Every year Robert starts his clinic with a lecture on the principals of dressage. In fact, he said he starts every new client and every clinic the same way, with the same speech. Some of you have probably heard it already but if it is that important to our Olympic team coach it is probably worth repeating a lot. So here it is.
He begins by stating that our goal on any horse is to get them to move forward. Whether it is the motion in a half pass or a flying change; we want to move forward. He then asked us “what are the natural aids we could use to achieve this result”? To be a natural aid an aid has to by virtue of its use, independently at least partially produce the desired result. There are 3 natural driving aids used to achieve the goal of moving forward. These are the seat, the left leg and the right leg.
So what is the first step of using the aids to go forward? This is a part I love about listening to Robert. He is one of those natural teachers that can break down complex ideas into single stories and make a mass audience not only understand;, but enjoy the story. So he had us sit in our chairs envisioning going forward. Before we use the leg to kick him to go what do we do?
First, he says to always begin everything with a vision of what you are trying to achieve. See in you ‘mind’s eye’ what you want. Don’t just envision going forward in extended trot. See the grandest, biggest version of extended trot you can in your mind. Imagine Vallegro or Totillas.
Then when you have that picture, we breathe in and sit up. This is the first natural aid because as we breathe in and sit up we apply our seat. We turn a passive seat into an active one. If this is enough to move forward; great! Robert spoke on always using the lightest amount of aid for the greatest possible result.
The seat can be active, passive or bracing. This means we can use if for three purposes. The first one is non-use. A passive seat means we aren’t using the aid, like before we breathe in sit up and ask for the forward. An active seat means we use and activate the use of the seat. A bracing seat means we work against the forward motion. This is done obviously to quit going forward. The legs are used for direction in forward.
Another issue we have when we go forward is whether the horse is straight or bending. Straightness is the ability of the horse to overlap the line he is traveling over. For this goal we use the three bending aids. These are the inside leg, the outside leg and the inside rein. The inside leg is placed on at the girth (the horse’s center of gravity). The outside leg is behind the girth as a barrier for the motion. The inside rein is used to ask for bend in front to be the same as the back.
A final natural aid is called the aid of opposition. This is the outside rein. It is used as a set of aids by itself to counter the first two sets of aids. Its job is to restrain how fast and how much the driving and bending aids do.
All three sets of aids are used in the space of a single breath. This is the perfect half halt. By its definition the half halt is the calling of the horse to a perfect state of balance and attention. As that moment all things you can see in your mind’s eye are possible. The inhalation is attention and vision. The exhalation of half halt is the reward for doing what we asked. We relax the outside fist and open the imaginary door.
After discussing the aids we talked a bit about non-natural aids; like the whip. This seemed a prevalent theme at the clinic this year. Perhaps this was due to all of the press attached to care and treatment of horses. There was even disagreement among the speakers about the use of the whip. Robert was adamant and reiterated multiple times that we use the lightest aid possible. He spoke the first day at length about the best interest of the horse and following our gut feelings about this issue.
Finally, he closed that first lecture with the thought that if you can control balance you can control the four major elements of dressage: rhythm, tempo, frame and the length of stride. Several times during the week he pointed out that rhythm and tempo are not the same thing. Rhythm is the number of footfalls in each gate; for example, a four beat walk or a three beat canter. Tempo is how fast the horse goes over every meter forward. If you own the half halt, if you are in balance you own all these things.
Then came my favorite quote of the week. Robert asked us all “Who is in charge of your movie? Is it the horse, your parents, your trainer or you?” We each need to see and control in our mind’s eye our own movies. So I think I’ll add a few things, like perhaps a leading man other than SJ!” Maybe some new young horses might be in the next chapters. I guess I am working on some rewrites!