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Articles > Are Dressage Riders Unfair to Their Horses?

Are Dressage Riders Unfair to Their Horses
By Paul Kathen © 2008
Photography © Kelly McChesney

      The answer must start with, “That depends.” It depends not on the sport or style of riding but on the character and temperament of the rider. This I cannot change and no amount of discussion is going to make a difference until we only allow persons to ride after they have undergone a psychiatric evaluation and proven themselves to be stable and free of impulses towards roughness. Then additionally they must demonstrate an independent seat and a sufficient knowledge of the aids as well as an understanding of the purposes and goals of dressage.

      Most of us would pass that test and yet we also must admit to having failed in being totally fair with our horses at one time or another. Fortunately for us the horses then elevated themselves to being good souls in that they did forgive but they did not forget. In my opinion a much greater danger to the welfare of the horse is ignorance. This is especially hazardous since so many aspects of riding go against logic and therefore many riders will defend their positions vehemently. They will continue to ride their horses incorrectly and thereby cause them harm and even injury. What is worse, horses seem to prefer that style since it is much more normal to them. I am talking about riding horses in their natural direction of forward-downward with a very long connection or with no connection at all.

      Yes, everything about this direction is natural for the horse and it will tell you so by feeling much easier to ride and lighter in the hand since it carries the weight on its front limbs. If you keep the demands very low you will not even notice that the horse is often unable to obey since it is badly off balance forward. This compares to smokers fifty years ago. They enjoyed their cigarettes not knowing they were slowly damaging their lungs. It was ignorance that allowed their enjoyment. The horse operates on that same ignorance and the only way you, the rider, can protect him from the danger of running on the forehand is to consistently ask him to change direction and take on more weight on the hindquarters. This will cause him sore muscles at first but with growing strength and your good judgment as to his limits, it will preserve his soundness. Yes, he will show displeasure with the strain on his muscles and he will at times be heavy in your hand in order to put some of the burden on you. It is a part of the training and unavoidable. If there is unfairness it lies not in the need to change the horse’s balance but in the rider’s reaction to such difficult situations.

Changing Weight Causes the Need to Change Movement

      If we were weightless and just wanted to walk or ride short bursts of trot and canter across a field, riding a horse in its natural direction would be fine. We do, however, add more than one hundred pounds to the back of the horse. We want to ride long distances, go at high speeds, jump, ride tight turns, dance, or create any combinations of all of them. We also rarely ride less than half an hour. All of the preceding the horse cannot do without causing injury to its body in its natural way of going. We must, therefore, change the way the horse moves from a forward-downward direction to a forward-upward direction. The horse does not easily accept this. It must slowly be convinced to adopt this new direction as second nature. Yes, at times we must be firm in this phase of training and, unfortunately, almost daily we must remind our horses to work in that manner.

      I believe every trainer and every rider wishes he or she could just sit their horse down and explain the benefit of this artificial direction in preserving the back and joints, especially the injury done on the joints of the forelegs. Such damage is at first painless to the horse, slow in developing, and degenerative. Do you remember when you were very young how adults like your parents and teachers would tell you to do something that made no sense to you at the time? “You will thank me later,” was usually the final explanation. This is exactly the way you would be talking to your horse if only you could.

      To achieve this, initially the trainer must gradually guide the horse to relieve the pressure on its back caused by the weight of the rider by asking it to stretch a set of ligaments along the spine. These ligaments act as a rope and carry the rider in a fashion that is comparable to a suspension bridge. They do not fatigue. They are elastic and are kept taut and anchored in the back by the powerful muscles of the hindquarter, aided by the abdominal and psoas muscles. In the front they are aided by the muscles at the base of the neck. This is known as riding long and low. The neck muscles are weak in the young horse and must be strengthened through correct riding. The burden of carrying the rider is then removed from the spine and the powerful long back muscle.

      Stretching of the back ligaments is an absolute must since the long back muscle is not suited to work in a static manner. It is an action muscle and it acts as the center part of movement in the horse and is not designed for carrying. When the horse must stiffen these muscles to support the spine in order to carry the rider its movement becomes short, stiff, and uncomfortable for both the horse and the rider. The longissimus dorsi (the back muscle) fatigues quickly and the horse’s back sags. In severe cases it may cause the spinal processes to touch and rub against one another (Kissing Spines.) which in turn can lead to bone spurs and eventually to a fusion of the spine in the affected area. To read in depth about this, please go to www.tex-overfarms.com and look under, “Articles,” for “Why God Wants Us to Ride Horses.” A very good book on the subject is, “The Rider Forms the Horse,” written by Udo Buerger and Otto Zietzschmann.

     When I emigrated from Germnay a long, long time ago I had rarely seen Navicular Disease or Kissing Spines. Then I entered the Hunter/Jumper world here in America and soon I determined that all of those horses were Navicular or Pre-Navicular, the result of working on the forehand all the time. Kissing Spines also is a hidden problem that is either the result of a very bad conformation or of poor riding. The horse carrying its rider with dropped back is most susceptible to it.

