Tuesday, August 4, 2015

3 Biggest Myths About Dressage

"Do dressage," they said. "It's so logical," they said. "It's even fun!" they said. 

I'm here to call bull. I'm not even a year in to boarding at a dressage barn and taking dressage lessons and here are the biggest dressage myths that need to be debunked.

1) The training pyramid is mostly entirely hogwash.
photo via USDF
You all know what it looks like. From day one, you see this thing plastered all over training books and how to magazines. 

It sounds great, right? Rhythm first. Then relaxation. It's so logical.

Linear, you might even say.


Since when is horse training linear? SINCE NEVER. 


photo via Shannon
Yeah. I have been specifically criticized for this, but I usually work the relaxation/softness before rhythm on Courage. And by "usually", I mean EVERY SINGLE DAY. If I run him into a rhythm before I get him soft and relaxed, I've already lost the war. 

Oh, and just you try to take a connection with a war horse before you have impulsion. Ha! That's called "recipe for creating inversion" or "just give up now". 

In fact, Shannon over at A Work in Progress created an alternate training pyramid for me so I could stop ranting and yanking hair out by the roots.

And lest you think it's just ol' SB going off her rocker again, here's the post she did explaining WHY the pyramid is bunk. Read it. 

But you know. As long as that isn't the entire foundation of your discipline. OH SNAP.

this is fast. COURAGE GOING FAST.
2) It never gets any faster. 

It doesn't. It makes me batty when people are like "oh yeah once you get those basics down, you'll just fly right along. 

Two things to say to that:

A) My dressage friends assure me that higher level dressage is exactly the same basics as lower level stuff, just with cooler random asides. 

B) No. It won't. Because training still isn't a linear thing and it never will be for you or your horse. Some things come quicker. Some things come slower. Some things never come at all. 
(no that wasn't innuendo. get your mind out of the gutter.) 

It's a long, painstaking process that will consume your entire life. Eventually, you learn to be ok with this, or you quit. Speed is not a factor.

we're working on the head twist
3) You do need a fancy horse. 

This one always baffles me. People are like "yo bitches any ol' hoss can do dressajz".

And like. No. No they can't. I mean, sure, any sound-ish thing can hack around intro/training levels and probably not get kicked out. But yeah, after that? No. 

Really. What other sport IN THE ENTIRE WORLD do people say "oh just get any unsuitable thing and give it a whack?" 


Not a single one. 

So yes, You can hack it at lower levels with whatever, but realistically, if you want to do halfway decently, you need more. Courage is a thoroughbred. I'd even argue that he's a pretty damn nice thoroughbred. His current high score at training level is 67%, which I am perfectly happy with. 

You know what's never, ever going to beat fancy warmbloods at fancy shows?


slowly. so slowly.
It's not weird or wrong or bad--it's the simple fact that suitable partners are going to be more successful at dressage than, you know, mules. (I'm not trying to pick on the long ears lately). Or... downhill quarter horses. Or whatever. The horse does make a difference. 

(Oh and it also helps if you're not a pudgy one-horse-ammy, but what's a girl to do?) 

I'm not even a year in to this whole dressage journey yet. I can see changes in Courage's mindset, muscling, and manners, and I'm excited for what's to come. 

I just think we should be honest about how it's going to get here.


  1. Uh-oh ... I hope this was a little tongue in cheek ...

    The dressage pyramid does actually work, but it doesn't mean you master one level before you move to the next. It just means that you need each level to build to the next. A steady rhythm does lead to relaxation, and when you have a steady connection, you can ask for more impulsion with a horse strong enough to push forward.

    While dressage is not meant to be a race, I would say that some things will come easier and more quickly once the foundation has been laid correctly. But yes, even at the FEI levels it's still walk, trot, and canter.

    And do you need a fancy horse to compete with Charlotte Dujardin? Yes. Good luck with that though. Someone has to have THE fanciest horse, and right now, it's her. I bet even Steffen Peters (and Carl Hester) is wishing he could kick her butt. It would be fantastic to ride what Charlotte is riding (and to ride LIKE Charlotte), but we can't. Only a handful of people can. A horse with nice gaits, WHATEVER his breeding, can do quite well competitively. And YES, a 67% can and DOES beat fancy warmbloods all of the time.

    When I go to a show, I KNOW that there will always be better riders and horses, but I am also a better rider than some and I have a better horse than some. At last year's Regional Adult Amateur Competition, I won the Training Level division on my home-trained Arabian with scores over 70%. And I know there were some warmbloods (probably ALL warmbloods) in that class.

