Home » Searching For Force Free Dressage: It was a journey!

Searching For Force Free Dressage: It was a journey!

One of the greatest things is getting to train my favourite discipline, with fluency, force free, and often at liberty.

The purpose of the R+ Dressage Section:

In the R+ Dressage section I will share my R+ force free Dressage journey. I will also share tips and tricks that I have learned and will learn along the way. Force free Dressage training is my obsession.

My R+ Dressage Training Goals

I have two goals when I am training Dressage with my horse. One is to develop a willing partner who chooses the work. Two is to develop my horse physically. I want him functioning at his absolute best. This keeps him as sound and healthy as possible, which gives him the opportunity to live his best life as a horse. Riding always comes second for me. To me Dressage is physical therapy, both flexibility, and strength training for the horse. Like all exercise, it is challenging for the horse. He has to be able to communicate how he feels about it. Respecting his opinions, and only asking for things within his capabilities is important for keeping him willing and interested in the work. It’s very rewarding for me when he reaches a new level of ability, and I love seeing him move better in his paddock.

 

My journey to force free, R+ Dressage:

With all of that being said, for my first post on the subject I will share a little of my personal journey to force free, positive reinforcement Dressage. A horse started with R- and then re-trained with R+ is called a cross over horse. This makes me a cross over human! So here’s my very condensed back story on how I got to this amazing place of getting to train my favourite discipline with communication, fluency, force free, and often at liberty. There are a lot more little details that I want to put in, lots of successes and failures too, but for the sake of keeping it condensed I’ll just share the things that I feel pushed me on to my current path the most.

When I was young I wanted to be a barrel racer.

When I was a young girl I wanted to be a barrel racer. I even got to borrow a barrel horse, and run a few races. I loved how exciting it was! The internet was new back then, and I spent a ton of time on sales pages searching for the perfect barrel horse for myself. At the time I was obsessed with paints. I used to print out adds that were within my imagined budget and strategically place them for my parents to find. Long story short, no barrel horse appeared.

I was 12/13 ish here… Rain would have been 3 or 4. I was only… a little…. obsessed with horses haha, and super grateful to end up with Rain.

Me with Rain, I think I was 17 ish here. He gave me so much. I wish I could go back and give him more. I carry his work on me forward, and help other people and their horses find force free training. This way his life isn’t forgotten and holds meaning.

Rain:

My dad had a gangly 16.3hh Morgan in the back yard who looked like a throwback to a saddlebred. His name was Rain. He ended up becoming my horse. My dad wasn’t a huge fan of horses, and thought he would maybe use Rain for trail riding in the future (we got him as a baby), but he quickly lost interest in the idea. I made it my job to spend every single day with Rain. My goal was to have a great bond with him.

I switched disciplines to something I thought Rain could do.

Rain had terrible balance. He used to fall in the field regularly, and always had grass stains and scrapes from running around and falling down. For a long time he couldn’t canter around a giant arena without falling. I got good at jumping clear when he would have one of his wipeouts. I decided that since he couldn’t turn a barrel, he could still jump… that idea went out the window when I learned he needed to be able to turn in order to be a show jumper. He also was hypersensitive to everything, and would react with either aggression, or bolting, usually followed by falling. So that all really limited our options. In hindsight knowing what I know now I would have done a full physical vet check on him. I found out years later that a LOT of his behaviour was pain related.

Back then you had to just cowboy up and ride through.

Unfortunately back then you just had to cowboy up and ride them through. I originally got into Dressage with the idea that if I could develop Rain’s body and balance better, I could do all of the things that I wanted to do with him… through Dressage he eventually after many years, learned to canter a 10 meter circle, and his balance improved massively to the point where we could jump, and event. I doubt he would have been able to turn a barrel, but at that point I didn’t really care.

At first I didn’t care for Dressage, but when I saw how much it helped my horse… I was hooked.

I got hooked on Dressage when I saw how well the technical work helped Rain move undersaddle, and in the field. He got to the point where he tolerated me. I always wanted a really bonded friendship with Rain, but we never really got there. We worked well together, but I know things could have been done a lot better, and we could have liked each other a lot more. It’s tough but we must acknowledge and learn from our past mistakes. On a side note, Rain was put down at 9 years old. I’m not sure what happened exactly, but I went out to check him, and he had a hole straight through his hock joint. The vet said the damage was too extensive for rehabilitation. If that hadn’t happened, I would likely still have him today. Anyways back to the story.     

Rain was very reactive and unpredictable… One minute I would be warming up over trot poles… the next he would decided we were bouncing fake water jumps at mach ten… My form here is terrible, but somehow I was good at sticking when I was caught off guard.

I think I was 12 here? Riding a lovely warmblood mare named Sassy. I spent almost two years perfecting my seat on the lunge line with this trainer. She was my first Dressage trainer. People comment on how well I stick… its not natural ability, its from all of the time spent on the lunge.

My first two years of Dressage lessons were spent on the lunge on school horses.

