Trainer Magazine

Trainer Magazine - the horse racing magazine for the training and development of the thoroughbred racehorse. Europe and North America.

Back to School: Dressage as a Training Tool

TRAININGWeb Master
  To those not familiar with the idea, or indeed not familiar with the intricacies of managing the mind and body of the young thoroughbred, it might seem peculiar to take an animal bred for generations and engineered over centuries to display nothing short of super equine speeds, gargantuan leaps, and feats of middle-distance endurance, and to then turn it to the steadiest, most controlled, poised equestrian discipline. As mad a thing to do as this might seem at the end of such a horse’s career, to delve into it a day or so each week, or perhaps to go for an out-of-season dressage “staycation,” could seem just plain bizarre.     So why are we hearing more and more about the speedy souls that inhabit the world of horseracing sneaking out of the realms of the snaffle bit, flat saddle, jeans, and Cuban heel to indulge jodhpurs, curb chains, extremely high cantles, and Spanish topped-boots?    Well, it might not be as bizarre as it sounds. Three generations ago it was hard to find a trainer who hadn’t enjoyed some formal equitation training, most likely through the armed forces, but that was also an age where there was still some form of reliance upon the horse for anything as fundamental as travel, so there was simply a greater and more widespread understanding of the horse across the board. Many would have also known how to drive as well as ride simply from necessity. Later we will speak to one of the very few young trainers to have actively pursued driving, itself now a sport with an element of dressage.     Fewer and fewer trainers with each passing generation have a formal education in the fundamentals of classical riding, and it is perhaps only natural that in the face of such a decline there will be those that look to find an advantage in redressing this balance. Of course, there are always trainers who come to horseracing from more conventionally classical disciplines, many of them hugely successful regardless of code, country, or surface, and these exceptions prove as interesting as those who seek the help of specialist dressage instructors or riders to enhance the complex set of skills that have led to their success.     Think back half a century and one might have expected to see a lot more of the training ranks having acted as officers in cavalry regiments, a noted school of equitation in itself. The evergreen Big Orange is nurtured by such an officer, Michael Bell, also an accomplished amateur rider. Major Dick Hern left the army to train as a riding instructor at the fabled Porlock Vale Equitation School before training the gold medal winning British Olympic Equestrian Team of 1952, ultimately starting his stellar training career in 1958. This multidisciplinary approach is nothing new.    There are numerous examples of riders crossing over from eventing or show jumping to train racehorses with great success: Harvey Smith, Henrietta Knight, Michael Matz, Jessica Harrington, and Noel Williams come to mind, and Mark Todd even made the move for a while. The successes of another discipline certainly sets them apart in terms of outside perception, yet we can, as is ever the case in this sport of exceptions, find as many if not more trainers of note who do not hail from a successful standpoint in another discipline. Indeed, some greats did not come into training through a classical or competitive riding background in the slightest.    In human sport words like “cross training,” “core strength” and “yogalates” are so often used for the least expected sports. Cricketers lifting weights, prop forwards taking to the yoga mat, and Olympic sailors even taking instruction in dancing have all been reported, and it is well understood that, while not seeking excellence in these supplementary disciplines, there is a benefit from occasionally spending a session or two performing drills outside the mainstay of what is directly required on Saturday afternoon.     In the same respect, a horse is unlikely to lose significant fitness by being schooled once a week. The use of different muscle groups offers a strength beyond that which is normally tested, a change of routine perhaps beneficial for the psyche. However, Yogi Breisner, former world-class performance manager to the British Eventing team, is at pains to point out that “in general the standard of horsemanship among trainers in the British Isles is very good. Most horses benefit from routine and have a very good introduction to the saddle with a good education starting in between long reins, and it is important to remember that all conditioning and strength work be carried out specifically with the end purpose in mind, working on the muscle groups most important for competition.”     Emily Graham has a unique viewpoint being a trained McTimoney animal therapist, former assistant trainer to the hugely successful Henry Candy, and dressage rider who has spent time as an exercise rider for Andrew Balding. Graham now treats a range of horses and offers some valuable and educated input. “The most common problem I encounter is lower neck pain -- predominantly thoracic and cervical trapezius muscular pain and lower back pain/lumbosacral pain, which can ultimately affect performance.” This isn’t merely limited to the lower neck, though: “These signs, when they become chronic, can be an early warning that lower back pain is the prelude to a potential career-halting injury. Concluding that lameness caused by repetitive strain can originate from back pain!        “This can be caused by the horses not using their back muscles or engaging their hindquarters correctly whilst being exercised.  In other equestrian disciplines this would be called a poor self-carriage resulting in a horse that is on the forehand and not using their body to the optimum.”       “I think any horse could benefit from adding some dressage to their programme and by dressage, I mean the widest sense: The art of riding and training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility, and balance. Even simple stretches after exercise to help reduce the build-up of lactic acid in the muscles; for example, carrot stretches would also really help.”        Graham states that the aim of this is to help change the way a horse carries itself, not drastically but “working the horse a little differently, with the emphasis being on suppleness through the back and flexibility through the neck and a better-engaged hind quarter, transferring more weight to the horse’s hindquarters to take the pressure off the forehand!”       