Tag Archives: schooling exercises

Strength Training in Dressage

Recognising that your horse may not have the strength to perform the work you are asking for is key to ensuring he remains sound and willing throughout his Dressage career.

StrengthConsider this: If you embarked on a program of stretching, joined a yoga or pilates class or even joined a gym how would you feel after your first session?  Perhaps a little sore, perhaps a little tired.  How long could you do and how often would you need to go before it became easier and enjoyable?

What would happen if you jumped in at the deep end and did the ‘body blast’ class?  My guess is you would be laid up for a few days and probably wouldn’t want to go again.

Why Use Strength Training?

Continue reading Strength Training in Dressage

Novice Test – The 20 Metre Circle

HeartThe Crystal System is all about finding clarity in your approach and keeping things simple.  By simple I don’t necessarily mean ‘less’ but actually finding the heart of the matter.   Reducing what you need to do to its very essence ensuring nothing more could be taken away without it becoming ineffective, likewise, anything that you add is unnecessary and would only really create clutter and confusion.

All that we aspire to do will go through an evolution; a cycle of development until the process finds its ‘essential state’.  Learning something new usually creates some seemingly chaotic input, making it hard to separate the relevant and essential elements from the irrelevant.  As you learn more you start to set the pieces of the puzzle together for yourself, eventually arriving at the mastery stage.

HeartI thought you might like me to look at some of the most straightforward subjects in Dressage training and try to find the heart of them – beginning with riding a 20 metre circle.

Let us ask … “What is at the heart of this?”

Continue reading Novice Test – The 20 Metre Circle

12 Dressage Tips for Christmas 2014

In 2013 I bought you 12 tips over 12 days on The Dressage Tipster Facebook Page.  This year I have amalgamated all 12 into one post for those of you who had not discovered The Crystal System last year.
A bit of festive fun and some useful stuff in there too …dressage tips
On the 1st Day of Christmas the Dressage Tipster said to me

Guess“Above all else ensure that your horse is forward. As long as the horse goes forward, he will not have time to think of evasions. Whenever you get a problem of any description, think of my favourite ‘F’ word” 

 On the 2nd day of Christmas the Dressage Tipster said to me …


In dressage we want the horse to go ‘on the bit’; to actually seek a contact and accept varying levels of pressure on the bars of the mouth, the tongue and lips, the poll and from this pressure (combined with other pressures and release signals or ‘aids’) we require a specific response in the body of the horse.

  • Dressage Newbie: What?
  • More experienced friend: Well it means you need to have your horse on the bit, seeking a contact and through use of coordinated aids you should get the correct response.
  • Newbie: I’m sorry, in English?
  • Friend: For your horse to be on the bit he needs to accept it and actively seek it forward and if you apply the correct aids, this will happen.
  • Newbie: Errrr, ok but how?
  • Friend: Well, like I said, get him to seek the bit by applying pressure and release of your co-ordinated aids.
  • Newbie: Zzzzzz! Fancy hacking today?

I know this feeling, techie talk, bores me rigid!  This type of talk raises more and more questions which in my experience never get properly answered.  But I do understand that there are occasions when you need to get a little technical to make a point.  Firstly there is the phenomenon that is ‘on the bit’.  What on earth does this actually mean?  Take a quick look at my article ‘6 common on the bit myths’ to help you with that one.

Then there’s ‘seek a contact’

seek a contactAnother dressage phrase that is utilised a great deal and ranks right up there in the ‘rider confuser’ stakes with ‘working through’ and ‘straight on a circle’.  Essentially, misunderstood and the essence of which is rarely explained to riders.  Try to forget the science, you simply cannot and will not be able to understand this until you feel it.  On this basis the very best thing you can do is go and experiment on your horse.  Nevertheless, here I go with my understanding of ‘seeking the contact’ and how to achieve it, in crystal system fashion.

Stretching forward, out and down to seek a contact

There are a number of key elements to ensuring that you are positioning your horse to ‘seek the bit’.  The primary focus needs to be on forwardness, rhythm and relaxation, not forgetting of course a secure and useable contact.  It is through this work that you begin to teach your horse to ‘seek the bit’.


