Robert Dover's "Dressage Principles"
by Sandra Adair

(I can not reprint the review I wrote about the Robert Dover Symposium for Dressage Today until after it is published sometime this spring, but here is a separate piece on the one-hour lecture Robert gave at the beginning of the first day. S.)

You could feel the anticipation in the air as over 200 of us braved the frigid weather to attend Houston Dressage Society’s first Symposium of the year. After all, we were about to meet someone who had made it to the pinnacle of achievement in any sport, not once, but six times! As I pulled my blanket around me and tried to warm myself with freshly brewed Starbuck’s, I began to wonder what magical formula for success Olympian Robert Dover would share with us. Perhaps we would discover that secret nugget of knowledge that would help us progress on our own journey toward greatness. After a rousing round of applause as HDS’s President Bit Fingerhut introduced Robert, the bustling group of auditors became attentive, and I sat poised to capture it all on paper. Five minutes into the one-hour lecture on “Dressage Principles” that was to precede the demo riders of the day, I laughed. I should not have been surprised, as I had been hearing it repeatedly for years: the secret to successful riding is to master the basics! Fortunately for those of us there that day, Robert brought additional clarity to the how and why of it all, and an enthusiastic approach to teaching that made you want sit up and listen.

The Half Halt: Marrying the Three Sets of Aids

Robert defined an aid as that which can and must, by itself, partially get the result you want. In dressage we are looking for forward, straightness, and balance. There are three driving aids: the seat (which includes the rider’s back, trunk and weight), and both legs. As a rider inhales, they lift their chest up and their shoulders back, lengthen their muscles upward, brace their back and try to push the back of the saddle to the front of the saddle (like pushing a swing) and, together with their two legs, harmoniously produce the first essential quality, forward motion. There are also three bending aids: both legs and the inside rein. Using the inside leg at the girth (the horse’s center of gravity), the outside leg behind the girth to keep the haunches from falling out, and the inside rein, a rider can bend the horse, which is a prerequisite for the second quality, straightness. Finally, there is one regulating aid, the outside rein, which helps the rider control the effects of the first two sets of aids, as they adjust the rhythm, flexibility, and ultimately the balance of the horse. “A horse’s biggest fear is losing their balance,” Robert says. “His arms are his head, which he tosses up, and his tail, which he swishes, when he is out of balance. We must teach him that he can be more balanced with his haunches under him than by using his “arms,” and that it is easier for him to relax his head than hold it up. Then he will naturally seek his way to the bit and round over his back, not because we force him into this position! We should strive for a perfect state of balance and attention at all times by marrying the three sets of aids in the length of time of a full breath: the half halt!” He elaborates: “Imagine a door in front of your horse. Drive him forward and when you close your outside fist, you close the door. He’s being driven forward but the door is closed. So he bends his hocks and raises up, not with his head because he’s bent, but by lifting up through his withers. Thus he stays round as he shifts his center of gravity backwards. To reward him, you open the door when you open your hand.” He simplified the half halt process, “Inhale, tighten your seat and outside hand, exhale, relax your seat and hand.” Robert exclaims, “This is everything! Most riders ride from movement to movement. Successful riders ride from half halt to half halt.” Throughout the remainder of the clinic, Robert continued to emphasize that the half halt was the doorway through which a rider makes every change of gait, movement, direction, balance, frame, pace and bend. “You must practice them!!”

   

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