Effective Dressage Training for Horse & Rider in Southern Oregon
Elizabeth Brown (Ellie) is a USDF Silver Medalist from Southern Oregon, who has had a passion for studying dressage from a young age. She has taken multiple client's horses to FEI with confirmed piaffe and passage, and has earned many champion, reserve champion, and high point awards . It is her life's passion to uncomplicate the nature of training the dressage horse.
Ellie started riding as a six year old girl, on a Shetland pony that she found wandering loose in the foothills of Southern Oregon. By age nine, and several ponies later, she began dressage lessons with a local FEI trainer. With the support and many sacrifices from her parents, Ellie showed her ponies up and down the west coast throughout her childhood and enjoyed success as a young rider. At age twelve, she was the Oregon State Dressage Champion in Training and First levels on a pony she had trained herself that was two inches downhill.
As a teen, Ellie, determined to pursue her passion for horses and dressage, began home-schooling herself and created her own high-school career, finding green or unbroke ponies and schooling them as hunter show ponies. Her ponies were sold all across the country and were known for their ride-ability and kid-worthiness.
Taking several years off from full-time training early in adulthood to marry and start her family, Ellie later became assistant trainer at a dressage training and show facility, schooling many horses of all levels, shapes, and sizes. She also had the pivotal experience of riding under the instruction of Jeffery Ashton Moore, to whom she credits many of her training theories.
Following her years as assistant trainer, Ellie became the head trainer for a Haflinger breeder where she trained and campaigned the imported stallion Maximotion WSF, bringing him from “barely broke”, to a competition sensation at Prix St Georges with confirmed piaffe, passage, and tempi's. Ellie and Max accomplished this in 4 years of training, before he was sold as an AA mount.
Ellie has cultivated a deep and passionate appreciation for teaching dressage in a vivid and tangible way, and her students appreciate how understanding the bio-mechanics of the horse and rider, along with a clear way of communicating with the horse, they are able to achieve results that surpass their expectations. Horses and riders from all back-grounds are welcomed- Ellie cherishes the opportunity to help all horses progress, from simple trail and pleasure, to competitive FEI. She is also enjoying pursuits in Western Dressage and Working Equitation. Children, beginning adults, and ponies are always welcome.
Photo Credit Lyle Trimmer
To "sum up" riding philosophy on just one page would be negligent, but I hope to give a small example of some principles that should be priority in a rider's training/thinking process, yet are vastly over-looked.
True understanding of what is actually happening bio-mechanically in the horse (and the rider!) in creating a certain “look” or “feel” is often lost by popular dressage lingo like “more from behind” and “not round enough”. It is vitally important for the success of the horse that the rider understands not just what went wrong, but why did it go wrong, and how we fix it.
Horses must be communicated with in a way that encourages and rewards experimentation, and especially rewards the horse's first notion of the correct response to an aid. It should become the horse's job to notice the rider's position and energy status, and accommodate the request for more or less energy, balance, bend, gait, etc. Also, a rider's recognition skills must be developed so that they are able to discern what is needed next to help the horse and whether the issue at hand is a matter of a: bio-mechanics (Are we being effective at “talking to” the right part of the horse? Are we using our bodies correctly?) b: technique (Do we have effective technique so that the horse understands the aids?), c: physical ability (Does the horse have sufficient strength and skill?), d: psychology (Is our thought process, expectation, and training method in line with the nature of the horse's learning process?), and so on.
All too often, equine disciplines are taught by trying to create the appearance of a particular form or of "submission" as the cornerstone of their curriculum. I believe that any training process that constricts the horse to fit in a certain frame, without, or at the cost of, understanding the principles that create the correct form and function of the horse, is intrinsically amiss.
"To be able to design helpful methods, we have to have profound knowledge. We have to study the horse's anatomy and biomechanics, so that we can decide which part of the system needs strengthening. This leads to the design of movements and exercises which we feel confident will have the desired effect, so that they will compel the horse to activate his muscular system, in the relevant areas." - The Baron Hans Von Blixen Finecke"
I consider myself incredibly blessed to have studied under mentor Jeff Ashton Moore and briefly with the late Baron Hans Von Blixen Finecke. It is to Jeff I credit the bulk of my training theories and can not express my appreciation enough for his brilliant mind.
Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13
If I had all the skills of heaven and earth, and could ride to the highest possible standard, but could not effectively communicate it to you, I would be completely ineffective as a riding instructor. I like to take hold of a concept that might seem vague or complex, and turn it into something tangible and easily embodied by my students, so that they can identify the correct feeling and create the desired result. I try to create moments or exercises where my students can feel for themselves what I feel when I am on the horse, so that they can begin to self-idenitfy what is happening in the movements of the horse and give the corrections needed. It's really exciting when riders connect on their own, a feeling or sensation they get from the horse, to the correction they can give through their body- and it works!
The horses we work with are so diverse! Each brings a unique blend of breeding, temperament, background and physical ability. The same is true for their human counterparts. In order for a horse and rider to become harmonious, the rider must take account all of those variables and understand how to apply the correct aids. Having a "tool box" of training solutions can only be helpful when the rider has a deep and intuitive understanding of how to apply the correct "tool", at the right time, and with the correct result in mind.