You need to create energy that can be recycled through the contact back to the hind legs so it must be the energy creation that comes first (leg before rein).  Without the forward thrust your horse will arch his neck and make a shape as a result of your hand actions but he won’t be able work in a true outline, he will be offering you a false outline and he will develop a ‘hollow’ way of going.  So, first and foremost check that your horse is happily going forward without constant reminders from your leg.

Rhythm & Relaxation

Rhythm and relaxation go hand-in-hand because it is nearly impossible to have rhythm without relaxation.

Rhythm contributes significantly to work at the upper levels.  No exercise or movement can be considered good if the rhythm falters and to gain relaxation you have to consider your horse’s mental state; calmness, without anxiety or nervousness and his physical state; the absence of muscular tension (other than the contraction needed for optimal posture).  Relaxation of the horse’s emotional and physical state also go hand in hand, you simply can’t have one without the other.

Another essential element in ensuring that your horse remains relaxed is his current level of strength and his range and fluency of movement. Too much too soon will result in muscle and emotional tension.  Your training should be designed to gradually strengthen the horse to be able to do the movements you ask of him because later in the training he will require great physical strength.


Getting the idea of your horse ‘accepting the bit’ in the dressage sense, starts with the ‘long and low’ work where the young (or horse in re-training) learns the balance and rhythm required with the rider on his back.  It’s all about the level of contact you apply.   To initiate contact with your horse, you must shorten the reins (no pulling).  You should aim to achieve a ‘useful rein length’ that allows a secure feel of the bit in the horse’s mouth.  So, when you pick up the reins you need to give a number of aids to help your horse become round.  He can be relatively long and low, but he should always be round when working.

Long and Low

Begin by adjusting your seat. Place the legs in the correct position, and align your pelvis, shoulders and seat-bones.  Never throw the reins away, instead ask your horse to ‘take’ the reins forward and down gently.


Photo Credit : Equestrian How 2 

Clearly, he will not be able to do this if the reins are too long to begin with.  Contact must come first, then the stretch.  When you can see a ‘bulge’ in the middle of both sides of the horse’s neck, with the neck arched on a long rein and the head ideally lower than the wither then you know you’ve produced the correct result.

It is the head and neck that are low.  It is the back that rises up to meet your seat and it is the haunches that are lowered and stepping under the horse’s body.  As your horse’s strength and top line improve, so will his ability to reach down, out and forward.  To ask for the stretch, ride a 20m circle, ask the horse forward and vibrate the outside rein.  Ensure you have a contact with the horse’s mouth, if he softens, as he should, then allow the reins through your fingers, very, very slightly.  This is how you build the stretch, this is how you know that he is reaching out to the contact; this is the ‘seeking of the bit’ that you are looking for.

As indicated earlier in this article the seeking of the bit goes hand in hand with the forwardness.  It is the feeling that everything is moving forward, so no backwards thinking, no stalling, no slowing, no dropping behind the bit.  Once you have achieved this, you can try letting your horse out a little more rein each time.

Throughout this process you need to be able to feel the horse’s mouth in contact with the bit.  If your contact feels ‘light as a feather’ you do not have a contact, or worse you have an ‘on/off’ contact.  It is only in the trained horse that you are able to achieve such lightness.  If you relax your seat and gently give from the elbow (don’t throw the reins away) the horse should follow the rein down and stretch everything out. This will give you the lovely swinging back you are looking for.  The exercise can be done in all 3 paces. So, your horse will learn that his comfort spot is ‘on the bit’, that it is a place of comfort and communication. Consider two people holding hands, no pressure, merely a shared connection.

If the horse does not seek the bit to find the comfort spot or you do not allow the horse to find the comfort spot (which is more often the case) you will find that either

  • the horse will get stuck in front – too much contact
  • he will crash onto the forehand – not enough forward impulsion / contact
  • he will show resistance or worse, disobedience such as rearing or bolting – no comfort offered

Looking for a contactMany riders don’t manage to achieve a good concept of true roundness for a large proportion of their riding careers and it always amuses me how many riders believe that because their reins are long and loopy that they’re being soft and gentle on the mouth.  When I see loopy reins at lower level riding, I generally see a horse with some level of discomfort.  Yes, we see the classical masters working in harmony with their horses with loopy reins, in collection but 90% of you are not at this level, you have not trained the horse for many, many years with patience, understanding and dedication, so you should admire these people for their mastery of the art of dressage, but you should also understand that in the beginning they too had to shorten the reins whilst keeping their hands soft; a far more gentle and sensitive way to progress than loopy reins with an on/off contact.

