Dressage Exercises for Any Horse

Create a supple horse with these horse-training exercises.

courtesy of America’s Horse Daily

Dressage is good for your horse – if you do it the right way for the right reasons. If you just aim for the “look” and not for the real suppleness, then you get a horse that is stiff and unhappy and crooked, a horse that grinds his teeth and pins his ears and swishes his tail. I am absolutely convinced that when you do dressage correctly, your horse become sounder, happier and more willing to work.

The whole point behind dressage is just to make the horse a better athlete, to “gymnasticize” him. You do this with suppling exercises, like the ones you see here. When you finish these exercises and go back to simpler work – that is, whatever you’ve been struggling to accomplish with your horses – the horse is a better athlete and a better partner.

The point is to go out and play with these exercises – in an arena that has good footing. If they don’t work the first time, try them again. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Recipe for Suppleness

You can’t just get your horse moving in a circle, going around and around, expecting the good fairy of suppleness to drop some “supple dust” on your horse. Suppleness requires three kinds of change:

  • Change of bend
  • Change of gait
  • Lateral change, with the horse moving sideways off your leg, not off the reins

Remember that while you are asking your horse to do all of this, he’s going to moan and groan in various horsey ways, perhaps losing his rhythm, raising or lowering his neck, tilting his head, and basically looking a mess. That’s OK! If he were to perform the suppling exercise perfectly, it wouldn’t be much of an exercise, right? We want to work on his self-carriage and his attitude. We want him to be better the next time you get on him to ride.

Defining the “Inside”

If you’re used to thinking about the terms “inside” and “outside” relative to your position in the arena, you’ll need to retrain yourself. When dressage riders talk about the inside and outside, they’re referring to the concave (curving inward) and convex (curving outward) sides of their horses. The concave side is always the inside, and the convex side is the outside, regardless of where the rail is.

Exercise 1: Turn on the Forehand

What It Is: The turn on the forehand is the most basic of all lateral movements in dressage. The horse’s forefeet remain in approximately the same place while the hind legs make a semi-circle around them. The horse is bent slightly away from the direction of the movement. In other words, if a horse is moving his hindquarters to the right, he is bent slightly to the left.

This is the easiest lateral movement for the horse to perform for several reasons: the horse only has to move one pair of legs sideways; he is moving the less-weighted (hind) pair of legs; and he is being asked to move sideways away from the direction of the bend, which is much easier than moving toward the direction of the bend.

Why Do It: This exercise teaches the horse to move sideways and helps him understand that not all leg aids mean “go faster.” You want the horse to move away from leg pressure. This exercise is the beginning step toward gaining control over your horse’s haunches. (And it’s useful for opening and closing gates while you’re horseback!)

How to Do It: To perform a turn on the forehand away from your left leg (the haunches swing to the right), bend the horse slightly left using your left rein. (“Slightly” is an important term here: You should be able to see the bulge of the horse’s inside eye, but not much more.) Your right rein prevents the horse from over bending or moving forward. Your left leg is applied behind the girth to ask the haunches to move. Your right leg keeps the horse from backing up.

Don’t pull the horse around with that inside rein. Rein pressure should be applied only until the horse bends, and then the rein should relax.

Don’t turn this into a speed event. The horse should take one step sideways for each application of leg pressure. Release your leg pressure as soon as the horse responds.

Don’t punish the horse for making slight adjustments to his forelegs while doing this exercise. Unless he’s a circus-bound pretzel, he will need to make these small adjustments. Be patient.

Exercise 2: Leg Yield

What It Is: In the leg yield, the horse moves forward and sideways, bent very slightly away from the direction of the movement. The angle of sideways movement should be approximately 30 degrees in relation to the track. (The term “track” means the path along the rail that you’re following.)

Why Do It: While the horse learns to move sideways, the rider practices better contact with the outside rein and establishes increased control of the horse in general as the horse becomes accustomed to being “between the aids.”

How to Do It: (This is done just like the turn on the forehand, except you allow and encourage the horse to move sideways and forward.) Begin by moving forward at a walk. Ask your horse to step sideways away from your leg while continuing to move forward. Use your reins to keep the horse’s spine straight and in line with his haunches. Like in all lateral movements, the horse’s forehand must remain slightly in advance of his hindquarters.

