Riding Simplified

Riders need to understand the two basic systems of schooling to avoid using conflicting aids with their horses.

Here is an example of the forward riding system: I am riding Laurus, an Oldenberg gelding, in a half-seat, which encourages him to move freely and independently forward while jumping. This system is based on the stirrup. Terri Miller

On my training video site Equestriancoach.com, there is a section called “Fundamentals of Flatwork”—a progressive Riding Simplified training system. This system is based on the principles of the American forward seat and forward riding system. 

These basic fundamentals were first set forth by Federico Caprilli in the early 1900s and further refined in the middle of the last century by Col. Harry D. Chamberlin, Gordon Wright and Capt. Vladimir S. Littauer, whom I was fortunate enough to have trained with for five years during my Junior years.

See also: Jim Wofford’s Tribute to Caprilli

In the days before Caprilli, there was only one basic system of schooling (manège schooling) and the word signified this. Today we have two systems existing side by side: riding in central balance that is based on the seat (dressage disciplines) and riding in forward balance that is based on the stirrup (jumping disciplines).

The difference between dressage and forward schooling is not so much about the movements the horse is required to execute as it is about the manner and balance in which he executes them. The goal of riding in forward balance is to produce connected, ground-covering, efficient strides for an athletic sporthorse, enabling him to gallop, shorten, turn, stay connected and jump efficiently with agility. He must remain calm and alert.

Efficient schooling for any type of horse must be based on the type of balance at which he will be expected to perform. It makes sense that a rider needs to decide on the discipline and objectives desired of the horse and pursue them with the appropriate schooling system. 

At the very beginning levels of dressage, the forward riding/training system is perfectly suitable. It’s all about basic obedience of the horse without collection, and the starting levels of dressage are really no more than program rides.

Some jumpers at the advanced level may benefit from some exercises involving a degree of semicollection for short periods, especially the upper–level jumpers, but for the most part for horses who jump, the ideal is connected gaits in forward balance.

Confusing the Two Systems

Olympic, World and European Champions Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro demonstrate the advanced collection needed for piaffe. The foundation of this is on central balance, which is based on the rider’s seat. Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA
I am in a full-seat, which increases my leg strength and gives me more control of Laurus when needed. My balance and Laurus’ is still an example of forward riding. Our positions are vastly different to those of the central balance of Charlotte and Valegro in the photo above. Terri Miller

I have been extremely fortunate to have studied and ridden with some of the great masters of the sport in many disciplines—Capt. Littauer with equitation, hunters and jumpers; eventing on the U.S. team with Stephan von Vischy; Bert de Némethy on the jumping team; Germany’s Johann Hinnemann and Canada’s Christilot Boylen while in the dressage trials for the World Championships and Olympic Games.

From this base of knowledge, I have encountered a disturbing trend in many of my clinics around the country: riders who have been integrating some currently popular and useful European dressage methods originally designed for classical dressage and for its breeds into the schooling of American jumpers and hunters. This has led to a change in position that is based more on the seat than on the stirrup. Teachers and riders doing this are now wondering what happened to the quality of the American forward seat/hunter seat riding from the 1950s through the 1970s. They have confused two systems with different objectives. 

One specific area where I see this happening would be people riding young, uneducated horses with little or just basic education and applying advanced classical dressage aids. This confusion probably is the biggest misunderstanding that I encounter when teaching clinics.

 As one of the great dressage masters, André Jousseaume, states in his book, Progressive Dressage, “In order to speak in a clear language to a young horse, one must rigorously observe the principal ‘hands without legs and legs without hands.’” 

Conflicting Aids

The result of this confusion has been the use of conflicting or clashing aids, where the rider makes opposite requests at the same time, such as pushing and pulling. Asking a horse to increase his pace and pulling in restraint at the same time only confuses him. Applying the leg too early or too much while slowing down often interferes with the hand and sends mixed signals, especially to young horses. I see this especially in downward transitions from the gallop. 

Aids used in conflict with each other sometimes result from or are exacerbated by riders who are unstable in their lower-leg and heel positions: They pivot around their knees during downward transitions and inadvertently grip with their legs while trying to maintain security in the tack. Clashing aids can also stem from rider confusion or simply a lack of knowledge.

Only during collection or semicollection at an advanced stage of riding do the aids appear to clash, but collection is actually not the result of clashing but rather a sophisticated coordination of driving and restraining aids taught to the horse over a long period of time. 

The years I spent in the dressage sport really gave me the insight and education that I find invaluable in applying the appropriate aids for the appropriate disciplines. This has helped me enormously in my clinics by quickly identifying issues of clashing aids and confusion on the rider’s part, the horse or both as well as being able to express myself in a clear and simple language. 

It’s the same with riding. Things really go amuck when an uneducated rider tries to use classical dressage aids with a young, uneducated horse. One must speak to the horse in a clear, simple language. Horses respond and understand so much easier with simple, nonclashing aids, so why complicate the issue?

Littauer always said, “People who practice dressage without knowledge of that system is like putting the razor in a child’s hands.” 

To be certain, quality classical high-school dressage is an important educated type of riding, but it should not be confused with the flatwork, the position or the level of controls that are the aim of hunter, jumper and equitation riders.

Additional Reading

I want to credit the following authors and their books for their help in writing this article:

• Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse by Paul D. Cronin, 2004

• Common Sense Horsemanship by V.S. Littauer, 1951

• Hunter Seat Equitation by George H. Morris, 1971

• Progressive Dressage by André Jousseaume, 1978

Common Rider Problems

In addition to seeing riders using conflicting aids or classical dressage aids on uneducated horses, I often encounter some of the following issues in clinics that riders need to be mindful of:

• Minimal horsemanship skills—as simple as proper adjustment of stirrups and girth

• Poor leg positions—too far back and lack of heel depth in general, especially in two-point

• Riders who are not perfecting and utilizing the half-seat position where it is applicable

• Horses behind the leg—unresponsive to light leg aids

• A lack of understanding of the controls of the horse—rein and leg aids

• Horses over-bridled—way too many sharp bits

Bernie Traurig has won more than 60 show-jumping grands prix and has represented the United States in international competition several times, including the World Championships. He competed in eight World Cup Finals and was the winner of the U.S. World Cup League four times.

A sought-after clinician around the world, Bernie launched EquestrianCoach.com in 2010. An educational online video resource, the subscriber-based website features training topics presented by Bernie and more than 60 coaches, including 21 Olympic and world class trainers and competitors. 

One section is called “Fundamentals of Flatwork”—A Riding Simplified progressive training system. These videos present a Riding Simplified approach to develop and train horses for all jumping disciplines as well as for young and lower-level dressage horses. It discourages conflicting aids or clashing aids.

Designed to be easily understood and performed by the novice rider and sophisticated enough for the most skilled rider, the videos are created to present a visual means to train a green or uneducated horse to an advanced level and they are shown in basic, intermediate and advanced sections.

For more information on how to subscribe to the video site, go to www.equestriancoach.com

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

Jessica Phoenix
Jessica Phoenix: Get Your Horse Fit with Cavalletti
Develop a Strong Galloping Position
Sharon White
Sharon White: Become A Self-Confident Leader for Your Horse
Natalee Haggan and MEM Here's 2 You ©Shawn McMillen
Jim Wofford: What’s the Point?