My first two years studying Dressage were spent on the lunge line. I remember hearing other kids talk about their riding lessons, and asking me what I did in mine. I was always so embarrassed to say that I was still on the lunge. Now I am so incredibly grateful to my first Dressage instructor who insisted on making sure I had a good seat, before anything else! Quoting her “everything can be done from the seat alone”, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect”. I studied Dressage for two years with my first instructor, and then switched to alternating between a couple of other instructors in the next year or two.

Seeing my first Grand Prix Dressage Horse in person is something I won’t ever forget!

I saw my first Grand Prix Dressage horse and Trainer in person when I was 14. I had gone to see a friend ride who had just started taking lessons from this trainer. How powerful, balanced, and strong the horse looked was breath taking to me. The trainer lived a short 15 minute drive from my house. I begged my parents for lessons.

I remember my parents really thinking about it…the grand prix trainer was way more expensive than the trainers we had been working with so far. Luckily I was in virtual school at the time, and there was funding for physical activity, so we used that money to pay for the lessons.

It felt like a dream come true!

I had so many day dreams of riding Grand Prix Dressage on Rain. Then came the reality. It was really quite shocking. This particular trainer was a huge fan of draw reins, spurs, and whips. The short draw reins were so tight the horse’s nose was on his chest. If the horse didn’t respond promptly to an aid, the spur or whip was right there. At this barn I witnessed a horse blinded in one eye with a whip, one with blood running down his sides from the short dressage spurs, and countless other horrors… I think at first I wanted so badly to learn that I was willing to overlook these things (I know, I regret not standing up and saying something even now) but I thought well if this is what it takes, then…

Then it became a nightmare!

I declined the draw reins, and the spurs for Rain but I did use the whip. Rain declined the training right from the start. He still would randomly bolt, and then fall. Finally the trainer called me out in front of everyone at the barn and told me that I would never make a good rider, and my horse was worse than dog food. Everyone agreed. I cried then, I cried all the way home, I cried myself to sleep for weeks after that. I was so embarrassed, and ashamed, I mean I was 14 at the time. Riding was my escape from my home drama. Here someone I respected told me I was a lost cause, and a lot of people stood beside her and agreed (I’m talking adults, not other kids).

Humans who are cruel to horses are also cruel to other humans.

This trainer had been a superhero to me, I had her way up on a pedestal. I really believed what she said. It took me a looong time to even be able to talk about it. For years I thought everyone agreed with her, and it took a LOT for me to ride in front of people I didn’t know. Even now I feel weird sharing it here, but I know now many many other people have experienced similar or much worse in the equestrian industry. It seems people who are cruel to horses, are also cruel to other humans.

I didn’t give up. I knew even then hard work can trump lack of talent.

The next week I was back at the barn, and asked the trainer what I should do. She laughed and said take up trail riding? (Which is so ironic because I currently own a company that takes people out trail riding…) Then she suggested that I ride this little Arabian that was owned by one of her other students. Which I did. She told me the horse was for sale, so I could ride it for a while then I should buy it. I knew my parents wouldn’t buy her. I already had a horse. Even if he was worse than dog food. They were already doing so much for me, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking them!

She was running a business, she wasn’t going to let hurting a little girls feelings get between her and money.

Being so young and naive, I was actually grateful that she was still willing to help me even though I was clearly a lost cause. I didn’t notice her treating her other students exactly the same way that she was treating me. Looking back I see it plain as day. I understand that she was running a business, and if she had to hurt a little girl’s feelings to make money, she was ready to do it.

I rode the little Arabian in draw reins, with a whip. I did everything she told me to do. It didn’t feel right. At the same time my friend who was also taking lessons there asked me “if this is what we have to do to be Grand Prix riders, is it really worth it?” That question is what has stuck with me ever since. It’s what initially triggered my long journey to find a way to force free dressage. I stopped riding with that trainer right then and there. Just a few words of advice: Don’t ever let someone crush you. Take those words and let them fuel your passion for living your life, and finding your calling. Oh and second opinions are always worth getting!

Rain and I re-doing the basics with excellent guidance. Sorry for the bad quality, I have very few photos from back then.

Second and Third opinions are always worth getting!

After that experience, I took Rain to two different Grand Prix trainers and got two second opinions. If they had told me the same thing, I would have quit dressage right then. Instead, they both said that Rain had mid-level potential, and we just needed to relax and take our time with clear intentional training.

Rain turned into a nice dressage horse.

I picked the trainer that I liked working with best and stuck with her. This trainer helped me learn what it takes. She was a kind person who rescued animals, and often kids too. She played a big part in keeping me focused and out of trouble, as well as building my confidence as a person. Rain stopped bolting, and falling, he turned into a nice dressage horse, we did some jumping, and eventing. I passed my pony club levels on him.

We trained with Negative Reinforcement.