    I know you're (mostly) joking, but embrace Courage's strengths and rock those every chance you get. Sometimes the scores will be just so-so, but sometimes they'll be good enough for the win. And maybe MORE than sometimes! :0)

  2. Lol! This is great! Try showing up to dressage shows on a leopard app!! The looks on some peoples faces is priceless and I love it, especially on those rare days when we beat them! Dressage is what it is, my feeling is I will never fully arrive, but hopefully over time I will get better and better.

  3. I dunno, I definitely think every horse can do dressage. However, when I think about that, I'm not thinking about the competition. I've heard several clinicians/judges address this, and essentially all explained that the gaits score is going to be directly affected by the "fanciness" of the horse- a horse with natural impulsion, suspension, forward way of way (aka most fancy dressage WBs) is probably going to score better than your typical downhill QH, but that does not mean that the QH can't complete the movements and get the same benefits from dressage training. Like Bakersfield said, someone's got to have the fanciest horse, but even if it's not you that doesn't warrant giving up and getting those scores!

  4. I really do think EVERY horse can do dressage. The great thing about dressage is that it's kind of a competition against yourself. For one, most adult amateur owners with limited funds (let's face it - if you don't have limited funds you buy the fancy horse) don't make it past the lower levels anyway. I've never seen a sound horse that I didn't think could march around intro and training with some proper work. Also, dressage has GREAT awards and programs that work with your personal scores ie the medal programs. Just look at Matt the Cowpony... you DON'T have to have that fancy import to be successful.

  5. I think the problem with the pyramid is that they've left off the actual base, which in my opinion is the most important: Booze.

  6. You've hit the nail on the head, love it!

  7. I agree about the training pyramid, mostly in that impulsion should come first. Without impulsion and relaxation, I can't find a true connection. Rhythm is so important too, so I agree that needs to be at the base. What it should read is "rhythm, aka deliberate, non runny steps." I find that the bottom 4 go hand in hand, and I need to start with different ones depending on the day. Lazy today? Impulsion. Distracted and varying speeds? Rhythm. I'm willing to put straightness and collection as some weird arced bottom pyramidal shape on top of a circle that contains the bottom 4. Basically because when I ask for collection Mikey evades by ditching straightness first.

    That said, I have found that by solidifying rhythm, relaxation, and connection, I've found better impulsion quite naturally. Even lazy days perk up quickly.

    And your friends are right, higher level dressage is the exact same thing as lower level, with cool stuff mixed in that makes it easier, in my opinion.

    While I agree, if you want to win every weekend, you do need a fancy horse (and you need to ride it correctly), but I don't agree that you have to have one to do well beyond training level. I'd bet you need that fancy horse MORE at training level to win, simply because people will walk in and 6th place will be 70%+.

    I walked out in my first USDF show and won my first First Level test easily against the warmbloods, and I was right up there with them for the rest of the weekend. I'm coming to the conclusion that every horse is capable of 3rd level. Will they win? Probably not. When you have a non-fancy-warmblood, you have to be so many times more correct in your movements and more accurate in your figures to get all your points to beat the warmbloods. I don't feel non-competitive at 2nd level, and the only reason I feel non-competitive at 3rd is because I don't have functioning flying changes. It also helps that majority of riders at the recognized shows seem to ride 3rd and under, and class sizes at 3rd+ just aren't that big. Be accurate and correct with your ride, and you'll go on to championships and nationals, no problem.

    By the way, a Mule competed at the US Dressage Finals last year at training level, and scored a 67.2% for 14th place nationally.

    Sorry to get this comment so long, but I'm a firm believer that with hard work (yes, more hard work than you'd have to put into a fancy warmblood), any breed horse that is put together in an average way or above will do just fine and should be able to move up to at least 3rd level, if not beyond. And you don't have to be a professional to get the results. Any amateur willing to put in the hard work can do it. Most I've seen fail simply because they're afraid for some reason or half ass it when they're not lessoning. Every ride counts!

    1. I totally agree with off breeds- with the right training, they can be super competitive. I know a super super hot thoroughbred mare that was way competitive at CDS Champs a few years ago at Training with scores into the high 70s. I rode her once, super fun but super hot. And yeah she had a nice canter, but her trot was completely manufactured. Just trotting on a longe line, she moved like a pony.

      I think I disagree with you about the training scale though. What you're saying is impulsion, I would call energy. I don't think it's the end all, be all of dressage training, but I do think that people mistake impulsion for energy a lot.

      Oh my gosh I totally saw that mule in person I think... There was one doing PSG at Woodside in July. I didn't get to see them go, but it was super cool to hear about a mule at the FEI levels.

