Dressage Principles based on Biomechanics - Dr Thomas Ritter - ebook

Dressage Principles based on Biomechanics ebook

dr thomas ritter



The knowledge of the old masters - presented in an accessible way. The secrets of classical riding. Analysed for the first time and accompanied by many practical examples, ancient knowledge is presented here in a modern way. Almost forgotten, yet essential riding methods, such as the Bügeltritt (the position of the rider's foot in the stirrup) or ridden work with a cavesson are described in detail.

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Dr. Thomas Ritter


Dressage Principles Based on Biomechanics



Neither the author, the publisher nor any others involved directly or indirectly in the creation of this book can accept any liability for accidents or damage of any kind that may occur as a result of carrying out the exercises or lessons detailed herein. Readers should always ensure that the appropriate safety equipment is used including a riding hat to the minimum safety standard, riding boots or shoes, gloves and if necessary a body protector.


Copyright © 2011 Cadmos Publishing Limited, Richmond, UK

Copyright of original edition © 2010 Cadmos Verlag GmbH, Schwarzenbek, Germany

Layout and design OF THE PRINT EDITION: Ravenstein + Partner, Verden

Setting: Das Agenturhaus, Munich

Cover drawing: Maria Mähler

Drawings: Maria Mähler

Inside photography: Shana Ritter, Thomas Ritter, Bettina Herzner (photos of Dorothee Baumann-Pellny), Candace Kimbell (here →), Amelia Gagliano (photographic originals from which the paintings were made: here 1 →, here 2 →, here 3 →, here 4 →, here 5 →)

Translation: Dr Thomas Ritter

Editorial of the original edition: Christa-Maria Ossapofsky

Editorial of this edition: Claire Williams

E-Book conversion: Satzweiss.com Print Web Software GmbH

All rights reserved.

All rights reserved: No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978-0-85788-004-8

eISBN 978-0-85788-640-8







Fundamental Aspects of Equitation

Philosophical Considerations

Goals of Dressage Training Based on Equine Biomechanics

The Three Pillars of Training

Training Principles

The Alphabet Principle

The Root Principle

The Water principle

The Aikido Principle

The Pottery Principle

The Medicine Principle

The Ping-pong Principle

The Corner Principle

The Principle of the Narrow Track

Workspace and Equipment


Lungeing Cavesson

Lungeing Surcingle

Lunge Line


Lungeing Whip


The Gymnastic Principles of the System – a Trip through History

Thomas Blundeville (circa 1522–circa 1606)

William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle (1592–1676)

Ernst Friedrich Seidler (1798–1865)

Gustav Steinbrecht (1808–1885)

Alexis François L’Hotte (1825–1904)

The “Directives of the Spanish Riding School”, 1898

The Training Scale (1912)

Biomechanics of The Haunches

Tree Diagram of Horse Gymnastics

The Specific Gymnastic Building Blocks of the System

Six Basic Requirements the Horse is Expected to Meet

Going Forward

Downwards Transitions


Bending, Flexing

Lateral steps


The Six Tests of the Hindlegs

Basic Transitions

Common Mistakes

The Network of Aids

The Circle of the Aids – Theoretical Underpinnings

Establishing Neurological Connections between the Brain and Certain Muscle Groups

Establishing A Dialogue Between the Various Nodes of the Network

Dissolving Blockages that Interfere with the Free Flow of Energy

Permeability to the Aids as a Gauge of Gymnastic Development

Exercises that Improve Permeability to the Aids

Table Of Exercises that Create Permeability to the Aids

Basic Rider Skills




Seat and Aids – Examples of their Practical Application


Rein Aids

Thigh Aids

Knee Aids

Calf Aids

Seat Aids (Kreuzhilfen)

Weight Aids

In the Tradition of the Old Masters

Riding with the Lungeing Cavesson

Stirrup-stepping as a Weight Aid

Stirrup-stepping without the Support of the Reins: A Stepping

Stirrup-stepping with Simultaneous Rein Aid on The Same Side: B Stepping

Stirrup-stepping with a Simultaneous Diagonal Rein Aid: C Stepping

Stirrup-stepping with Simultaneous Rein Aid with both Reins: D Stepping

Stirrup-stepping Sequences

Conclusion and Outlook




Recommended Reading

Useful Addresses and Links





I would like to take a moment to express my gratitude to my teachers, the two-legged ones as well as the four-legged ones. Among my two-legged teachers, it was especially Dorothee Baumann-Pellny (author of Im Damensattel: Eine Reitlehre für die Frau, which appeared under her former married name Dorothee Faltejsek) and Thomas Faltejsek who shaped me most profoundly as a rider. In addition, their teacher, Egon von Neindorff, had a great influence on me, although the time I was able to spend in lessons with him was far too short.


As far as the four-legged teachers are concerned, I have had the opportunity over the years to work with very many horses of a large variety of breeds and types, from Warmbloods to Baroque breeds, from Thoroughbreds to Morgans, Quarter horses and various gaited breeds. I have learned something from all of these horses. Each individual is a case study with whose help you can study and teach the system of equine gymnastics, since the principles of gymnastic equitation are universally applicable.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to our friends, Candace and Dick Kimbell, who supported us for many years with their boundless generosity, and whose outdoor arena we were able to use frequently for photoshoots.

