How Can I Practice Dressage on Trail Rides?

Top dressage rider and trainer JJ Tate shares ways to keep your dressage horse fresh and build a better partnership with him--outside of the ring.
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Begin your dressage session on the trail with 15 to 20 minutes of walking, encouraging your horse to march forward and swing his back while asking for a little bit of poll flexion.

Begin your dressage session on the trail with 15 to 20 minutes of walking, encouraging your horse to march forward and swing his back while asking for a little bit of poll flexion.

Question: I’m a Training Level dressage rider—hoping to move up to First Level soon—and I compete six or seven times a year. My horse is experienced through Third Level, so I’m the weak link in our partnership. My work and family schedules allow me to ride only three or four days a week. I like to trail ride, but I worry about spending too much time on the trails and not enough time practicing dressage. How many days a week should I be training in the ring? Are there things I can work on during trail rides that would help my dressage?

Answer: I have always felt that the best place to be on a horse is in the woods, enjoying each other’s company. The whole world seems to make sense in those moments! Trail-riding strengthens your relationship, making the work in the ring that much better. After all, dressage was originally part of military training, testing that riders had control over themselves and their horses. There’s no better place to check on this control than outside the ring, where you face real-life distractions.

When following the main principles of classical dressage—slowly and gradually building up your horse’s innate abilities by encouraging him to travel in a round self-carriage—where you ride is not as important as how you ride. Horses aren’t naturally designed to carry our weight. We sit on their weakest parts and hold on to their most sensitive parts. To help them develop the strength to carry us comfortably without getting injured, we need to teach them how to engage their cores and become stronger, more flexible, softer in their joints and calmer in their minds.

Three to four days a week of excellent work can achieve this better than daily mediocre work. And you don’t have to be in an arena to make a healthy difference in your horse’s body. Doing some work outside gives horses so much joy in their minds. They are working hard and they don’t even know it!

Start with 15 to 20 minutes of walking, allowing your horse to stretch out and lubricate his joints. This will give you time to connect to him as well—and to settle into the present moment, letting go of work and family issues. Give him as long and free a rein as possible, maintaining just enough contact to control him in case the unexpected happens (safety first!), while encouraging him to march forward and swing his back. Ask for a little bit of poll flexion so that he’s softly on the bit and chewing nicely; avoid holding him tightly on a hard contact, which will make him brace in his topline.

Meanwhile, allow the beauty of the woods to inspire you to sit a little taller in the saddle, even challenging yourself to look up at the tops of the trees to help with your posture. Concentrate on staying grounded in your seat while processing what your horse is telling you about his balance. Being able to focus on yourself while you are taking in all the exciting outside distractions will also help in the show ring. Finding inward focus and Zen is very important no matter where we are or what we are doing in life. For me, everything is about balance, not only my horse’s way of going, but balancing my goals as well as taking in the wonder of what’s happening right now.

You can gain a lot of thrust, one of the biggest components of First Level, by walking up and down hills, trotting up hills (avoid doing too much trotting downhill, which loads the front end) and doing forward canters in an open field. Continue to ask your horse to stay round and soft over his topline, always working toward shifting more weight from his front legs to his hind legs. Keep your seat bones in the saddle when going uphill, but close your knees a little so you can lighten your seat and stay in balance while offering him some support. Going downhill, lean back and close your knees slightly as well. The more you can support your horse with your seat, knees and thighs, the less pulling you’ll have to do on the reins.

Especially going downhill, ask your horse to take very measured, even steps. This will help teach him to lower his croup, sink into his hocks and flex his stifles, which will, in turn, improve his ability to “sit” in his collected dressage work.

In your canter work, make sure you do the same amount on each lead. I’m a big fan of counting strides: If you canter 20 strides up a hill on the right lead, make sure you canter up the hill 20 strides on the left lead as well.

Transitions are another great thing to practice outside the ring. Do lots of trot–walk–trot transitions on the trails and canter–trot–canter transitions in an open field. Again, count strides—for example, trotting for 15 to 20 steps, walking five steps and then going back to trot; or cantering 10 strides, trotting 10 strides, then going back to canter. You can even advance to “almost trotting,” which can eventually lead to piaffe (especially when turning toward home). Ask your horse, “How small can we make our steps today?” You may be surprised one day when he responds, “I can trot in place. I can piaffe!

As your training progresses, you’ll be able to practice all the Second Level lateral movements on the trails, too. Do little leg-yields back and forth from one side of the trail to the other and mix some shoulder-ins into the rest of your work. Think of this as weight training, always loading each hind leg evenly—for example, doing as much shoulder-in to the right as to the left.

With your training schedule of four days per week, I’d experiment with working two days in the ring and two days out, either alternating days or combining activities: doing concentrated ring work first and then riding outside afterward as a reward. See what makes your horse go the best—and what you both enjoy the most. If we are not having fun, I say, “Why do it?” Enjoying your horse and your partnership should always come first; winning ribbons is a far second.

Originally from Wisconsin, dressage rider and trainer Jessica Jo “JJ” Tate made her FEI debut more than 20 years ago, at the age of 16, while training with her mentor, U.S. Dressage Federation Hall of Fame inductee Charles de Kunffy. Two years later, she relocated to Europe to train with Hungarian Olympian Gyula Dallos for two and a half years. Since then, she has trained eight horses to the Grand Prix level, earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals and claimed many regional and national titles. In 2006, JJ was a World Cup finalist, the FEI High Point Champion at the Winter Equestrian Festival and long-listed for the World Equestrian Games. The following year, she and Donnermuth finished seventh in the Small Finals at the World Breeding Championships for Young Dressage Horses in Verden, Germany.

Now based in Landrum, South Carolina, in the summer and Wellington, Florida, in the winter, JJ recently became an ambassador for Brooke USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to alleviating the suffering of working horses, donkeys and mules around the world. “What I most like about Brooke,” she says, “is that we don’t send farriers, vets or supplies over. We teach the owners how to take care of these animals themselves and become self-sustainable in the long run.” For more information about Brooke USA, go to brookeusa.org.

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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