becomes nervous, for example due to objects or animals that move around on the ground. Experience teaches us that horses with these characteristics are unlikely to lose all of their nervousness, forcing the rider also to accept the intrinsic limitations linked to this behavior. It is also true though, that in some circumstances, a certain sensitivity, that may appear a bit excessive, to the point of resulting in nervousness, can be used by a calm and diligent rider as an advantage in terms of impulsion and expressiveness.
Personally, while I may be influenced on this point by my great teacher George Theodorescu, I prefer to train horses that are rather “alert” even if they are a bit nervous, provided that they are not fearful, rather than lazy horses. A nervous horse prefers a rider with a very stable and calm seat, who does not move too much in the saddle and knows how to use their seat in a “neutral” manner. A horse of this type in fact requires very “light” aids and a patient rider, who is able to “wait” for the horse, who in most cases will end up accepting the aids. Desensitization techniques, such as the Parelli method, are of great assistance for these horses.
- Lazy horses: these horses can lead an inexperienced rider to lack concentration and decisiveness regarding which aids to give. First of all, it needs to be determined whether the horse is lazy by nature, or if there are other valid reasons for its attitude, such as poor form due to some disease, or even complete indifference to the aids given by the rider due to poor previous training.
The best thing to do with a lazy horse is to ride it as much as possible in the open, with sessions in the country, preferably together with a horse that has a very different attitude. If the problems persists, then the rider will have to intervene with more decisive actions, using at the right time brief but effective aids with the whip. If the horse reacts promptly by moving forward, it should be immediately caressed and rewarded. Based on what I have noticed in my equestrian experience, that type of intervention should be repeated a number of times before the horse realizes what is being asked of it, and thus begins to react to lighter aids.
It is important for the rider to be determined in those actions to clearly make the horse understand the forward movement and the commands that determine it, in order to subsequently reduce the intensity of such interventions, thus avoiding a situation where the horse becomes “mute” to propulsive aids.
- Stubborn or obstinate horses: these horses can develop considerable negative force and energy when they do not intend to submit to the rider. This is particularly true when the horse realizes the rider is not sufficiently determined. This attitude can become an even more serious problem, with the horse that rises up on its legs, which as everyone knows is one of the least pleasant experiences in horse riding and also one of the most difficult defects to eliminate.
To correct this bad habit, it is necessary for the horse to be ridden by a rider with courage, who has a good seat on the saddle and is ready to send the horse forward immediately without giving him any possibility to be disobedient. As soon as the horse shows that it is complying with the rider’s requests, the rider must be ready to caress and thank him, thus re-establishing mutual trust.
If the rider feels that the horse is about to stand up and run off, they must act unilaterally on an opening rein to prevent this disobedience; this must happen quickly and briefly, otherwise the horse could even turn over, with the rider.
DEFECTS IN CONFORMATION
By now it is rare for horses with serious defects in conformation to be purchased to then be trained for dressage.
There can be slight “anomalies” which the rider must recognize, fully objectively, and where possible attempt to prevent them from interfering significantly in the horse’s training and performances.
If the defect is not of great importance, it will be important to safeguard the weak parts of the horse, such as the joints, not overburdening them and allowing the horse to gradually construct its muscular and joint structure with patient and systematic work, without rushing. Naturally, this is easy to say, but harder to implement in practice.
- Defective neckline – Horses with a defective neckline are rarely put up for sale for use in competitive dressage. And in the case of a horse with large and heavy jaws, the possibility to correct the defect is very difficult.
This is because large and heavy jaws do not allow the horse to physically maintain correct posture of the neckline; the jaws press against the neckline itself, not leaving room in the interconnection between the neck and head. It is recommended not to train horses with this conformation.
Returning to the defects of conformation of the neckline, it should be noted that problems where the neckline is considered “broken” (that is, the poll is not the highest point) are at times caused by improper training and in general by too strong a use of the hands.
When training a young horse, as when correcting horses that have not been trained properly, it is necessary to refer to the principle according to which, in order to achieve a positive change in the conformation of the neckline, a horse must be worked from the rear and through the back.
A swan neck is when a rather long and not muscular neck is present together with a bend at the top of the neckline and a connection with the withers that is quite high. Horses with necks of this type have difficulty establishing correct contact with the rider’s hands and should be ridden for some time favoring an extended and low position of the neckline. They must not be raised too early, otherwise the neckline, as already said, will tend to be “broken.” Only when the horse has learned to extend the neckline forward and downward and seeks contact with the mouthpiece, can the training be continued. If a horse with these problems is asked to raise the neckline and the head too early, there will be considerable mobility of the withers, the neckline will lack consistency, and the horse will tend to bend at the neck too much, which will lead to an incorrect positioning of the neckline itself, with the horse that generally falls against the outside shoulder.
It is important to ride horses with this conformation of the neckline decisively and actively forward. If it is noted that the horse still has difficulty accepting correct contact, it is better to try with lighter mouthpieces. When riding such horses in a circle it is advisable to use consistent and clear outside aids.
The terms deer neck, sheep neck or hollow neck indicate that the lower muscles of the neckline have abnormal development and make it very difficult for the horse to extend the neck forward. In these cases, the first thing to do is to attempt to decontract the lower muscles of the neckline, while favoring the development of those in the upper part.
The most useful thing to do for this purpose is to work using rubber reins positioned rather low. A horse with this type of problem will normally move with a fairly rigid back, and thus work on easy or even small jumps can be very useful for decontraction.