We would like to thank our students who let us use their horses for photoshoots, in particular Alison Moss and her Lipizzaner mares Electa and India, Sherrie Chisholm and her Lusitano-Arab mare Farrah, and Nessa Munter with her Lipizzaner gelding Romeo; We would furthermore like to thank Kristen Guest and her Thoroughbred gelding Griffin very much.


Dr. Thomas Ritter




Since all individuals of the same species show basically the same anatomy, the same laws of biomechanics apply to all of them. Every time a rider discovered one of these principles and passed it on to his students or readers, the art of riding progressed. These principles apply universally to all types, breeds, and individuals. It is, of course, necessary to adapt the general rules to the specific traits of the individual horse, just like a general mathematical equation has to be adapted to a specific mathematical problem by adjusting the variables. But the basic equation remains the same.


Placing much emphasis on the differences between various national traditions is counter-productive, since the same hippological principles apply in Germany, Holland, and Sweden as much as in France, Russia, Italy, Spain, or Portugal. Above all what distinguishes the true masters of equestrian art, and what separates them from the charlatans, is that their observations are based on universal psychological and physiological principles, so that their validity transcends time and space. That is why we can still use them to great advantage with our own horses. That is also why, regardless of the differences, we can easily find common ground between all national “systems“, and even sworn enemies like Gustav Steinbrecht and François Baucher share certain things in common. Upon closer inspection it often turns out that the differences are of a more superficial nature, while the shared principles go deeper, because they are based on the universal laws of anatomy and biomechanics.




As long as a technique, a rule, or an exercise is based on these universal principles, it is correct and leads to correct results. You can, therefore, incorporate it into your work with a clear conscience. However, if it violates one or more of these universal principles, then it is wrong and will be detrimental to the horse’s health. One should therefore stay away from it, no matter who “invented” the method.


Welcome to a journey into the world of classical dressage. Shana Ritter on the five year old Lusitano-Arab mare Farrah.



The Concept of the System


Every system consists of individual elements that are combined with each other based on certain principles. Each element fulfills a specific task within the system. Along the same lines, the elements of equestrian art can be combined with each other according to certain principles, from which the rules of training are derived, similar to the way in which the letters of the alphabet can be combined into words. Several words form a sentence. Sentences are combined into paragraphs, and so on. By the same token, individual elements are combined into more complex exercises. The rules and principles of the system determine how, and for what purpose, the basic elements can be used and combined. It is the task of this book to define and explain the elements of the system of gymnastic horse training as well as the principles of their application.


The system of equestrian art consists of the following three main components: the rider’s aids, the basic schooling patterns, and the dressage movements.


From these three basic component areas with their finite number of elements (cf. Fig. 1) one can create an infinite number of possible combinations to solve any training problem. Every specific exercise that consists of schooling patterns, movements, and aids is adapted precisely to the horse’s conformation, gait, temperament, personality, current training level, as well as the current training goal.


The gymnastic rules and principles of equestrian art determine the selection as well as the combination and sequence of the elements for each individual task. The trainer’s equestrian tact and experience play a decisive role here as well, of course, but there are objective principles that can be of considerable help to the rider in the decision-making process.



The system itself is not new at all, of course. It is the system of classical equitation, which was developed in the course of the last five centuries by countless researchers and masters of equestrian art. It is the system which the classical schools follow and which is reflected in classical literature. It is also the system that all my teachers passed on to me in practical riding lessons. The following chapters are the result of several decades of riding lessons, reading the old masters, studies in the saddle, and continuous reflection on the observations I was able to make.


The rider’s aids

• Weight

• Seat (Kreuz)

• Thigh

• Knee

• Calf

• Hand


Schooling patterns

• Rectangle

• Square

• Circle (Volte, Figure of eight)

• Spiral

• Triangle

• Oval

• Parallelogramm

• Trapezium


Dressage movements

• Turn on the forehand in motion

• Turn on the haunches, Passade, Pirouette

• Leg-yield

• Full pass

• Lateral movements (Shoulder-in / Counter-shoulder-in, Travers, Renvers, Half-pass)

• Flying change

• Piaffe

• Passage

• Airs above the ground


Lipizzaner stallion Maestoso II Catrina in the trot half-pass showing beautiful self-carriage, bend, elevation, and poll flexion. Notice especially the light rein contact with the reins held in the traditional 3:1 ratio.


Fundamental Aspects of Equitation







Riding can be described as a sport, since on the one hand, it transforms the horse into a four-legged ballet dancer, and on the other hand, it requires physical agility, stamina, a good sense of balance, good co-ordination, as well as a certain core muscle strength from the rider.



Riding can also be described as an art, since it requires great intuition, creativity and mental flexibility of the rider. The rider begins the training of the green horse like a sculptor begins with a block of marble or like a potter begins with a lump of clay on the potter’s wheel. The artist shapes this raw material into a finished sculpture through the application of all his technical and artistic skill. The classical literature, therefore, mostly uses the term “equestrian art”, whereas the term “equestrian sport” was not invented until the 20th century.


