How fit do you really have to be to do dressage well?
Good question. How well do you want to do it? What are you riding?
The answer re fitness is short. Most of the time when you ride a balanced, cooperative horse you must have just enough core strength to keep yourself stable on a moving platform.
But, when you have to apply aids to rebalance a horse, it is a different discussion.
If the horse is cooperative and has learned to understand and trust your aids, the period of effort will be short.
(Trust means that the horse knows what is expected, and also that ignoring the aid will result in a consequence, just as cooperating will result in a nice experience.)
If you break the agreement with the horse that your aids and communications mean something, you are in for a much harder ride. This agreement can be broken by not having a developed a good enough seat, or by overreaching your ability at the time. A lot of people then take the gym route–get fitter-fitter-fitter! This will not help in the end if you have insufficient skill and tact. The point of being strong is to not be strong very often! Find your center and keep it. (Easier said than done–but not impossible.)
Tasks for riders:
Develop correct independent balance.
Practice tactful, rhythmical supportive directives. (AKA the horse can always, 100% of the time, answer this question: What am I supposed to be doing?)
When you are practicing movements, never (ever) think you can afford to sacrifice the calmness, ridability and basic balance “just to get it done.”
And now a story. This is no one rider in particular for I have seen this rider-owner in my own crowd; witnessed it in Germany, Rudolf with a sad smile patting a US horse so locked up in the jaw and dead to the aids that nothing short of dynamite would get his true attention. This story exists across continents!
There is a rider who has aspirations to the upper level, and she buys a horse with training and movement that would indicate potential into the FEI–a good horse with free gaits, but also a powerful horse with enough movement to get itself in trouble if not correctly balanced.
(Some horses can trudge around all day long on the forehand and never really lose balance in a way that effects the rider–they just don’t move very well. Rudolf said, by the way, that a good schoolmaster could lose the quality of the gait and still be able to do the movements–we see them all the time on the show circuit here in the states, and I would imagine other places as well. That is the point, even if the rider fails to correctly set up the balance for a movement the horse can still do the movement. This makes the rider able to practice the timing for the movements which is important. But it does not make a good, free, expressive mover.)
So for a time, if she is lucky enough to have one available, the owner-rider with the mid-level warmblood rides with a trainer who is a strong and effective rider. That strong and effective trainer has a lot of experience and tact–as well as a lot of strength. The trainer rides lightly at all times when the horse is responding correctly, but if the horse (who knows already how to perform these movements and different balances) shows any sign of ignoring the aids there is a swift and strong correction. Pay attention! Now, that is better! Equilibrium restablished.
But the owner-rider, after a year or so, begins to tire of training bills, and is more confident of the horse and the character of the horse. The trainer is no longer necessary–or at least not very much of the time. A lesson now and then will do. And the horse begins to get heavy (or sucked back or inverted or inactive. . . .fill in the blank).
But not VERY heavy or not so much anyway that it can’t be ridden. It’s just a bit heavy.
But a year later when the team goes to a show what is shown is that the horse is no longer accurate, the gaits have deteriorated, and much worse, the rider-owner is really having to sweat. It is not a pretty picture. The rider is being dragged around the arena–and thinking of joining a gym!
So the rider-owner tries a clinic or two. She is advised to stretch the horse downward to improve the quality of the gait. This lands the horse solidly on the hands of the already taxed owner-rider.
In the next clinic the advice is given to go forward! Which in this case ends up with the horse careening around the arena with quickened rhythm, falling further way from the hind leg and now impossible to half halt. Then in the third strike the third clinician says: up, up, UP! And SLOW, slower. . .
So now we have a horse that is heavy if stretched, running out of rhythm if sent forward, and inverted and not going forward–all in sequence. The horse has learned that all three directions provide escapes from work–and worse yet, that they are expected.
So perhaps the rider-owner goes back to the original trainer and says: he seems to be XYZ, can you get on and see what the issue is? Oh, but he needs now to be ridden in a snaffle, this new saddle that I have bought is the only thing that can fit him, and I would appreciate it if there were no “tic” marks on him so don’t use your whip. And spurs, well they just make him run. . .
The correct response is of course for the trainer to come no place near that horse: improvement is impossible given the guidelines set out by the owner-rider–and ignoring a client’s express wishes is bad form in any business. Even if they are misguided.
But, if the trainer were to get on the horse, he or she would find a workout bar none. The horse used to be light, but has learned that aids can be safely ignored, that no consistent program will be in effect, and it is really better just not to pay attention at all. Horses are very trainable–more so than humans in most cases, and what they learn they take a long time to unlearn and there is confusion and angst in the process. And to regroup such a horse the rider must be very, very , VERY strong–which most amateur riders are not.
So the moral of the story is there is a reason that we do not let horse lean, pull, or lose rhythm and activity. Even a little bit!
If an error of understanding exists about balance, it WILL get bigger.
So, paradoxically, if you are very skilled you don’t have to be so fit. If you make mistakes, you may have to dig your way out, and that is going to take some strength–we hope, very briefly. Sadly, attaining that strength is not a brief process and if you use your horse as the gym, working on anything but self-carriage, you can bet he or she will have the advantage in the end.
“The only difference between a rut and a grave is depth.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson