Getting a supple bend


Many, many years ago when I first watched a Dressage competition I can remember thinking ‘wow that is impressive….if you are into that sort of riding’. My initial thoughts were that Dressage was not for me, I didn’t see the value in it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For starters, I was beginning to see and feel holes in my riding and in my horses. I knew something was missing and I had a sneaking hunch it had something to do with training. I attacked it from two directions; without even knowing it. First, I started taking Classical Dressage lessons; second, I signed up for a horsemanship clinic.

The Classical Dressage lessons taught me that even though I rode a western saddle, good riding is good riding. It transcends tack. I learned the techniques of basic Dressage such as getting a proper bend; stretching a horse’s top line, turn on the fore and hind and much more. In learning these I had to develop proper leg, hand, body and seat positions. Besides the Dressage techniques I also learned the philosophy and application of these concepts. Such as how my balance impacts the way my horse moves, the importance of developing an independent seat, leg and hands. I learned that gravity is truly the only thing that keeps me on my horse; I just have to keep him between me and the ground to avoid a catastrophic dismount……

The first Horsemanship clinic that I attended was taught by clinician Harry Whitney. From Harry I learned Dressage ‘from the horse’s point of view’, which is his slogan by the way. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was working on the solution from both parts of the equation, riding and training. Over the years I have attended many follow-up clinics with Harry and others from which I learned the ground work mechanics of Dressage. I learned that Dressage not only works a horse’s body, it works his mind. I also learned a great deal more about the anatomy of the horse which helped me better understand the postures that I was asking from my horse.

Putting this knowledge together and applying it proved rewarding, challenging and not always successful. It was a process of trial and error; with the error all on my part. This process continues to this day and I have incorporated these Dressage principles into my routine. Every time I work with my horses, I prepare them with bending, reaching down, turn on the haunches, turn on the fore. If I notice stiffness in a particular direction then I might do some additional exercises to help him work it out.

The same exercises that a competition Dressage trainer/rider uses have multiple benefits beyond the show ring. Keeping a horse flexible and supple extends their riding usefulness well into their senior years and becomes more important as they age. I also consider the phrase that ‘a strengthened muscle is a lengthened muscle’. As I work my horses and leg them up, I am working large muscle groups that will always benefit from a stretching routine. A basic warm-up routine also establishes a ‘time to go to work’ attitude in both me and the horse.

Some other practical applications of Dressage principles that have saved me and my horse include riding along in tall grass only to realize we were quickly becoming tangled in downed barb wire. I was able to stop my horse dead in his tracks and extricate him in a slow controlled fashion by turns on the fore and the haunch. Had I tried to dismount, I myself would have been tangled along with the horse. If he panics in that moment we are both in trouble. Another example was when my gelding stepped off the trail on the side of a mountain and we dropped ten feet instantly. I was able to direct his feet and position his body to get us both back up on the trail. There have also been plenty of times when a mountain biker approached us at a high rate of speed on a blind corner without announcing themselves and we had to execute a quick side-pass.

Ever since I implemented Dressage principles into my routine, I have had much more flexible, supple, calm and responsive horses. Whether you look into Classical Dressage or Western Dressage, the focus is the same and equally useful. Dressage is after all, training. This training will be a huge benefit to you, your horse and it has real world applications beyond the show ring. Don’t get me wrong, I think the show ring can be a wonderful thing and a marvelous way to test yourself, but if that is not your thing, you will still benefit from Dressage.

Thanks for reading

Tom Kelner