Posts from the ‘learning to ride’ Category

Conceptualizing Contact

The curator intentionally makes this entry without still or video images, in order that a reader may imagine connecting the sensations individually involved in effecting contact when astride.

“Obtaining and maintaining soft contact- that is contact with the leg, seat and, reins is a considerably more complicated concept than any addressed thus far by this course. It entails, on the part of the rider, an awareness of his calves and –through his boot and saddle flap– a “feel” of the side of the horse. Simultaneously, the rider must be aware of the inside of his thigh, his seat bones, and lower back, and– through the saddle flap, the seat of the saddle, and the pad underneath it– “feel” the horse’s back. Also simultaneously, the rider must be aware of his own shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers, and –through his gloves, reins, and bit– the horse’s neck and head to get a “feel” of the horse’s mouth. It is all to be connected.

Actually, it is more complicated than that, or vastly simpler, once you understand that what we really want to do is feel and then control the horse’s individual hind legs, and, thereby controlling it’s back and shoulders. Which is why it is more apt to say that we “put the horse in front of the rider’s leg” than to say that we “put the horse on the bit” as an indication of a more intense, more energized degree of “riding on contact”.

Now, if all of this is complicated for a rider, who is, after all, a human being possessed of intelligence superior to the horse which, partner though it is becoming, is still an animal, then learning to go “on contact” is immensely more difficult for a horse. The horse must have that identical set of awarenesses, albeit in reverse, and must submit its animal will to its “feel” of, i.e. stimulation by, the rider. So be sympathetic, and question yourself if things are not going well.

More specifically, recheck the correctness of your overall position, and your position’s ability to fluidly follow and absorb the motion of the horse, without, in any way, interfering with the balancing gestures of the as yet undeveloped equine athlete. To do this, it is wise for the trainer, whether novice or vastly experienced, to develop or
refurbish his own seat and “feel” for contact by riding schooled horses alternately with green prospects. Whether riding a green or schooled horse, the mechanics of putting the horse “on contact” are the same. “

3.Bibliography: V.S. Littauer, Field School

3.Bibliography: V.S. Littauer, Field School

    Schooling Your Horse : a Simple Up-To-date Method of Schooling Hunters, Jumpers, and Hacks

by Vladimir S. Littauer

This is the first non-fiction book I read about horses, 55! years ago. I still chortle when I remember that the bookmobile librarian phoned my mother to ask permission to check the book to me because it was an ADULT book. I was captivated by the images of Barnaby Bright, The Captain himself astride. I could see Barnaby Bright’s muscles ripple, and feel the joy and power of unity in motion. I studied, made notes, practiced.

Littauer, a Russian cavalry officer, emigrated to the US and should be credited with founding the American system of training working and showring hunters and tournament jumpers, and riding in the forward seat. Dressage riders will find that all the elements of the Training Scale are addressed, without fanfare or cerebral machination. His texts, for which people who knew them credit his anthropologist wife, Mary, are just plain lucid. And his program for schooling unfolds understandably to the mind of the horse and for the progression of the horse’s physical development. Especially for Thoroughbreds, whose minds tend to learn faster than their bodies are able to develop. Anyone who brings horses through field school, events through novice level, or foxhunts will benefit from this book.

    Commonsense Horsemanship

by Vladimir S. Littauer

Published first in 1951, my copy is the 1963 Second Edition, hot off the presses when it arrived via the bookmobile and came to occupy my mind and strum my essence.

I had already read Schooling Your Horse, and was practicing on the neighbors ponies and horses. I had never taken a riding lesson. I handled and rode unsupervised, trained the ponies the way I trained the family G. Sheps. I loved, petted and groomed them, admonished them when they misbehaved, rewarded lavishly when they behaved well, especially when they offered new, desirable behavior. Safety was not an issue; I learned to keep my head and feet out of harm’s way. I loved the horses, they loved me. What could go wrong? Why worry?

But I was more than receptive to knowledgeable help. I was ravenously hungry for it, when along came this seven course meal. After describing the nature of the horse, and it’s motion, leading to why to sit as he prescribes, Littauer narrates how to sit a horse, thence to control it, and school it. Next to teach others to ride, and to teach others to school their own horses. Craft understood. Field School accomplished. Foundation of the horses’ futures laid.

