I read a lot of books and two that I currently have on the go are Horses came first, second and last by American Eventing Team Coach Jack Le Goff and The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse by Charles de Kunffy. Both have a refreshing take on the aims of dressage training and both explain their approaches in a really simple way.
According to Charles de Kunffy dressage or as he refers to it, gymnastic work has 3 stages:
Rehabilitative – dealing with correcting problems caused by past injuries and manmade aches and pains.
Therapeutic – the never ending task of making the horse ambidextrous, in other words the same on both sides or straightened to prevent injury and breakdown.
Athletic – developing the horse to the utmost of its natural potential.
The first two stages aim to re-establish the horse’s natural balance and freedom of movement under the added weight of the rider, while the third stage develops the natural athleticism beyond the activities the horse would normally volunteer to do. I love this because it sets out a very clear philosophy behind the training of the horse without focusing on movements, technique or individual parts of the horse’s anatomy. It’s a whole body, whole horse approach.
In contrast, Jack Le Goff breaks dressage down into 3 elements - the basics, underlying principles and essential things the rider needs to practice and produce good dressage:
Basics = going forward, coming back and turning
Underlying principles = forward, calm and straight
Rider essentials = have a good seat, have a good seat and (you guessed it!) have a good seat
If you have a horse that can go forward, come back and turn smoothly then you have a well trained horse. Sounds simple doesn’t it but he also refers to the chain of communication required between horse and rider to ensure the smooth execution of these basics. It works this way:
From your brain to your body – thinking what you want the horse to do and transferring this to your body in order to ask the horse.
From your body to the horse’s brain using physical contact – in other words the aids.
The horse’s brain processes your aids and sends the message to his body to move accordingly.
For me, this describes why, particularly at the start of a horse’s training, there can feel like a significant delay between me deciding on the next action and the horse ultimately acting on it. It takes a while to process the message he’s receiving from my body to his brain and back to his body again for action. Until he is experienced enough to spot the cue coming, anticipate what’s being asked and act almost instantaneously there will likely be some form of delayed response. So next time I’m asking my horse to do something I’m going to keep in mind that formula before expecting a response:
Rider’s brain -> Rider’s body -> Horse’s brain -> Horse’s body