Fundamental Principles of Dressage
Fundamental Principles

Gregorio Billikopf
A Passion for Dressage

"El caballo es tu espejo.
Nunca lisonjea.
Refleja tu temperamento.
Refeja también sus vacilaciones.
No te enjojes nunca con tu caballo;
Sería como enojarte con tu espejo."

Equitación Racional, Ernst Altstadt

Dressage is the training of the horse through gymnastics to achieve the balance, lightness, and engagement that can be found in horses in nature. The fundamental principles of dressage-are to make the horse light, cadenced, and engaged. This is manifested in the ability to both collect and extend the horse, and to be able to smoothly move from the one to the other.

Dressage movements include 1) moving forward (e.g.: ordinary trot), 2) upward transitions (e.g.: walk to trot), 3) downward transitions (e.g.: canter to halt),4) movements which require increased engagement (e.g.: collected trot), 5) sideways movement (e.g.: half pass), and 6) engagement of the hindquarters to the point that the horse raises the front (e.g.: levade).

These results are achieved by driving and restraining aids. There are different types of driving and restraining aids-with varying degrees of strength-that can be used. Many possible available combinations result. These combinations of aids are used to achieve forward movement, upward and downward transitions, etc.

Driving aids include the seat, weight, legs, spur, whip, and voice. Restraining aids include weight, seat, effect of the hands through the reins, and voice. The action of many of these aids can be either bilateral (both sided) or unilateral (one sided). Those aids that can be used either bi- or unilaterally are the seat, weight, leg, spur, and hand. The whip can be switched from one side to the other as needed, or kept up pointing toward the sky.

Another distinction pertains to the aids required or not required in the dressage arena during competition. The type of bit, use of bridle or double bridle, whip, and spurs, depend on the formality and level of competition. The use of the voice is prohibited for mounted competition. Aids have also been classified as natural (e.g.: legs) or artificial (e.g.: whip). Creative riders, however, have found other aids to training horses, such as asking for collection on a noisy wooden bridge facing home, or asking for extension on a hillside. The hillside and the bridge become aids.

While different chapters will discuss the various movements in more detail, it is a good idea for the rider to have a general feeling for what will be achieved. When a horse is driven forward but not allowed to fully advance, he is predisposed to move sideways. By controlling forward and sideways movements, a horse can similarly be asked to halt, to collect, or to even engage the hindquarter and make the front so light the horse will transfer all the weights to the hindquarter (as in the levade).

While the natural mind thinks of accomplishing downward transitions through restraining aids, the perfection of these movements, however, comes from driving the horse against or into the restraining aids-with an emphasis on the driving.

Finer aids are preferable to more visible aids, as a goal. However, finer aids should not be used at the expense of impulsion. For instance, it is preferable to carry a dressage whip and have impulsion than to ride without the whip and lack impulsion. Without impulsion the horse cannot be molded. To ride a horse without impulsion would be like attempting to throw a pot in a potters wheel that is not turning fast enough.

Impulsion has to match the level of ability of the horse and rider combination. The rider should build up only as much impulsion as he can control. Given the right level of impulsion, an almost undetectable shift in the riderís weight-in the eyes of the casual observer-can be enough to transition from one gait to another.

Another goal is to make the dressage horse straight. This simply means that the rider develops the muscles of the horse equally on both sides. When this is achieved, the horse will engage both hindquarters evenly. A well prepared dressage horse will be recognized, as a result of the engagement of the hindquarters, by a greater period of suspension at the trot and canter. Suspension is the moment when none of the horse's hoofs is touching the ground at the trot or at the canter (there is no period of suspension at the walk or retrograde). Suspension's sister is elevation or extension.

As the horse engages the hindquarter and the front becomes lighter, the horse's head can also fall in the right frame. A rider should not sit the trot unless the horse's head is in the right frame because adding weight to a hollow back causes the horse to hollow the back even further. The elevation of the horse's head should correspond to degree of collection involved. It is wrong to use a harsh bit to put the horse on the bit. This is working from the front backwards instead of from the back into the front. A simple snaffle bit is sufficient to put any horse on the bit, and to achieve almost every desired goal in dressage. The double bridle is not-or should not be-used to facilitate putting the horse on the bit. Instead, the double bridle is there for increased lightness, after the rider has trained the horse with the snaffle bit.

The rider must approach the road to perfecting the dressage horse by careful understanding of where he is going and how to get there. Repetition is the key to learning for the horse-as it is for people. But not needless repetition. Many objects in correct dressage training are better accomplished by subdividing lessons into ones that are easier for the horse to understand, or through another road altogether, that might have no resemblance to the coveted movement the rider is attempting to achieve.

I will not achieve a better extended trot by doing extended trot, but rather, by developing the correct rhythm, balance, and engagement through other exercises-such as the circle. The rider must "build up" some movements (such as those that require collection) through other movements. As the desired movement is utilized it is "used up," and must be built up again as a bank deposit that gets spent when it is withdrawn. Part of the object of this book is to review such a progressive approach building from one exercise to the next.

A topic near and dear to my heart, and one fundamental to effective dressage training, is that of reward and punishment. The horse is a noble animal and responds better to positive reinforcement than to punishment. Horses bask in positive reinforcement: a pat in the neck or rump, a caress around the ears or face, a carrot or another treat. Horses can be rewarded at any gait by a gentle moving of the hand, even while holding the rein, on the horseís neck.

When a rider works a horse, he must be intimately aware of the horseís frame of mind. When a horse is happy he responds to a caress. When a horse is overly tense or upset at the rider (perhaps for asking too much) he will not respond as to a caress quite as fast. Until the horse responds to love, the rider should refrain from moving to the next step in training.

So, how does one tell if a horse has responded to reward?

