Improve Your Schooling with Theory

The past masters of riding can make your future schooling more effective.

I think it is important to live through the four seasons. Remember this from Ecclesiastes 3? “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens.”

For me, each season has something different to offer, and each requires something different from us as horsemen. Thinking of seasons and horses may seem outmoded in a modern world of year-round competition, but riders can profit from some consideration of seasons for their horses, rather than 12 months of climbing the points/money-won/qualification ladder.

Training the sporthorse has been revolutionized over the past 100 years. Fortunately for me, I’ve been here for most of them. Riders of my generation were carefully taught that putting a horse in collection was detrimental to a horse’s galloping and jumping. How wrong we were! Modern sporthorses are “cross-trained,” regardless of their specialty. Show jumpers consistently use sophisticated dressage movements, many upper-level dressage riders use cavalletti and gymnastics and eventers use upper-level dressage and show-jumping techniques. The end result is a horse who is comfortable across the spectrum of his movement, from collection to extension. Shannon Brinkman

I completely understand when people move to more temperate climates in order to be able to ride outdoors on good footing in the winter. However, those people have almost invariably dedicated themselves to a life of unending competition. The harsh fact is that upper-level success in any equestrian discipline requires total dedication, yet at the same time, riders overlook another harsh fact—that success in competition is based on successful training at home. To me, that means wintertime work.

Our concept of the seasons is the traditional winter–spring–summer–autumn cycle. It is possible to think of horses similarly, but rather than the traditional cycle, think:

• first, preparation;

• then, testing;

• next, achievement;

• and, finally, rest and reflection.

Note that these segments aren’t necessarily three months in duration; you can have several cycles of them in a 12-month period. For example, when dealing with a horse of some experience, you can leg him up for a couple of months (preparation); go to some local, unrecognized competitions (testing); then get a good ribbon at a recognized show (achievement)—followed by a period of relaxation (rest and reflection).

American professional baseball catcher Yogi Berra said a lot of funny things—for example, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” What he was getting at was that if you study a lot of theory, after a while it sounds as if all you have to do is take the steps theoretically laid out for you, and you will succeed. Horses don’t work like that. Both horse and rider have good days and not-so-good days, and our plan must allow for this.

“OK,” you say, “but what do you mean by a plan, Jim?” I’ll show you, but it will take me a minute.

Many of us are just stirring after a long winter’s nap/hibernation/quarantine and beginning the preparation of our horses, but most of us make a mistake the moment we step into the arena; we don’t have a plan. “Never commence work without being absolutely sure of what is to be done.” Have you heard this before or something similar? Did you hear that in a clinic or on some podcast? I hope so, but my point here is that I first ran across it in The Manual of Equitation of the French Army for 1912.

Hey, I saw your eye-roll—“Oh, boy, here he goes again about theory, when all I want is for my horse to go better so I can win more ribbons.” I hope you win those ribbons. I like for my students to be ambitious, and success in competition is one measure of improvement in our riding. But how we improve is important, and to adopt an entirely heuristic (trial-and-error) attitude toward learning to ride is to be condemned to make every possible mistake. I don’t mind the pain this will bring you—you bring it on yourself through your unwillingness to learn from others’ mistakes. However, the pain these mistakes impose on horses is too great to bear; to avoid them, you must study your craft and that means theory.

In École de Cavalarie, a great theoretician said, “Without theory, the practice will always be uncertain.” François Robichon de la Guérinière (1688–1751) also said, “… practice without true principles is nothing other than routine.” François knew a thing or two; he invented the shoulder-in and counter-canter, some of the most valuable training tools we have. Alois Podhajsky, former director of the Spanish Riding School, said, “Theory without practice is of little value, whereas practice is the proof of theory. Theory is the knowledge, practice the ability.” Point is, we can’t truly make progress in our development as a rider until we understand the interaction of theory and practice.

