Step by Step

Dale Forbes

Last week, Melynnda and I chatted while cooling out the horses we had just worked.

The subject came up of the long and often varied learning curve of mastering dressage.

Melynnda related,

“My students are often frustrated because they cannot consistently do it right.”

“How so?”

“Well, they get the horse round, or they get a step of half pass, or shoulder in, and then they fall out of it, so they think they have failed.”

This was a novel idea to me!

So I explained to Melynnda how I think about this.  Perhaps it will help.

When I ride a horse, particularly a young horse or one needing retraining, I feel it is my job to get the horse as close as possible to a place where they could do the work required.  But it is actually the horse that volunteers and steps into the movement.

*(Really, riding students are the same–they just take longer.)*

Example: Schooling flying changes: On a calm but green horse who knows how to be positioned, I can lift the new inside shoulder in canter, getting ready for a change.  I can count the timing of when I should ask for that change.  Then I can feel if the horse is getting backed off or upset (or confused or anxious) and move on if necessary without asking for the change, instead praising the horse’s willingness to set up–a feat in itself!  And I figure that as success.

Sure, my intention, if all worked out well, was to do a flying change.  But without a calm and proper set up this is not possible.  And asking when the horse is not prepared, or in a place to do a change, is asking for trouble.

Sometimes, it just happens as you are going around, that the horse is in a place where they could change the lead.  And if you recognise that feeling, there is nothing wrong with asking.  But if you want them routinely, the horse must let you get them ready.

So imagine the rider, new to changes, on a horse who may or may not have done them either.  The rider is probably not well-versed with the importance of leg positioning in canter–keeping the positioning stable and clear to the horse.  (Riders not yet working changes have a tendency to be sloppy about where their legs are. Why?  Because on a horse that knows the changes, if you allow your legs to fly around they probably will try to offer some unplanned ones.  That teaches the rider to be careful about this.)  The rider may not have felt a change, or a horse getting ready to do the change, or know the timing of the leg, hand and seat positioning.

Why would they?

So, one step at a time, we teach the rider how to set up, at the same time as keeping an eye that the horse is not getting apprehensive.  And we might get a change today, or we might get a nice set up that will lead to a quiet one next week.  That would be okay for me.  I am familiar with the tasks and so not in a hurry.

But the rider probably imagines it is failure if they do not accomplish the change–and do it perfectly!  Riders are often in too much of a hurry!  And why are they in a hurry?  They misinterpret how long it takes.  Even if you are schooling every day–which many riders and horses do not–it takes a lot of practice to gain the skills and feel you need to guide the horse.  Particularly if a movement or practice takes a string of small set up gestures that must be done in order.

Piaffe and Passage are interesting examples of this as well.  Melynnda has been working diligently for years, riding young horses and some more schooled ones, working on her seat, timing and posture.  Her mustang was not particularly a natural at doing many of the tasks asked for, but still Melynnda persisted, and the mare will do a credible piaffe and a beginning passage.


This last fall Melynnda bought an older half Thoroughbred horse (above) with some good training in his background.  Kelly, my student (since he was 13, and I 21!) took this horse, Wesley, to Rudolf for a year or two.

In the intervening years Wesley had also been ridden by a very amateur woman who was not as skilled as either Kelly or his German trainer.  Therefore, the horse had some apprehension–and more than a few bad habits in with the good.  Over the fall we have insisted on  a clean trot, required that he do his counter canter properly.  Taken it slowly.  The basics are always the basics!

As for the passage–it is quite good, but Melynnda has not ridden a great deal of this and on many  horses it is more important to know how to create a clean trot than let them “sort of” passage around–though that seems popular of late.


So after months of working swing in the back–and doing well–they are schooling passage routinely. Yesterday was a breakthrough.  Going through the corner, suddenly the two of them joined.  It was no longer the rider asking for passage, and the horse doing it underneath.  The rider was doing passage with the horse, literally part of the balance–connection!  Perfect lift, coordination of the half halt, seat and leg.  A shift into a new gear–and quite lovely really.