The horse will only seek contact with the bit when using his hind quarters effectively with a rounded back.  In your horse’s education, now is where you start to take a contact and teach him to round up and encourage him to stretch and work in the longer frame.  This is where he begins to ‘seek’ the bit.

 Patricia – The Dressage Tipster




Draw ReinsToday is the second issue of In The Stirrups Magazine (NOVEMBER 2014) in which I discuss the pros and cons of Draw Reins.  Here is the article re-created for your easy access …

My Dear Dressage Enthusiasts,

Those of you who subscribe to my blog know that I will not shy away from the issues that need to be discussed, debated and contemplated.  Tools to aid our progress are everywhere in the equestrian world and my view is that we might as well be as educated about them as possible.  Often described as gadgets for the purposes of clarity I am calling anything beyond a simple snaffle and a plain cavesson a ‘gadget’.

Today I want to talk about the ‘Draw Rein’ or ‘Running Rein’.  Well, actually I’m not sure that I do.  I have been to-ing and fro-ing in my mind about whether to even write this article, fearful of the inevitable back lash, given what I perceive to be a very strong resistant force against the use of draw reins, with no amount of unbiased thinking being wanted or indeed considered. Continue reading DRAW REINS – DRAW YOUR OWN CONCLUSIONS

Making a Connection with your Horse

Hey everyone,

Hope you are enjoying the sun in the U.K.  As promised my article on ‘making a connection with your horse – In The Stirrups’ has been published in the very first edition of In The Stirrups Magazine OCTOBER 2014 (Page 17).

Here’s a couple of quotes to whet your appetite!

“The horse that is ‘round’ and on the bit is adjusted to take the riders weight easily to comfortably carry you and use his body effortlessly”

“The judge in a test is looking for the horse to maintain the head carriage, if you throw the reins forward your horse may think you are a rodeo rider and react accordingly”

“Sit up tall and utilise your lower back and abdominals to keep your torso upright.  If you go limp or collapse your midsection, you will find that your horse starts leaning on your hand, because he loses self carriage in his efforts to rebalance where you have put him out of balance, especially if you collapse forward”

Go take a look, there’s something for every equestrian, whatever your discipline of choice …


Note to self: Add some piccies next edition! lol

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


Take a Deep Breath

Without question the most underestimated, undervalued, unappreciated, under-rated tool in the rider’s toolbox is breathing.  I should know I am guilty of not tapping into the power that correct breathing gives you.  I have been told to learn to breathe properly and virtually ignored the advice.  Really can’t tell you why, it seems that I know best and I consider being advised to breathe as no advice at all.

I’ve written some posts on how to breathe when riding, paying lip service to it really.  I’d be interested to know how many of you have thought “Wow, that’s a real corker, I’ll go an give that a go”- I’ll wager not many of you.  However, now that I understand clearly the benefits of ‘good’ breathing I have to say that I am more than a little miffed with myself that I didn’t take it more seriously much earlier in my training and have been looking around for someone to blame for not instilling in me just how significant it is.  On this basis I am not going to be the one who does not tell you!

Breathing has proven to be one of the easiest and most effective ways to foster relaxation, build confidence, and direct focus.  Breathing oxygenates every cell of your body, from your brain to your vital organs.  Without sufficient oxygen your body becomes more susceptible to health problems. In a study published in The Lancet, cardiac patients who took 12 to 14 shallow breaths per minute (six breaths per minute is considered optimal) were more likely to have low levels of blood oxygen, which “may impair skeletal, muscle and metabolic function, and lead to muscle atrophy and exercise intolerance.”

