Ba­sic Horse Be­hav­ior for Dres­sage Suc­cess

Dressage Today - - The Clinic - By Kamila Dupont with An­nie Mor­ris

F or thou­sands of years, peo­ple have used the horse to im­prove their lives. No other an­i­mal has played such an im­por­tant role in civ­i­liza­tion—in work and play, in sport and war. The horse has been an in­dis­pens­able part­ner. Be­ing with horses gives us a way to re­late to na­ture on a deep per­sonal level. For me, rid­ing dres­sage is a pas­sion. It is an ex­pe­ri­ence that con­nects the spir­i­tual, phys­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual as­pects of my life. Be­fore I ever get in the sad­dle, I spend a lot of en­ergy es­tab­lish­ing a con­nec­tion with each horse. I eval­u­ate his in­di­vid­ual tem­per­a­ment and mood daily and ad­just my re­la­tion­ship to him ac­cord­ingly.

Horse Be­hav­ior

The key to suc­cess is to learn about the ba­sic na­ture of horses. My train­ing phi­los­o­phy comes from watch­ing horses in herd sit­u­a­tions. I use this in­for­ma­tion to un­der­stand how the horse’s es­sen­tial na­ture af­fects our ef­forts to train him. Horses learn quickly when given clear com­mands by a rider who is fair, pa­tient and con­sis­tent. When we make the horse our ally, we will en­joy each ride much more and look for­ward to the next one.

Since horses are herd animals, there will al­ways be a peck­ing or­der. One horse is the leader un­til a stronger in­di­vid­ual comes along and pushes him down a peg. As rid­ers and han­dlers, we must es­tab­lish a lead­er­ship po­si­tion from the be­gin­ning. I teach ev­ery stu­dent how to be the “al­pha” when in­ter­act­ing with her horse. Horses may test the peck­ing or­der, es­pe­cially when they are learn­ing some­thing new or dif­fi­cult. If they don’t re­spect us, we can get hurt eas­ily. You can learn to set lim­its early on by try­ing some of these un­mounted ex­er­cises, and your re­la­tion­ship with your horse will be more har­mo­nious.

Be the Leader

Your in­ter­ac­tion with the horse starts in the stall. Ask the horse to back up even be­fore he leaves the stall be­cause this teaches him to re­spect your space. To do so, stand next to the horse’s shoul­der, look him in the eye and use the word “Back” with a cluck of the tongue. A horse does not au­to­mat­i­cally un­der­stand or ac­cept you as the leader, and some­times you must push his chest or shoul­der with your fin­gers. With an in­sen­si­tive or dom­i­nant horse, use a small crop and tap him on the chest or shoul­der. The more you ad­vance, the far­ther back he should step. When he re­sponds cor­rectly, say “Ho,” to stop him.

Another ex­er­cise to try in or out of the stall is to lower the horse’s head. From the left side, put your left hand on the front of the horse’s face and press gently with your thumb and third fin­ger­tip so he doesn’t pull away. Then, reach up to the poll with your right hand. When the horse ac­cepts a small amount of pres­sure from your fin­ger­tips, start to press harder un­til he un­der­stands that you are ask­ing for the head to lower. Pa­tience, per­sis­tence and rep­e­ti­tion are key. Some horses are quick to catch on but oth­ers find this dif­fi­cult. Ev­ery time he drops his head—even a lit­tle—re­ward him by say­ing “Good,” re­leas­ing the pres­sure and let­ting him put his head up again. The goal is to even­tu­ally lower his head down al­most to the ground. The horse must trust and re­spect you to drop his head. That’s the be­gin­ning of a suc­cess­ful re­la­tion­ship. When you ask him with a sub­tle, light touch and he of­fers to lower the head right away, you know the horse

un­der­stands. Not only does low­er­ing the head make bridling eas­ier but it also re­minds the horse that he needs to be obe­di­ent to all your com­mands.

From the ground, you can also prac­tice mov­ing the horse side­ways. Start on the left side of your horse. Hold the lead line in your left hand and use your right-hand fin­gers on the haunches or the bar­rel to push his haunches away from you as you stand by his bar­rel. Try to keep his head on the same spot as his body ro­tates around, step by step, like an un­mounted turn on the fore­hand. Use a tongue cluck as re­in­force­ment. When he moves over, re­ward him ver­bally and with a pat. Try this on the right side, too. Once you can see the horse is watch­ing you, use a lighter touch, give the cluck, wait for the re­sponse and re­ward. Next, you can in­tro­duce a light, flex­i­ble whip and use a tap along with the cluck. You want to see at least three or four steps of the hind legs crossing in both di­rec­tions.

Whether it is the fin­gers on the rein, the weight or the leg, the mounted horse must learn to yield to pres­sure from the aids. The un­mounted ex­er­cises teach the horse how to re­spond to aids that will al­low you to guide and di­rect his en­ergy from the sad­dle. When the horse re­sponds quickly and con­fi­dently on the ground to the re­quests to yield his neck and his haunches, the (un­mounted) rider is firmly es­tab­lished as the leader be­cause the horse re­spects and trusts her au­thor- ity. Now the rider is ready to mount. The horse is calm and obe­di­ent and he is ready to learn some­thing.

Mounted Ex­er­cises

Re­al­ize that you taught the horse to re­spond to your aids from the ground and once mounted you give the same aids for the same re­sponse from his back. From the halt, test the re­sponse to the leg by rid­ing a turn on the fore­hand. From the left, you use the left leg slightly be­hind the girth, the right leg is pas­sive and the left rein main­tains flex-

From the halt, test the re­sponse to the leg by rid­ing a turn on the fore­hand.

Kamila Dupont demon­strates the place­ment of the left hand on the front of the horse’s face and the right hand at the poll to teach the horse to lower his head.

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