We walked. The horse was very happy. (He LIKES passage!)  The rider was ecstatic!  So we talked about it for a moment, I being very careful to let her say what the feeling had been.  (Words can as easily pollute and encumber the process as help it.)

So she told me what it was like, but then said, “It takes a while to find it.”

Yes, it can.  But not nearly as much when you know what it feels like.

We were about at the end if the ride, but I asked her to pick him up again.

“Put him in front of you, get him ready–no not yet,  just get him ready.  Ask him to wait.  Now think about what that last passage felt like.  Let that feeling come through your body and give him permission to passage for you.”

On the very first step the horse lifted himself into a beautiful passage.

It is not making the change that takes the time–it is getting ready to make the change!

for an example of lifting to passage please see:

So how come I am not frustrated when it takes a while to school these things?  Because if I feel the balance or the rightness of a movement for a fraction of a second, then I know it can be enlarged upon.  It does not matter if it is consistent or perfect.  Things are neither of those when you start!

While training the horse, if you have a bit of “it” you can make that bit bigger and bigger until it is visible–and then eventually consistent.  I think of progress as those momentary feelings of “rightness.”  I am thrilled if the horse offers even one step of shoulder in.  If they blow it at two steps I should have left earlier.  But I don’t think about the loss of balance, I remember the “right” feeling.  The problem with learning is people get it right for a step or two, lose balance, and instead of leaving and going back to the basics for a moment they try to struggle to keep the movement after the balance has been lost.

This is why it is very different training a green horse and training a green rider.  On a schooled horse who “contains” the movements, the rider must learn to set up the balance and then access the movements while keeping the balance. Like Melynnda’s new horse springing to passage: she got the speed right, the tempo right and the connection and lift right.  He knew what to do and so put in a place where he could do it, he did.

If Melynnda rode him too fast, or threw away the front–or strangled the front as some riders like to, the horse could not have done the work–even though he knew how.  It frightens even a well trained horse to be asked to do the movements in a balance that makes it impossible.  Imagine how the green horse feels?  And a green horses never springs to the work with even and balanced steps.  It is always a bit of trial and error and encouragement of the correct direction.  Helped with the balance, the horse must experiment, be motivated, praised and guided–not thrown off the cliff!

Speaking of that, the green horse I am riding just now is not a world-beater. But he is a good sort and I have been roughing in the movements.  Last week we started half-steps.  I have been praising his effort.  Ask him to set up and organize his feet.  Great!  Good boy!  Ask him to move his feet. Super!  Mistake?  Walk out of it, stay forward.  Good boy!  Step by step.

(I am sure people on the side think I am a fool: short steps, praise, short steps praise.  It does not LOOK like anything.  But it FEELS like something.  Fortunately there really are not always people on the side–it is too boring!  They are in the other arena, watching a clinic!  Now that is where the excitement is!  Frankly, I hope they stay there.  This is a quiet communication.  Most happily done with just he and I.)

* Oh, I gave you an asterisk back up there.  How come people take longer than horses?   Y

First, you can get a horse out every day, and work it.  If you tried that with a rider in the same manner, you would likely be arrested.

The rider has to volunteer, and not all of them do.  Then, unless they are riding a sound horse and getting the help of someone who knows the path, the chances of a linear route are small.

That and, even with daily riding, they say in Germany it takes seven years to make a horse–twelve for the rider.  One hopes after those twelve years the rider will go on and teach a few for the next generation. . . .

The ones that concern me are the graduates of “twelve” that still don’t have a system, have no clue of the seat and use a group of made up “it works for me” aids.  I bet it does work for them–just not likely to work for the larger group.  No genetically modified dressage for me, thanks.  There are systems out there that work–not connected to one person’s money, luck or even super-human work ethic.  In my opinion, looking at a minimum of twelve years, it’s too long a road  to turn it into fifty by guessing!

We live longer than horses, after all–but not forever.