    2. I agree Megan, energy and impulsion are not really the same thing. In the Glossary of Judging Terms (USDF Member Guide), impulsion is defined as INCREASED energy and thrust (short definition). Rhythm has energy and tempo. Horses need to have energy in order to establish a rhythm, but impulsion will come later as they build strength.

  8. I heard someone say once that the horse has to do a baby training pyramid before they do a real one, in which they establish the bottom four rungs in a rudimentary way.

    Mo, too, needs to go forward to be through, but I think of rhythm as "every step is the same," which is a requirement to getting him to relax. Sometimes when we work on connection, I do ride him a little under the rhythm (especially when we were starting out with this) because it helped his brain work out what to do with his body without his feet moving too fast. Now that we're making some progress there, he has to go forward with impulsion into the bridle. That's where we are right now, and we sort of play around with the bottom four rungs constantly every ride. If that makes sense.

    As to being competitive: if you want to win at training level at a USDF show where I live, you'd better be bringing scores in the 70s-80s. I do not expect either of my horses to win at training level. I think their ribbons are going to come higher up. Like second level, where whether the rider can sit the trot makes a difference.

    That said: not every horse can be competitive in dressage. Could every horse benefit from some dressage training? To a point, sure. Your show hunter should be able to pull off first level. An upper level show jumper or eventer needs to be capable of third. A four star horse needs to be able to do 4-1.

  9. Dude, *high five*. I'll agree with those that say every horse can do dressage. Yes. BUT to WIN at dressage, you really do need something fancy. Although my Indiana warmblood ... errr, total mutt, does frequently beat expensive imported horses. Not all the time, but he is capable. Because he is so consistent and steady. Will he ever score 67% at Grand Prix? Not likely. But I think a 65% at PSG is not out of our capability. And that to me is AWESOME. I guess it's all perspective.

  10. I completely agree regarding the pyramid and I love the circle idea instead. :)

  11. Great post and great comments too. I like Sharon's revised diagram because each horse is different and dressage isn't linear. I, too, had to focus on impulsion before connection with my OTTB. Rhythm led to relaxation, but straightness was imperative before anything else.

  12. Mules can do dressage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn6pSo6ZNZQ

    But I agree, not as well as warmbloods. Breeds have been designed to do specific things for a reason. But you can have fun with anything.

  13. The Spirograph of Training is just better. With you on the relaxation first thing.

  14. Hmm I think the training pyramid works but that people mistake energy for impulsion and impulsion for energy so it makes it confusing. Energy = when I say go, you fucking go. Impulsion = when I say go, you fucking go, but you also push with your hind legs in thrust. So connection needs energy (horse physically moving forward into contact) but does not need impulsion (the biomechanic of energy).

    Just like people mistake alignment (which is located in suppleness- a horse cannot be laterally supple without alignment) and straightness. Straightness is the nitpicky version of alignment. Alignment says horses travel along the path they are, but like impulsion, straightness says exactly how and gets real picky about the uphill balance created by placing the shoulders precisely in front of the haunches. Alignment just says "no running off the track, baby horse" and straightness says "do it this way to open the doors to collection." I think the main problem with the training pyramid is that it isn't taught properly and that we mistake some terms for others.

    I think every horse can do dressage but not every horse can be super freakishly good at dressage. I mean I can run. But to hell if I'm going to come in anything more than very last place when I enter any sort of marathon. It'd take a miracle to make me run fast. Like if I dedicated my entire life to it, I could maybe get second-to-last. So yah if you want to be competitive without putting in too much work, go buy something nice. But TC is costing me next to nothing, like OTTB pricing, as what was (since they're holding his price) a somewhat broke, quiet three-year-old. He will be able to go to at least Third, probably PSG, and be pretty competitive. At least I hope so because he's my down payment on a house. Good training > good horse any day. The problem with the good horses is that they often have good trainers.

    1. Oh and I'd also disagree with Shannon's description of riding at the upper levels. They are very different than the lower levels. I found that I only had to work on low level stuff (connection and below) when I was filling in training holes. Rico had a big training hole with connection and energy, but once as I filled those in (probably July last year), the majority of our rides were spent working on impulsion, straightness, and collection. And the impulsion was probably just because of our energy training hole.

      Going from GP to barely broke really showed me the difference between riding at the FEI vs lower levels in the worst possible way haha

    2. Again, agreed! I like the pyramid and find that riders mistake the meanings of each level. The 2014 USDF Member Guide has an excellent tutorial on the pyramid, which was weirdly omitted from the 2015 guide. Anyway, it is an excellent resource for understanding the terms used on the pyramid.

  15. Your posts are so great! I love how you share your opinions. I like to think of the training scale as more of a guideline, rather than a rigid training method. Whatever works for the individual!

