Okay, time to explain this wonderful term. "Dressage" comes from a French term that literally translates into "training." It is often considered the highest expression of horse training. As a horse moves up in the levels, it becomes more physically demanding. In fact, they have a minimum age (7 years old) for horses competing at the top level. I've mentioned some of this in the first post but going to restate before delving deeper. Dressage is all about initiating both the rider's and horse's core muscles so that every external muscle is relaxed. This gives the horse freedom to move and the rider should look like they're "just sitting there." The better you are at dressage, the more it should look like you're doing nothing when, in fact, you are doing everything.
Even though dressage is often referred to as Horse Ballet, it originated on the battlefield. As you can imagine, riders didn't have time to wait for a horse to understand and held weapons in their hands (making steering with the reins difficult). They learned to ride from their seat and get so connected with their mount that they would respond almost before they asked. If they didn't, it could mean the difference between life and death.
Okay, I'm going to post some complicated-looking diagrams to show some of what you want to see in a horse moving correctly and correct posture as a rider. These photos are from Google Images.
First, the rider. The idea is that as a rider you are able to maintain steady seat bones and allow the horse's motion up and down through your hips. Your front seat (abductor muscles-see picture below) should always have contact but never locked. It serves to make minute adjustments such as asking the horse to move their shoulders slightly or move to the rail. The seat bones are always engaging forward while staying in place...this gets more challenging the more motion the horse has. Tessa's trot is bone-jarring so it has taken me a very long time to be able to sit her trot effectively. There are many analogies that help a rider learn to use their core, but I will share what has helped me. I imagine a string attached to my belly button that is lifting me up (losing any arch in the back or contraction from the saddle) and forward up the horse's neck. I also think of the tailbone constantly being pulled up and to the outside shoulder in a turn or circle. There are so many things to share about riding figures but I'll save that for another day
Externally, you should be able to draw a straight line through the rider's ear, shoulder, hip, and heel. The more muscle and balance you gain, you should be able to drop your stirrup length more and get a longer leg. You never use your lower leg if you can help it; instead, it should drape and all the steering should be from your seat and core. Another way to check a rider's position would be to take the horse out from under them and see if they'd land on their feet. If they wouldn't (say, leg is too far forward) there's something you need to correct.
Okay, time for the horse! Dressage is really about recapturing how a horse was designed to move. In the wild, they'd all be moving like this. However, when a person's weight is added to their center of gravity and so influential over them, a horse develops coping mechanisms. They hollow their back to avoid the bouncing of the rider, they tense their jaw to avoid the pinch of the bit, they throw themselves forward from the front end as the rider's imbalance forces them to do so.
What I love about dressage (well, one of the many things) is that moving correctly feels good for both the horse and rider. I used to have imbalances I wasn't even aware of. Because Tessa is so sensitive, she was a great teacher and uncovered all of them. For example, if I was leaning an inch to the left, she would counterbalance and lean 6 inches to the right. A horse is a mirror of the rider...you can't hide anything from them! But once the horse starts to understand that it doesn't hurt them, they will use their core to lift themselves up into
the rider's weight (called a round back). They will seek the comforting contact of the rein (called on the bit). Dressage is all about riding the horse's hind end. It's their motor and shock absorber. This is why it's so important for the seat bones of the rider to be steady- it encourages the horse's hind ends to connect and engage with the rider.
A horse should be "carrying through." Meaning, the energy from the hind end should be allowed through the rider's hips and travel up to the poll (which should be the highest point), resulting in a relaxed, dropped head with a soft mouth engaging with the bit. This is often why dressage gets a bad reputation; people take shortcuts and throw harsh bits into their horse's mouth and force them into what's known as a headset. It may look pretty to the unobservant eye, but they are often behind the vertical and locked in place. For a horse to be on the vertical, they must be balanced enough to move from their core and hind end, allowing the front end free motion. The horse naturally uses their head and neck for balance, so when they are balanced enough from their core they are able to drop their head. They should be able to flex (bend in direction of turn) and counterflex (counterbend/ opposite direction of turn) independent of the rest of their body. In the picture I used to describe a rider's posture, follow the arrows to see how the energy travels.
Let's talk about some uses of tack. I already mentioned the bit, but I would like to add something to it. You never, ever
want to be pulling on the horse's mouth or bracing your hands. This pulls on the bars of their mouth and is very unpleasant for them, leading them to avoid contact. Instead, contact with the bit should be like holding hands with someone...always there but not constricting. It enables the rider to make subtle corrections and aid in softening the horse's jaw. Steering is all done with the seat, but a little sponge with the outside rein can serve for the horse to think about going to the outside. Many people think, understandably so, that to turn a horse you pull the rein in that direction. Yeah...not quite. You can have a horse's head pulled all the way in one direction and they could still move another. As I've said, reins aren't used to steer the horse. When you do use them, it's all about the outside rein (so, if you were going to the left your right rein would be your outside rein). The reins can serve to flex a horse or counterflex, as well as soften the jaw, etc. In a flexion, the horse should bend from the poll (like a hinge) and do so without leading with their nose (a cop-out on the horse's part). Below is a horse correctly flexed to the inside.
I'm going to try to bring this post to a close with a few last tidbits. In a dressage test, a 60% or above is considered impressive. As a student that gets upset with anything less than an A, this has been a learning curve for me.
Below are some of the things the judges are looking for, taken straight from the USDF (United States Dressage Federation) website.
While 3 gaits are utilized in dressage (walk, trot, & canter) there are innumerable ranges in each one. You may be asking a horse for an extended or collected trot. Or perhaps you want a leisurely lap around the arena, or a medium walk, or a free walk...the possibilities are endless! A rider allows more or less motion through their hips and this tells the horse to the degree they are asked to move.
I'll end it there as if you made it this far I'll be impressed
Below is one of my dressage heroes, Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro. His extended trot has to be one of my favorite gaits.