How do you train a dressage horse?

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Charlotte Dujardin will be bidding for her third gold medal in Tokyo - Shutterstock
Charlotte Dujardin will be bidding for her third gold medal in Tokyo - Shutterstock

The simple answer to the question how do you train a horse to dance is this: devote a lot of time to it. There are no short cuts. Charlotte Dujardin, the current Olympic champion, has spent most of the last five years bringing her horse Gio up to speed. She won two Olympic gold medals atop her previous mount, the gelding Valegro. But he was put out to pasture after winning in Rio and she turned her attention to her new partner. Even before Valegro disappeared off to the long grass, Dujardin was working several hours every day in the long process to produce a horse of Grand Prix standard.

The first thing it is wise to do is pick the right horse, at which the gold medalist is something of an expert. The best horses have a naturally balanced canter, able to control themselves off their hind legs. Balance is everything in dressage, the core of the process.

Horses also - and this might sound obvious - need trainability. Stroppy horses, those with a bit too much independence of thought, the sort most amateur riders have struggled to corral, are not naturals for the dressage ring. A bit of speed, however, is no drawback. It may seem entirely counter intuitive but some of the best dressage horses have been racers in a previous life. Not least Kauto Star, the former Cheltenham winner who stepped back from the jumps to prove himself adept at skipping gently round a parade ring in time to a bit of Seventies disco.

The most important thing in identifying a horse who might thrive is the rhythm rather than the length of the stride. The best horses need not have the most extravagant natural gait. The twirls and tricks can be taught later. What matters is that the horse is capable of moving everything in time.

Once selected, the training begins at the end of a rope. Carl Hester, Dujardin’s team GB colleague, explains that work at the end of a rope is always the most critical first step. Horses can be encouraged by a gentle tug at the rope to move to deliver certain moves to certain verbal commands. Consistency of command, he adds, is the vital thing. Using the same words time and again, with the same tonal expression is vital. And there is no need to use the whip. Although some trainers will have one to hand, it is invariably the final chain of command. Horses thrive much more on encouragement than rebuke; they are fans of the carrot rather than the stick, he suggests.

Dujardin won two Olympic gold medals atop her previous mount, the gelding Valegro - ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS
Dujardin won two Olympic gold medals atop her previous mount, the gelding Valegro - ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS

After several months on the rope, after a good number of moves have become routine, the horse is ready to accept a rider. The principle is to teach the horse to recognise the meaning of the different pulls on the reins and nudges with the knees and react accordingly.

Once a body of moves is built up, these can be combined into a routine, a choreography put to musical accompaniment. Though the important thing is, whatever it might look like as Dujardin leads Gio across the sand, apparently conducting a passable pasodoble, the horse is not dancing to the music. It is responding to the series of subtle commands delivered by the rider. So the human requires almost as much schooling as the horse, ensuring that the commands never vary and absolutely correspond to the required move. Once both horse and rider are on the same wavelength, the dance can begin.

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