At this time, we were using Negative Reinforcement, the idea was that the horse inherently doesn’t want to work, and we have to be clever with our timing to convince him to do what’s good for him. I rode with this trainer until I was 20. At first just riding my horse, and then riding horses with more potential, that were in training with my trainer. I did attend clinics with other Dressage trainers as well. But this trainer was the one that I rode in front of multiple times a week, year-round.

Again I saw the negative side of the horse industry.

Everything was going well, until I again saw the negative side of the horse industry. I was required to ride a horse that had pneumonia. We knew he had it as the vet had diagnosed him. The vet gave him a prescription for antibiotic shots, and I was giving them to him to help him recover. My trainer was trying to sell the horse for his owner, and couldn’t afford for the horse to take time off. It was very out of character for her, but she yelled at me for babying him. I refused to ride him in that condition and quit right then and there.

Speaking from experience I really think money is the number one thing what makes even the nicest people make decisions that aren’t necessarily in the horse’s best interest. I think in some cases it becomes either the horse gets a little abuse, or the trainer doesn’t eat. I have followed that horse. He was eventually sold to a loving home, where they take great care of him.

I became completely disillusioned with modern Dressage. I began exploring natural horsemanship, mounted archery, and R+

After this I was completely disillusioned with modern Dressage. I still liked the idea of how it could help a horse develop, but I hated the industry, and the way so many horses and riders are treated. So I let it go. I began using treats combined with negative reinforcement in my training, I learned how to ride my horses without tack, I took up mounted archery, I would do basic Dressage at Liberty, but I found it was hard to teach the nuances without tack, so I just dabbled in it. I did a lot of relationship work, soul searching, and research. Always keeping my eye out for a truly force free way to teach my horse to carry me in a biomechanically friendly way (Dressage).  

Eventually I found my way back to Dressage!

In 2017 I started online with Straightness training, I liked this way of teaching Dressage because it was logical, it broke down the behaviours, and it was fair. I also liked that I was at a distance from the trainers, so I could add in my treat training without any criticism. Then Covid hit, and the Academic Art Of Riding finally went online. This was something I had dreamed of trying, I liked the system behind it, and after learning the theory, and a lot of the techniques through Straightness training, I was so ready to make the leap. I have learned so much and met some truly wonderful people since then.

Fox and me doing tricks after filming our first groundwork test for Straightness Training. We passed level one.

Finally I found true R+ and force free Dressage!

Then finally one day after reading a book on positive reinforcement, I found an online course on Positive Reinforcement. I had thought using treats in my training was Positive Reinforcement, but as I learned more, I found out that it was actually Negative Reinforcement with a cherry on top. So back to square one. I re-started Fox with positive reinforcement. I found a trainer to teach me how, and then I found another trainer to teach the finer nuances of Dressage with Positive Reinforcement. Luck would have it that she also studies the Academic Art Of Riding, and I was able to get instruction in combining both.

This brings us to the present day. I am currently studying positive reinforcement training with two amazing instructors, training multiple horses in R+, auditing as many clinics with various trainers as I can (in both positive reinforcement training, and Academic Art Of Riding), and reading as much research, and as many books as I can. I follow the guidelines of LIMA and the humane hierarchy to ensure that my work is truly force free. Soon I will begin formally teaching so that other humans and horses can enjoy this way of working together too!         

I found out Dressage can be force free, and it can be trained with R+.

So where am I going with this long story? In combining Positive Reinforcement and Dressage I have found that Dressage can in-fact be taught to the horse completely force free. Not only will Fox perform very challenging exercises with zero tack for a couple of hay pellets. He will actually offer these exercises, and build on them. I am able to teach the fine nuances that I was lost on, when it came to Negative Reinforcement at liberty. Fox always offers more engagement as he becomes stronger with zero push from me. Its almost like he is searching for the end of his range on his own.

My horse’s are incredibly willing to work.

Now when I go out to train, Fox is waiting at the gate, and I have to be very diligent about putting the hard exercises on cue, as he will offer them all of the time. I also have to pay close attention to biomechanically correct movements because I want to catch and reward him when he’s in the correct shape before he creates another variation. Sometimes he will hold the correct shape, and throw in a variation… it feels as if he’s like, “if this is good… maybe this is better?”

An example of Fox pushing his limits. Here he is demonstrating how well he can bend his haunches… He is using his under neck too much to lift the chest. His understanding of which muscles to use for the exercise is easy to fix and keep force free with Positive Reinforcement. We do have to wait until he is stronger to do this in proper form though. I am ridiculously proud of him for trying and offering. Photo by Trina Cary Photography

My horse’s even choose to push themselves physically without pressure.

Its been absolutely eye opening and mind blowing. I thought Fox may become more willing, but I wouldn’t have guessed that he would push his own boundaries without my insistence. Maybe horses aren’t inherently lazy and trying to get out of work. My perspective on horse training has completely changed. I literally am never going back. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for some R+ Dressage updates, tips, and tricks!

Have A Lovely Day,

Courtney                   

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