How does your relationship with your horse on the ground compare to the one you have when you’re in the saddle? The connection between these two is much stronger than many people realize. When we’re riding, we expect our horses to focus on us at all times and respond promptly to our aids. Especially in dressage, we emphasize submission and obedience while also striving for a harmonious partnership with the rider always leading the “dance.” But what we ask of our horses in the saddle makes a lot more sense to them if we have these same expectations and goals on the ground. They learn that there’s one set of rules in every interaction they have with us. As a result, we create a stronger understanding and bond with them.
The most successful upper-level dressage horses have this fundamental continuity between their ground training and their under-saddle training. The best demonstration of that is the in-hand work you see top trainers using to refine Grand Prix movements like the piaffe. But you don’t have to be a world-class rider to benefit from this concept. Among other reasons, we should all do it for safety’s sake. Let’s face it: horses are enormous and can cause serious harm to us purely unintentionally. By improving their obedience and respect for our personal space on the ground, we can greatly reduce our chances of getting hurt.
As you’ll see in the three skills I discuss in this article, there are many other rewards that riders of all levels can reap by aligning their expectations on the ground and in the saddle. Besides the big-picture goals I described above, you can also target many smaller, more nuanced details, like teaching your horse to respond to subtle leg aids or to relax into a bigger walk stride. Most importantly, when you eliminate the confusion caused by giving different signals on the ground and in the saddle—something that most people don’t realize they’re even doing—you’ll find your horse becomes happier and more relaxed.
I compare this relationship to a marriage. So long as one partner lacks understanding, neither will be happy. You must have a discussion and come to an agreement. Once you know where each other stands, you regain harmony. The relationship is always better after such discussions, even when they’re difficult.
To build this relationship, you need to recognize the importance of consistency. It’s easy to think that you’re applying all the same expectations on the ground that you do in the saddle, while in reality you might be cutting corners because you’re in a hurry to get to the ring or you’re distracted by anything other than your horse in that moment. Even if you have exceptional self-discipline in the ring, if you evaluate your behavior on the ground honestly, you might realize that your standards are lower there. Ask yourself, “Do I make it clear that my horse must never step into my personal space? Does he stand patiently? Do I treat him like a partner with respect, rather than indulge him like I would a pet? Do I expect and do these things every single time I handle him?”
To both show and command respect, you don’t have to dominate your horse—but you do need to be as consistent with your body language, aids and expectations as you are in the saddle. Just as you expect him to go forward every time you close your legs on his sides, you should expect him to obey each command on the ground promptly and obediently. That means you might have to pay more attention and be more self-disciplined than you’re used to. You must be prepared to reinforce your standards at any time, just as you do in the saddle. This holds true for everyone who handles your horse. We educate all of our staff to operate at the same high standard. We have both stallions and mares in our barn, so the need for boundaries is somewhat heightened. However, our expectations are the same for every horse we work with. The barn runs smoothly as a result.
I believe that if you don’t address issues on the ground, they will eventually show up in some way in your under-saddle work. To be consistent, you must make it clear to your horse that there’s always a consequence to his actions. You have a right to address every transgression, but you also have a responsibility to acknowledge and reward every positive development, even if it’s tedious to do so.
For example, every time your horse intrudes on your personal space—leans or pushes against you—immediately push back until he steps away. Press on his neck or shoulder with your knuckles or elbow or with the handle end of a whip. Repeat this correction until you get the response you want, even if that means shoving him rather firmly. When he does finally respond, reward him by leaving him alone. Then be prepared to correct him again the moment he invades your space. As with training under saddle, repetition is key. Keep it really simple: Make it undesirable for him to invade your space and leave him alone when he respects it.
The following three skills are great for testing your consistency on the ground and for improving your relationship with your horse if you suspect it’s not up to snuff.
A good relationship starts the moment you lead your horse out of the stall or paddock. I often see riders walking 6 feet in front of their horses, allowing them to dawdle behind in a manner that doesn’t at all resemble the kind of walk a judge wants to see in a dressage ring. Those same riders then ask their horses to produce big forward walks when they’re under saddle. That’s an unfair expectation.
I expect my horses to march alongside me wherever I lead them. I want their shoulders to be parallel to mine and their pace to match mine, no matter what speed I go. When I stop, they stop. When I back up, they back up. When I turn, they turn. They are ever aware of my body language and respectful of my personal space. There is slack in the lead line at all times, except when I’m using it to cue them. Any pressure on the line means something.
Horses don’t learn this overnight. It takes daily practice. The good news: Hand-walking is a great way to warm up your horse, both mentally and physically, before your ride. Studies show that walking horses for 20 minutes prior to work significantly decreases the likelihood of soft-tissue damage. You can do some of this walking once you’re mounted, but a good five or 10 minutes in hand helps to achieve this benefit. It also sets the tone for the day.
At first, you may need to carry a dressage whip, especially if your horse is on the lazy side.
1. Lead him to a safe, firm surface outside the barn where there’s plenty of room to walk and trot.
2. Position yourself so that your legs are parallel to his front legs and carry the whip in your left hand.
3. Then march forward! (If your horse has a big stride, be ready to sweat a little!)
4. If he lags behind, reach the whip around behind you—without looking back—to tap him on his side in about the same area where you’d use your leg if you were riding. If he breaks into a trot, that’s fine. Praise him for responding correctly and then ask him to walk at your speed.