Competing can further the horse’s training. Our horses always improve at competitions.



The authors of the late 18th and 19th centuries often referred to dressage, in particular, as “equestrian science”, since it follows scientific rules and principles. The rider must be able to make a diagnosis like a physician in order to determine which part of an exercise is executed well, which part is insufficient, what can be kept, what needs to be changed, among other things. After having arrived at a diagnosis, the rider has to find a “treatment method“ for the problems that were encountered, and to check afterwards whether the horse has improved or deteriorated as a result of the treatment. In other words: one has to check whether the diagnosis was correct or incorrect. For this reason, some classical authors refer to dressage also as “academic equitation”, which finds its reflection in book titles such as Dupaty de Clam’s 1777 publication La science et l’art de l’équitation (The Science and Art Of Equitation).


My teacher, Dorothee Baumann-Pellny, on her Part-bred Welsh mare Sally-Ann in the levade during an exhibition at Clemenswerth Castle. Airs above the ground in a side-saddle can be seen only on very rare occasions.


In order to be able to train a horse successfully, the rider has to acquire and cultivate basic skills in all three areas – sport, science, and art. This is a lifelong process which never ends. Nobody can ever achieve perfection in it. Even the greatest master always has room for personal improvement in all three areas.

Philosophical Considerations



During the two and a half thousand years that have passed since Xenophon, certain philosophical precepts have evolved in the tradition of classical equitation, which are timeless and which should shape our interaction with horses. They run like a consistent thread through the classical literature, setting a standard for the horse’s welfare, regardless of whether the human is sitting on the horse or leading it from the ground. This mental attitude must find its expression in all actions of the rider and owner. It must be embodied by the teacher and passed on to the student.



“Dressage training where, amongst other things, the end result is not preserved, has no raison d‘être and should not be attempted in the first place.”

Waldemar Seunig (1949)




Every interaction with the horse must serve its physical and psychological well-being. This begins with ensuring that the horse is managed and kept in a way appropriate to its type and that it is fed according to its nutritional requirements. This includes enough exercise, as well as shelter from the cold, heat, rain and wind, if the horse is turned out. In addition, it is extremely important that the yard staff, as well as the owner, rider, and trainer, treat the horse with love and consistency. We have to adjust our own energy level to each horse, in order not to unintentionally frighten an insecure horse, or to inadvertently encourage a very self-confident horse to play unpleasant or even dangerous games. The movements of the human should be flowing, quiet, and harmonious, whether on the ground or in the saddle. Abrupt, abrasive movements and thoughtless actions are to be avoided, since they make the horse scared and nervous, rendering productive work impossible.


The photo shows a nicely stretched seat with a deep knee and exemplary shoulder-seat bone-heel line: the prerequisites for sensitive and effective aids.


The work must preserve or even improve the horse’s health. Poor riding can easily cause accidents and unsoundness, because chronic stiffness creates excessive wear and tear on tendons and joints. Good riding, on the other hand, protects the horse from injuries and can even straighten out crooked front legs and at times improve certain types of lameness. According to the old masters, this is one of the main tasks of dressage training, and it is one of the reasons why show jumpers, three-day eventers, driving horses, and even horses that are only hacked out should receive regular gymnastic (i.e. dressage) training. Correctly done, dressage prevents the horse from suffering damage to its health as a result of the work, and it allows the animal to perform its “day job” more successfully. Correct gymnastic dressage keeps the horse healthy and rideable into old age.



“Dressage is based on the observation of three principles that from the very start must not be skipped over even when making the smallest of demands, as well as during the progression from one pace and one movement to the next: Explanation, development, perfection.”

Ernst Friedrich Seidler (1837)




You can make assumptions about the quality of the training at a yard from the age and health of the horses there. If all horses in a barn are young, this could possibly point to hard riding which creates unnecessary wear and tear on the horses’ legs, so that they have to be retired prematurely. If you see lots of horses with bandaged legs in their stables and many horses with tendon injuries, it is usually a sign that the horses are stiff and that they are ridden on the forehand, because stiffness and lack of balance are the greatest enemies of the horse’s legs.


The way the horse is muscled is also an indication of the quality of the riding. If a horse has a poorly-muscled back and croup, it is usually a symptom of shortcomings in the training. If the topline musculature has a big dip directly in front of the withers, you can assume that the rider tries to create longitudinal poll flexion by working backward with a hard hand, which shortens the neck unnaturally: The withers can therefore not be lifted, the back cannot swing, and the activity of the haunches is suppressed. The neck should be widest at its base and taper off towards the top. A well-trained horse looks harmonious and round. An unharmonious topline with points and angles, in a horse with good conformation, is a sign of bad riding. Poor training can make a very good, beautiful horse look ugly and inferior. Good training, on the other hand, can make a horse with inferior conformation appear better than it really is.


Every interaction with the horse, every aid we apply, every exercise or movement we ride is a learning experience and makes the horse either better or worse. There is no neutral ground in this respect. That’s why it is important that all the parts of a training session complement each other and build on each other in a meaningful way. Every type of work should aim at improving the horse. For instance, it makes no sense to let the horse fall apart completely during the warm-up phase by trotting and cantering around with no rein contact. This will only get him used to working in a poor outline and trains the wrong muscles. Afterwards, it takes much more time and effort than necessary to put the horse together again and to eliminate stiffnesses that were created by letting the horse fall apart.


Dressage training must make the horse more reliable, more obedient, and more sensitive to the rider’s aids, no matter under what circumstances the horse is ridden. A well-trained dressage horse should be fun to hack out as well. If a horse is mentally unbalanced and unpredictable, it is often because serious mistakes were made during the training.

Trust and respect are two sides of the same coin, without which a high standard of riding is unattainable. You cannot have one without the other. “Respect” without trust is fear. “Trust” without respect leads to anarchy. The horse has to see the human as a trustworthy leader whom it can follow with a clear conscience, without having to worry about suffering harm. The rider is the higher-ranking animal in the little herd and, therefore, assumes the responsibility for the horse. This means that the rider must never ask the horse to perform a task that it cannot do or that could hurt it in any way. The horse must feel safe and secure with the rider, who, in turn, must not exploit the horse’s good nature and talent. “Education, not exploitation” used to be the motto in the past, which should be honoured more again in the future.


The horse has to learn two fundamental lessons: on the one hand, there is no way around the rider’s demands or around the quality of their execution. What the rider is asking for is the easiest alternative for the horse under the present circumstances. All evasions he may think of only lead to a longer and more difficult workout. On the other hand, the horse has to know that these demands are well within his capabilities and will not overtax him.




“In order to excel at an art it is not enough to know the principles and to have practiced them for a long time. It is also necessary to be able to choose wisely the candidates that are capable of executing these principles. This is what constitutes mainly the skill of the masters and the perfection of the disciples. It is also what most riders neglect. Out of presumptuousness or ignorance, they flatter themselves and try in vain to train indiscriminately all horses they encounter, as if nature had created all animals equal and destined them for the same usage.

Experience only condemns the conduct of these would-be riding masters: although they might be lucky enough to reach their goal in some cases they encounter, the insurmountable difficulties they meet in a thousand other subjects prove that coincidence plays a larger role in their school than knowledge.”

Gaspar de Saunier (1756, Tranlation: TR)



The “How” is always more important than the “What” in riding, which means performing simple exercises to a high standard is better – and serves the education of horse and rider more – than riding difficult movements poorly. We should resist the temptation of trying to appear more accomplished than we actually are. That would only end in embarrassment for the rider, because you can’t fool an expert about a rider’s skill level or a horse’s training level. We should not attach much value to the opinions of uneducated or semi-educated people. The rider should only take the opinions of true experts to heart who are able to judge the situation accurately.


My teacher, Dorothee Baumann-Pellny, in the piaffe on an Andalusian stallion I trained. The photo was taken while she was visiting the US.



Difficult movements become relatively easy once horse and rider have truly mastered the basics. Artists are always master craftsmen first. Horsemanship is no different. There are certain basic technical riding skills everyone has to acquire. The rider can only become an artist in the saddle after having perfected these technical skills of the craft. Without the proper foundation, dressage descends into something that is artificial without either gymnastic or aesthetic value. The same thing applies to the horse. That is why the basics must continuously be practiced and refined, exactly like a virtuoso musician has to practice their finger exercises and musical scales every day.


Classical equitation is a nature-based form of equitation, which means that every horse is developed within its natural possibilities and limitations, and it is ridden in an outline that is appropriate for its conformation and training level. This is the reason why some classical authors, like Otto de la Croix, refer to dressage as the “natural art of riding”.


This outline, or the shape of the way the horse “carries” itself, is made up with a number of different elements, including the engagement and the flexion of the hindlegs, the bascule, i.e. the rounding of the spine, as well as the elevation of the neck and the flexion of the poll. The degree of the momentarily achievable “Zusammenstellung” is determined on the one hand by the horse’s conformation and on the other hand by its muscular development. Horses with good conformation and those who are already more advanced in their training can obviously be “put together” more and be placed more on the haunches than horses with poor conformation or green horses. The term “Zusammenstellung” in the sense of the old masters always refers to the entire spine. This used to be called (and still is called) the position on the haunches.


Dressage training is a systematic process of physical, mental, and behavioral education which helps the horse to carry the rider’s weight with the greatest possible ease, so that it can show off under saddle with the same freedom of movement and extravagance of paces as when at liberty. In order to achieve this, the rider has to learn to eliminate all negative influences of his weight on his horse through the careful application of a good seat.


Every new training step must be well prepared. It is explained to the horse in such a way that it understands what is expected of him, and that it is capable of fulfilling the demands made of it. If the horse does not execute the rider’s request, one should check seat and aids first, in order to rule out misunderstandings. So we ask ourselves: “How can I make my horse’s job easier? How can I help my horse in this exercise?” Afterwards we check the horse’s attentiveness and reaction time. In many cases the horse needs to be finer tuned so that it responds to the rider immediately and without delay. Finally, we have to find out which part of the exercise is especially difficult for the horse. We ask ourselves: “What is holding the horse back? What is preventing the horse from executing the task?” Once we have found the weakness, the muscle groups involved are strengthened and suppled through specific targeted exercises.



“However, first we must once more emphasise very strongly the principle that in truly systematic gymnastic work, which is what we consider proper dressage to be from its first beginnings to its highest perfection, each exercise must be prepared; the horse must almost know how to do it so we can start to ask it of him.”

Gustav Steinbrecht (1884)



Through further “explanations”, and through filling in holes in the basics, the horse acquires the ability to solve even complicated questions. One can say that advanced movements become rideable and even appear easier over time to the degree that horse and rider have mastered the basics. Problems in difficult movements are always caused by mistakes that were made in the basic training. As soon as these holes in the basics are filled, the problems in the movement disappear as well.



We cannot expect a high level performance from a tired horse. Brilliant movements, elastic gaits, an ability to focus on its work and a good work ethic all require a fresh horse. This means that the warm-up phase of the training session must be handled intelligently and thoughtfully. Chasing the horse around thoughtlessly and tiring it out is essentially abusive and only leads to premature unsoundness. The rider’s task is to structure the warm-up phase so that the horse is not rambunctious or explosive any more, but still as fresh as possible. The muscles have to be warmed up, the horse should be fully concentrated on the work and its trainer, and it should look forward to the workout with happy expectation. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, such as: lungeing briefly, a few minutes of work in-hand or work in the pillars, long reining, or bending in motion at the walk, to name just a few possibilities.


Lipizzaner stallion Maestoso II Shama II. The lowered croup as a hallmark of collection lets the withers appear higher and creates the impression of going uphill.



“Any type of work that the horse does when he is tired brings disadvantages. When the horse becomes tired, the rider would have to apply heavier aids that border on punishments in order to get more energy out of the horse. This makes the horse afraid of the aid, it dulls him to finer aids, and makes him sullen towards the work. One of the main goals must be to awaken a horse’s love, eagerness and enthusiasm for its work. The horse must like its work. Therefore, our demands must always match his strength and conformation; a bit less is better than too much.”

Ernst Friedrich Seidler (1837)




It is the horse that determines the rate of progress, since every new step that is taken when learning must be secured and the horse must be relaxed when taking that new step, before we can attempt take the next step. There is no general recipe or universal formula that fits all horses. However, haste invariably comes back to haunt the rider sooner or later, and short cuts always cost triple time in the long run, since it is much more time-consuming to correct the inevitable mistakes and omissions than to proceed slowly, but thoroughly and systematically, at the horse’s natural pace.


The rider, furthermore, has to be intimately familiar with the individual strengths and weaknesses of each horse, as well as the limits of its athletic capability, since not all horses are suitable for advanced work. That means that the rider chooses a four-legged student that is talented for the intended work. In other words, one should not try to make a horse into a dressage horse that was really bred to drive. One should not try to train a draft horse that was born to pull heavy loads at the walk and the trot to become a high school horse. It is already difficult enough to train a very talented horse to the upper levels. With a horse that has no talent for it, because it was bred for an entirely different career, this is not only virtually impossible, it is unfair to the animal. It shows a certain ignorance and arrogance of the rider who believes he can ignore the horse’s nature.


Every exercise and every movement influence the horse’s gait and posture in a specific way. The thinking rider’s task is two-fold in this respect: First, he has to determine in what way he wants to modify or improve the horse’s gait and posture. Then, he has to find suitable exercises that can help to reach this goal.


Since, at least “classical” dressage is a nature-based form of riding, the movements that the horse is supposed to execute either have to occur in nature, such as flying changes, piaffe, passage, and airs above the ground, or they have to be useful gymnastic exercises, which improve the horse’s balance, suppleness, straightness, and collection, such as the lateral movements. Movements that do not meet at least one of these two criteria should not be included into the curriculum. I am thinking here about the canter on three legs, among others.


Movements that are ridden without regard for their gymnastic effect on the horse’s gaits are mere tricks and have no raison d’être in a systematic dressage training, since they do not improve the gymnastic development of the horse in any way. On the contrary, they usually contribute to the horse’s legs wearing out prematurely, and the victims of such “poodle training”, as it used to be called, often suffer from unsoundness very early on.


A final remark: the rider should always lead his horse by example. We cannot, in all fairness, expect the horse to show better posture than we do. It can only ever be as well-balanced, as supple, and relaxed as the rider. If the rider is straight, he will be able to straighten his horse. If he is focused, the horse will be as well. We should not expect our horse to be an athlete, if we are overweight and out of shape ourselves. In every way, the horse is the rider’s mirror – and it will go to the level of the rider. Under a good rider it will improve, while it will slowly but surely deteriorate under an inexperienced or uneducated rider.


A correctly trained dressage horse must also be reliably on the aids when being hacked out. After all, that used to be one of the main goals of dressage training – which is, unfortunately, too often forgotten nowadays.


