Dressage in Eventing

Photo by Merrick Studios

By Melissa Allen

Dressage is the basic training of the horse, but it’s how you think about it that makes the difference. I’ve been teaching a long time, and I’ve not only taught dressage riders, but also barrel racers, western riders, jumpers and eventers. Every discipline is different but it’s all about the balance of the horse and the effectiveness of the rider. 

The event riders I teach know the importance of dressage, or as they call it, “flatwork”. Often times, it comes down to whose dressage score is lower to win an event. You want that score in the low 20’s? You’ll have to prepare your horse to get that. I think one of the biggest challenges is that they need their horse hot for the cross country to make time, but relaxed and swinging and soft for dressage. 

The intensity riders put into cross country and jumping is imperative (and exhilarating for them!) but the same intensity should also be put into your dressage training. I’ve heard riders comment about “getting through” a dressage test so they can go do what excites them, galloping and jumping big jumps. If you put the time and energy into your dressage, it can be just as exciting! The feel the horse gives you when they are listening, connected, and through is a feeling of partnership and power contained. Dancing with your horse down centerline with fluidity and suppleness is a beautiful thing! 

If you prepare yourself and your horse to ride each step of the test, you’ll have better outcomes. Practice riding correct geometry- riding perfect circles not only for the sake of getting a higher score, but this will also ensure (and show the judge) that you are riding BOTH sides of the horse. There is never a time when there aren’t two sides to a horse! Ride each corner to prepare for the next movement. That gives you time to balance your horse for what’s coming next. That’s like walking the course to know which angle or spot you need to take a jump to prepare you for the next one. Practice transitions where you need to perform them; it’s much harder to ask for a transition when it must be done at the letter and not just on a circle when you’re ready. 

Event riders are bold and seek the thrill of going fast, which usually means they are capable riders. But are you in balance? Do you collapse on one side? Do you draw your legs up or grip? Is one shoulder higher than the other? All of these can make your horse unbalanced underneath you. If you’re collapsed on one side, your weight is to the opposite side which will cause your horse to want to go that way. If you draw up one shoulder, that will pull your weight off that seat bone therefore putting more weight on the other. If you draw your legs up or grip, that makes your hip flexors tight, blocks your seat from following, and therefore won’t allow the horse to be able to move through the body and be connected. 

All of what I’ve mentioned above also affects the rider’s overall balance, which leads to hands not being steady and soft. Then you rely on your hands and arms for balance, rather than developing a deeper seat with a strong core to stay in balance.  

Developing your seat, your balance, and your horse’s balance isn’t just for the dressage ring. You need this for your jumping as well! When your horse understands how to listen to your seat, you can collect them without your hands. This creates better balance coming up to a jump, then the horse can use its hind legs more under which helps them jump better. It also helps prevent them falling in or out on turns to make a better line going to a jump. 

Now when you think about dressage, it’s not just about riding a pattern; it’s about training and balance. Practice your “flatwork” with the mentality that you are developing yourself and your horse to achieve better balance, both laterally and longitudinally. This will greatly improve your horse’s way of going and create more suppleness and softness that is desired for your dressage test. I hope this information helps you get lower scores in your dressage and more wins under your belt! 

About the Author

Melissa Allen is a USDF FEI Certified Instructor. She is a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medalist and is based near Charlotte, NC. 


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