BreathSo you see, every time I struggled to keep going, through lack of oxygen to my muscles and my lungs and quickly became exhausted, every time my vast efforts sent me purple in the face, every time my muscles ached through sheer exertion, could have been avoided with a) a few basic exercises to improve the way I breathe and b) an awareness of how my breathing affects my ability to work with my horse.  Deep diaphragmatic breathing raises levels of blood oxygen thus improving physical fitness and mental performance.

If you are anything like me, you want me someone to give you that magical positional tweak that will revolutionise your riding and God knows I’ve given you enough of those in my blog posts over the past year or so, but as my training progresses and things click into place, we are looking at refining everything, relaxing everything, making it more subtle, stripping it back to its heart and as a result I have had to learn to control my breathing whilst in the saddle.  It seems that every breath I share with my horse is an authentic cue either to relax or not.

Breathing correctly means your chest will expand; your ribcage will lift; your vertebrae will re-align; your muscles will soften; your jaw will relax; your elbows will unlock and your legs will hang long and soft.

Breathing correctly means that the oxygen gets to your brain and you are able to think more clearly; communication is calm and responsive.

Breathing it seems is a bit of a lame suggestion in the face of all that you need to do to ride well, such an insignificant idea barely warrants a try doesn’t it? But in my opinion that does not make it any less of a phenomenon but more of one.  It is simple and as such should be embraced because ‘simplicity is the key to brilliance’.

“Relax!”, “Stop holding your breath!” Whilst these phrases are intended to be helpful, what affect do they really have?  When you hit difficulty the first thing to go is the quality of your breathing, perhaps you hold your breath or begin breathing in short, shallow breaths, irregularly, very different from your breathing when you are calm, confident, and in control when your breaths are smooth, deep and rhythmic.  Deep breath

Take a Deep Breath!

The bizarre truth is that learning to control your breathing is not some 10 week course in which you need to seek professional help, pay exorbitant fees and work hard to achieve.  All you need to do is take a deep breath.  Basically, the emphasis is on breathing from the diaphragm (or belly) instead of the chest, as this produces feelings of being calm and relaxed.

  1. Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose – feel your chest expand top to bottom. Feel your belly push outward as if you were inflating a balloon.
  2. Hold for a moment before exhaling – concentrate on feeling calm and patient.
  3. Exhale gently through your mouth at a steady rate – be sure to exhale for a beat longer than you inhaled. Feel your belly flatten. Feel the muscles in your arms and shoulders relax while your body melts gently towards the ground. Let your muscles enjoy this moment of relaxation.

Drop your shoulders and let go. Breathe deep, expand your rib cage to give your heart room and exhale the calm. Inhale. Think of what you want to achieve in a positive light.  Exhale. Inhale. We will do a fabulously flowing shoulder-in today.  Exhale.  The deep breath is actually an act of self-confidence in itself.

Taking a deep breath can be used effectively in a lesson, before going into the arena at a show, during any breaks in your schooling or even during a hack It helps you maintain your composure, control your anxiety, keep your focus, and aids your body in getting the oxygen it needs to operate to its full capacity.

What could be more natural than an act that we do some 20,000 times each day?  So, do you know if you breathe correctly?  It is a fact that the majority of us take our breathing for granted.   Given that often the very act of taking a deep breath brings your focus to something that you have complete control over (your breathing) by utilising ‘taking a deep breath’ you have taken proactive steps and decided not to simply wait for things to happen.  Your breathing technique can create relaxation and rhythm.  Isn’t this the essence of all things Dressage?

Aaaaand, breeeeeeeeath!

DressagePatricia – The Dressage Tipster


Have you invested in The Crystal System Book yet?  Click on image to buy …

Dress it for the Vertical by Aspire Equestrian

My dear dressage enthusiasts, I got to thinking, maybe you are not all blinkered and utterly obsessed with dressage – bit odd but might be true.  Vertical 2Maybe some of you, dare I say it, actually jump your horses over something more than a cavelleti.  Well, if this is the case and despite me knowing absolutely zilch about jumping, today I have a treat for you.

