Dressage on the trail - By Don Jessop - Mastery Horsemanship
Dressage on the trail - By Don Jessop

Dressage on the trail - By Don Jessop

April 23, 2019 2 Comments

There are two reasons people like to do dressage (well probably more than two), but two primary reasons.

Number one: They love the feeling dressage gives because it's a form of mastery.
Number two: They're scared of most everything else!

Maybe you operate on a little bit of both. Perhaps you do genuinely love dressage and the step by step progression to mastery. And at the same time you do genuinely, and maybe secretly, have a little fear riding outside the arena. And I'm not judging you. I've fallen, I've been hurt, I have injuries I'll live with for the rest of my life. Riding without total control (the opposite of dressage)... is very scary!

What is it about dressage that gives a rider control and confidence anyway? Think clearly about that question! It's for sure NOT the step by step progression. It's not the high-level maneuvers such as piaffe and passage... It's precision! That's it! Precise control gives riders confidence, then riders can relax a little more each day. Without control, riders lose confidence and therefore never feel relaxed enough to enjoy riding outside the safe boundaries of an arena.

A dressage rider, even a novice dressage rider, must practice precision riding. It's the modus operandi of that kind of training. They ask their horse, not just to trot, but to trot a narrow, imaginary line in the sand, departing at the letter "K". They also don't ask their horse to trot on a long rein, or even walk on a long rein for longer than about twenty seconds. Instead, they ask for walking and trotting on a short, controlled rein.

(Notice I didn't say "tight rein"... because tight reins, if not used for slowing or stopping, only builds up the horses energy. A tight rein should never be used to hold the horse back except in a very short emergency type situation. Instead, tight reins should be used to slow the horse down or stop completely. If it's only used to hold back and maintain the speed or energy of the horse, you'll find yourself inadvertently teaching that horse to run away with you in the saddle, which isn't very fun for most of us.)

So if precision is the key to confidence, why wouldn't you use it on the trail?

Answer: You should!

Listen to their story: 

Jen asked everybody in the group to settle down. "It's just a trail ride! RELAX! Let go of those reins a little." she said with an uber-confident sense of experienced seniority coming from her education in natural horsemanship.

But Bonnie couldn't take it, she needed to get off. She preferred dressage riding in the arena, this trail riding thing always spooked her because she knew how powerful her horse could be with all that extra stimulus around him.

Jen could tell Bonnie was tight and nervous, but she was a natural horsemanship teacher and she believed that if Bonnie would just loosen up a bit, she'd start to feel more comfortable on the trail. And she was almost right. But, in the end, Bonnie got frustrated and gave up. Bonnie eventually jumped off her horse and marched back to the barn with tears in her eyes.

Jen, being the good, growth-oriented teacher she was, couldn't stop wondering if there was something she could have done differently.

What do you think could Jen have done better?

My Answer:

Tell Bonnie that dressage riding and arena riding, are all about precision and focus. Then tell her that trail riding, at least in the beginning, should also be all about precision and focus. She should have slowed everything down for the whole group and asked everyone to wait for Bonnie. But most importantly, she should have tried to convince Bonnie that all she had to do was ask for more precision from her horse.

She could have said: "Shorten those reins, practice stopping at some imaginary X a few times, ride two six meter circles, then half pass from one side of the trail to the other. Once traveling straight you must stay on the new line, if the horse drops his shoulder, fix it quickly. Don't let that kind of thing happen in the arena or outside. Now stop, back up two steps, pet your horse, take a short break, then... let's do that again."

In no time at all Jen would have given Bonnie the same total control she felt in the arena while practicing simple dressage maneuvers that she and her horse already understand. And without any doubt, Bonnie would have been able to begin to relax.

This whole story might sound like a story pulled right out of a hat, but it truly works. I know it works because I've done it for dozens and dozens of unconfident arena riders out on the trail. If all is calm, everyone is happy, but if things start getting worrisome... it's time to roll up your sleeves and focus. Sometimes you have to do this several times in one trail riding session.

Relaxing, although it seems nice in theory, is the wrong thing to do for fearful trail riders. Instead, give them permission to be precise, to fix things they would fix while riding in the arena, like shoulder dropping, etc. Slow everyone down, stop all other horses in the group and help that one rider get total control. That's the key to trail riding and that's why I introduce the concept of Dressage on the trail. It works like magic! Even if it doesn't take the small spooks out of the horse, it gives the rider the same feeling as being in the arena and therefore gives them confidence.

Some trail riders will take this even further and literally begin practicing high-level dressage on the trail. I say GREAT! Go for it! How cool would that be to show your friends you can do tempi lead changes and canter half passes on a trail? If the footing is safe, why not have some fun? Of course, your horse needs to learn to have a great time on the trail too, so once you have some control, you'll feel more confident, and then, only then... will you begin to let your guard down a bit more and give your horse, and yourself, a truly relaxing trail riding experience.

But don't be in a rush to be leisure rider. Learn focused, control riding first. From the moment you step outside the arena, demand precision footwork from your horse on a short, but not tight rein. Remember the difference between short and tight. They are not the same thing. After a while, you'll notice your control level increase and your confidence will always grow as a byproduct. Have fun with it!

There are many more great trail riding/confidence building tips I can give you.

Comment below if you want more, and please share this article with your friends.

Thanks for reading!

Don Jessop - MasteryHorsemanship.com

2 Responses


April 23, 2019

Your right Chuck but for people who are trying to make there way from normal to natural there must a bridge. Your attitude would turn away the hearts of many riders who are looking for help in a technical world of training. When the time is right a horse lover can learn the important subtleties you’re talking about. Stay open brother.

Chuck Mintzlaff
Chuck Mintzlaff

April 23, 2019

True control, like true impulsion, does not come from an external source. it comes from deep within the horse’s heart, and mind, and spirit. And a desire to be with their human.

That is never found with a bit in the horse’s mouth. Nor is it found mimicking some ancient type of riding based on taking the horse to war.

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