Develop Your Athlete With Dressage

Part 1: Olympian Christine Traurig preaches the principles of flatwork at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.
“It’s very important for these young people to understand that the development of the physical ability of the horse enhances his performance,” Olympic bronze medalist Christine Traurig said the first day of the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. | Amy K. Dragoo

Perhaps the 12 riders at the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session thought Olympic medalist Christine Traurig would be easy on them the first day of the clinic. After all, George wasn’t there, it was unseasonably hot and humid on the last day of 2015 and it was dressage day. When Christine kindly and thoughtfully checked each horse’s bit and bridle fit before the riding began, it appeared to be a softer start to the 10th annual clinic compared to George’s rigorous legacy. But when the long-legged dressage icon strode to the middle of the ring, she seemed to channel George’s no-holds-barred style. As Christine drilled the horses and riders, they were peppered with dressage theory and she cut them no slack in the South Florida sun.

“It is a journey to produce a horse,” said Christine, who also serves as the United States Equestrian Federation’s young horse coach. “It’s not just that you jump a certain height of fence and then you can advance to a bigger fence, but every equine athlete needs to develop, go to the gym and get stronger. It’s very important for these young people to understand that the development of the physical ability of the horse enhances his performance.” She emphasized that attention to correct flatwork improves the horse’s response when moving from fence to fence; develops strength, muscle tone and the horse’s way of going; and promotes soundness. 

“When we stand in front of our horses and touch both bit rings and pull down on the bridle a little bit, we want to see that to the right and to the left, you have just one little wrinkle,” Christine said to Daisy Farish, TJ O’Mara, Mitch Endicott and Dani Roskens. | Amy K. Dragoo

Although George took a sabbatical from teaching the session, Christine and Olympic gold medalists Beezie Madden and Laura Kraut stepped in to provide three intense “What Would George Morris Do” days of instruction at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida. Designed to identify and develop a new generation of talented U.S. riders, the clinic included Victoria “Tori” Colvin, Kelli Cruciotti, Ailish Cunniffe, Lucy Deslauriers, Mitch Endicott, Daisy Farish, Eve Jobs, TJ O’Mara, Ransome Rombauer, Danielle “Dani” Roskens, Katherine Strauss and Vivian Yowan. 

The days were packed with dressage, gymnastics and jumping. In the first of a three-part series, Christine schooled the jumpers on improving their flatwork. 

The Training Scale

“Christine talked about building the horse’s muscles over the topline,” said rider Katherine Strauss, 17, riding Executive. | Amy K. Dragoo

Christine used the time to demonstrate the dressage Training Scale components as steppingstones to building equine athletes as well as the key to gaining a competitive edge as it applies to jumpers. The basis for dressage, the Training Scale includes rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness and collection. “Christine talked about building the horse’s muscles over the topline,” said rider Katherine Strauss, 17, adding that dressage does carry over to show jumping. “It was all connected. Those muscles are so instrumental to what we ask from our horses.” 

After Christine examined each horse’s bit and bridle fit, a habit she learned when she was young, she explained, “When we stand in front of our horses and touch both bit rings and pull down on the bridle a little bit, we want to see that to the right and to the left, you have just one little wrinkle,” she said. “The bit should not hang too low in the horse’s mouth so the horses don’t play with the tongue or try to pull the bit up and down.” 

Rhythm and Relaxation In the Warm-Up

Christine urged Lucy Deslauriers, riding Hamlet, to not be pulled out of the saddle unless she chooses to go to a two-point seat. “The seat is the supporter between leg and hand,” Christine said. | Amy K. Dragoo

As the riders warmed up, they were instructed to walk on a long rein. “The horse should be marching with a ground-covering walk and show a willingness to go forward while maintaining the stride and tempo without constant nagging from the rider, thus maintaining rhythm and relaxation, the first two components of the dressage Training Scale,” she said. 

Still going forward, the riders took up more contact with the reins short enough to lightly feel the horse’s mouth yet long enough to allow forward movement. “I always say the ring finger is the thermometer to the horse’s mouth,” Christine said. “Contact is never demanded. Contact is developed, and the more you are able to implement contact, the more you can influence the position of the neck and the neck is the extension of the back.” She continued, “When you have a hot horse, you might not want to start with the rein too long. If you have a moment of exuberance, you have a measure in the rein that allows you to regain control.” 

The riders were instructed to transition to a rising trot, allowing the horses to loosen up. Christine believes that, for jumpers, it’s not necessary to sit the trot for an extended period of time. “Often I see in equitation classes that the horse slows down to 0.0 miles per hour to make it easier,” she said. “If that is what you have to do in order to sit the trot, the horse is not working through its back.” To fix this problem, start posting and moving forward.

“Make sure your posting is light with your seat. You do not want to be too forward with your upper body over the horse’s wither,” Christine said. “The upper body should be slightly on the vertical.” When rising in the posting trot, your weight should sink into your heel. “However, at the moment of sinking in, do not collapse the hip angle,” she added. At the down point of the post, you sit in the saddle. “I’m not suggesting you put an excessive amount of weight on your seat bones. However, really feel that you sink for a moment. Have a seat, even if it’s like the touch of a velvet glove. So soft.” 

Christine urged Lucy Deslauriers to not be pulled out of the saddle unless she chooses to go to a two-point seat. “The seat is the supporter between leg and hand,” Christine said. “You sink. You don’t sit heavily into the horse’s back. If he runs though your hand, you might put more weight on your seat bones—not to drive, but to stabilize the core to have a steadying effect on the direct rein. That is what core is all about: your lower back, your stomach, your knee. Seat is not just dead weight on your butt. Your horse does not dictate where you want to be in the saddle.” 

Softness was again employed when Christine talked about leg pressure, especially on hot horses who rely on a degree of contact from the leg. “It’s really important that the hotter the horse, your leg is not completely off because sooner or later you are going to have to put on the leg. Even if it’s a little degree on a hot horse, make sure that when you stabilize the tempo, there is a soft hug of your leg on the horse’s rib cage. So soft.”

Christine told Tori Colvin, riding Whisper Z, to remember that a horse in front of the leg does not mean that the horse runs away from the leg and tempo. It means a willingness to go forward. | Amy K. Dragoo

Christine suggested that 18-year-old Tori Colvin remember that a horse in front of the leg does not mean the horse runs away from the leg and tempo. It means a willingness to go forward. 

As the lesson continued, contact between horse and rider was developed to increase the horse’s front-to-back connection and suppleness and to steady his tempo yet maintain the rhythm, the repetition of his footfalls. A sound horse has only three correct rhythms: a four-beat walk, a two-beat trot and a three-beat canter. As Christine directed the riders to circle their horses to test bending and straightness, she explained the concept of rhythm. “In the scale of training, when we talk about rhythm, we talk about activity. We talk about the willingness to go forward without hurrying. For one step to be like the other, it is very important that the contact to the horse’s mouth is accepted. If the horse perceives that the contact to its mouth is like a disturbance, the rhythm will rarely be regular.” Christine said that contact to the horse’s mouth is not just from your fingers to the bit. Contact starts in your shoulder, and your shoulder allows the following, then the forearm allows the following, then the wrist.

Ransome Rombauer, 17, worked on perfecting the basics including getting her horse in front of her leg. She was reminded to not seesaw the bit but to take the horse forward to the bit while engaging the hind end. Kelli Cruciotti, 18, was instructed to keep the horse’s hind legs active. “I really like what she says about pushing the horse into the bridle instead of pulling into the bridle,” Kelli said. “Then you get more of a true frame and your horse’s back comes up and he is softer in the bridle.”

Connection and Straightness 

Daisy Farish, riding Double Play, was coached on determining how much leg and connection it takes to not only collect but also to go forward. | Amy K. Dragoo

If you bring the concepts of rhythm, basic contact and suppleness together, Christine said, you are already keeping the thought of connection in mind, calling it the horse’s acceptance of being ridden from leg to hand. If you want to connect the horse, you have to consider the unit of the horse: hindquarters to the bit. You should establish contact so that the trusting horse starts swinging through his topline, using his neck while seeking the bit without ignoring your hand. 

Straightness, she continued, is keeping the horse’s head in front of the shoulders whether going in a straight line toward a jump or bending around a turn to approach it. Similarly, his shoulders should be in front of his hind end so that he doesn’t lose alignment. When talking about bending, Christine said she often sees jumpers overbending and suggests riders think about the bend being in the body around the inside leg from the poll to the tail. If the horse is overbent, he could escape the bend via the outside shoulder through the outside rein or the hindquarters against the outside leg. 

Focusing on bending with TJ O’Mara, 17, Christine reminded him not to overpower but to let the horse be soft into the contact. She also instructed him to drive the horse from back to front to help with tackling jumps. 

Christine had the riders engage in an exercise to improve straightness and the arc of the horse’s body. It’s important to keep the entire body in line whether going in a straight line or bending on a turn, but sometimes it’s difficult to determine if the horse’s entire body is truly organized if parts of the body are “popping out.” To get the riders thinking about straightness, she had them choose a point along the line or the circle and ride toward that point. The horse’s forehead should look to that point along the line around the curve. Take care that the neck stays in the center of the shoulders to keep the horse’s body in line. “It’s very important to remember at this point that inside aids and outside aids always correspond,” Christine said. “If you bend your horse around your inside leg [at the girth] and the horse feels stiff with the haunches falling out, you will then have to consider the importance of the outside leg [slightly behind the girth] guarding the haunches and maintaining the haunches on the line.” Just like the outside rein compensates for the horse’s desire to overbend the neck and pop out at the shoulder, the outside leg is in charge of keeping the hindquarters on the bending line you choose. The use of the reins and the legs will help ensure the horse is truly straight. 

As Christine asked riders to change direction, she told them to indicate it by a slight movement of the inside rein away from the horse’s neck, also known as an opening rein, while maintaining the outside rein. The outside rein does the direction changing and should be low so that it can fulfill its role of maintaining boundaries of the neck and shoulder. You also change your leg aids so that your new inside leg is at the girth and your new outside leg is slightly behind the girth as it has to guard the haunches from falling out. “Suppleness is not about the increased flexibility of only the neck laterally,” she said. “It’s more about the acceptance in the horse’s body of being aided.” The stiffer side must be made more supple and the hollow side, where you may not feel a true contact, has to be more straight. “If you think, ‘Oh this bending is easy,’ make sure you realize that it could be improper bending. It could be crookedness and hollowness. That means that when a horse is hollow to one side or the other, the horse will most likely compensate with the haunches to the inside and the shoulders to the outside. That, of course, compromises alignment.” 

Dani Roskens said she learned to ride more into her hand and to get Dynastic Up’s hind end under. | Amy K. Dragoo

She said she has seen jumpers often opening their outside elbows to bend their horses. “When you open your outside elbow to a great degree, that allows the [horse ’s] shoulder to drift out,” she suggested. “Make sure your lower arm and outside rein are more parallel to the horse’s body. You can still follow the motion.”

Dani Roskens, 20, said that with Christine’s help, she is learning to ride more into her hand and to get the horse’s hind end under. “My horses are a little bit lighter, so it’s easy to not ride strongly,” she said. “It’s not necessarily to be heavy, but making sure I have a solid leg and hand contact. It’s important to have them balanced correctly.”

The Holy Rule

Eve Jobs said she learned that she needed to focus on getting Esprit 373 more into her hand and to stretch down into the bridle. | Amy K. Dragoo

Next Christine explained her Holy Rule when it comes to connection and maintenance of suppleness. “A horse is always off, around and ahead of the inside leg,” she said. “The destination of the Holy Rule is the outside rein and the outside leg. A horse that is in front of the leg is not a horse that runs away from the leg. When you stabilize the tempo, you tell your horse to slow down from a direct rein with the soft hug from your leg. Horses later find security from the contact. It’s a three-prong contact you ride your horse from: leg, seat and hands.”

Christine equates suppleness to flexibility—both laterally from side-to-side and longitudinally from front-to-back. She employed lots of transitions with changes in direction and from gait-to-gait as well as within the gaits. “A downward transition does not eliminate the desire to go forward,” she said. “The whole system of developing the athlete lies within any transition and every transition. It’s about developing the topline by doing suppling work laterally and longitudinally.” The longitudinal suppleness depends on the horse using his back, bringing it up. To achieve this, the horse has to trust the contact to let his neck descend into the contact forward and downward. This does not mean the horse falling on his forehand. It is a stretch through the arch of the topline.


Riders at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session—Top (from left) Tori Colvin, TJ O’Mara, Eve Jobs, Katherine Strauss, Christine Traurig, Ransome Rombauer and Vivian Yowan; bottom (from left) Mitch Endicott, Daisy Farish, Ailish Cunniffe, Lucy Deslauriers and Dani Roskens | Amy K. Dragoo

Finally, Christine worked on collection, the top of the dressage Training Scale, as she explained that collection is a component in engagement. It is increased weight bearing on the hindquarters, bending and articulation of the joints (hips, stifles, hocks), thus the lighter the front end of the horse becomes. A horse light in the front end is the most mobile horse, which is important for a jumper in tight turns.

Daisy Farish, 15, was coached on determining how much leg and connection it takes to not only collect but also to go forward, valuable when jumping a course.

This was Mitch Endicott’s second George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session and he thought it was fantastic. Out of all the things the 17-year-old learned from Christine, the main lesson that he will bring to the show-jumping ring is to stay connected with his horse to build energy as he approaches the jumps.

Eve Jobs, 17, said she learned that she needed to focus on getting her horse more into her hand and to stretch down into the bridle. “Honestly, the best thing that I learned is that impulsion is collection and collection is impulsion,” she said, adding that she needs to work on adjustability when it comes to riding a course so that her horse is in front of her leg and responsive to her aids. “This is my first year to do the WEF circuit, and I couldn’t think of a better way to start it.

Next month: Beezie Madden on gymnasticizing your horse

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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