Although there are photos, diagrams, and sketches, the Littauers’ words were and are worth a gazillion pictures. Every time I pluck Commonsense from my shelf, I find new passages of illumination.

Holding it now, I see that the very first note I made inside it’s cover refers to this passage:
(PAGE 218)”In order to be a horseman he must forget himself, identify himself with the horse, feel that it is he, himself who has changed leads at the canter or taken the jump; only then will there be that complete union and harmony which produces true art.”

What’s Science Got To Do with This?

Garden wall 016

The Proceedings of the 8th Conference of The International Society for Equitation Science are available here:

Training Principles

9/23/12 In keeping with the mission of DressageUnderground, which is to collect and exhibit only excellent examples of the multiple facets of the discipline, crafts, arts, and self-disciplines that constitute Dressage, this article is included.

It is written by Dr. Camie Heleski – Dept. of Animal Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824 USA for The International Society for Equitation and was published in Astrid Appel’s DressageUnderground is printing it in full, and followed by a video defining proper cavesson fit.

This curator will preface the article by reminding the reader that riding IS training, that to ride the correct progression of exercises correctly is to train a horse correctly, and conversely, that to ride a correctly trained horse incorrectly is to un-train the horse, and that even to ride exercises correctly, but in incorrect progression, is counter-productive.

“Equitation Science is a relatively young field. The profile of Equitation Science has been raised significantly during the last decade due to an emphasis on measuring the objective, quantifiable aspects of horse-human interactions.

For example, we can use rein tension gauges to objectively measure how much tension is taking place between the bit and the rider’s hands during different riding exercises. This coupled with carefully monitoring the horse’s behaviour in response to different rein tensions begins to give us an understanding of which tensions are perceived more or less positively by the horse. We might further add to the rigor of this type of experiment by also measuring heart rates and, perhaps, cortisol levels.

Just because we can utilize quantifiable measurements that are repeatable by other scientists, does this automatically benefit the horse’s welfare? Does it automatically answer our initial question? For example, what of horses that have already become habituated to high levels of rein tension over many years of being ridden in that manner. They may show no significantly aversive behaviours as compared to a horse ridden with a lighter hand, they may show no significantly different cortisol levels or heart rates as compared to the more lightly ridden horse. Does that give us an automatic “green light” to proceed with relatively high tension riding? In my mind, it does not.

There is an important interplay between scientific scrutiny and ethical assessment that must take place if we truly wish to enhance the horse’s wellbeing in its interactions with us. Scientific evaluation and ethical assessment should not be at odds with one another, rather they should complement one another. As stated in the 2010 conference of this same meeting, science without ethical assessment can be problematic, but so can ethical assessment (or kneejerk assumptions) without scientific study.

Horses are a highly adaptable species. If we stall them individually for 23 1/2 hours per day in a solid walled box stall, exercise them for 1/2 h/day in an indoor arena, yet they show no evidence of ulcers, loss of bone density, nor stereotypic behaviour, does this make it an acceptable housing method? If we survey a warm up arena, and note the 10 most harshly handled horses in the arena (from our human perspective), yet, upon measurement, they show no measurable differences from 10 control horses, what does this tell us?

The benefits of science and its application to the field of equitation science surely outweigh its limitations, but we must always remember to keep our eyes open, watch the whole horse, listen to the whole horse and sometimes remember to trust our horsemanship instincts that brought us to this field to start with.

Does your training stand the test of science? The following 8 principles were originally defined in the peer-reviewed scientific literature (McGreevy and McLean, 2007). The application of these principles is not restricted to any single method of horse-training, and we do not expect that just one system will emerge. There are many possible systems of optimal horse-training that adhere to all of these principles.


1. Understand and use learning theory appropriately. Learning theory explains positive and negative reinforcement and how they work in establishing habitual responses to light, clear signals. (Note that “positive” and “negative” when applied to reinforcement are not value judgements, as in “good” or “bad”, but arithmetical descriptions of whether the behaviour is reinforced by having something added or something taken away, e.g., pressure. For example, when the horse responds to a turn signal and the rein pressure is immediately released, negative reinforcement has been applied.)    It is critical in the training context that the horse’s responses are correctly reinforced and that the animal is not subjected to continuous or relentless pressure. Prompt and correct reinforcement makes it more likely that the horse will respond in the same way in future. Learning theory explains how classical conditioning and habituation can be correctly used in horse-training.