The British Racing School, with the support of the British Horseracing Authority, have engaged in a programme to help trainers educate even experienced riders by visiting yards as, Yogi Breisner explains. “The first step is to develop an independent seat. This allows the horse to move without hindrance. The rider’s centre of balance will be above the stirrups, hands neutral. Once this has been achieved we look to build upon this so that the rider can use their body weight, legs, and hands to influence the horse and help them overcome the shortcomings of the horse.”       In a similar vein, Godolphin’s pre-training programme in Newmarket has recently engaged Malcolm Holthausen, a dressage rider of international renown, to assist in the second phase of developing young horses who have recently been broken in. Pre-training manager Kate Grimwade is excited by this new development, saying, “Hopefully it will help the horses and the riders. It’s a different style of riding and we’re trying to teach the horses to be soft in their mouths, stretch through their backs, and learn to have leg on their sides as opposed to riders having their stirrups pulled up. “       This is easier said than done, as riders in a racing yard need three very different seats in the course of their work: riding long while warming up, carrying out roadwork and riding to/from the gallops; short while cantering or breezing, using the knees to keep the body still; and a lower position off the bridle when a rider can push at the final stages of a piece of work or race. However, each position is taught, on the same principles of riding with an independent seat.        While Breisner is not an out-and-out protagonist for all horses being schooled by a dressage rider regularly, he says that “it might marginally help one or two horses in a large stable and is certainly worth considering for individual horses, especially when returning to fitness after a break.”  Breisner suggests that a good rider, trotting at a sensible pace with the horse encouraged to a positive position, offers a good means to the end of a horse being schooled to be “rideable,” responsive to aids, and, importantly, to work on its straightness. “A young horse, even before it has been influenced by riders, will naturally tend to be skewed one way or another….when trotting too fast, a horse will take on a flat action and concave shape, the opposite to a canter which is a rounded action and outline. Trotting too fast is not something positive.”        Training aids and devices will always divide opinion and are a subject matter in themselves, but we have seen a growth in the use of devices like draw reins, the market harborough martingale, de Gogue, German martingale, chambon, etc. Whether one is pro, con, or ambivalent, the increasing growth in use of these suggests an awakening among our horsemen to help horses to carry out at least some of their training in a manner that is more focused on carriage and balance than building speed or stamina. Particularly at the trot, it is evident that the intention is to help develop a more productive carriage and encourage muscles to build into a more developed topline. This is certainly more aesthetically pleasing and it is no surprise that numerous leading consignors at the sales take a similar approach when preparing yearlings. As far as whether it is faster, the debate will rage on with little conclusive evidence and, as is often the case, for every proponent there will be a polar opposite opinion.       So what about using some form of schooling or cross training as a change, break, or just something other than the track? This is certainly something that Pat Owens (see European Trainer, Issue 59, October-December 2017, for more information) has carried out, having transformed the very headstrong 2013 Windsor Castle Stakes winner Extortionist as he rose from two to three years old, while NZ event rider Tim Rusbridge forms an important cog in the machinations of Qatar Racing’s operations, where his particular skillset is valued.        A continent away last year in the US, the Bob Baffert-trained Collected shocked the racing world when taking the scalp of stablemate Arrogate in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic before running a gallant second to the exceptional Gun Runner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar. Marette Farrell, a key member of Collected’s owner Speedway Stables’ buying and management team, explains:    “Collected came from a really good consignor at the two-year-old sales. Despite an excellent preparation he was overtraining with Bob, who called us after the Preakness Stakes and raised the concern that he was just doing too much, too aggressive, he couldn’t even stand still.    “We sent him down to Mal McGuire in Kentucky who has always done a lot of work for me. After giving him a complete break due to some slight bone bruising, Mal set to work with him. Some aspects of this were more conventional than others, such as desensitising him with a flag, coupling him to a donkey, and then one day, ridden in a western saddle. I went to see him doing half passes in the arena, engaging his rear end in a way I hadn’t previously seen.    “He went back to Bob a different horse, which was evident in his results.”     When asked if she will now send Collected back for a tune-up or recap, Farrell has no doubts. “Definitely. I think this will add to longevity on the track. They’re always just turning left, this redresses the balance. In an age where a lot of people are only focussed on the end product and getting there as quickly as possible, a lot of this has become a lost art.”    Longevity is also something that Graham feels could be assisted by adding even a little dressage into the mix. “If even a small amount of extra attention was given to ridden exercises whilst warming the horses up and cooling down, this could add to the strength and conditioning of the equine athlete and further improve performance and strength in the muscles. Most importantly, risk of injury could be reduced.” This sentiment is also mirrored by Kate Grimwade, who states that “being more balanced should help with injury prevention if they are picking up their feet properly.”       Joking (and donkeys) aside, this might just sum the whole thing up, and if all racehorses had the occasion to be a little more “collected” through educating riders, receiving some cross training, and embracing lessons from other disciplines while still keeping our feet on the ground, we might just start to make a change for the better. The resounding intention, whoever we spoke with, is that welfare could only be the beneficiary of improving riders and offering a variety of exercise, either frequently or as a break, for horses.       

