Often the schooling problems people think they have are not really the problem. There are usually huge gaps in the foundation, starting from the ground but also even very basic ridden work is missing.
There is all this talk about collection, self carriage, softness, contact, impulsion etc. Let’s keep it really simple. Can you walk, trot and canter your horse round the arena at home on the buckle and stay in a rhythm, slow down, speed up and stay straight? If the answer is no then your horse is not in self carriage and no amount of fiddling with his mouth to make him “soft” is going to fix that.
There are people having lessons every week working towards higher levels of dressage and yet if they give the rein away in the trot for more than 3 seconds their horse is off like a freight train. We always feel like we need to be “doing”, we want to say we’re working on our medium trot or lateral work or jumping courses, it feels much better than saying “hey we worked on trotting in a straight line without using the reins today”.
This industry is rife with training methods that have absolutely nothing to do with healthy posture and biomechanics. It is so rare to find people who don’t ride with a backward hand, you just have to look at the popular YouTubers having lessons with top trainers, all I can see is over bent horses with uncomfortable necks and when the horse protests the trainer telling the rider to “keep her round, keep her soft, she’s being pigheaded.” When this is what we are seeing as the norm, and being pushed out there to 1000s of amateur riders as the “best”, it really does feel like we’re fighting a losing battle.
When training like this you often end up with a horse that has no idea how to relax in their work, a rider with a very backwards hand who is nervous or feels like they shouldn’t give the rein and a vicious cycle of tense horse, tense rider fighting against each other and putting more tension into the work. I even see people standing chatting to their friends and they still don’t let the horse have the rein. Then the tack changing starts, “what bit for a horse that leans on your hands?….”.
It has been so normalised to have a strong contact on the mouth that we don’t even recognise it, there is no mystical magical “contact” that you have to keep to do dressage, horses weren’t born with bits in their mouth, there are plenty of people out there riding high level movements with no bridle at all, don’t be pulled into the nonsense. Anyone who is teaching you to fiddle with the bit until the horse comes “round” and calls it “accepting the contact” is misguided. And I say this as someone who used to train my horse like this, it has taken a really long time to stop him ducking behind the bridle and trusting my hand again.
Don’t overcomplicate it, you don’t need to know how to ride a perfect pirouette to improve your horse. Train your eye so you can recognise when a horse is behind the vertical and see how the trainer’s horses go before you make a decision to have a lesson with someone. We’d have a lot less problems if people were just taught to ride their horses straight and get off their mouths so they can actually learn to use their neck properly for a start. 🐴
Photo of Caroline and lovely Oscar working on keeping the rhythm in the trot without relying on the reins