Correct Work is the Answer

      In an interview with a leading Dressage rider that I read several years ago the question was asked, “What are the most common injuries caused by riding Dressage?” The answer was, “Back and hock problems.” While the answer is correct, the most often occurring injuries are in the joints of the hind legs and in the backs of our horses. They are however not the result of riding Dressage but of riding Dressage incorrectly. It can start with poor judgment in the selection of the horse. Bad conformation is very difficult to overcome for the purpose of Dressage. If the rider expects great performances from such a horse in any style of riding, the demands of training toward that goal would cause it damage. Here the trainer must recognize the horse’s limitations, bring it carefully along and thus develop it into a great mount that then can serve for many years under a less ambitious rider.

      Poor judgment is also often to blame for a well built horse damaged by an insensitive or impatient rider. Just because this athletic and willing horse can perform advanced movements at a young age by virtue of its talent alone, it cannot do so over an extended period of time. While the talent may give it the athleticism and coordination for such work it does not grow the necessary strength. Only proper work can do that. Just check with all the human superstars. They work out daily. They recognize that their talent gave them the opportunity to play, but it is their sweat that allows them to make the team. Good judgment is necessary to know how far to push a horse because when a muscle is overworked it becomes fatigued, it loses its elasticity and the joints and tendons suffer.

      Gustav Steinbrecht is, in my opinion, the father of Dressage. Much of his thinking is based on the writings of Gueriniere, who is, therefore, the grandfather of modern riding. Mr. Steinbrecht is my, “go to,” author. He was a veterinarian and managed several stables in which he trained and taught. He is said to have exercised patience and correctness as well as an understanding for the individuality of his horses. He also used the same approach to his students.

      His passionate writing for correctness of training in order to preserve the soundness of the horse leaves little room for proponents of extremism on either side of the spectrum of correct balance while riding. He called the worshippers of the natural direction (forward-downward) on the carpet for tearing their horses down. Those who wanted to speed up the change of balance to the hindquarters through endless bending of poll, neck, and the joints of the hind legs, particularly when done unmounted and in place, were treated to even harsher criticism. It must have been his love for the horse and its beauty, especially when expressed through its prideful movement that motivated this otherwise so quiet a man to use strong language. I believe that his book, “The Gymnasium of the Horse,” will be helpful to everyone who reads it.

The Role of Artificial Aids in Training

      Then there is the subject of artificial aids; spurs, the whip and auxiliary reins. In my opinion everybody who has an independent seat should ride with spurs. Riding horses that were just started could be the exception. The trainer might be well advised to carry a whip instead. The purpose of artificial aids is not to replace the natural aids but to make the horse sensitive to them. Please answer this question: “What is more bearable to you, a person who tells you exactly what he wants or one who nags at you all day?” Carrying a whip does not mean a beating of the horse. A touch behind the leg will make the horse respect the leg better the next time the rider applies it. The same goes for the spur.

       It is a little more complicated with auxiliary reins. Here we are dealing with the very sensitive mouth of the horse. Mistakes in the use of these reins can have painful consequences for the horse. This can lead to a loss of confidence in the hand of the rider and reluctance to stretch into the bit. This stretch is the essence of a good connection and must not be destroyed. My policy is never to use draw reins. If I cannot ride a horse without them, either I need help with my riding or the horse is not suited for what I want it to do. In a tough case I may use a German martingale, also known as an Olympic martingale, and then only until the horse has understood how I want it to work. This is also my choice with students who have difficulty riding their horse properly on the bit.

     Here Balou and his owner Joan Ehrich demonstrate the use of the German Martingale (the arrows show the effects) The picture on the top left shows its correct adjustment. The horse is carrying itself the way you want him to and the martingale is just about to touch his mouth. In the picture on the top right Balou has given just a bit and the Matingale hangs loose, it is out of action. This is the greatest advantage of this auxiliary rein, it eliminates itself. On the bottom left picture Balou is against the bit and the martingale helps Joan to overcome this resistance. Not so uncomplicated are the “Draw Reins”, they are easily overused like in the picture on the bottom right. The horse is already too short in the neck, yet unless the rider adjusts them, they may still pull the horse further behind.

          I have many bits in my tack room but all are snaffles of one kind or another. The double bridle should only be used to enable the rider to be extra light, not to force the horse into submission. Some horses are said to be, “double bridle horses.” They are less sensitive in their mouths and its use will allow the experienced rider to ride them with much less strength. Again, in the right hands the double bridle is helpful but in rough or inexperienced hands it may cause much damage. Marketing has brought about an incredible variety of bits. They all claim to be the ultimate in mildness and at the same time the most effective. That is misleading since the mildness or severity is to a great extent determined by the rider’s hand. In difficult cases one should experiment with which bit suits the horse best. The purpose of the experimentation must be to find the bit the horse accepts and responds to. The temptation is to look for the bit that gives the rider the most control. Remember: You can always move to a stronger bit but it is not always possible to return to a milder one.

