Dressage is training. The gradual improvement of horse and rider through systematic gymnastics and exercises to build their core-strength and agility. Training to improve their ability to communicate; to foster patience & understanding in the rider which then creates a relaxed obedience in the horse. This enables the horse and rider to perform as a team, without force, fear or misunderstanding.
"The proof of the correctness of training will be shown best by the increased beauty of the horse . . . " ~ Alois Podhajsky in The Complete Training of Horse and Rider
Pyramid of Dressage Training ~
Most of us begin to ride because we fall in love with the thought and image of the horse. Their beauty, power and agility in motion. Then we go for trail rides, start taking lessons, etc. and start noticing how "pluggy" or "uncoordinated" the horse may seem to be. They won't go, they trip a lot, they just plop around, they weave and bob. In reality, as soon as we sit on a horse, we completely change and upset his center of balance. He must learn to carry himself with a rider’s weight so he can carry himself as lightly and effortlessly as he does without being sat on. Dressage is a way to achieve this by developing the horse's natural ability and athleticism, and also developing his ability to maintain his balance while carrying his rider at a variety of gaits and while performing a variety of movements.
However, no matter how well trained the horse is, he won’t be able to work to the best of his ability if his rider does not also develop balance: The rider must develop the ability to support and control her body independently without outside support (ie: hanging on the reins, gripping with her knees and/or heels, leaning forward onto her hands; all of which adversely affect the horse) Balance also involves developing control of the rider’s muscles so that she can stay with the horse's center of gravity --Effortlessly following the horse's motion at any gait and movement without losing your balance and falling backward or forward.
We want to be able to ride a horse that is light, soft, supple; the picture of power and grace. We want it to look (and feel) elegant; we want to feel that we are in total harmony with our mount. Developing this harmony requires a lot of work and dedication; it requires: Instruction.
Instruction in Classical Horsemanship begins with the Longe Line. These first lessons conducted on the longe line are essential to your development of a good "seat" and "position" - basically, good posture and balance in the saddle. They may feel repetitive and sometimes boring, but the handling of the horse by the instructor frees the rider to concentrate on her position without the added responsibility of controlling the horse. And, the repetition of the exercises instills the correct position and movement into the rider’s muscle memory. All riders go back to the longe-line from time to time to correct or confirm their seat and to correct position problems as they arise and before they become habit.
The earliest known treatise on Classical Horsemanship (dressage) is over 2,000 years old and was written by Xenaphon, a Greek philosopher and cavalry leader (around 445-355 BC). In it he states "I do not approve of a seat which is though the man were on a chair, but rather as though he were standing upright with his legs apart. Thus he would get a better grip with his thighs on the horse, . . . His foot and leg from the knee down should hang loosely. . . a supple leg would yield, . . . without at all disturbing the thigh. " His definition of the correct position is what riders still strive for today and is the basis of all Classical horsemanship. The reason Xenaphon is still read and quoted after 2,000 years is that this Classical approach works. If it didn't, it would have been discarded long ago.
The horse already knows how to be a horse. The task of horsemanship lies entirely with the rider. Through training, meaning the conditioning of the horse, the rider becomes able to guide the creature accurately through all the various movements which it can already perform naturally, and develop its athletic potential through disciplined gymnastic work which is in harmony with its nature.
It is the primary duty of the horseman to be strictly a control centre, not a physical mover, shover, or pusher-puller of the animal. This state can only materialize when the rider, through consistent use of his aids, establishes a system of communication whereby the horse comes to understand what is wanted.
Besides becoming adept in the technical administration of the aids, the only physical responsibility to be mastered by the rider is, through balanced harmony, to become an entirely inseparable part of the horse, in no way disturbing or impeding the freedom of its body motion.
- Erik F. Herbermann, "Dressage Formula", Second Edition, Published by J A Allen, London-reprinted 1993