- Back defects – It is not certain that a horse with less than ideal back conformation will also necessarily be problematic in work. For example, a horse with a rather long back is often very comfortable to ride.
In fact, if the back, despite its length, is well muscled between the withers and the croup, it cannot be considered problematic. On the contrary, it will be noted that a well muscled back will be even more developed in the course of training.
However, if the back is so long that the hind legs encounter difficulty in moving towards the horse’s center of gravity, then the defect will be problematic for use in dressage, because the movement of the quarters will be too short. In fact, in dressage the use of such horses is rather limited because the tracks of the hind legs will not be able to overtrack those of the front legs, and this will be promptly noticed by the judges in any class.
This characteristic must be kept in mind when beginning to train a horse with this type of problem: it is not possible to shorten a long back with training, but the horse can be encouraged to use wider movements through many transitions to half-halts.
Horses with a short back
Horses with this conformation are naturally easier to collect because the hind legs tend to come under the center of gravity with greater ease. On the other hand, such horses often require to be ridden with a relatively long neckline, so the back can relax and decontract.
As can be seen, colts that are not completely grown often have the croup higher than the withers. This produces greater weight on the front legs, which if the horse does not restore the correct proportions over time, will prevent it from being an ideal horse for dressage.
- Problems with the rear limbs – Horses that have problems with their hind legs should be trained with great care. The rider must have a clear idea of what to obtain from horses with this defect in conformation.
For example, a horse with what is called a “cow” hock, when the two hind legs are too close to each other, in a certain sense has the same problems as a horse with very open hocks, since the strain placed on the hocks is just as large. Horses with these problems must be collected with care and gradualness.
It should also be said that, in practical experience, horses with “cow” hocks are certainly more trainable than those with open hocks, because the latter tend to have frequent health problems.
The conclusion is that it makes sense to try to eliminate defects in temperament and conformation of horses only when other types of advantages are recognized, for example when they have very expressive gaits or when the horse has a “self-carriage” or natural balance that is so evident as to lead to accepting the existence of some of these defects.
PORTRAIT OF A WELL-TRAINED HORSE
Colonel Von Heydebreck was part of the German Cavalry, he was a celebrated disciple of the school of Steinbrecht, and he is recognized as introducing Steinbrecht’s teachings into the German Cavalry, with a manuscript of 1912.
Von Heydebreck died in 1935, but his “Portrait of a Well-Trained Horse” is still valid today to understand what is meant in dressage by the “ideal horse”.
Raising and lowering its feet in a regular gait, with lightness and firmness, the horse moves forward well on the track, going freely and voluntarily without haste or irritations.
Its neckline, well-bent in front of the rider, with the poll loose, the position of the head is such that the line of the forehead remains slightly ahead a vertical perpendicular to the ground.
The ears will be the highest point; they are neither fixed forward nor settled backward, but through their natural position show the horse’s attention and obedience to the rider’s will.
The eyes, full of trust, are aimed in the direction of the movement, the closed but moistened mouth indicates that the horse is chewing on the mouthpiece.
The reins must maintain continuous contact.
The bridoon reins, through a slight vibration, reveal that their use is light and maintain a slight tension, so that the horse goes forward with full trust towards the mouthpiece.
When the rider gives away the contact with the reins momentarily, the horse maintains the position of the head well as well as the regularity of the gait, indicating that there is not heavy pressure on the reins, but that the horse moves on its own.
If the rider lengthens the reins, the horse must extend its neckline smoothly without pulling downward or raising the head up, but seeking contact with the mouthpiece.
Closing the hands lightly, the rider will make the horse go at a slower tempo or bring it to a stop with the horse calm, and distributing its weight equally on all four limbs.
Light pressure of the legs will make it go forward immediately at the requested gait.
All of the movements are free of constraints and allow the horse’s back to move elastically.
Sitting calmly and comfortably, the rider demonstrates how comfortable he is on the horse, and how pleasant its movements are, and how full of impulsion the horse is.
Every stride is created by the kind legs, that energetically pushes made the mass and bends well in its joints.
In extended gaits, the aim will be reached when the hind quarter relieves the weight from the forehand, and in collected gaits, makes the joints bend more to improve the ability to bear weight, without however limiting the impulsion.
This will help the forehand to rise from the ground in lightness, permitting the horse also to freely gain ground in front, or in extreme collection, to raise the front limbs, barely touching the ground with elastic strides.
Seen from the side, the rider gives the impression of sitting in the center of the horse.
The profile of the horse’s back sways harmonically from the ears to the tail, that is carried with pride and naturally.
The withers will be higher than the highest point of the croup.
When looking at the horse from the front, the hind less must not been seen on the side of the track of the forehand.
The horse holds its head so straight that both ears are at the same height.
When ridden in the correct position, the inside part of the horse’s head, the inside part of the shoulder, and the inside part of the hip must be on the same line.
The rider’s shoulders must be seen symmetrically from both parts of the neckline and the head must appear above the horse’s ears.
The horse and rider seem to constitute a single whole.
They form a balanced entity, a living work of art, the beauty of which is found in the harmony of the form and the graceful movements, that are energetic and precise.”
For Chapter 1 CLICK HERE
For Chapter 2 CLICK HERE
For Chapter 3 CLICK HERE
For Chapter 4 CLICK HERE