Don’t let the horse bend too much through the spine, resulting in his hindquarters trailing behind

Don’t let his haunches lead, either.

Don’t have him move too much sideways, resulting in a loss of forward impulsion and a horse that is stepping all over himself.

Exercise 3: Bend and Counter-bend (in a circle)

What It Is: The counter-bend is a very effective, yet very simple, exercise for improving the suppleness and engagement of the hindquarters. A counter-bend asks the horse to bend opposite the direction he is turning (so he is not facing the direction he is turning). (Don’t get bend confused with turn.)

Why Do It: The counter-bend teaches the horse that he does not always have to follow his nose. It teaches him to turn from his shoulders and increases the suppleness and carrying power of his hindquarters – especially on his inside hind leg (so he must use that leg underneath his body better). You can do a little counter-bending every time you ride. It won’t stress your horse’s limbs; on the contrary, it will make him more supple so he suffers less stress when exercising.

How to Do It: Introduce this maneuver in an enclosed area so you can use a rail as a barrier. Start at the walk. If you are “tracking right” (moving around the rail with your right hand to the center of the arena), take your left rein and pull gently straight back, asking the horse to bend around your left leg (which should be near his girth). Your left rein is just bending the horse’s spine. Your left leg at his girth is pushing his shoulder around the turn. Your right rein should lead him through the turn Your right leg rests slightly behind the girth, ready to move the horse forward if he gets stuck. Turn your upper body and head clearly in the direction of the turn, so the horse can understand he needs to turn right although he is bent left.

Covering one end of the arena in a counter-bend is plenty. Then do it the other direction. (Aim for even suppleness on both sides of the horse. Remember, your horse will have a good side and a bad side.) Move to a trot when you feel ready.

Don’t overdo your aids or get too complicated; this is a simple exercise.

Don’t drag the horse around the turn with your left rein. If you look at your left hand and see it hovering over the mane, or over to his right side, you are dragging him through the turn with the reins. Use your left leg to move the horse around the turn.

Exercise 4: Spiral In and Spiral Out (in a circle)

What It Is: Spiraling is a simple way to increase engagement of the horse’s hindquarters. The smaller the circle, the more engagement it requires. When you spiral in, you gradually decrease the size of the circle, over the course of several circles.

Why Do It: This exercise allows the horse to gradually change his body and balance in response to the increased demands of the smaller circle. If you insist, while spiraling inward, that the horse maintain the same bend and rhythm, he’ll realize that the only way he can remain comfortably in balance is to increase the bending of his hind joints. Voila! You’re encouraging collection without ever pulling on the horse’s mouth or restricting his forward motion.

How to Do It: A clear marker in the center of your circle will help. (Use a cone, a friend or a pile of manure; anything will do.) Start moving on a large circle and gradually decrease its size. Think of your circle as a bull’s-eye; decrease the size by one ring on every revolution.

Use the rhythm of your body to encourage the horse to maintain his rhythm while spiraling in. Use your outside leg and outside rein to spiral in. Once you’ve reached your inner circle, don’t dwell there; instead, spiral back out!

Don’t pull harder on the inside rein to decrease the circle; use your outside rein and leg to push the horse laterally into the smaller circle.

Don’t let your horse slow down with each spiral; if he’s allowed to slow down, he’ll drag his hind legs instead of having the incentive to bend them more. Gently make him stick to the rhythm you set initially.

Don’t just aim for a “look.”

You have to put the horse in a position – and I don’t mean a physical position – but in a situation where he finds that performing with more flexion in his hock is the most effective way to perform an exercise. To do this, you have to understand a horse’s physiology: what parts of him are attached to what; why stretching the top line lengthens the stride; knowing that the shoulder blades are not attached to the horse’s spine. Once you know these things, you can put them all together and train your horse.

Keep in mind that while you are working toward this position, the goal is not to “set” the horse’s head. We do not want to put a horse’s head in a certain position just because we feel like it should be there; we’re not aiming for some arbitrary “look” that somebody decided was right: “Oh, this looks right, so everybody should look like this.”

Instead, we want the horse to find a natural place for his head when he is balanced. Through correct work and stretching, the place for his head when all of his body parts are supple will be the correct position.