Introducing riders to theory can be complex and disconcerting for them, so I try to keep it simple. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Later on, I introduce my riders to the German Training Scale (Rhythm, Relaxation, Connection, Impulsion, Straightness, Collection). But they can get confused, so at first I keep it simple: “calm, forward, straight.” It sounds simpler than the Training Scale, but when you study it in Academic Equitation by General Albert Eugène Édouard Decarpentry (1878–1956), it has a simplicity that is, as Holmes says, on the other side of complexity. Read Decarpentry, and you will understand what I mean.

Inside Leg and Outside Hand

In the meantime, what are we to do with all this theory we learn? Make a plan, that’s what; and that plan is, first, to improve the connection between your inside leg and your outside hand. Why start there? Because when you have your horse between your inside leg and outside hand, you have him between the accelerator and the brakes. Once you can control your horse’s direction and speed, you are well on your way to improving him because the inside leg–outside rein connection is the key to the kingdom of your horse’s power and athleticism.

To first teach, and then improve, this connection, we need exercises. Fortunately, our studies of theory have provided them. The first exercise I want you to work on is turn on the forehand. After you warm up your horse by a few minutes of walk–trot–canter, walk down the long side of the arena on the left hand. I hope your horse is naturally “light to the leg.” If not, carry a dressage whip in the hand closest to the wall—in our present case, your right hand. Half way down the long side, halt. While keeping a light, consistent feel of your left rein (it will become the outside rein in an instant—outside the bending, not outside the arena), open your right rein by moving it away from your horse’s neck. If you make a mistake with your reins, drop the right contact once you have indicated open rein to your horse, don’t take more feel of the right rein. Be very clear with both your leg and hand aids, and at all costs avoid “clashing” your aids (kicking and pulling at the same time).

Turns on the forehand can be performed either from the walk or the halt. At first, I prefer starting the movement from the halt because it is easier for my students to balance their aids. Once your horse is standing quietly at the halt on the left hand, open your right rein while maintaining a direct connection with the left rein. Move your right leg into the third leg position as indicated in the sidebar on page 23, behind the girth. Your right leg will cause your horse to move his hindquarters to the inside of the arena, while your left rein prevents him from walking away from the place of the exercise. This is an important, “teachable” moment. You are, perhaps for the first time, balancing your horse between the accelerator and the brakes. This is the beginning of collection, although the completely trained horse is still far down the road.

Make sure your horse describes a larger half-circle to the left with his hindquarters than he does with his forehand, and at all times make sure he is walking in a free, flowing four-beat rhythm. This first lateral movement, and all the others I will teach my horses, are forward movements that happen to move laterally. The degree of bending (slight in the turn on the forehand and still slight for shoulder-in) becomes more pronounced in the haunches-in and two-track. Move forward first, then laterally. From this perspective, even the halt and the rein back are forward movements.

Once you are successful, move on for a few steps of posting trot before returning to walk and attempting a turn on the forehand in the other direction. You will notice your horse turns on the forehand more easily in one direction than the other. This is to be expected, and you will cure this imbalance with more work on the weak side than the strong side. Eventually, your horse will respond equally to your aids on both sides of his body and thus will seek a balanced feel of the bit on both sides of his mouth. Once you have achieved this by using your increased knowledge of theory, you will be well on your way to producing a horse who is truly “calm, forward and straight.” As you’ll realize when you get acquainted with the great theoreticians, that is the beginning of everything.  

Leg and Rein Effects

Note that I spoke about your legs before considering the effects of your various rein aids. The legs create while the hands receive.

Leg Effects

1. Both legs on at the girth for impulsion

2. One leg at the girth for impulsion and/or bending

3. One leg behind the girth to control/displace the hindquarters

Rein Effects

1. Direct rein to control speed/impulsion

2. Open/leading rein to indicate direction

3. Neck/bearing rein to indicate direction

4. Indirect rein in front of the withers to affect the horse’s neck in front of the withers

5. Indirect rein behind the withers to affect the horse’s body behind the withers

About Jim Wofford

Based at Fox Covert Farm, in ­Upperville, Virginia, Jim Wofford competed in three Olympics and two World Championships and won the U.S. National Championship five times. He is also a highly respected coach. For more on Jim, go to

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Practical Horseman.

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