Much attention should be given to how the rider uses himself as a communication tool to the horse. Learning how to not use your arms in a pulling motion- backwards or downwards against the horse's face- is of utmost importance and is far to frequently not the case. The arms should be used as a way for the horse to sense the amount of “tall-ness” (or lightness, or climb) and energy the rider is requesting. Olympic Gold Medalist Baron Hans Von Blixen Finecke says it this way:
“I don't like the term 'hand-aids'. The only function of the hand is to connect the [rider's] body with the reins and the horses mouth. They don't give the aids, that is done by the whole body.” Baron Von Blixen
It is a mistake to try to create the iconic “outline” of a dressage horse, i.e., “roundness of frame” by focusing efforts on the shape of the neck- rather, the “round” look that a dressage horse takes on should merely be the bi-product of correct balance and utilization of energy. The horse can't help but be “round” and “up-hill” when it has learned these things. Thus, the horse shouldn't be pulled into a frame by moving his face downward and backward, rather it should be “lifted” into correct balance by teaching him to use muscles that engage his thorax, scapula, pelvis, and hind leg, allowing him to lift into an upward arch.
Some areas of importance at Aletheia Dressage are:
Rider's recognition of himself in space: Rider's bio-mechanics; rider's ability to identify and separate the use of different muscle groups; rider's ability to influence the horse (positively or negatively), riders direction of force.
Rider's recognition of the horse in space: Horse's bio-mechanics, alignment, balance, dynamics of gait, horse's direction of force.
Approaching the horse's learning process sympathetically: Horses don't have fore-knowledge of what will be asked of them. They learn retrospectively- they must "sum-up" what the intended response is after the correction or reward takes place. They also are not emotionally interested in pleasing or dis-pleasing the rider. They are mostly looking out for their own best interest and draw from what has worked in the past, however we do see different levels of ease of influence.
Creating a training process that begets the wished-for result: having realistic expectations when something is new; encouraging the horse to experiment; recognizing the horse's first true attempt at accommodating the rider; discernment of when the rider should ask for more and when the rider should "let him off" and reward; deciphering between bewilderment and a "bad-attitude"; how to make effective corrections.
Developing strategy: The what to do, i.e., actions, exercises, patterns, etc.
Developing technique: The how to do it, i.e., refining the rider's skill, use of their body to have maximum influence over the horse, etc.
Evaluating the horse for positive results: Horses in training should show positive side-effects of correct riding and schooling. Development of musculature, development of gaits (improved form and function), progression of trainability, ride-ability, and willingness.
Aletheia: (al-AY'-thi-a) is Greek for “Truth”, but not merely truth as spoken; truth of idea, reality, sincerity, truth in the moral sphere, divine truth revealed to man, and straightforwardness. In ancient Greek culture, (alḗtheia) was synonymous for "reality" as the opposite of illusion, i.e. fact.
I wholly pursue finding “aletheia” in all areas of my life, whether that be spiritually, morally, in relationships, regarding health or the care of my family and most certainly, in riding. Seeking Truth is so relevant in training horses because we must know the true cause of an issue in order to effectively change the outcome. I want to look for deepest, most elemental reason that something is happening, so that I understand the physics behind the exterior, and change the paradigm towards improvement. Finding that basal "cause" and being able to articulate to my students why something is happening and how to progress, is the real existence of my passion. It is part of my deepest self to seek truth and then be able to communicate it thoughtfully so that it can be meaningful to others.
Photo Credit Lyle Trimmer
Ellie as a demo rider in a Kristina Harrison dressage demonstration. Kristina Harrison is one of our Pan Am gold medalists. At this point in Max's training, he is schooling third/fourth level.
Max schooling Piaffe and Passage before he was sold. The first video is earlier in his Piaffe training. This video shows that the horse is relaxed and rhythmic, and that he is willing to lift and lighten his fore-hand while using his hind quarters to accept increased weight. At this stage, lightness, energy and rhythm should be prioritized over being "on the spot". The second video shows his developing passage and transitions into and out of Piaffe. In correct piaffe, you should see an absence of busy "over-management" aids which result in pulling and kicking at the same time. This demonstrates the horse's understanding and willingness to the aids and that he is not pressing onto the fore hand or dull to aids for increased energy. Piaffe and passage do not have to be complicated and should never be trained by excessive aids and repetitive drilling. These videos do not show his final Piaffe/Passage work, but even in the early phases of these movements, Max shows an ease about the movements- a testament to a thoughtful training process, especially considering that Haflingers are not a dressage standard breed.
Ellie lives in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon and is available for training, lessons, and clinics. She enjoys working with riders of all ages and skill levels, and is also excited to become involved in Western Dressage and Working Equitation. Riders and horses need not have dressage showing as their goal- all disciplines of horses/riders that wish to succeed are welcome.
Serving Jacksonville, Applegate, and Medford, Oregon; and surrounding areas