Goals of Dressage Training Based on Equine Biomechanics



Dressage training should balance the horse in all directions (forehand/hindquarters, left/right), so that at the Campaign School stage (refer to Directives of the Spanish Riding School) all four legs carry the same share of the weight.



“We follow the two main principles on which the entire system of equestrian art, i.e., all movements and all rules, is based. That is balance and flexibility. From balance follow mobility and lightness, and out of flexibility develop agility, submission and with it obedience.”

Ludwig Hünersdorf (1800)



All stiffness and resistances in the horse must be eliminated by stretching, suppling, and strengthening all of the muscles involved. Anything that blocks the transmission of the impulses given from the aids, and that allows neither the thrust of the hindlegs nor the rider’s aids to progress through the body unimpeded, must be eliminated completely. This way, all muscle groups in the rider’s body are connected with all the muscle groups in the horse’s body, and they are connected to the ground through the horse’s legs so that every aid can reach every part of the horse’s body without getting stuck. The aid flows from the rider’s body, through the horse’s body, into the ground, and back to the rider.



Balance and suppleness keep the horse healthy into old age. A lack of balance always leads to stiffness and resistance, which in turn significantly increase the wear and tear on the tendons and joints. One can say that every unbalanced, stiff step brings the horse closer to lameness, which is another reason to pay close attention to every step.


A balanced horse that has been made supple through training can be tuned to light aids until it responds to the smallest muscle movement of the rider, like a violin answers the touch of the musician.



• The rider should be able to ride any kind of transition and any kind of turn at any time.

• The rider should be able to bend the horse left or right at any time.

• The rider should be able to ride any movement at any time.

• The horse has to allow the rider to touch it with any aid at any time.



A horse that fulfills these requirements can in a way be considered fully trained, since it will serve its rider faithfully and loyally under all circumstances and in all situations. The old masters used to call such a horse simply “ridden” or “thätig“ (“backed”). This description shows that the training is not so much determined by the movements that the horse has learned and is able to repeat on command, but rather by practical equestrian considerations. The rideability that is mentioned here is of much greater practical importance for the rider than movements, which deteriorate into circus tricks when the overall rideability is lacking.



“Balance, flexibility, carriage, and obedience are the qualities of a well trained horse.”

Ernst Friedrich Seidler (1837)



Dressage movements should always be regarded as diagnostic and therapeutic tools, not as ends in themselves. The movements have an important diagnostic function, as they give precise insights into which muscle groups are stiff, which muscles are not strong enough, and which body parts are not connected well enough with each other or with the rider’s aids. On the other hand, the movements also have a therapeutic purpose, since they can strengthen weak muscle groups and stretch and supple stiff muscles in a very highly-targeted way. Dressage training can, therefore, be legitimately called physical therapy for horses, because all horses are more or less crooked, stiff, and unbalanced, just like humans.


The systematic pursuit of the goals listed above develops the natural gaits almost automatically. It develops the musculature in the right places, which is why the old masters used to say that the rider shapes his horse like a sculptor shapes a statue.


The Three Pillars of Training


From the first day of lungeing the young horse through to high school dressage, the rider has only three basic tools at her disposal with which she can train her horse:

• Seat and aids

• Schooling patterns and figures

• Dressage movements


All exercises we ride are composed of these three elements. Schooling patterns are like the roads of the arena or school. Just as we keep our car on the road at all times and in the right lane, in order to avoid accidents, it is necessary to ride precise figures and patterns, even it is only going large or a 20 metre circle. Besides, without accurate schooling figures it is impossible to train a horse correctly. Without clear lines of reference, the rider never knows whether the horse is really straight and on the aids. It’s impossible to check whether it deviates laterally from the intended line of travel with its entire body or whether it drifts sideways with its shoulder or croup. Adjusting the horse’s hips and shoulders on the line of travel is a main ingredient in straightness and, therefore, lateral balance. A loss of straightness always leads automatically to a loss of balance: the horse overloads the shoulder that deviates from the intended line of travel. A loss of balance in turn always leads to stiffness. Since a light rein contact, impulsion, and collection are only possible on a supple, relaxed horse, and since only a horse that is balanced in all directions can be truly supple and relaxed, the vital importance of accurate schooling patterns becomes obvious.

“As a matter of principle, no one is allowed to ride around aimlessly in any school, this being strictly forbidden. All riders must ride only the prescribed lines, circles, and turns.

The teacher as well as all observers will then be able to recognise immediately what the rider intends to ride, because he no longer has the option of sneakily making a virtue out of necessity by yielding to the horse’s will. Instead, he is forced to keep the horse obediently on the aids at every step.”

Directives of the Spanish Riding School (1898)

The schooling figures can be overlaid with dressage movements, when horse and rider are ready. For instance, lateral movements are typically ridden on the long sides of the arena. But, in addition, they can also be ridden on the centre line, the quarter lines, the half school line, or on circles, voltes, and through corners. Half-passes are usually ridden on the diagonals. Lateral movements are variations on the theme of the basic gaits, walk, trot, or canter, on a specific arena pattern.