      All of the artificial aids I have described are helpful when used correctly. They also are all designed to eliminate themselves as soon as they have served their purpose of allowing us to ride with lighter aids. The spurs are the exception since they become a part of the required uniform at the FEI levels. It is a quiet lower leg that an advanced rider should possess that removes the spur from the horse when it is not needed. The problem with these artificial aids is their misuse, whether deliberate or inadvertent. It is the rough, unskilled, or ignorant rider that poses the problem. As a teacher and trainer it is my obligation to deal with all three of them. My dedication must be to the horse and to the sport. My tools consist of my knowledge of the horse and correct riding, my skill as a communicator and my enthusiasm for the sport. This should instill in my student a desire for knowledge, the dedication to acquire the physical skills to ride well, and the love for the horse. Only this attitude can ultimately prevent abuse, especially when we ride competively.

      When a few years back I wrote the article entitled, “Why God Wants Us to Ride Horses,” I made the point that an engineer would look at a horse’s design and dismiss it at first glance as unsuited for carrying any loads. This weakness is, however, the very reason we can sit on a horse and endure all the movement for a long period of time. We must recognize that unless we first strengthen its back by supporting it with the muscles of the neck and hindquarters we would physically ruin the horse. We would also damage its front legs if we allowed it to work on the forehand all the time. The horse is unaware of these potential problems and prefers to work the way Mother Nature tells it to. The smoker with damaged lungs surely wishes somebody fifty years ago would have stopped him from smoking, but nobody did. Even those who loved him were unaware of the danger to his health. Let us not claim ignorance when our horse is stiff, sore or even lame well before old age. Many authors and clinicians will emphasize gentleness in training and riding and I wholeheartedly agree with them. They don’t mean to not challenge the horse to carry more weight on its stronger hindquarters in order to protect the weaker front limbs. Please take a look at pictures of them riding. Their horses are on the bit, collected, and seem happy even though their rider wears spurs and a whip.


      This is my own “artwork.” You can clearly see the main muscles that move the horse. The abdominal muscles (E) swing the hind leg forward while the muscles of the hindquarter (F) pull it back. The muscle connecting the poll with the point of shoulder and the forearm of the front leg (A) pulls it forward, the blue muscle (D) the broad back muscle pulls it back. These two sets of muscles are connected by the long back muscle (C) painted in green. All of these muscles work in synchronization when the horse is relaxed. Tension in the back muscles will not allow the legs to swing freely and shorten their range of motion. The red line (B) is the ligament that travels from the poll over the entire topline to the croup of the horse. Here it is attached through a sheet of ligaments to the croup muscles. When the horse stretches its head forward, it applies pressure on the ligament and pulls the back up. When the hind leg swings forward it pulls back at the ligament, also raising the back.

     Every time a hind leg swings forward it pulls on the ligament toward the back and that also pulls the back up, thus carrying the weight of the rider and the contents of its abdomen. In the trot, when one hind leg swings forward, the other swings back. While one leg is behind the vertical the other is in front. Sylvia Workmam’s Quando demonstrates the movement when both legs meet and are vertical under the horse. This is the instant when there is the least pull on the ligament and the back is at its lowest. Every time one of the hind legs reaches furthest forward and touches the ground there is maximum stretch in the leg and on the ligament. This brings the back up. This is why the back swings in rhythm with the legs. This swing makes it possible for the horse to carry the weight of the rider and in turn makes it possible for the rider to sit on the horse comfortably at all gaits.

Some examples of the positive effects of riding Dressage:

     This is Gaby, owned by April Collins. She is twenty-eight-years-old and just recently carried Carol Judge to their Century award. Gaby started serious training at age four. She competed for the next fourteen years, never missing a day of work or a show for health reasons. The last eight years of her active career were at the FEI levels. After a short break Gaby returned to work and showed successfully under a young rider until she was twenty-seven-years-old.

     Witboy’s career parallels that of Gaby. Carol Judge purchased him at age four and he went into Dressage training as soon as he arrived. In these pictures he is twenty-years-old. He also worked through the levels to FEI and never saw a veterinarian except for routine preventative medicine.  He retired from showing at age eighteen. Today

at twenty-one he is teaching riders to move into the upper levels. Riding outdoors is also great for the motivation of Dressage horses.

     This is Jane Minarovic’s horse, Merino. He is five-years-old and was started correctly. I hope that you can see what I felt at the moment that picture was taken. He gave me the impression that he was truly enjoying moving with power in self-carriage. There was no tension anywhere as the swinging tail, the ears, and bending joints indicate. He had found his new balance under the rider and was free to express his power and joy. My reward to him was instant to show him that I felt just as good about it as he did.


     Two of the main goals of Dressage are to improve the horse and to preserve its soundness, the Training Pyramid shows the way and there is no need nor should there be tolerance for unfairness.

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