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Given that one of the objectives of
dressage is said to be to enhance a
horse’s gaits so they become even
more beautiful, light and expressive, the
question must be asked as to why the
opposite so often applies - that being the
stiff, laboured and ‘heavy’ action born of
tension and confusion? As with the vast
majority of problems experienced in the
equestrian world, the answer can usually be
found not by pointing the finger at the horse
but at the rider - more specifically, at the
way in which the aids are applied.

Unfortunately, however, this underlying
factor is all too often glossed over in favour
of less confronting explanations such as the
horse’s lack of obedience, its insufficient
physical strength and/or its poor attitude to
work. It goes without saying that these
‘excuses’ are, in reality, rarely the root cause
of less-than-satisfactory performance so it
is then hardly surprising that attempts by
the rider to ‘fix’ them purely by force are
highly unlikely to succeed.

The answer can usually be found not by pointing the finger at the horse but at
the rider - more specifically, at the way in which the aids are applied.

One of Australia’s most successful dressage
riders and trainers in recent years, Brett
Parbery, firmly believes that looking
towards the rider and the way they apply
the aids should always be the first step
towards overcoming any of the problems already referred to - not the last resort, as it is
in so many cases. The major rule governing all his riding, training and teaching is also
his personal motto in life, this being ‘less is more’.

Brett discusses how this easy to remember motto
can be applied by any rider to assist in
bringing out the lightness, grace and
responsiveness that can be displayed by any
horse when it is ridden with tact, timing and

Having been brought up with a background
in the sport of cutting, then progressing to
rodeo riding and, finally, to dressage, Brett
has plenty of first-hand experience in the
virtues of being able to sit still and remain

“A rider who moves around too much or
asks for responses with coarse, obvious aids
can’t help but be an unbalancing influence
on a horse’s rhythm. This really is a major
problem, as rhythm is the first skill that must
be mastered on the scale of training for
dressage and, along with relaxation, is vital
to achieve before progressing further.

Onlywith a still and balanced seat can a rider feel
the movement of the horse’s body - doing nothing
and not interfering is the greatest
reward any rider can give to their mount.
If a rider is unbalanced, they will have to
work hard just to stay on the horse and,
consequently, are likely to be giving it
signals that either don’t mean anything or
are very unclear.

Not surprisingly, then, a
horse in this situation tends to largely ignore
the ‘squirming’ of the person on top so,
when the rider actually wants to give an aid,
it has to be obvious and ‘loud’ to attract
attention. Hence, the opportunity has been
lost for a response to be made to the merest
‘whisper’ of an aid and the beauty of the
movement is lost by visible, rough riding -
not pleasant for either the horse, the rider
or the spectator!

Overseas riders really work hard on
themselves every day, as most don’t have
wonderful natural positions that we
Australians tend to think they must have
been born with. A major section of all riding
and schooling sessions are spent on
perfecting their positions, before any
training on the horse can start.

The average Australian rider isn’t disciplined
enough to keep practicing and working on their
riding faults – tending to work on the horse’s
balance instead of their own. But, if the rider
is not balanced, how can the horse have any
hope of being balanced? And if the rider
can’t sit still, how can they possibly feel the
horse’s movement and be able to judge
when and how to influence it?”


Spending a period of three months working
with the internationally acclaimed dressage
rider and trainer, Ulla Salzgeber, a year ago
was, for Brett, a great opportunity to learn
more about and to experience the ‘less is
more’ philosophy;

“Working with Ulla every day and being
able to ride both talented youngsters and
fantastically schooled horses (such as Ulla’s
Olympic campaigner, Rusty) really
highlighted exactly what those that are
super- educated actually ‘feel’ like - having
been trained by following the proven
classical system. It was immediately
obvious that these horses gave more when
the rider did less, not the other way around
- which, of course, is a fabulous feeling.
For any animal trainer - be it with a horse,
dog, dolphin or whatever – knowing when
to give an aid, when to reinforce and when
to reward are the secrets to effective
training. It’s important to keep everything
very simple - ask for a reaction, then do
nothing to give the animal a chance to





By using a very light aid then relaxing it,
you are allowing a horse enough time to
process a thought, understand it, then offer
its response to what was ‘suggested’. The
speed of this reaction will, of course, depend
on its age, experience and level of training,
so allowances need to be made for these
factors for each individual horse.

