When I bought my first horse, a 5 year old ottb, I really had no idea what I was doing. I thought I did, but I didn’t. I wanted to ride hunters so I got a trainer who helped me not get myself killed. I’ll always be thankful for her. My second horse was dropped into my lap and I didn’t even want him at first. He was a 15.2 bay quarter horse and I bought him because his owner didn’t have time or money for him and he needed a better situation. He picked me, and I’m so glad he did. When I bought him, I had never even ridden him. (It’s a long story).
On my first ride on Thunder I realized he had a lot of problems. He was great on trails but very nervous in the arena. He had no idea what I wanted him to do and he was hollow and bracing. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, but he was just a mess under saddle. His trot was this weird, giraffe-like gait where he almost cantered with the front and trotted in the back. It’s hard to explain and even harder to ride.
I realized I had no idea how to fix him. My experience at hunter barns had taught me how to ride, but it hadn’t taught me how to train a horse and teach the horse to work correctly. How do I get him to relax? To put his head down? To trot like a normal horse? I knew I needed help and I began researching extensively.
That’s when I discovered classical dressage. I came across a guy named Will Faerber with a youtube channel called Art2Ride. It was a godsend. Will explained classical dressage in the simplest terms and pointed out what many people in the horse world don’t understand- how to get a horse to work correctly over his back. If you’ve never heard of Will Faerber, that’s because he’s not trying to get famous and sell you a bunch of gear with his name on it. He’s trying to teach people about correct dressage, which is essential for discipline from barrels to eventing.
Classical dressage was exactly what I had been looking for and what was missing in my work with my first horse. I committed to Will’s method and it took a year and a half, but Thunder was completely transformed through correct work.
To summarize it and oversimplify it, many horses are being ridden in a hollow frame. Their heads may be pulled backward onto the vertical, but they are still hollow in their backs. The two pairs of legs are not moving in sync and they’re reaching out further with their front legs than their back legs. When a horse is working correctly, his hind legs step deeply underneath and the back lifts. He will develop beautiful neck and back muscles and his legs will work in perfect rhythm. He will push from behind instead of pulling himself along from his shoulder. There’s nothing prettier than a horse moving correctly.
How do you accomplish this? It begins on the lunge where the horse learns to move correctly without the added weight of the rider. Lunging for horses is like yoga for people. On the circle, the horse has to step deeply under himself because of the geometry of the circle. Eventually the horse will begin to stretch from the base of the neck and his back will lift. This is what builds the horse’s topline. It starts at the walk, then trot, then canter. It’s very systematic. The walk has to be good before the trot can be good. You can’t hurry the process or skip steps.
Once the horse has learned to move correctly at the walk on the lunge line, he can be ridden at the walk. Same with trot and canter. There’s no point in riding a hollow horse. You’re just pushing the back down even further and building all the wrong muscles. It’s a long, slow process. It takes at least a year to put a topline on a horse, and that’s working consistently. But it is so worth it. A horse that works correctly will be sound for years, easier to ride and comfortable in his work. A lot of “attitude problems” disappear when the horse is worked correctly and isn’t in pain.
If any of this interests you, or you’re like I was and you know you’re missing something in your training, please check out Art2Ride on youtube!