Ideally, you want to produce the same beautiful forward walk we look for in the show ring, with his body straight, relaxed and aligned with his head and neck. The goal should be to get him close to overtracking (stepping his hind feet in front of the hoofprints of his front feet), if not actually overtracking.
5. When you’re happy with this walk, mix it up a little to test your horse’s responses. Apply pressure on the lead line to ask him to halt. The moment he does, relax the pressure.
6. Next, press backward on the line to ask him to step backward a few steps.
7. Walk forward again, then ask for a few steps of trot, come back to the walk, and so on. All this time, remain facing forward with your shoulders parallel to his. Are you getting perfect responses every time? How soon after asking?
Yielding to Pressure in the Cross-ties
Take advantage of another training opportunity while grooming and tacking your horse up in the cross-ties.
1. Now and then, gently press your knuckles, shoulder or whip handle against his rib cage—in about the same place where you’d give a leg aid—to ask him to take a step sideways away from you.
2. If he doesn’t move right away, increase the pressure until you get a response.
3. As soon as he moves, release the pressure.
Improving this skill and the response time will contribute to your lateral work under saddle. The cue you give him to move sideways is similar to the leg aid you’d give to ask for a leg-yield. Just as you expect him to grow more responsive over time to your leg-yield aids, so too should he become more aware of and obedient to these requests in the grooming stall.
This final skill is one that surprisingly few riders take seriously. Oftentimes when I see riders mount, their horses walk off before they even have their right foot in the stirrup. Then they get upset when their horses don’t halt well in their dressage tests, which significantly impacts their scores because there are at least two halts in every test above the Introductory Level. This is a perfect example of not having consistent rules and expectations. And, once again, there’s a safety factor involved. It can be dangerous for your horse to walk off before you’re safely settled and balanced in the saddle.
1. If you struggle with this problem, first accept some responsibility for it. By allowing the behavior to continue for months—or even years—you’ve taught your horse that it’s acceptable. Understand that you’re the one now changing the rules of the game. It wouldn’t be fair to suddenly punish him.
2. Instead, try to be sympathetic as you gradually introduce the new rule that he must stand patiently until given the cue—and one cue only—to walk: your leg aid. He shouldn’t try to guess what you want based on the rest of your body language. For example, he shouldn’t interpret you picking up the reins—or relaxing them—as a cue to move on. As with all your other aids, if you use your leg aid consistently and reinforce it whenever necessary, he will stop taking the initiative to move forward on his own. This, in turn, will improve the quality of your halts in the rest of your training.
3. In the beginning, if this is too challenging, ask your horse to stand still just long enough for you to place your feet properly in the stirrups, adjust your rein length and sit tall in the saddle. If he steps away as you’re mounting or after you’re in the saddle, but before you’re ready, ask him to halt again. Then pat and praise him, dismount, return to the mounting block and repeat the process. Don’t be in a rush to get on with your ride. This is important! If you’re really consistent, he’ll eventually learn that the easiest way out of this repetitive cycle is to simply stand still until you ask him otherwise.
Acceptance of contact: One important aspect of this lesson is your horse’s acceptance of the contact. Ideally, you should be able to feel a light contact throughout every halt while you maintain a neutral position: sitting squarely with your legs hanging naturally from your hips, your arms hanging naturally from your shoulders, without doing anything otherwise with your position, weight or aids. If he reacts in any way when you pick up the reins—for example, by stepping backward—then he’s not truly accepting the contact yet.
To tackle this problem, practice micro-halts: Ride at the walk for several moments, then ask your horse to halt for just a second. As he does so, keep a gentle feel of his mouth while staying neutral in your body. Then close your legs to ask him to walk on again without changing the contact in any way. With repetition, he’ll learn that the halt is a safe place and that he doesn’t need to do anything in response to steady, light pressure on the reins. This understanding is critical to performing good halts in the show ring, as he must not react in any way when you remove your hand from the rein to salute and then take back the contact.
As this practice progresses, you’ll find that the new mounting rule sets the tone for your entire ride, starting you off with a sense of control and harmony. No longer will your horse begin a session thinking he can choose his own adventure.
These three skills will help to strengthen your relationship with your horse on the ground and bridge that connection to your relationship under saddle. Beware of underestimating how difficult they can be to achieve. The concepts may sound simple, but their application is not. You’ll need to be very disciplined and systematic to truly master them. Remember, dressage is not just about riding; it’s a way of life for these horses. The deep bond you form with your partner must go beyond the ring and carry over into everything you do together.
About Nicholas Fyffe
Australian Grand Prix rider Nicholas Fyffe began his career competing in international three-day events. After deciding to focus on dressage, he worked intensively with top trainers in Germany. Since then, he has ridden six horses to the Grand Prix level, including the P.R.E. stallion Fiero HGF with whom he won the 2016 Adequan/USDF P.R.E. All Breeds Grand Prix award. Representing his native country, he has ridden on four Nations Cup teams in Wellington, Florida, and rode on the gold-medal-winning team at the 2007 Tri Nations Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa. Nicholas is based year-round in Wellington, where he and his husband, David Marcus, run a training and sales operation, Marcus Fyffe Dressage. He is a popular clinician known especially for his talent for developing young horses, having qualified many mounts for the World Young Horse Championships.
This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.