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Dressage Outside the Box
Why Dressage is Necessary on the Marathon and Cones Course
by Anne Councill

Are you one of those CDE drivers who lives for the marathon and cones competitions, but dreads the dressage test? Have you ever wondered, “What on Earth is so great about dressage? what's dressage going to do for me and my horse when I drive cones or do the marathon?” Well, the short answer is “Lots”. Ask yourself what makes a good dressage test and what are you supposed to learn in order to drive a good test. Please don't roll your eyeballs and stay with me for a minute while I explain what I mean.

A major benefit of dressage training is improving your horse's balance. A horse in the field may get along just fine leaning over his shoulder with his head in the air, but he doesn't have a cart to control or a rider to carry. We ask our horse to be instantly responsive on the marathon and in the cones. If you ask for that same responsiveness from an unbalanced horse there's nothing instant about it. It becomes a two step process, first regain the lost balance then ask the horse to do the intended task. Of course you can ask an unbalanced horse to do anything, but he won't do it well, he won't be accurate and it may even be dangerous. Accuracy counts on the marathon and in the cones just as it does in the dressage arena.

Dressage develops longitudinal suppleness in your horse. He needs to have longitudinal suppleness; the ability to shift his weight forward and back, lengthen and shorten, stretch and pick himself back up again. You'll definitely appreciate this ability on the marathon and in the hazards, as I'll illustrate later.

Bending is very important in dressage, also. Bending happens when the outside of the horse gets longer than the inside of the horse and the horse is still in balance. The inside hind leg comes up under the body, the horse's belly swings toward the outside and the inside jaw is soft. Horses don't do this naturally; we need to develop this ability in them.

Self carriage is the combination of balance and longitudinal suppleness, a more sophisticated balance. A horse in self carriage carries a great deal of weight on his hindquarters. A horse with a great deal of self carriage can do collected trot. A horse in the most extreme self carriage does piaffe or trot in place.

Good rhythm is the ability to make every step deliberate and like every other step. A horse in good rhythm will plant each foot securely every time he puts it down. An unbalanced horse has an erratic rhythm.

How does a horse get balanced, and what does balance mean to a horse? A balanced horse has a leg at each corner. In theory, you should be able to drop a plumb line from the tail or middle of the chest and have pretty much the same distance to each leg. A horse that's leaning or counter-bent has his center of balance off center of the plumb line.

Now, what's the primary tool to achieve all this self carriage, rhythm, balance, etc.? Here we enter that elusive territory of the half halt. What is it and how do we achieve it? A half halt is several things, it's what the horse does, it's what the driver does and it's what's supposed to be accomplished, which is probably why the half halt is so hard to define.

First, in the half halt, the horse shifts more weight toward his hindquarters. (See balance and self carriage above) Because he's longitudinally supple this happens without resistance, right? The driver, with an elastic feel on the reins, restrains the horse, sometimes with a forward aid, until he yields and shifts his weight, either a little or a lot, then the driver softens the restraint. what's accomplished is that the hindquarters come up under the body and the front end lightens which enables the horse to steer, turn, stop or power off his hindquarters. If you've ever done any skiing, you know that in order to turn, you have to un-weight the skis, to manipulate the horse you have to un-weight the front end.

Imagine you're flying through the in-gate of Hazard # 1, and gate A is hidden on the far side to your right. (Why gate A is hidden on the far side of the obstacle is a whole other discussion.) The best route to B is a sharp left turn around the white A. The good dressage horse comes in bending right. As he approaches the gate, his driver asks for a big enough half halt to shift the horse's balance more over his hindquarters. The driver asks for a change of rein (bend) and because the horse is light and shortening from end to end, he can manage it with no loss of rhythm or momentum and be ready to power off his hindquarters to gate B. The not-so-good dressage horse comes in leaning over his right shoulder. Because he's leaning, he's getting perilously close to the trees on his right, causing the driver to pull his head to the left which makes him even heavier on the right shoulder and he starts drifting even further to the right. Oops! The driver has to almost stop the horse to steer, the momentum is lost and the horse is not happy.

Another scenario: Horse comes into the hazard heavy on the right shoulder, looking left and manages to get to gate A. Driver pulls on the left rein to ask for the left turn to B and horse can't turn soon enough. He goes very wide in the turn to B and loses time, stresses himself in the turn and his mouth doesn't feel too good, either.

In the next hazard, Gate A is down a grade from the in-gate, gate B is back up the same grade. The good dressage horse rocks back on his hindquarters and keeps his rhythm. When he gets to the gate his hindquarters are under him, he curls around the post then powers back up the hill ready for gate B.