The rider guides his horse along the arena patterns and in the movements through the use of seat, weight, leg, and rein aids.

Training Principles



The rider should think his way into his horse, i.e. he should always try to find out what the horse is thinking and feeling at any given moment. This also means that he will be able to predict what the horse is going to do in the next minute, so that his horse’s reaction will not take him by surprise.


Before applying an aid, the rider checks her seat and corrects it, if necessary. Then she prepares the horse in such a way that it can adjust mentally and physically to the new task and assume a posture that is conducive to the rider’s request. Afterwards, she guides the horse carefully through the chosen schooling figure and through the exercise without interfering, without taking over, and without abandoning it at any time.

The rider has to plan each exercise in her mind first. She has to have a precise vision of the exercise in her mind’s eye. Then she adjusts her seat accordingly. Next, she prepares the horse for the new task by putting it into the outline or position which is most suited to enable the horse to be being to execute it with the greatest ease. And finally she guides the horse, as described, with seat, leg and rein aids through the movement or exercise.



“Quick thinking and unhesitant effectiveness must guide the rider here as well, so that a mistake can be averted while it is still developing. He must feel, so to speak, what his horse is about to do and prevent the mistake as it is beginning to happen. This is what a “feeling for riding” means!”

Theodor Heinze (1889)




Should the horse make an honest mistake, one must not punish the poor animal, but instead one has to explain the part of the exercise that it hasn’t understood yet. Or it has to be tuned better to the aid to which it did not respond correctly. This often requires interrupting the current exercise briefly in order to ride one or several “repair exercises”. As soon as these “repair exercises” have done their job, and the horse has become more supple, more attentive, and more balanced, the original exercise can be resumed. The horse is then usually able to produce a better result, since the basics have been improved.


The horse should always be encouraged to think, which means it is allowed to find the right answer through trial and error in a dialogue with the rider. The rider should always seek the dialogue with the horse. For this purpose, we ask a question first. Then we listen to the response and think about it. Based on the horse’s response, we try to perfect the exercise as a team (with the rider as the team leader) through further questions, answers, and comments. It’s crucial that we allow ourselves and our horse to make mistakes. Many riders are afraid to make mistakes, which leads to tension and often prevents progress. In a way, mistakes are in themselves not a bad thing, as long as horse and rider don’t suffer any lasting damage. In most cases, a rider’s mistake leads to a short-term deterioration of the horse’s gait or posture, which can be repaired just as fast as it was created. Every horse tells its rider exactly how it wants to be ridden. Every change in the rider’s seat and posture results in a change of the horse’s posture: it either improves, or it deteriorates. There are no other options. If the horse improves as a result of the change in the rider’s seat, then the entire series of thoughts and actions that are connected with this change in the seat can be looked at in more depth. Should the horse deteriorate, on the other hand, then we need to try a different position, in other words, using perhaps a different set of muscles, and retest the effect on the horse. The horse thus leads the rider step-by-step to the optimal posture and aids, in a manner similar to the old children’s game, where one player asks a question, and a partner answers with “warmer” or “colder” until the person who is asking the questions has found the right solution.


No rider is immune from making mistakes. Even the greatest masters still make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t learn. One major difference between a good rider and a bad rider is that the good rider realizes much sooner when he has made a mistake, and corrects himself, whereas a bad rider continues making the same mistake for a very long time, without realizing it, or he keeps repeating the same mistake, also without realizing it. We can learn a lot from mistakes – even if it’s only what not to do. The important thing is to recognise in time when we have made a mistake, so that we can change our tactics. Someone who tries desperately to avoid all mistakes will miss many learning opportunities and progress much more slowly than somebody who is not afraid to make mistakes.


Misunderstandings and mistakes that happen to the horse can become the basis for new discussions, since they provide the rider with the opportunity to explain certain things to the horse in more detail, which deepens the relationship between horse and rider.


One of the guiding principles of training should be the question: what can I do to make the work easier for my horse? How can I help my horse with this exercise? How do I need to distribute my weight? Where and when does my horse need my support? How and where do I need to use my seat and my weight in order not to interfere with my horse, so that it can do its job to the best of its ability?



Should a horse resist against an aid, the rider needs to immediately ask it to yield or give in some way. For instance, if the horse becomes hard through the rein contact, the rider should flex it through head or neck with the appropriate rein, in order to supple the tight muscles. “Abbiegen” is the traditional German technical term for a lateral flexion of the neck, while “Abbrechen“ refers to a lateral flexion of the head alone, coming from where the throatlash lies and which I will refer to as the angle of the jaw or throat. If the horse braces against the calf, the rider asks it to sidestep away from this calf. In other words, we draw the horse’s attention to the aid against which it is tensing or resisting and then we eliminate the stiffness by asking the horse to yield to this very aid.


In the following chapters, I will introduce various training principles that have proven to be valuable in practical riding. These principles are not mutually exclusive, but they all play an important role in the training of horses, and the rider has to choose the appropriate one for each individual situation.


Riding with the reins in one hand should still be the goal of dressage training even today. It takes a finely tuned horse that can be ridden primarily off the seat and with weight aids.



