Dressage Horse Training:  Less is More-Unless it isn’t

Hello Everyone,

Donzer has basically lost the rude head shaking and now is just losing his balance and I’m using his head bobbing to help me identify when I need to rebalance Donzer and activate the inside hind leg.  Today we upped the ante and moved Donzer’s left rib cage over.  This sparked the conversation in my head as I was riding through the lesson about why instructors start telling me less is more.  Kris helped me sort through some of this after my ride.

Creating Less is More from the Ground

Let me take a step back and use my ground work as my reference point.  For example, when you are teaching a horse to yield their hindquarters from the ground and face you.  The concept of pressure and release is the gold standard with horse training and ground work allows you to learn this concept.  To move the haunches you gently tap and increase the tap until you get a response.  Initially just a slight movement away from your stick merits praise and release.  You can demand more once the horse understands the concept because then you have to go through the second stage getting your horse’s agreement to do the job.  It is immediately obvious when your horse has made the right amount of effort because you are on the ground and can see.  Once the horse is trained for this aid, you can just look at their hindquarter and the horse will step over—Less is More.

My ride on Donzer

Take this concept to moving Donzer’s left rib cage over.  We have spent three days asking for the counterflex and leg yield to rebalance and stop the head bobbing.  Donzer’s been praised and released for this level of effort.  Now that this has been established, it is time to ask for and get the rib cage to yield.  As a rider, this is a new feel for me and I can ask for as much as required but because I cannot see, I do not know what enough effort from Donzer is to merit the release.  Here’s what happened.  I asked for Donzer to move his left rib cage over and felt a small response and I left him alone-reward.  My instructor started having the discussion about how less is more so I took that to mean I’d asked for too much so I relaxed my body.  I was asked to move the ribs over again and I was getting frustrated because we’d just had the less is more conversation.  Assuming it may be something similar to the “move your hands forward” situation (see previous post), I turned my spur into Donzer’s left side and gently but very clearly moved his ribs over until I felt a place for my leg like I have on the right side.  The feedback from my instructor was very positive but as a rider I can tell you that the aid I gave was anything but “less” as I would describe from my point of view. [NOTE: I am having daily moments of communication practice in my lessons and learning to ask better questions.  Many times I ultimately realize I am understanding what the instructor means but the words I’m hearing in the moment mean something different to me and this leads to confusion.]  Now, once I had Donzer on my aid and Donzer had agreed to move his ribs over, I did not need that big aid with my spur and I was able to affect the movement with my inside sits bone.  So I think less is more once you have the horse’s agreement to do the job.

Recognizing Effort from Saddle

Here’s the rub.  When you are doing ground work you have a clear unobstructed view to see if the horse is making even a little effort.  When you are learning a new feel in dressage, it is hard to sort through the noise level in your seat to determine if an effort is being made by the horse.  So, many times I think when a trainer tells me “see, less is more” what’s happening is the horse has responded to my aid and I did not feel the effort.  This is phase where my horse earns his keep.  As I become more attuned to the movement, I can feel more effort with a softer aide on my part.  Until I develop this sensitivity, my horse will have to hear my thunderous aides.  And, as long as I remain patient, it’s been my experience horses are quite patient.  It’s only when I get frustrated and take it out on my horse that my horse takes umbrage.

Doing less never means to relax your core

One thing Kris also highlighted is a point of miscommunication between me and any instructor.  When I’m told to do less, Kris says I relax in the saddle and my legs and arms start bouncing more because I relax my core.  So I have to remember for myself that when an instructor tells me to do less they do not mean I should relax.  In fact, when I engage more and do more from my perspective in my body, most instructors will say, “Yes, do less like that.”  My attention to my instructors allows me to progress and it also allows for miscommunications to arise when I try to do exactly what I hear.  I find it helpful to write it out and to discuss my lessons with my main ground person, my husband, Kris.  Kris can generally interpret what is going on between me and my instructor and ultimately, Donzer lets us all know if we’re moving forward or backwards.  At the end of this lesson we are starting to recruit the top line muscles.  Donzer is not fully opposed but he is letting me know this is much more work.  To me it feels like we are shifting from being fairly earthbound with solid heavy steps to a more floating feeling and a feeling like Donzer could move in any direction easily.  And as a reminder for myself, Less is More never means I can relax my core—that’s just wishful thinking on my part (ha ha).

Good Riding,

Tara, Author, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding

Out of the Saddle

Out of the Saddle

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