The not so good dressage horse lets the vehicle push him down the grade a little faster all the time. The driver says, “Wow, is he ever fast!”. he's going so fast that when the driver tells him to go left he's overshot the turn, his head's pulled way up in the air and he nearly collides with another part of the hazard. The driver has to halt, do a little back up, then the turn, then the horse struggles back up the grade trying to pull and regain momentum at the same time. Horse starts to breathe hard and his pulse is way up.

What you've probably seen is something in the middle of the two ends of the spectrum. I can guarantee that you remember clearly the good dressage horses who are fast and under control and really slick. You probably also remember the bad ones who crash and bang and make you want to cover your eyes.

On course, the good dressage horse keeps a steady rhythm. he's within himself and over himself and comes into the vet box in good shape. The not so good dressage horse speeds up and slows down, scrambles on the turns leaves his hind end behind him and uses himself less efficiently. he's more tired at the end.

So you've survived the marathon and it's time for cones. Cones is an obedience and accuracy test. When you did your dressage test could you make your transitions at the letter? Well, think of each set of cones as a letter, (well, actually a few strides before the cones is where the imaginary letter is) it's a place where you have to do something right now. That thing you have to do is set your horse up (half halt), straighten, then let the horse go through the set of cones. it's very much like jumping. it's your job to get the horse to the cones in good shape, but it's his job to get though them. that's not too hard at the lower levels where the clearance is wide, but is gets very hard as the clearance gets narrower and narrower.

That plumb line I talked about above becomes very important in cones. Any horse that's leaning and out of balance is in peril and if he's drifting or falling in he's guaranteed to hit something somewhere. As the clearance narrows, if he's too heavy in one rein, he's too heavy on that shoulder and it will sabotage your approach. The half halt in cones is a “straighten up” move. The driver's job is to center the horse in between the two cones on the approach and half halt and the horse, who's in very good self carriage, maintains his balance for the few strides it takes to clear the cones. In the meantime, the driver can do little things like try to remember where he's going, but he doesn't have to do anything except support his horse. it's possible to make last minute corrections, but not wise, much better to do the set up well in the first place and drive a smooth course.

How do you make the tight time limits that we see so often these days? There are two ways. First, work to develop a steady rhythm that can be maintained throughout the course no matter if you're going straight or bent. Secondly, develop the ability to lengthen your horse's stride wherever the course allows so that you cover more ground. You notice I didn't say to go faster on the long stretches any more than I'd say to go faster to lengthen across MXK in the dressage arena. The horse who lengthens properly, in balance, is ready to shorten and come back to set up for the next set of cones. The horse who scurries will break gait (which will matter in cones at pleasure shows ), will get too heavy on the front end, have a harder time balancing and be more likely to miss his set up. In the beginning, it pays to practice technique even it you're not too fast. As the horse's training develops, his reaction time will decrease and you can go faster. Eventually, only a horse with good technique can manage an advanced level course within the time allowed.

For your dressage test, you train to maintain a steady rhythm (make a little metronome in you head) whether you are walking, doing working trot or lengthened trot. Use this to help you maintain your most efficient pace. If you can set your horse's hind end under him (look for the tail to drop) in a transition or a half halt, you can set up to turn or be dead accurate in a hazard or in the cones. If you can do your transitions and halts at the letter you can set your horse up when you need to in order to make the gates. If you can bend your horse in the corners, you can curl around a post or tree or cone and turn efficiently without losing your rhythm. don't leave your dressage training in the dressage arena, make it work for you on the marathon and on the cones course, where it will help you and your horse at every step!

Editor's Note: With the help of Lisa Cenis of "Shoot That Horse! Digital Imaging Services" Anne was able to put together some photos from the 2000 Myopia Combined Driving Event that illustrate concepts in this article very well. Thank you, Lisa and Anne!

On the Marathon:

"Not so Good" . The horse's head is up, he's heavy on the forehand, the hindquarters are left behind.

Lovely, connected communicating.

Good balance and bend in Prelim.

On the Cones Course:

Counterbent, heavy on left shoulder. Driver is pulling right, horse is drifting left.

More typical. Horse is leaning instead of bending.


Upright and bending.


Half halt before a set of cones


Successful execution after half halt, straight and clean.


Covering ground between cones.

Anne Councill began her horse career breeding and showing Morgans when she was 14 years old. In the early eighties she made a change from breed activities to open competition in driving and dressage and has never looked back.

she made a change from breed activities to open competition in driving and dressage and has never looked back.

She has competed successfully at the Advanced Level in combined driving and has trained and shown a succession of horses in combined driving, pleasure and dressage.

She calls dressage a lifelong challenge and actively pursues both her own education and teaching dressage and driving to others. She is an ADS "r" combined driving and dressage judge.



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