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Dressage the Do's and Don'ts

This article first appeared in a previous edition of Equestrian Life magazine, to see what is in the current issue, click here.
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Brett Parbery on their way to a win in the Grand Prix Freestyle - Photo credit Roger Fitzhardinge

©Roger Fitzhardinge


By Brett Parbery

Over the years, I have seen a lot of people come into horses, across many disciplines, some of who have lasted and others, unfortunately, who have gone by the wayside, often leaving a large proportion of their fortune behind them on the way through. One possible reason for the high attrition rate is that equestrian sports often give the illusion that they are easy, while in actual fact, when they are done well, they merely appear easy. Most of us know that it requires large measures of mental toughness, grit and determination to compete at any level, although equestrian sports, and dressage in particular, can be made a lot easier by making sure you get a few simple things right.


When discussing the temperament of a horse, we are referring to its mental aptitude for being trained. Unlike some other horse sports where the horse must think for itself, a dressage horse is best when it acts only on instruction from the rider and so must have a high level of concentration. Dressage is a sport requiring foot perfect control and a horse must, therefore, have the ability to mentally relax while staying attentive enough to give instant reactions to the rider’s commands, many of which are in multiples of two and three ‘layered’ commands, combining to produce a single exercise. As a horse progresses through the levels of dressage, the exercises become more complex and the energy requirements far greater, hence, the ideal temperament for dressage is that of a relaxed horse who has an awareness of its surroundings, showing an obvious intelligence in its reactions.

When it comes to the type or conformation of the horse, there are a few rules of thumb. Over the years, however, many horses have broken these rules and yet gone on to become champions, demonstrating that perhaps it is the desire of the horse rather than the type of horse that is most important. I personally would place strength through the back as one of my main priorities, with a long back being a typical weakness I would avoid. The strength should also continue from the back over the croup and down into the hindquarters. Strong, low-set hocks will provide the supportive mechanics to allow the horse to take weight behind in the high-level movements, with the horse’s natural ability to bend all joints in the hind legs being another key area to identify. Victory Salute has the ability to bend all joints, which explains why he is at ease with the extreme collected work in Grand Prix. The shoulder of the horse should have a long angle, allowing freedom of the shoulder for extended paces and when collected, providing an extravagant front leg. Short front legs are often a hindrance when the entire goal of the sport is to show an uphill way of going, however, a horse that is too long in the front legs can often be difficult to get to work over the back. The neck should not be too short or too long and should flow nicely out of the shoulder, not be too heavy, and have a natural appearance of being ‘on the bit’. The head should be intelligent with a wide forehead and a kind eye, and should connect to the neck in a refined way, with a thick jaw or throat outline not being ideal. 

All of this, however, will be null and void if the horse has crooked legs, offset joints or bad feet, which can make them prone to weakness and/or injury. Just remember, the colour of the horse or how much white it has is irrelevant, and should be a long way down your list of priorities when selecting a dressage horse.

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It is important that your horse gets a balanced diet with regard to the concentrates you choose to feed, and the quantity and quality of your chosen fodder. By concentrates I am referring to grains and/or pre-made feeds and by fodder I mean hay and/or pasture. If you want your horse to feel fit and energetic, you must feed them according to their workload. There are many feed companies in the marketplace that offer free dietary analysis and many books on equine nutrition in bookstores and on the internet. I am far from an expert in this field and would suggest that you thoroughly research which diet will suit your horse best. The appearance of the horse is also a good indicator when it comes to its diet. How the horse looks and feels will give you the best feedback as to whether the diet is suitable. Don’t forget that good fodder, fed in sizeable portions, is equally important to the horse’s health as good concentrates. And of course, access to fresh, clean water is of paramount importance.

When it comes to general management you must take care of things like regular worming and six-monthly dental checks. Make sure that you are using a good farrier who cares about your horse’s comfort and is willing to explain what they are doing with your horse’s feet. When it comes to a suitable vet, word of mouth is one of the best sources. Once you have found a good vet, allow them to get to know your horse, as that will help them be more confident in making decisions if your horse is sick or gets injured. Once you have found a good dentist, farrier and vet, you must cherish them because they are the mainstream professionals that will keep your horse fit and healthy for competition. 


