“Every horse remains unique for the duration of the training. However, after the completion of the training it almost ceases to be unique. A truly trained squadron becomes more regular and more similar in their gaits, posture, and form with each year, and especially in the way they feel almost all differences disappear. The high trot disappears as much as the trot that does not move its rider at all, etc. etc. The entire use of the horses’ legs evens out so much that if you were blindfolded you could not tell in any gait which horse you were sitting on.”
Otto von Monteton (Über die Reitkunst, 1877, 58, translation: TR).
On 21 August 2006, we held an Open House event. One of the events at the open house was a dressage exhibition that included quadrilles, a pas de trois, a pas de deux, a solo performance, as well as some free form improvisational shownumbers with several horses in the arena that had to share and utilize the arena space evenly while demonstrating transitions, turns, and dressage movements with each horse.
For the horses and riders the preparations for the performance were highly educational in several ways, because riding, training, and performing in groups requires not only all the skills the rider needs in order to ride well in a competition, but certain additional skills are necessary that can only be acquired by riding together with others. These skills used to be considered highly important in the European tradition of dressage, which is why group lessons were quite common, practically the norm, in European riding schools. Riders in the US tend to underestimate the value of riding in groups and group lessons, because many of them think that they don’t get their money’s worth out of the lesson, since the trainer has to divide his attention between the different riders. However, if you consider the challenges that riding in groups presents, you will recognize very quickly that this will make the student a much more effective rider, and the horse becomes more responsive to the rider’s aids, as well as more accepting of environmental influences. Unlike some riders, horses tend to like working in groups, since they are herd animals and as such are more comfortable in the company of other horses than by themselves.
For the rider, this type of setting is more challenging than riding alone for several reasons on which I want to elaborate a little. Of course it goes without saying that each rider in the group still has to ride his horse, so that it is in front of the leg, on the seat, on the bit, straight, balanced, supple, durchlässig, collected etc. In addition, he has to match the tempo and stride length of all the other horses in order to maintain a regular distance from the horse in front of him. In other words, he cannot just let the horse choose his own tempo, but he is forced to regulate the tempo so that he neither runs into anybody else, nor loses the connection with the rest of the group. In terms of the horse’s training, this means that not only does each rider have to become aware of the tempo and stride length he is riding, but he has to make a conscious effort to take charge and regulate the tempo, which is one of the most basic, most important prerequisites of successful training. The reason for this is that balance is intimately connected to tempo and stride length. The horse can find its longitudinal balance only if its tempo is as regular as a metronome. Any irregularity results in a loss of balance, which in turn results in bracing and stiffness. Within a group setting, irregularities of the tempo become very visible, because they immediately change the distances and bring the group into disarray, which is impossible to miss, even if a student cannot otherwise feel smaller fluctuations in the tempo yet. Obviously, the more closely the natural tempo and stride length of the horses within a group match each other, the easier the task becomes. The greater the extremes, the more difficult it becomes. The first rider of the group has to set a tempo that works for all horses, which is often a compromise, so that some horses have to take longer strides than they would on their own, while other horses have to take shorter strides than they would prefer.
An additional challenge in quadrille riding is that as soon as the riders split into two groups that have to mirror each other, inevitably one group temporarily has the inside track, i.e. it covers less distance, while the other group has the outside track, i.e. it covers more ground. In order to remain lined up with one’s partner, the outside group then has to ride more forward in corners, while the inside group has to collect their horses more. This means that each rider has to ride countless transitions within the gait from more collected strides to longer strides and back, without letting the tempo change and without letting the horse come off the aids.
While riding a steady tempo helps the horse find its longitudinal balance, as mentioned above, riding a precise line (i.e. circles are round, not oval, and straight lines are straight, not wavy) helps the horse find its lateral balance. Riding sloppy arena patterns prevents the horse from finding his balance under the rider and hence leads to stiffness and bracing. The importance of riding a regular, consistent tempo and stride length as well as correct arena patterns cannot be overstressed, since a look into any riding arena shows that many riders are quite obviously unaware of it. When riding in a group, voltes for instance can be executed along the long side of the arena in such a way that all riders have to leave the long side together, reach the halfway point together, and arrive back at the wall together (and in the same place where they started the volte!). If one rider out of the group rides his volte too small or too large, he will inevitably run into the rider next to him, because an imprecise line upsets the spacing between the riders. So, maintaining the same spacing throughout the ride requires that each rider regulates the tempo and stride length carefully, and that he rides very accurate arena patterns. This way, two of the most basic and most important prerequisites for good, successful riding become ingrained in the student. Another good example is for instance to let all the riders turn left (if they are riding on the left rein) simultaneously, away from the long side, and then to turn right on the opposite long side. This pattern only works if all riders leave the long side together, if they turn exactly 90 degrees, not 85 or 95, if they travel exactly parallel to the short side, if they all cross the quarter lines and the center line at the same time, if they reach the opposite the long side at the same time and precisely opposite the spot where they left the old long side. Otherwise, the distances between the riders will be destroyed. This teaches the rider to ride balanced turns and to ride straight lines without the support of a wall.
There are other benefits and challenges in quadrille riding. The horses have to become used to working in close proximity to others without getting distracted or aggressive. The normal herd rules are suspended, which means that no horse is allowed to bite or kick another horse that comes close to it. If a horse kicks out, it is a sign that its rider did not keep it in front of the leg.
Riding in groups also builds team spirit, because every rider has to look out for everybody else. Every rider has to make small adjustments, in order to avoid that everybody has to go out of their way to accommodate a single rider who is unwilling to make an effort. There is no room for primadonnas. Inevitably, the better riders “rub off” on the less experienced riders, because the less advanced riders tend to emulate the more advanced ones, either consciously or unconsciously. The better riders set an example by presenting a living illustration of the correct seat and a correctly moving horse that the others follow.
You can therefore observe that when a group of riders works together regularly for an extended period of time, all the seats end up looking more and more similar, and all the horses end up moving in a similar posture and state of balance, as Otto von Monteton stated in the quote above.
As a result of our practice sessions in groups for two very intense weeks, the riders and horses at White Horse Vale progressed faster than they would have in private lessons, and they learned things that they would not have learned in ordinary private lessons.