by Laura Crum
No, not in real life. Just as a subject. And right up front, I know nothing about dressage, and I am hoping those who do will correct all my misperceptions. So this post is just to show you what comes to me when I read posts by other folks about dressage. It will reveal how ignorant I am (gasp). Feel free to make fun of me and/or show me where I am wrong. Seriously.
So the other day I read a post about dressage that really rang a bell for me. I’m not going to name the author because I’m afraid I may be misinterpreting what she said. And I certainly don’t mean to insult her. I believe her to be fairly accomplished at dressage. Anyway, her post was about the timing of cues.
I read this post and both laughed and nodded my head in agreement. The gist of it was that many people make very heavy weather about knowing exactly where a horse’s feet are at all times. Certain cues MUST be given when a certain foot is in the air or on the ground or beginning to rise or…you get the idea. And people go round and round trying to describe how you learn to feel the footfalls.
Well…yes, I have never had anything to do with dressage. But yes, also, those of us who have ridden reining patterns must cue for a specific lead departure in one stride, and a flying change, and a solid, balanced stop from the high lope, and a spin (would you dressage folks call that a pirouette?). And we, too, got a lot of input (much of it conflicting) on how exactly to cue these things. And yeah, lots of it had to do with cuing when the feet were in a certain place.
Its not that this is untrue, mind you. It’s just very hard for most of us to do. And as the author of the blog post I read pointed out, you will NOT learn to do it by sitting on your couch gathering advice from your internet horse buddies. You won’t learn to do it by listening to your trainer expound, either. The only way you will learn to do it is by many, many hours in the saddle. And for a lot of us, me included, you still won’t be able to say, “Oh, now Fluffy’s left front foot is rising and so I will cue him.” Uhmm, no.
What actually happened for me, and I believe this to be true of a few others, is that after many years of cuing many horses for, let us say, a left lead departure, I learned, mostly through the process of trial and error, to feel when the horse could easily take the left lead. And I would cue at that point. Basically I learned this by cuing at the wrong time and getting the wrong results, and then cuing at the right time and getting the right results. I did not learn it by making up a theory about it or studying the footfalls. A more astute student can (and perhaps will) tell me that what I learned was to feel when a particular foot was rising or planted or what have you. And perhaps I did. But I never thought of it that way. To be perfectly honest, in my opinion, thinking gets in the way of feel—and feel is what counts.
So after a lot of years in the saddle I could cue for a lead departure or a flying change or a spin, and my horse would execute the thing I asked. I might be able to tell you a little story about how I did it, but the truth is it was mostly about feel. And I got the feel by lots of hours on that horse. After doing it wrong over and over again, I finally knew the feel of when to cue. I knew both how and when to push the right buttons.
But every horse is a little different. So I would have to get used to the feel of a new one, and learn his buttons. The more horses I rode, the easier that was. And since I spent my youth riding a wide variety of horses, it was reasonably easy for me to adapt to a new mount. However, I want to stress that it still took some of that same trial and error—a willingness to experiment with what worked (and what didn’t work) for that particular horse. It wasn’t as if I had some kind of theory that I applied to all horses. In fact, I think theories are vastly overrated.
I’m not sure that this concept of mine about feel versus theory will apply at the higher levels of dressage—perhaps someone will tell me. I do know that if, for instance, I want my horse to shoulder in and sidepass so he is in the exact position I need to reach the handle of a tricky gate, I don’t think about what cues to use. It’s all about the feel. I cue as I sense the horse can/will respond appropriately. Does this mean I intuitively know where his feet are? Could be. I darn sure don’t know consciously.
So what I took from that dressage blog was this message. You can study theories till the cows come home—it won’t help you that much. Wet saddle blankets and a willingness to experiment are what will teach you how to cue effectively. And once you learn how to do this, it will be more about recognizing a “feel” than anything else. And this was exactly the way I learned to cue a horse effectively, in my own, much humbler, disciplines.
And yes, pity the poor horse that you experiment on. Well, yes and no. In my own case, my primary “victim” was Gunner, a horse I bought when he was three years old. I trained him and competed on him in first cowhorse, then cutting, then team roping. And yeah, lots and lots of wrong cues in that process, believe me. But Gunner still learned how to be an effective competitor in all three of those events. And from this kind, willing, talented horse, I learned how to give effective cues.
(Gunner turns thirty-three this year. I have owned him for thirty years. He was my competition horse until he was fourteen, I used him for light riding until he was twenty, he was turned out to pasture from twenty until he was thirty–one, and since then he has been home with me, being fed all he will eat and generally being spoiled. is still with me and still doing well, after a setback just before Xmas where he got cast. I spend time with him every day, hand grazing him, and he seems happy. I know I’m happy to have him with me and don’t begrudge one bit of the time, effort or money I’ve spent on him over the years. Maybe we don’t always have to pity the horse we learn with. For Gunner, I think, his partnership with me has paid off well—for both of us.)
So that’s my dressage theory for you—lots of hours in the saddle and a willingness to experiment with what works. Its all about intuitive feel rather than theories. And feel free to rip me apart. My riding today looks mostly like this. Not exactly dressage.
And, please do vote on my free book contest (my previous blog post—here is the link). Even if you are a dressage queen who considers all western horse events uncouth, and even if you don’t read on Kindle and don’t like mysteries. Just vote for the title that sounds even a little interesting to you. I would really like to get your input. If you have time, please leave a comment—either on this blog or on facebook—I will link to this post there. Thank you!
Liberating. That's what that is. I spent quite a bit of time in dressage lessons and had to quit that because of my knees but I do know what you mean. I couldn't tell you which foot is doing what to save my life but my horses will go where I point them at the speed I desire and we achieve this by mutual feel. Meanwhile, the kids that ride with us who want to learn dressage struggle with which foot for a few minutes and then gallop off having fun and get the correct lead because the pony is balanced under them that way. I think it's similar to the difference between a short order cook (delicious food, few simple ingredients, no recipe) and a fancy gourmet cook (delicious food, many varied and esoteric ingredients, complicated recipe.) Both achieve delicious food.
Kerrin--I agree. Of course, since I don't know anything about what it takes to do dressage, my opinion doesn't count for much (!)
I do think that's it's important to understand that the timing of our cues does matter, and improperly timed cues can actually interfere with what you want. Otherwise people tend to get after their horses for not doing what they ask instantly, when it really wasn't the horse's problem. And I do think that understanding how the feet move can be a precursor to feeling it, and the feel is the most important.
Knowing where the feet are and being able to move them specifically can be very helpful in lateral work - it makes it easier for the horse.
And dressage can be about precision - getting that walk/canter transition precisely at A - so precision in aids can be helpful.
But you're right that just knowing this does nothing to produce it. It is a matter of feel, and learning the feel. It can happen through trial and error and hours in the saddle, or it can happen through good coaching, or both.
Intuitive is good, and theory is good - it's all good if the rider is willing and able to pay attention.
Kate--I actually agree that good coaching can be very helpful--and watching a trainer/coach who is skilled is very helpful, too. But these things won't do much for you if you don't spend those hours in the saddle. And I don't think theory is "bad" per se, but I sure have seen it get in the way a lot.
Also I agree that poorly timed cues will absolutely interfere with getting the results you want. But I don't think there is any way to learn that timing without trial and error. It WOULD be good if more people realized that the error is often on their own part, rather than the horse's part.
Thanks for an insightful comment--as always.
I have no clue about leg cues, and it's always on my to-do list every year. As far as knowing where my horse's feet are at all times - all I want to know is that they are under the horse. Anything other than that is unacceptable :)
Hi can i ask you a question about california ownership proof on a horse? my cousin wants to purchase her granddaughters lesson horse for her. it was listed as an 'adoption' but that will not be proof of ownership, in Texas, Arizona and new mexico you get permanent hauling papers from the livestock inspector. how do you go about that in california? thank you so much Cece Osborn
GunDiva--Well, I once had to know those pesky cues, but I fear I may have forgotten most of them. And I'm with you on the feet being under the horse--not falling down is my number one priority.
Cece--I am no expert on this subject. I have never "adopted" a horse. A bill of sale is what I have always been given, when I bought a horse. This would be my proof of ownership. Papers and a signed transfer if the horse is papered. A vet provides a health certificate for hauling out of state. If you buy livestock at the auction you get paperwork from the livestock inspector. Perhaps someone more knowledgable on this could comment here.
I've seen loads of kids getting hung up on what leg is where when, where the horses nose is, whether it's got too much, too little or enough lateral bend. A lot of them get frustrated and go back to enjoying themselves playing games and jumping, which is how it should be.
A lucky few have an innate feel for riding - they're the ones who will go far if they put the hours of work into it.
For lesser mortals, the hours of work helps us figure out what works and what doesn't, but realistically, we're the ones who won't make it to the Olympics. sigh.
Martine--I've seen both horses and riders get very frustrated and burnt out on the "perfectionism" that is innate in reined cowhorse work, and, I suppose, in dressage, also. Such work is not for everyone, human or equine, but it seems to suit some.
Yes, yes, yes! It's what I call the 'ah ha!' moment. You ask wrong, wrong, wrong, and then one day you [accidentally] get it right and the horse responds as if by magic... and then you have to strive to repeat that feeling. As you go, you get better at getting it consistently, until you can just time it.