Published in European Trainer, January - March 2018, issue 60.

To those not familiar with the idea, or indeed not familiar with the intricacies of managing the mind and body of the young thoroughbred, it might seem peculiar to take an animal bred for generations and engineered over centuries to display nothing short of super equine speeds, gargantuan leaps, and feats of middle-distance endurance, and to then turn it to the steadiest, most controlled, poised equestrian discipline. As mad a thing to do as this might seem at the end of such a horse’s career, to delve into it a day or so each week, or perhaps to go for an out-of-season dressage “staycation,” could seem just plain bizarre.

So why are we hearing more and more about the speedy souls that inhabit the world of horseracing sneaking out of the realms of the snaffle bit, flat saddle, jeans, and Cuban heel to indulge jodhpurs, curb chains, extremely high cantles, and Spanish topped-boots?

Well, it might not be as bizarre as it sounds. Three generations ago it was hard to find a trainer who hadn’t enjoyed some formal equitation training, most likely through the armed forces, but that was also an age where there was still some form of reliance upon the horse for anything as fundamental as travel, so there was simply a greater and more widespread understanding of the horse across the board. Many would have also known how to drive as well as ride simply from necessity. Later we will speak to one of the very few young trainers to have actively pursued driving, itself now a sport with an element of dressage.

Fewer and fewer trainers with each passing generation have a formal education in the fundamentals of classical riding, and it is perhaps only natural that in the face of such a decline there will be those that look to find an advantage in redressing this balance. Of course, there are always trainers who come to horseracing from more conventionally classical disciplines, many of them hugely successful regardless of code, country, or surface, and these exceptions prove as interesting as those who seek the help of specialist dressage instructors or riders to enhance the complex set of skills that have led to their success...

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