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A Sideways Look At Classical Dressage

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

Last Thursday morning I was tearing my hair out! The power steering pump had gone on the horsebox and was still in the garage being repaired, and Alice and I were booked to go to a dressage clinic for the weekend.

Eventually, the van came back from ‘Doctor Claude’ and we were able to set off mid-afternoon. This was the second time we had attended a clinic with Veronika Buhn, licenced instructor with the Ecole de Légèreté. Unfortunately, at the first clinic Alice went lame on day two, so the start of our glittering dressage career was cut short (typically she walked off the horsebox sound as a pound when we got home again).

The Ecole de Légèreté (EDL) was founded in 2004 by Phillippe Karl, who is a former horseman of the Cadre Noir de Saumur in France. Monsieur Karl is well known for standing against coercive methods often found in modern dressage and students of his methods are encouraged to ride in a way that is easiest for the horse (but often hard for the rider). EDL students spend a lot of time doing flexions and lateral movements to help develop both sides of the horse, and raising the withers to lighten the forehand and encourage strength and flexibility through the back.

Monsieur Karl teaches that any horse and rider in any saddle should be able to learn to achieve the holy grail of ‘Légèreté’ (lightness), so Alice and I thought we’d test this theory – Alice is a shire horse and I can only ride side saddle (more on that in another post)!

When I first had Alice she had been worked extensively in harness but not formerly backed to saddle. Luckily for me, she took to side saddle like a duck to water but didn’t have any bend. I guess you don’t need bend when you spend your life bracken bashing, logging and harrowing! In the previous clinic we made a start on encouraging bending and keeping a steady rhythm in walk. This time around the bend was significantly improved so we worked on refining the bend and trying to move the shoulders in a more effective way. Alice has a tendency to step across herself in her front legs, a bit like strutting her stuff on the catwalk, so we’re trying to teach her to step out in better balance. We also started work in trot but were having problems with the saddle slipping, so I need to get that sorted before we can continue with trot work.

On day three we had a go at Fléchi droit which is where the horse walks in a straight line with its head bent to the outside at a 45-90 degree angle. This encourages the horse to stretch the muscles down the neck on the opposite side to the bend and doing this on both sides helps to release any contraction, thereby encouraging straightness. The fléchi droit (FD) is the most extreme bend which can usefully be requested, and practising it makes other movements, which ask for less bend, easier - circles, voltes and all lateral movements. The classic EdL exercise is: FD high and light down the long side, when the horse relaxes nicely in the bend, leave the track to do a volte in neck extension (poll level with withers), keeping a bend which is appropriate for the size of the volte. We then moved on to counter-bend (Alice slightly bent to the outside as we went around the corner). All EDL students learn to do flexions from the ground too, so we had a go at getting a better neck extension when doing flexions in hand. In neck extension we are asking the horse to stretch forward from the withers with the poll level with the withers. This encourages a stretch along the back muscles and helps the horse to develop balance. Done correctly, neck extension improves the quality of the contact. Physically, neck extension lengthens the illio-spinous muscles, the dorso-lumbar segments raises and strengthens. This has an arching effect, allowing the horse to carry us better. In the front end, the brachiocephalic muscles encourage the shoulders forward allowing the front legs to really stride out.

There were eight horse and rider combinations on the clinic this time, ranging from ‘new to EDL’ to ‘EDL instructors in training’. It was really useful to watch each other’s lessons, and if you looked into the gallery you could see all the other riders mentally practicing what you were riding! The horses ranged from Warmblood to Shire, Arab to Spanish-Norman (a breed I’d never heard of).

In the evenings at the clinics we have a theory lecture, usually given by Veronika Buhn. This time we were treated to a talk by Equine Podiatrist Jayne Hunt which neatly linked the work we were doing with hooves by talking about how movement and type of movement affects the hooves. On day two, Vroni spoke about mobilisation of the lower jaw and how that relates to opening or closing the poll and affects the flexibility of the poll.

All-in-all, a fascinating weekend with high quality teaching was enjoyed by all! – for more about EDL – Vroni’s website

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