Should lower level horses wait to be schooled in shoulder in and rein back or is there a benefit to learning these exercises before Second Level? Is piaffe and passage only reserved for talented horses and riders (or only for horses that trot)? I think not, and here’s why.
In 1996 I sat center line in the balcony at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna mezmorized watching the ivory Lipizzaner stallions being schooled in piaffe, passage, canter pirouettes, tempi changes, and airs above the ground. The dressage training pyramid of rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection was made complete right before my very eyes. It was a life-long dream come true!
Since 1988 I’ve been an avid student of dressage and have longed to experience piaffe and passage with my horses. Yet these movements are reserved for Intermediate and Grand Prix Levels of dressage, and thus far I have only shown through Second Level. In my Grandma age I was beginning to wonder if I would ever reach these levels of training.
Then in the last year I purchased the DVD Classical versus Classique with Christoph Hess and Philippe Karl. Hess represents the German National Federation and Karl represents French Classical Dressage. Their lively conversation illuminates the rather stark differences between German and French dressage and made me realize that showing dressage and training dressage don’t have to be the same thing. From this DVD, French dressage trainer Philippe Karl gives me hope because he believes that the upper level movements can be performed by any horse, not just the talented ones. And the rather average horse at the age of 12 shown in the DVD learned all of the movements through piaffe and passage by its rider within ONE YEAR under Karl’s instruction!
While the USDF tests and levels make perfect progressive sense for the show ring, and align with the dressage pyramid of training, I no longer believe horses in lower levels need to wait to be schooled in higher level movements such as shoulder in, rein back, counted walk and piaffe in hand. Nor do I believe that piaffe and passage are only reserved for talented horses and riders (or only for horses that trot)!
Intro, Training, and First Levels don’t introduce shoulder in at a walk, rein back, counted walk, or piaffe in hand, yet these exercises provide wonderful benefits to the horse in terms of balance, engagement, connection, straightness, collection, and communication between the horse and rider (as long as the horse is relaxed in its mind and jaw). This is true for both horses that trot or gait. Plus, these movements teach the rider the feeling of balance as the horse bends the hindquarter joints, engages the abdominal muscles to lift the back, and rise up more through the withers.
It’s a fact that few riders and horses ever achieve the highest levels of competition dressage, and the majority of dressage riders never reach Second Level. So why should our horses miss out on training in balance through the benefits of rein back, shoulder in, counted walk, and piaffe in hand while we school the lower levels?
I made this mistake—for years—as an amateur trainer while I was schooling the lower levels with my Trakehner/Thoroughbred gelding. I only practiced the elements of the tests I was showing at. Since then, what I have realized is that this approach taught my horse rhythm, relaxation, and forwardness in a long and low frame—on the forehand. Long and low is terrific, as long as it is in BALANCE. But balance wasn’t something I learned until I reached Second Level which was several years later.
If you are an amateur trainer like me, who has a full time career, family, and other obligations, plus the five-month-long Winter season and no indoor arena to stay in condition, it takes far longer to make training progress through the dressage levels. Consequently it took me several years to work my way through Second Level with my Trakehner/Thoroughbred and that’s when the tests introduced BALANCE demonstrated through shoulder in, rein back, and haunches in.
Sigh. So for several years, I had conditioned the muscle memory of my horse to carry himself on the forehand—with rhythm, relaxation, and forwardness. I had not developed the “feeling” of balance as a rider, because I had only performed the exercises the Level I was showing at called for.
For me, Second Level was like erasing the hard drive and starting over in our training. I had to learn the feeling of balance and retrain my horse from long and low on the forehand to engagement and connection in balance.
My horse and I would have been so much better off if I had introduced shoulder in, haunches in, and rein back while I was schooling the lower levels because of the balance these exercises produce. Plus, I would have learned the “feeling” of balance which would have helped me train my horse in the lower levels of long and low — in balance — instead of training my horse long and low onto the forehand. Remember, not all long and low is the same.
A few months ago, I purchased a DVD entitled Getting Started in Lightness: The French Classical Dressage of Francois Baucher as taught by Jean Claude Racinet presented by one of his students Lisa Maxwell. This DVD introduces rein back, shoulder in, introductory steps of piaffe, and other refreshing exercises such as the counted walk (something I had never heard of before but produces amazing results in balance: bending of the hindquarter joints, engagement of the abdominal muscles to lift the back, and lighten the forehand with a feeling of the withers rising up).
I immediately I noticed how light, happy, harmonious, engaged, relaxed (in mind and jaw), rhythmic, impulsive, and balanced Lisa’s horses are in this DVD. The horses aren’t fancy, just like my horses, yet they demonstrate some amazing transformations. So I began applying these exercises with all of the horses I ride—Intro through Second Level dressage.
While this DVD illustrates these exercises using trotting horses, I have seen remarkable improvement in balance, gait quality, and transitions with the naturally gaited horses I ride as a result of applying these exercises.
Progression of exercises: First I introduce leg yields along the fence. As soon as the horse understands the exercise, I introduce leg yields from the quarter line to the rail.
I do a lot of circle work with my horses beginning with a 20-meter circle and reducing the size as the horse is able to maintain balance, rhythm, relaxation (in mind and jaw), and softness in the mouth. I include true bends and counter bends on a circle.
As the horse can maintain balance in a 10-meter circle at a slow walk, I introduce to a few steps of shoulder in. After a 10-meter circle, I maintain the arc of the circle as I travel along the fence a few steps.
Over time I will increase the number of steps and increase the tempo from a slow walk to a medium walk as long as the horse remains in balance with relaxation, bending, impulsion, and rhythm. Then I will proceed with shoulder in at a flat walk or fox trot. I also do the shoulder in on a circle at a collected, medium walk and flat walk.
When the horse is forward in the mind and from the leg, I will introduce rein back and counted walk along the fence to help the horse remain straight. I only ask for a couple steps at a time in order to rebalance the horse. Then I begin teaching the piaffe in hand before asking for piaffe from the saddle.
Bottomline: I let the horse tell me what it needs vs. the level we are showing at. I introduce the next progression of exercises as the horse is able to maintain balance, relaxation in the mind and jaw, softness in the mouth, rhythm and forwardness.
In fact, the improved balance the rein back, shoulder in, and counted walk have established with my friend’s gaited horse, Lady, have built the balance needed to introduce canter to the right and left leads without chasing her into the canter.
Plus, Lady has developed a natural head nodding fox trot that is smoother than a Western jog! I feel that we have made dramatically greater training progress by introducing rein back, shoulder in, and counted walk than if we would have just continued traveling in 20-meter, long and low circles that the Intro Level calls for.
Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I knew in 1988 what I know now. At least I am becoming a rider with more awareness of the feeling of balance and believe I’m moving in a constructive training path of lightness, balance, harmony, and impulsion—especially in the lower levels. That’s not to say that I expect Grand Prix balance from an Intro Level horse; I just redirect the horse into the feeling of balance each time the horse leans on the bit or becomes heavy on the forehand and shoulders with exercises that improve balance, lightness, harmony, and impulsion. In any case, it transforms our training into more of an enjoyable dance.