It's like posting... I can stand in the middle of the ring and say 'up, down, up, down' til I'm blue in the face. One day, the rider is going to GET IT and then it'll get easier and easier to do until they don't have to think about it any more. We can talk about outside leg meeting the seat all day, but you can't EXPLAIN feeling.
Dom--That is EXACTLY what I mean. I taught my son to post simply by posting in front of him. We never talked about it. One day he started trying (not too successfully) to do it, and within a week, he got it, and ever after posted easily and fluidly. I am finding that the less I give verbal directions (though I do, when I think it is truly needed), the faster true learning seems to occur. And its just coming from many hours in the saddle and the freedom to try new things without focusing too hard on theories/instruction. In a way, I think that "thinking" is the enemy of learning "feel."
Timing is what it's all about, in horse training and dog training and even in training my uncooperative children >g<
And you are completely right: sometimes the instructor's job is to let the student fumble around until she gets TWO STRIDES CORRECT and shout "YES! That thing you just did! A-a-a-and now it's gone, can you feel the difference?"
Uhm, that student would be me, pretty often.
Aarene--You always make me smile. I often cue with less than great timing, in my old age, and because I once knew how to get it right, I always KNOW I failed in the timing. I guess this is sort of helpful...at least I don't blame the horse. But I'm acutely aware that I can't ride the way I used to. Fortunately Sunny is tolerant.
I read that post as well. The author succeeded in making me laugh and making her point.
I have found timing to be most important for lateral work and canter departs. Knowing the mechanics is no substitute for the trial and error which you described, although I do know a few tricks for finding the right timing for leg yields.
I feel very fortunate to have spent so many hours in the saddle with my horse over the years. At this point, our communication is much less about timing and more about a clear picture. Sometimes I am pretty sure that I messed up the timing, but he did what I wanted anyway. He knew what I meant, even if my cue was late or early. It gets really fun when I just let that happen and stop worrying so much about the mechanics.
Val--Oh yes. That is so true. The horses that I rode for many years would do what I asked even when I got the cue/timing wrong--because they knew what I wanted. Just exactly as you say. And that is one of the most delightful things about a long term partnership with a good horse. Great comment--I couldn't agree more.
I think I read that post too from that blogger, and I must say if you enjoyed that, the one about the sitting trot prior to the footfalls made me laugh out loud and wince at the same time. That being said, I've always heard its a matter of feel, and I hope I get the feel one day. My trainer will say, "yes, you did it! Didn't you feel that!" And I have to admit....I'm so shocked we did the movement right, I forget to "feel." One day!
Hi, just found your blog, and have thus far loved reading it!!
Michelle--Yeah, I read the one about sitting trot, too. It was great--very funny and accurate. I just didn't have that much to say about it. But it was right on--and in some ways the point was the same. It just takes lots of hours in the saddle to learn to do it--there aren't really shortcuts you can take through "theories".
Marissa--Glad you are enjoying the blog. Welcome!
In a dressage canter pirouette or even a walk pirouette, the four feet must keep moving. Canter pirouettes, the horse is actually "cantering in place." A reining spin is done with one foot planted. In dressage terms, the "spin" even done slowly would be marked down because the horse was "stuck"--that one "planted" foot not moving in "canter" or walk.
Regarding doing something "right" (FINALLY) and having it fall apart a stride or two later, I have said, "I get everything, the horse and I are 'together' ... and then ... the horse takes another step."
;o) It's all about balance and re-balance.
TBDancer--That is interesting. Thanks for the insights. I think a "pirouette" would look very "hoppy" to those of us accustomed to the flat, smooth motion of a reining type spin.
"To be perfectly honest, in my opinion, thinking gets in the way of feel—and feel is what counts."
In a clinic/lesson situation I will find myself starting to "over think" and then it all goes to hell in a hand basket.
The more I put myself into those situations the better I am getting at trusting my own "feel" when I am under pressure.
I may not be able to tell you where a hind foot is at mid stride but I can sure as hell tell you (without looking) what lead I am on. It shocks me how many people have no idea!
I agree, horsegenes. Knowing what lead you are on is pretty fundamental to all disciplines.
Dressage is a useful study, but it's a tool to help you get to where you want to go rather than an end in itself. At least in my opinion. A lot of it focuses on rhythm and balance, and some horses find moving in rhythm and balance under a rider a more easy thing to do than others.
It also means a lot of wet saddle blankets to learn that feel.
(If you've not read anything by Alois Podhajsky, I recommend it. My Horses, My Teachers is one good one, The Complete Training of Horse and Rider is another. If you've not read the first one, you should...he has superb stories about the Lipizzan stallions of the Spanish Riding School)
Thanks, Joyce. Those books have been recommended by others--I must read them.
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