One of my favorite sayings is, "Practice does not make perfect ... perfect practice makes perfect." If you endlessly practice the wrong thing with your horse while expecting improvement, you are not only training your horse wrong, you are crazy. Endless repetition of error with an expectation of correct change is a good working definition of insanity.
This means we need a solid understanding of the correct theories of riding and training horses to school them effectively. If we do not have an idea of what "perfect" looks like, then we will not know if things are "pretty good" or not. We know we are not going to see "perfect" in this lifetime, but we need to have that theoretical standard in our mind as a measure of our progress to date. This requires a very clear idea of classical theory, whether in dressage, cross-country or show jumping. The Oxford American Dictionary that I consulted defines "theory" as "a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based." (There's that nasty word "practice" again.) To practice with any hope of improvement, we have to understand what—and how—we should practice.
It follows, then, that if our training and riding theory is less than correct, our results will be less than satisfactory. In my travels to clinics around the country, I am always on the alert for either variations from classical theory or common-sense errors. I try to correct them when I can, not because I view myself as the sole source of this theory, but because my role these days—along with that of many other instructors and coaches around the world—is to preserve those classical principles for the next generations of riders and trainers. François Robichon de la Guérinière, Gustav Steinbrecht, Federico Caprilli, Wilhelm Müseler, Brig. Gen. Harry D. Chamberlin, Bertalan de Némethy, Jack LeGoff, George Morris ... they lit the lamp. We are just keepers of the flame.
The Basic Dressage Seat
I am going to talk about some deviations from classical form that I have observed recently in each of our three disciplines. Because everything we do in the saddle should be based on dressage, let's examine your dressage position first. The foundation of this position is a three-point connection between your seat and the saddle. Those three points are the two seat bones and the pubic bone. The classical position does not involve resting on your tailbone (coccyx).
Students have told me they are being taught that, because we must keep a vertical line from our ears to our heels, we should keep our spines "flat"—with no curve in the lower back—as well. A flat back is not exactly correct, because it does not conform to the natural shape of the human spine. At the halt, a slight forward arch in the small of your back conforms to the natural shape of your spine, which means it is the easiest for you to maintain. In addition, a slight arch gives your waist the greatest possible range of motion. This range allows you to follow your horse's movement without separating your balance from his.
This is important because all of your efforts to obtain an independent seat are really efforts to establish harmony and unity between your horse and yourself. Once you achieve that harmony, your aids can begin the long-term conversation with your horse that you hope will lead to classically correct dressage.
Speaking of aids, your legs are the most important aid available to you, especially at the beginning of your dressage work with your horse. Because of this, you need to take special care with your leg position. Instructors who tell you to keep your feet parallel to your horse's sides are only half-right. If you turn only your foot parallel to your horse, you will lock your ankle, because this is an unnatural position for the human ankle joint.
Those instructors should be telling you to rotate your thigh forward so your entire leg, not just your foot, is parallel to your horse's side. There are two reasons for this. When you turn your thigh forward, you place the flat of your thigh on the saddle, rather than the round part on the back of your thigh. This immediately makes your leg more stable. In addition, when you turn your thigh forward, you change the way your pelvis meets the saddle from an "A" shape to an upside-down "U" shape. This allows for a much closer connection between your seat and the saddle, which is all to the good.
While you are practicing this, make sure you do not pinch your knees. As a relaxing exercise, occasionally lift one leg at a time away from your saddle beginning at the halt and later on in motion. When you first attempt this, you will not be able to do very well, because you will find that your hips are quite tight. Do not try to lift your leg very far at first—until you stretch and develop your hip joint, you can get a heck of a cramp in your hip. You will need a great deal of stretching, Pilates and power yoga to be able to relax and stretch your thigh at the hip joint.
While you are at it, don't forget your best tool for developing a deep, secure, independent dressage position: riding without stirrups. At first, your toes will point away from the horse. Keep stretching your hip joint, and eventually you will find you can ride with a parallel leg and a deep, influential seat.
Rhythm Produces Jumping Accuracy
The correlation between dressage and show jumping is so widely accepted that we can take it as a given. But while we are talking about dressage and show jumping at the same time, let me ask you a question: What would you say if I told you, "Cross your stirrups on your Training Level horse, go into collected canter and come across the diagonal with flying changes every stride"?
You would look at me as if I had just crawled out from under a rock, right? Then you would tell me you can't do that on your horse yet, because both you and he are not yet at a high enough level to be able to do those flying changes correctly. I ask this question at my clinics all the time, and when people answer in this way I tell them they are absolutely correct, and then I always add that the most important word in their answer is yet. Just because you are not yet ready to do something with your horse does not at all imply that you will never be able to do it. Don't focus on what you can't do yet; focus on doing correctly the things you need to do now in order to be able to do certain things later on with your horse.
Let me, therefore, make the following point about show jumping: If we admit that we should not attempt some things before we are ready, then what in the world are we doing having an inexperienced rider try to "find a stride" to a jump? When coaches tell lower- or mid-level students to find a stride, they are setting up those students to fail because those students do not YET have the experience to find a stride. I do not view it as the role of coaches to tell riders what they cannot do ... I view their role as telling their students what to do now to improve to the next level.
Dressage collection in the future will be based on your present ability to ride a 20-meter circle with a calm, balanced, engaged, rhythmical working trot. Show-jumping accuracy in the future will be based on your present ability to canter with a calm, balanced, engaged, rhythmical working canter to an obstacle. Shortcuts to collected trot never work; neither do shortcuts to developing your accuracy over obstacles. Keep the rhythm, and collection and accuracy will both follow naturally and correctly.
Practice REAL Cross-Country Skills
Finally, I want to make a few comments regarding cross-country. It amuses me that event riders are willing to go to Germany and spend six months learning how to do dressage correctly. They will then spend several winters show jumping on one of the sunshine circuits, with all its attendant expense and effort.
But when it comes to practicing the phase that contains the most risk, they seem content to slow canter over ever-more-narrow barrels in the middle of a grass paddock and call that "cross-country schooling." That is not cross-country schooling—that is show jumping over cross-country obstacles. It is certainly a necessary skill these days, but that is not where the risk is. These days, the highest risk is at the plain fences in the middle of a field. It seems to me that a true student of the sport would want to spend some time with riders and trainers who routinely gallop and jump at much faster speeds than we ever attempt—and do so in relative safety.
The English Grand National and the Maryland Hunt Cup are two of the most difficult steeplechase races in the world and have been for more than 150 years. Yet there has never been a human fatality at the Hunt Cup and only one at the Grand National in all those years. While these races are longer and the horses run faster and jump higher, they are safer than our sport. If event riders want to be able to gallop in balance between cross-country fences, and to jump them safely at speed, they should find opportunities to gallop racehorses, to school hurdle and timber horses and to learn how to ride well with shorter stirrups.
Any steeplechase trainer worth her salt would be dumbfounded these days, watching our supposedly experienced riders galloping to a maximum oxer in the middle of the field with flapping reins while standing straight up in their stirrups. I promise you that some event riders are now riding with longer stirrup leathers cross-country than for show jumping. Most sports contain an element of danger, if you don't know what you are doing.
If you are going to become the complete horseman that you dream of becoming, you must study each part of modern eventing. If you neglect classical principles, you are dooming yourself to failure. And if you study only two of the three parts of modern eventing, you are risking disaster for yourself and—more importantly—your horse.
This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Practical Horseman.