It is my absolute pleasure to introduce to you Wiola Grabowska.  Wiola is a freelance coach and founder of Aspire Equestrian Riding Academy which focuses on thorough rider education at grassroots levels of dressage, jumping and eventing.  I asked Wiola to do a guest post, for me focussing on how dressage training benefits the show jumper and to my delight she has given us 2 dressage exercises that will make a real difference to your jumping.

So, for those of you who actually ask your horse’s hind legs to leave the ground, here’s what she has to say.  Enjoy …

Dress it for the Vertical – Two dressage moves that every jumping rider needs to do very well

There are at least five things that matter to you when you turn around the corner in your lovely three beat canter and head straight for colourful vertical waiting for you across the long diagonal of the arena and these are: Continue reading Dress it for the Vertical by Aspire Equestrian

The Thorny Problem that is Leg Yield

Seems whenever I explain to anyone that I do not do leg yield, I get furrowed brows and protestations and have to go into my full spiel about why not.  Well mostly, sometimes it’s all I can do to muster up … “I just don’t find it helpful”.

leg YieldClearly the reason why you should hassle yourself and your horse with the exercise is because you need to for the Elementary Test and as such it seems impossible to grasp how the ‘all knowing dressage superpowers’ can possibly include an exercise in the progressive test process that will do anything other than aid your progression!  And, yes, I know, I understand why you would think this; I am not telling you what to do; I am advising that in my current enlightened state, having followed many methods for many years which ended in me becoming a frustrated dribbling wreck, with all of my horses potentially for sale and the very real prospect of taking up cross-stitch as my primary hobby, I have found that I agree with the classical purists who sit firmly on the side of the fence that says leg yield has no benefits to the scale of training and may even hinder progress.  Cross StitchFor me, it simply does not help.

Often quoted as being a pre-cursor to more advanced lateral work, leg yielding is controversial because its biomechanics are often not understood.  Clearly, there is a benefit to teaching your horse to move forwards and sideways, however, in leg yield the hind quarters do not take more weight and your horse will struggle to remain light in the forehand, often the very act of leg yielding will put the horse onto the forehand.  In leg yield your horse will be bent in the opposite direction to how he bends in the more advanced lateral movements so for me it is counter-productive to spend time on the exercise, much better to skip leg yield and move straight onto two-track exercises to develop suppleness than to incorporate an exercise that actually (in my view!) produces stiffness in the horse. Continue reading The Thorny Problem that is Leg Yield

Travers – Use it to supple your horse

There are a number of exercises you should master in order to improve your horses ability to bend laterally (sideways), his overall suppleness and encourage engagement of his hindquarters.  One of them is Travers (or haunches in).  This lateral exercise is where the horse moves on a straight line with the quarters on an inner track and is essential for those who have already mastered shoulder-in and are ready to move up to half-pass.

You should begin asking for Travers in walk by ensuring that the walk is active with free and flowing movement.

It is important to be conscious of this so that you do not lose the rhythm or tempo and the gait is not be impaired in any way as the Travers begins.


  • Use the corner of the school to help you set up or ride a 10m circle
  • As the horses shoulder comes out of the circle, give the aids …
  • Both you and your horse should be looking forward in the direction of travel
  • Move your outside leg back slightly behind the girth to ask the horse’s hindquarters to move inwards to a 30 degree angle.
  • The outside rein should balance the horse and control the bend.
  • Keep your inside leg on the girth to maintain impulsion and flexion to the inside.
  • Your inside rein will maintain a soft contact and flexion.
  • Ride a few quality strides only, straighten the horse and ride away until you are able to maintin Travers along the whole side of the arena.

Try Travers …

  • On a circle
  • In trot
  • In canter
  • Up the Centre line
  • Ride a half 10m circle and return to E or B in Travers
  • Ride shoulder in along long side to E or B, 10m circle followed by Travers for the rest of the long side.


  • Look behind at the horse’s quarters
  • Collapse your inside hip
  • Allow your upper body to become crooked
  • Swing your outside lower leg too far back
  • Allow the impulsion to wane
  • Ask for too much angle
  • Allow the horse to look to the outside

So, there you have it the do’s and do nots of Travers.  Take it slowly, really think about your body position and how it affects the horse, be quiet in your aids and expect it to happen.

Good luck!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


Pure Gaits