2. To avoid confusion, train signals that are easy to discriminate There are many responses required in horse-training systems but only a limited number of areas on the horse’s body to which unique signals can be delivered. From the horse’s viewpoint, overlapping signal sites can be very confusing, so it is essential that signals are applied consistently in areas that are as isolated and separate from one another as possible.

3. Train and shape responses one-at-a-time (again, to avoid confusion) It is a prerequisite for effective learning that responses are trained one- at-a-time. To do this, each response must be broken down into its smallest possible components and then put together in a process called “shaping”.

4. Train only one response per signal To avoid confusing the horse, it is essential that each signal elicits just one response. (However, there is no problem with a particular response being elicited by more than one signal.) Sometimes a response may be complex and consist of several trained elements. These should be shaped (or built up) progressively. For example, the “go forward” response is expected to include an immediate reaction to a light signal, a consistent rhythm as the animal moves in a straight line and with a particular head carriage. Each of these components should be added progressively within the whole learned response to a “go forward” signal.

5. For a habit to form effectively, a learned response must be an exact copy of the ones before. For clarity, a complete sequence of responses must be offered by the horse within a consistent structure (e.g., transitions should be made within a defined number of footfalls). Habit formation applies to transitions in which the number of footfalls must be the same for each transition and this must be learned.

6. Train persistence of responses (self-carriage) It is a fundamental characteristic of ethical training systems that, once each response is elicited, the animal should maintain the behaviour. The horse should not be subjected to continuing signals from leg (spur) or rein pressure.

7. Avoid and dissociate flight responses (because they resist extinction and trigger fear problems) When animals experience fear, all characteristics of the environment at the time (including any humans present) may become associated with the fear. It is well-known that fear responses do not fade as other responses do and that fearful animals tend not to trial new learned responses. It is essential to avoid causing fear during training.

8. Benchmark relaxation (to ensure the absence of conflict) Relaxation during training must be a top priority, so when conflict behaviours are observed in the horse, we must carefully examine and modify our training methods so that these behaviours are minimised and ultimately avoided. To recognise the importance of calmness in enabling effective learning and ethical training, any restraining equipment, such as nosebands, should be loose enough to allow conflict behaviours to be recognised and dealt with as they emerge.

by Dr. Heleski – Dept. of Animal Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824 USA

Source: 2012 ISES Conference

2012 Summer Digest: International Society for Equitation Science

The Proceedings of the 2012 Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science

are available here:


Just for Fun: Stephen Colbert’s Televised Dressage Lesson

Humor reins….err…reigns


About once every four years, historically, this curator wishes he had a television. For the 2012 Olympiad, the internet filtered for me, leaving mornings free for horses here, realtime.

This morning, this is the funny thing that fell through the screen:

(To go straight to it, click the top line)

WorldClass Warm-ups include Long&Low, EVERYDAY

Free Translation Widget

In recent months of sizzling summer-extreme heat and drought, here near the Confluence- I’ve watched innumerable videos of 2011 Aachen, The European Dressage Championships, and several other European Dressage shows, and have been inspired by such good riders, more as a matter of  ‘who knows, rather than who’s news.’

While the US Young and Developing Dressage Horse Championships and US National Grand Prix and Intermediare Championships were in process the last few weeks, at Wayne and Gladstone, I resorted frequently to live stream and a variety of news sources to glean new insight into progress by US competitors toward the ideals of Dressage.  For the tests themselves, internet videos provide excellent vantage points, typically better than being there.  And when I see one test performance clipped, I seek, and often find,  more videos of the same performance, recorded from other vantage points.

What I miss by not actually being there, is that I don’t see the warm-ups preceding the tests, as one can, if situated  cleverly at contest venues.

So over time I have surfed avidly for film clips of warm-ups by riders I admire, and who moments thereafter received high marks from FEI Judges. I have found few, alas, very few.  My current favorites of warm up clips, is Steffen Peters (US) and Ravel at 2009 Aachen, where they won the Grand Prix, Grand Prix Special, and Grand Prix FreeStyle. warming-up  for the Grand Prix Special which is, you may know is THE TEST of shortest duration, requiring the highest degree of collection for sustained  for the longest duration of any of the FEI TESTS.