I am indebted to a good friend, Kamran Alavi, who taught me how to recognize this: horses lick their tongue and stick it out when they are pleased with themselves. Next time you go out and ask your horse to do something that he can do well, stop and pat the horse. Watch his tongue! A horse cannot help but communicate with the rider if the rider is perceptive. Every position of the ears means something, too. It is well known that the ears flattened all the way back means that the horse is angry or upset. When both of the horseís ears face backward, he is paying full attention to the rider. Ears forward: he is paying special attention to where he is going. Ears moving back and forth might indicate divided attention and perhaps a little nervousness.

The tail of the horse also speaks. Swishing means either flies are bothering him or he is irritated at overly forceful aids. A little bucking may mean the horse is peppy, or perhaps irritated. When the horse tosses his head, this usually means nervousness, too.

The horse sends a constant flow of messages to the rider through head, ears, tail, and more importantly, the movement

A feeling rider can receive a constant flow of messages from the horse, by feeling the movement, muscle relaxation or tension, balance changes, and other signals. Riders, then, must be aware of every muscle, every movement. It is a riderís responsibility to totally understand both his horseís physical and mental state and act accordingly.

Sometimes a horse is acting badly because someone else has ruined or spoiled him. Yet the same principles apply. It just takes more experience, knowledge, and more patience to achieve the results. More often, a rider may think the horse is acting up when in reality the horse is being obedient to the aids. I observed a rider ask a horse to go on the left lead from a circle twenty or so timesóevery time wrong. After I helped the rider bend the horse properly, he took the correct lead on the very first attempt.

When a rider hits a horse, it is only a reflection of his riding weakness. For instance, the rider who takes a horse right up to the jump that was just refused, and whacks him a good one or three seldom obtains the victory over the obstacle. It seems that people usually hit horses because they have lost control, and more importantly, because they do not have the skills to help the horse through the task that needs to be achieved. In the case of the refused jump, a rider must ask himself through introspection if he correctly (1) brought the horse up to the jump, (2) gave the horse the proper confidence and aids for takeoff, (3) gauged the horseís stamina, and (4) prepared a gradual approach, through a systematic training program.

I do not suggest that horses ought not be punished, but the nature of this punishment needs to be corrective, not punitive. If a horse nibbles on you I do believe there is some room for "punishment" as we usually think of itóa mere light tap in the nose with a finger. But in general, corrective punishment means repeating an exercise before the horse is exhausted, and building up to the required task methodically, by building a stepping stone between the failed lesson and the one whose objective has eluded us. If the half pass is weak, work on the shoulder in, renvers and travers to help the horse prepare for a more expressive half pass.

The horse wonít think he "got away with something" unless the rider hits the horse or gives the horse a rest after a disobedience. Tired horses often find that disobedience is the only way to obtain a little rest. Riders who hit their mounts often do so while bringing the horse to a halt to punish them. Some difficult situations call for help from a more experienced rider.

When a horse bucks, the best response is to keep moving forward, rather than stop to hit the animal. As soon as a correct movement is achieved, such as a correct circle or corner, the rider needs to take advantage to reward his horse. Horses that are rewarded by frequent pats and rests will learn faster and without fatigue.

I prefer to ignore the horseís buck and pass it off as an expression of joyfulness. If I do that, and ignore the horse's supposed "misbehavior," he is unlikely to develop it into a bad habit.

Riders must remember not too ask too much of the horse too soon. When I was twenty-six or so I taught myself touch typing. During those first few weeks, someone could have offered me Anne-Grethe Jensenís (Denmark) Olympic champion, Marzog; or Dr. Reiner Klimkeís (Germany) Olympic champion Ahlerich; or, for that matter, hit me over the head with a whip, and I would not have helped me find "q" or "n" any faster. Now, many years later, typing is so easy for me, I donít even consciously know where they are on the keyboard. Both the horse and the rider need time to remember their "Qs" and "Ns." Just as typing lessons build on each other, so do dressage lessons.


Horses tend to do exactly what they are told to do; riders simply do not always realize how they are affecting the horse. Every part of the riderís body can convey a message to the horse, and likewise, the horse provides the rider with a constant flow of messages.

A horse may not respond because the rider has (1) not warmed the horse properly, (2) skipped some steps, (3) the horse is tired or fatigued (mentally or physically), or (4) the rider does not know how to ask properly.

The riderís response must be appropriate to the horseís resistance. That might mean warming up, approaching the problem from another angle, or trying something totally different. Every exercise has another exercise that can be done to improve it, although some exercises seem to contribute more than others.

If we enjoy riding and love horses, we are more likely to provide the needed caresses and rewards that will help the horse better understand what we desire.

The object of dressage is to achieve engagement, lightness and balance as can be found in horses in nature-especially that found in excited horses in nature. Further, the object of dressage is to make the horse straight and to develop suspension at the trot and canter. The object of dressage is accomplished through gradual and progressive gymnastics, and not through unnatural or cruel techniques.

Both driving and restraining aids are used, with an emphasis on the driving aids. The action of most of the aids can be either unilateral or bilateral. Finer aids are preferable to visible ones. Impulsion is the common denominator of all dressage work. No work can be accomplished without impulsion. A rider should not create more impulsion than he can control.

A rider should not sit the trot unless the horse's head is in the right frame, that is, the horse is on the bit. The elevation of the horse's head should correspond to degree of collection involved. A simple snaffle bit is sufficient for every dressage activity. The double bridle is used after the horse has learned with the snaffle.

Chapter 1 References

(1) Alavi, Kamran. Born in Iran, is a great horse and animal lover.

© 1999-2010 Gregorio Billikopf

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A Passion for Dressage
Table of Contents

19 May 2010