There is an old saying that buying the horse is the cheapest part of horse ownership, and that is true. One enormous expense is the building of facilities that keep them safe and an arena where you can train them on a daily basis. My advice would be to try to get it right the first time because once something is in place it is very expensive to change.

With regard to stabling, the important things are safety of the stable or shelter, plenty of light, plenty of clean, fresh air and bedding. It is not that difficult to plan and build a good stable, but one thing some people forget is that horses are social animals and are not comfortable in isolation from others. If you are building stables for more than one horse, make sure the horses can see each other and, if possible, put their heads outside a window.

Conversations about arena surfaces must be the most talked about topic at nearly all the horse properties I visit. The long and the short of it is that a bad arena surface can create problems like injuries to your horse or a lack of confidence in the way your horse works. Basically, a good arena needs to have a good hard base that has been created with a certain degree of fall to provide effective drainage. On top of the base, you need a good riding surface. In general, you can make most surfaces rideable by adding water to them. It is the water that will provide the body in the surface and here in Australia, since water has been a rare commodity over the past 10 years, a lot of different types of surface materials have been offered to the market. In my opinion, a good riding surface has a certain degree of water retention, is not too deep and must be well maintained.  


When choosing saddlery equipment, everyone will have an opinion. There is always going to be a new gimmick that will catch your attention and will supposedly be the answer to all your riding problems. In my experience, the only thing that will correct your riding is better riding and the quicker you take care of correcting yourself, the quicker you will improve. The one belief I have, though, is that custom-made equipment, if made and measured correctly to fit you and your horse, should provide a more comfortable fit than off the rack gear. Comfort for me and for my horse is one of my most important priorities and for this reason I always choose custom-made equipment when I am able to. This is not saying that off-the-rack equipment is bad, however, it stands to reason that made-to-measure equipment should provide a more personalised fit. With comfort, I am not only referring to riding equipment but also rugs, bits, halters, saddle blankets, boots, bell boots, bandages and all the other equipment we end up buying.


When it comes to selecting a coach, you should spend some time researching who, in your area, is either doing a good job riding and producing horses themselves, or who is actively producing riders that show a nice brand of riding and are out there successfully competing. It is important that you employ the services of someone whose opinion you respect, and whose judgement you rarely second guess. Sure, you should be able to ask questions in times of confusion, but when the heat is on and you are busy warming up before your test, you need to be confident that your coach is giving you the right information. One of my favourite sayings is that if it doesn’t make sense to me, how can it possibly make sense to my horse. If your coach can’t explain something to you and have it make complete sense, then you need to ask more questions. 

Your coach should have the skills of a trainer and a coach. A trainer teaches you and your horse the skills required for dressage while a coach will coach you in all facets of riding, including competition preparation and goal setting. It is important to learn and understand what the dressage judges want to see and what they reward. To learn this, either attend some judging workshops or volunteer to scribe for an experienced judge. You will learn a lot about what the judges see and how you can improve your competition riding to earn more marks. When preparing for a competition, be sure to learn your test and understand where the most marks are given, either by coefficient marks or by one movement achieving two separate scores. Look at the directives of how to ride each movement and be sure to have your coach take you through the test and practise the important set ups and transitions within the test. Competition riding is an art in itself and it’s all about not throwing away marks by attempting to hide your weaknesses and then showing the judges your strengths, with the goal of trying to establish an average score of 

7 (fairly good) or better. With goal setting, the most important thing to remember is to keep your goal realistic to the stage of riding, the capabilities of your horse and your lifestyle demands. Don’t let your dreams get in the way of reality. Sure, dream big and aim high, but remember to climb each step one at a time to ensure that you have a solid foundation to hold you at the top when you eventually get there.


If you decide to transport your horse, you must drive with care. If you have ever travelled in the back of a moving horse float you will know exactly what I am talking about. They are terrifying to say the least. To be fair to your horse, make sure you drive with compassion for what the horse is going through and try to drive as smoothly as possible. Make sure your horse float or truck is safe, big enough and well padded, with good airflow and is in good mechanical order. 


Finally, I would suggest becoming a member of Equestrian Australia and then a member of an affiliated dressage club. Get a good group of like-minded friends around you and set off on your dressage journey. You will find it the most rewarding sport and one where the ongoing challenge for perfection never ends.


This article first appeared in a previous edition of Equestrian Life magazine, to see what is in the current issue, click here.
To subscribe, click

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