  16. I think that the idea of the pyramid is that it all builds upon each other. Honestly if you don't have the bottom two there is no freaking way you are getting the top two! There really is no way around it. Its hard, frustrating, and you want to pull your hair out half the time (just wait till the second level hump....) but it will also be the most incredible feeling when thinks all click, even if its for just a second!
    I would say that any horse, with the proper training, should be able to compete at least 2nd/3rd level. You don't need expressive movement you just need correct training. The only mark that I know I will for sure score lower then a big fancy warmblood is the collective mark for gaits. That is the only single one. No, my fat drafty pony doesn't have jaw dropping movement, and each day we work at improving his movement, but his consistency and correct training still lets us kick those warmbloods asses :) My new motto is to not limit my horses abilities in my head because he isn't a warmblood, He can (and does) beat them and will continue to due so as long as I ride him to his abilities.

  17. I feel like the training pyramid is good in theory but in reality, it's not as if you complete one rung before moving on to the next. It's more of a flow, and if you have one thing going well, something else seems to fall off the rails. I'd say it's more like a Venn diagram but really, it seems more scattered to me. Perhaps I'm just doing it wrong.

    As for not going faster, sometimes it goes faster, sometimes slower. Sometimes you hit a plateau and get stuck for weeks or months. Sometimes you have a lightbulb moment and suddenly five things fall into place. Sometimes it's steady progress, then nothing. But that's what makes it all fun - you never know how your ride is gonna go!

    RE having a fancy horse, I think it makes a lot of difference if you're an ammy riding lower levels. I've gotten my ass handed to me by people who weren't necessarily better riders, but who had really very nice horses. However, it seems like that's mostly at the training/first level area, and most AAs don't make it past that, even on their fancy horses. Around 2nd/3rd (at least here) you see a bigger variety of horses with really dedicated riders. Then at the upper levels you see a few schoolmasters and a lot of random breeds. The fancy warmbloods seem to ridden almost exclusively by the pros. So, do you NEED a purpose-bred horse? I sure hope not, because I really like Haffies. :)

  18. hahahaha so i felt like my dressage trainer finally had us going 'fast' in a recent lesson (and my pony LOVES fast!). watched the videos?? lol nope. not fast. definitely not.

  19. Hmm, like some others here, I can't say I agree. The pyramid does work, it is just misinterpreted sometimes. It isn't a linear process, but you do need to have elements of the previous step to tackle the next one. For example, relaxation without rhythm isn't true relaxation. Its just laziness or inattentiveness to work. To *truly* have relaxation requires the horse to be actively thinking about what he is doing and still be calm and relaxed - so you give him his steps to think about.
    A horse that is going 1..2...3... is not relaxed or rhythmical, no matter how chilled his attitude may be displayed.

    Any horse can *do* dressage. Maybe not competitively to the highest levels, but they can do it. The original point of dressage was not competing, it was training. Every horse in every discipline can only benefit from proper dressage training.

  20. I've changed my mind on something: I don't think every horse can or should do dressage, or even dressage training. I have five horses in the barn right now, and one of them is my mom's 17hh gaited horse. He's super weird to ride if you're used to sport horses. And honestly, what he should do is go trail riding on a loopy rein. My mom has taken dressage lessons on him and my coach (silver medal, for what that's worth) is like "ummmm drop the reins on his neck and go trail riding." Unless you consider the very basics of being broke "dressage," in that he stops and goes and turns. But he doesn't seem to be physically or mentally capable of connecting from the inside leg to the outside rein.

    Anyone who wants to be all "you're just not doing it right, he could totally do third level" is welcome to come ride him.

  21. I firmly believe that every single equid, as long as they are healthy, is capable of getting to PSG. They may not be good at it, but they can do the movements. Whether or not they get there depends on a lot of different factors, and doesn't really matter in the end.

    As far as my picture goes, I think many people are mis-interpreting it. It just means that you're constantly circling back through the steps of the pyramid. If you think that you can just jump on a GP horse and go straight into piaffe, you've either never ridden a GP horse, or you're about to have a very bad ride on a GP horse. You run through the entire training pyramid constantly in every single ride, whether you realize it or not.

    The picture is not to say that the training pyramid is wrong or to "invent" a new one. It's simply saying that you don't get to go step-wise up the pyramid like the assembly line in a factory. You don't get to check "Rhythm" off your list as soon as you've gotten it, you will always be working at it and coming back to it. It's the same for every step in the training pyramid. Your horse is not a machine on an assembly line, as you introduce new things you will still have to pay attention to rhythm and relaxation, connection and every other step on the pyramid, as anyone who has ever trained a horse to do the upper level movements can tell you.


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