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Customize Your Horse's Training - Part 1

Jane Savoie

It's important to have a training system so that you school your horse in a clear and consistent way. The down side of having only one system is that one approach doesn't work for all horses. If a particular system isn't right for your horse, and you try to force him to conform to that method, he can fall by the wayside.

Because I want every horse to develop to his potential, I've come up with my system, which I call "Benign Antagonism". Simply put, if your horse does something you don't like, very calmly do the opposite. This approach is "benign" because your adjustments are done quietly and without force. It's "antagonistic" because you simply do exactly the opposite of what your horse would like to do. The cool thing about this method is it works for every horse regardless of style, conformation, breed, or temperament. You custom design your system for each individual.

In the next four newsletter issues, I'll look at some common questions that you might have so you can see exactly how to use benign antagonism to customize your system.

Those questions are:
1. Should I Use a Light Leg or a Strong Leg?
2. Should I ride my horse "Deep" or "Up"?
3. What's a good tempo for my horse?
4. What do I do with my horse that doesn't like to bend to the right?

The Light Leg versus "More Leg" Dilemma
Most of the horses I see in clinics (even the hot ones) are behind the leg. If your horse is dull to your driving aids, you end up riding him from front to back whether you mean to or not.

I'm from the school of thought that says a horse should react promptly and eagerly to subtle leg aids: When you use your leg lightly, your horse should respond immediately and enthusiastically. It's exhausting and not very pretty to squeeze and grind with your legs every stride. Instead, train your horse to react to feather light aids.

When you're not giving a leg aid, rest your legs quietly on your horse's sides. When you choose to give an aid, increase the pressure slightly and momentarily. Never adjust your aid by repeating it or making it stronger to allow for your horse's dullness. Instead, insist that he become more reactive to a refined aid by putting him in front of your leg.

My Horse is Dull to the Driving Aids
Here's the process of putting your horse in front of your leg (or any of your driving aids, for that matter!)
· Use a feather light aid, and expect your horse to SURGE forward
· If he doesn't, chase him forward by tapping him with the whip or bumping him with your legs (or both!).
· RETEST with your light aid. (If you don't retest, he'll just get lazier.)
· If his response is "better" but not 100%, chase him forward again.
· RETEST with the light aid.
· When he surges forward from an aid that is as light as a mosquito bite, praise him.

I became a big believer in this system when I had my first FEI schoolmaster, Sacramento. Sacramento was a very sweet but extremely lazy Holsteiner, who stood 17.3 hands and weighed 1,800 pounds. When I was first getting to know him, I would close my legs and get practically no response. So I'd use more leg, and he'd react a bit better. I drew the mistaken conclusion that I just had to have stronger legs. After a few weeks of using "more leg," Sacramento stopped giving me an answer to that aid, and I had to use even stronger leg aids. It was as if he was laughing at this neophyte on his back saying, "Go ahead--squeeze. That's right. Now squeeze harder. Pretty soon you'll be so exhausted that we'll get to take a break!"

That's when I decided to approach this training issue from a benignly antagonistic point of view. Sacramento wanted me to use a lot of leg, so I decided to teach him to be "hot off" a light leg as a survival technique for my weary body. This approach was totally effective, even though he was quite set in his ways at age twelve.

My Horse Runs Away From My Leg
On the other hand, I started my dressage career with a hot Thoroughbred off the track. This horse would threaten me with his body language. It's as if he was saying, "Don't you dare touch me with your legs. If you do, I'll rush off really fast."

So, I took a different approach with him than I did with Sacramento. I wrapped my legs firmly around his barrel all the way from ankle to hip. Essentially, I was saying to him, "These are my legs. Get used to them. They are not going away. But you can see that you don't have to be afraid of them either. Take comfort in feeling them hugging you. They won't take you by surprise when I use them." This approach worked like a charm with my insecure, sensitive Thoroughbred.

Use the theory of Benign Antagonism to help you out of any training problem. Next month I'll discuss making a decision about whether to ride your horse in a deep frame or in a finished product, competition frame.

For more information, on putting your horse in front of your driving aids, check out Cross-Train Your Horse and Train with Jane-Volume 1 at

Reprinted in part with permission of Dressage Today. Copyright 1998. Contact Dressage Today at

Article Courtesy of Jane Savoie or