The Alphabet Principle


When I was in primary school, there were two diametrically-opposed methods of teaching the students to read and write. One method consisted in teaching the children the alphabet and the rules of orthography, so that they could use a limited set of letters to form an unlimited number of words. They didn’t need to recognise each word individually as a unit, but they were able to construct and read most words themselves through the use of the alphabet and the application of the rules of orthography. The other method was based on memorizing and recognising entire words as graphic units whose constituents weren’t analyzed any further. The disadvantage of this method is that one had to memorize far more individual entries without understanding the underlying principles of orthography. The first method, by contrast, is more economic and efficient, since a small number of basic elements are sufficient, and with the help of the rules, all possible combinations can be generated from scratch.


The same principle applies to horse training as well. Horses that have merely memorized the movements in dressage tests don’t recognise their components, if the rider asks for them in a different sequence or at a different spot in the arena. They may even refuse to co-operate when they are confronted with something new. Horses that have learned the alphabet and the rules of orthography, so to speak, will always recognise the elementary components of a complex exercise and be able to combine the individual “letters” in new sequences and variations. They will, therefore, not react with surprise or disobedience if the rider suddenly introduces a new combination of elementary exercise components.



Develop your horse’s understanding by using the basic building blocks ridden in new and different sequences, on different lines and at different places. Avoid mindless repetition.



The Root Principle



“A perfect horseman must know how to handle a horse correctly and recognise where the mistake originates, whether it is doing something naughty and bad. All of these things come either from the horse’s strength or weakness, and one should act accordingly, either punishing or gentling it, so that it understands why it is being punished or praised.”

Johann Battista Galiberti (1660)



If problems occur in an exercise, time should not be wasted fiddling with the superficial symptoms, but instead the visible mistakes have to be traced back to their – often much less visible – roots. The rider should ask himself the following questions: which prerequisites must be fulfilled for the exercise to succeed? Which prerequisite is not adequately met? What is preventing the horse from executing the movement, the turn, or the transition? Once the respective hole in the basic training (for instance, bending, turning, stepping sideways, carrying, pushing, downwards transition, etc.) has been identified, it has to be filled by riding the appropriate corrective exercises. Upon returning to the original exercise, a clear improvement will be noticeable. Put differently: movements will not improve through mindless repetition and drilling, but only through furthering and deepening the horse’s education and by investing time and energy in its physical and mental development. Otto von Monteton (1877) expresses this in the wonderfully opinionated way that is so typical for him: “To highlight the difference between the craft of Anglomania and equestrian art again briefly in a nutshell: the craft says the horse is supposed to learn this and that. Therefore, I have to practice it. The art says: what is the main obstacle that is preventing the horse from executing this or that? That is what he has to overcome first. As soon as the obstacle has been overcome, the horse will be able to execute the movement. You see that the former does not require any knowledge at all, whereas you never stop learning in the latter.”



All efforts that are aimed just at eliminating symptoms are a waste of time. The education of both horse and rider will be successful only if the cause of each mistake is found and removed. The symptoms will then disappear on their own.



The Water principle


In certain ways horses behave like water or electricity. They seek the path of least resistance. They will always find – and try to fill – open spaces that the rider creates with her seat and aids, either on purpose or by accident. For instance, if she lightens her seat by distributing her weight more onto the inner thighs and by swinging higher with her pelvis, during the same moment in which the horse’s back lifts up, she is able to induce the horse’s back to swing more and lend more roundness and expressiveness to a flat, rough gait: the horse fills the vacuum, so to speak, that the rider has created on purpose.



Conversely, it will find holes and weak spots in the seat and in the network of aids, and it will exploit them, just as water will escape through any crack or hole in a bowl. This does not happen out of malice, but out of the natural instinct for the economy of motion that is innate in every living being. A typical example is a rider with an instable midsection and stiff hip joints, without a sufficient connection between elbow and pelvis. Most horses will sooner or later start taking advantage of the lack of stability in the rider’s seat by bumping up against the rein contact with their head and neck. They brace with their underneck, lock their head through the poll and angle of the jaw, and simultaneously push the croup up with the grounded hindleg, which causes the rider to fall forward and the seat to disintegrate even further. As soon as the rider engages his core muscles, connects his pelvis and elbows, and relaxes his wrists and hip joints, the horse will abandon its strategy of “divide and conquer”.


The rider can take advantage of this tendency towards the economy of motion by closing all doors that the horse is not supposed to go through, while simultaneously opening the door(s) that it is supposed to take.


It is crucial to leave at least one door open for the horse in order to allow him the space or the opportunity to release his energy in a positive, productive way. Otherwise this energy would continue to build, and the horse would explode sooner or later. A smart rider will channel, direct, and shape his horse’s energies. But he will carefully avoid anything that might suppress its energy.



“Anything that is alive, is lazy!”

Otto von Monteton (1877)



If the rider sets things up so that the path of the least resistance always leads to self-carriage, the horse will gradually develop more and more. However, if the rider opens the wrong doors, doors the horse never ought to find, while other doors remain closed, the training gets derailed very quickly, and the horse gets stuck at a low level.