Ideally, riding should be simply a matter of
making only minor adjustments to keep the
contact soft and the horse in front of the leg,
balanced and into the outside rein - literally
‘doing nothing’ unless absolutely necessary.

Of course, there are moments where a
stronger aid is needed to either keep or regain
a horse’s attention but, even when doing this,
the ‘less is more’ principle still applies. After
the strong aid has been given, one must try to
do nothing but sit quietly and still, allowing
the movement to come through.”

The end product that everyone who rides
desires is the impression that their horse is
performing without any visible aids – the
rider simply sitting still and looking elegant,
while their mount proudly and majestically
performs effortless movements around an
arena. Well, Brett agrees that this ultimate
goal is achievable, but only when the rider
has mastered the arts of giving the aids with
precision and lightness;

“One of the most upsetting sights in the
sport of dressage is to see a naturally gifted,
or potentially talented, horse being
hampered by a rider giving clumsy and
conflicting aids. The difference between
these ‘loud’ riders and those who are the
best in the world is simple - the ‘noisy’ ones
invariably do too much, so find it difficult
to develop any sense of ‘feel’ in relation to
timing and lightness of the aids, whereas
the latter have excellent timing and are also
open to the idea of ‘less is more’ by simply
letting the horse do most of the work.

“Compare, for example, the difference in
the way a ‘feeling’ rider - one who is still
and balanced in the saddle - rides a leg yield
with how an unbalanced and therefore ‘loud’
rider is likely to approach the same exercise.

The ‘feeling’ rider, even if they are not
consciously aware of doing so, first ensures
that rhythm, relaxation, contact and balance
has been established then, in the case of a
leg yield, flexes their horse slightly away
from the direction of travel. Then, it’s just a
matter of the rider ‘showing the way’ by
sitting with a little more weight on the inside
seatbone, with their inside leg positioned
just behind the girth - this position making
it clear to the horse what’s required and
allowing it to easily comply.

In contrast, the first mistake made by the
‘loud’ rider is usually that they fail to pay
attention, and correct if necessary, the all important allimportant factors of rhythm, relaxation,contact and balance.

From then on, the picture becomes a bit of a battle as, although the horse may have been flexed away from the direction of travel prior to the leg yield being attempted, the rider then probably hasn’t ‘shown the way’ with their position - meaning that their inside hip will be having a blocking influence. The horse doesn’t
move sideways, the rider begins to give
stronger and stronger aids and so on.... Even
if, finally, the horse manages to give the
response the rider has been looking for, there
is often no release of pressure to indicate
that this was what was required - leaving
the horse none the wiser.

Is it any wonder that tension and confusion are the end result!

Allowing a horse time to feel a rider’s
position change and to respond is allimportant,
especially when teaching any
exercise for the first time. Also, the position
change must be definite enough for the
horse to recognise that something is being
asked for - not so subtle that it could be
misinterpreted or not recognised as an aid.

By using a very light aid then
relaxing it, you are allowing
a horse enough time to process a thought, understand it, then offer its response to what was

If, however, a clear position change and
‘showing of the way’ isn’t responded to, the
use of stronger aids may be necessary, but
only to draw the horse’s attention to it. Once
this has been achieved, the extra pressure
in terms of the aids must be relaxed,
allowing the horse time to ‘work out’ what
the position change that it is now aware of
means, and the opportunity to do what has
been asked.

By always first asking with a light, yet
clearly discernible positional aid, following
this up with stronger ‘attention-grabbing’
aids only if necessary and being conscious
of allowing enough time for responses to
be made, a rider will find themselves well
on the way to reaping the rewards of the
‘less is more’ approach. Simply show the
horse the direction and the rider’s position
indicates the movement. Create a reaction
and then do nothing!”



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