(A new GPS test, written by the FEI, at the behest of the IOC, and much to the chagrin of the International Dressage Riders Club, for the purpose of entertaining network television viewers of London 2012, will be used from October 1, 2011 through December 31, 2012. I just read the new test. Containing all the same movements as the ‘normal’ GPS test, it is even shorter- more compact, and requires more muscular stamina. I think it an unnecessarily difficult means of testing against the ideal. Causing me to wonder, for our horses’ sakes, how to get television production under control. )

A view of Steffen Peters preparing Ravel for their 2009 Aachen Grand Prix Special triumph: ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….



And here’s what I see…from zero to 1:26 Steffen is loosening and promoting Ravel’s engagement  by posting vigorously, emphatically rising as vertically as possible, canting forward only by the inclination of his head and the visor or his cap. When he touches the saddle, he barely pats it. But he does pat it, to which the horse reacts by opening his thoracic spines upward.  Steffen opens the inside of Ravel by counter flexing and eliciting one stride of counter shoulder fore before riding each corner as a quarter volte. In this posture, for this horse’s degree of development, a quarter volte is three or four strides, rather than two, as in collection. Again counter flexing a stride before beginning a circle, he then ‘drives on,’ forward and down, asking for increased engagement into even contact, including, for the purpose of this exercise, the contact of the rider’s passively tense calf with horse’s latissimus dorsi, through saddle.

Contact with the rider’s hands, held wide apart as the rider’s hips, well below the horse’s withers, and therefore sensed by the horse from the rider’s hips, rather than from the rider’s elbows as when the riders hands but a hand’s width apart and just above the horse’s withers, is through the snaffle rein to the corner of the horse’s mouth and through the curb rein only by the weight of the curb rein and bit felt by the horse at its poll. The “drive on” is effected by the rider’s posting momentum including the projection of his center forward and the flexion of the rider’s calf each time rider rises with the horse’s inside leg. The rider’s hand senses to coming of throughness from behind and gives to permit forward energy flow, effecting repeated ‘half-forwards’  The horse’s posture is horizontal, weight distributed evenly fore and aft. Tail swinging indicates lack of spinal tension. Neck long, open and low, to poll below withers, flopping ears! Facial profile inside the vertical and moving toward the vertical as the exercise proceeds. Corner of horses mouth between point of horse’s shoulder and horse’s elbow.

Steffen executes the exercise as I find it is written in classical literature. This is how it is done. The first 86 seconds of this tape is the answer not only to “what is long and low?” but the current probe “How long and low is TOO long and low?” This tape exemplifies the limits.

In the very next seconds, and onward, Steffen administers exercises he has programmed to ready for the soon to be performed test. And there is vastly more to be learned, not the least of which is the relationship between half-pass and passage, by and for  those who have moved closer to this level of  development. About the rest of the tape I may write later, if only for the crystallization of my own thoughts. I chose to not edit, to not curtail, the tape because I did not want to remove any available context.

But back to long and low, everyday long and low:

What we don’t see in this clip is what preceded the administration of the exercise. Reasonable surmise is that he enjoyed a 10 minute walk ‘trail ride,’ mounted, from stable to the group warm up ring, where among other contestants, he continued to loosen with longitudinal and lateral exercises at trot and canter, awaiting his ten minutes of exclusive use of the private warm-up court penultimate to entrance to the test arena. And may have entered the private court at collected canter, just before the video starts. Such sequential build-up to performance is rarely, if ever afforded at lesser than International Championships venues.  Nonetheless, the first 1:26 of this clip is relevant to the work of all of our horses, at every stage of their progressions. Large circles, with the best possible contact,  long and low, emphasizing maintenance of rhythm and tempo and promoting engagement, is, early on, the lesson itself, for a horse in field school. It is valuable therapy for a horse coming out of rehabilitation. And it is essential preparation for a day’s lesson, or for test performance.

For advancing medium level horses, and further developing advanced horses, this exercise is included not only in warm-up, but also warm-down. As such horses tend to become too strong, it is best to leave the day on a soft, light note, making it easier to resume the next ride with softness and lightness.

Oh, almost forgot! I couldn’t find a clip of Ravel’s 2009 Aachen GPS, but here’s one of his triumph in the Freestyle, preceded, I imagine by a similar, if not identical warm-up.

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