Need help ?

Technique Dressage : Activity and reactivity


Activity and Reactivity in Dressage: How to Cultivate Them


Activity and reactivity are two prevailing concepts in the dressage lexicon. Complementary yet each essential, it is necessary to subtly differentiate them. Reactivity to impulsion aids, the first lesson during breaking, is key to learning. For every action of the rider, there should be a positive reaction from their horse. "Through the identity of the repetition of aids and their finesse, a real code is created, the operation of which is bilateral: message from man to horse and acknowledgement of receipt from horse to man," the famous rider Michel Henriquet once illustrated. Grand Prix Magazine offers some food for thought to understand, evaluate, and then improve your partner's reactivity.


Persuade Rather Than Constrain


Reactivity is an instant and proportional response to your leg action. The rider's mission is to instill in the horse a real desire to move forward. The challenge lies in encouraging rather than enforcing this positive reaction, being persuasive without being aggressive. To make your action convincing, you must be convinced first. When you close your legs, be sure that the horse will move forward. Your mindset is partly responsible for the outcome.

How many horses respond better to the trainer's aids than to the student's? It is not only the nature of the request that differs but also the rider's determination. The horse should find an advantage, some comfort in it. Two situations can arise. In the first, your horse reacts immediately and correlatively to your request. Release the pressure of your legs and reward him with a stroke. In the second, he remains indifferent to your action. Apply a more frank and firm action that will be enough to arouse his concentration.


Hand Without Legs, Legs Without Hand


Be careful not to solicit your horse in a contradictory manner. The message you send must be clear. Remember François Baucher's "hand without legs, and legs without hand". Sometimes unconsciously, the rider applies the brake at the same time as the accelerator. Rather than clinging to the reins or tilting the torso backwards, they must yield with their hands, slightly open the door, and control their body weight to enhance reactivity. Yielding does not mean breaking contact, but simply making it softer. "Delicately coordinated aids - hand without legs, legs without hand - make horses precise and light, while opposing propulsion aids to direction or retention ones create hesitant and braced horses," explains Henriquet.


However, as language and understanding refine, you can consider "pushing against a fixed hand". The "overall effect" will then make sense. "Is the overall effect, the almost simultaneous action of retention and propulsion aids, in contradiction with the 'hand without legs, legs without hand'?", Henriquet wondered. He concluded that this gradual approximation of hand and leg actions will eventually become intelligible to the horse. "The horse gradually worked on the search for weight translations in one direction or the other by dissociating hand and leg actions, accepts without surprise the gradual approximation and spread over years of exercises, of these actions." Activity and reactivity prevail. The contact is secondary. "At the stage of the first mounted education, the forwardness should be achieved without any search for contact," recalls Henriquet. "It is the horse that must make contact with the hand and not the hand that forces it. It is through the induced impulse that he must be led to rest on the hand gradually and confidently. When at all three gaits, in a horizontal balance, the horse responds to the tremor of the leg, the engagement of the seat, the friendly but precise touch of the whip, we can approach the next stage (...) So far, we had been content to use the propulsion aids without practically adding, even alternately, the lifting aids, flexion, restraint which partly come from the hand."


The action of the leg is sometimes imprecise and often insufficient. It is better to have a unique and pronounced leg action calling for a prompt reaction than a series of insignificant and ineffective interventions. Continuous leg action will participate in desensitizing the horse, gradually extinguishing its reactivity. It is not a question of supporting your horse at every stride. On the contrary, he should carry himself. It even happens that the rider's solicitations are involuntary. Avoid at all costs "reflex" actions that blur the information and increase your horse's weariness. You risk exhausting yourself unnecessarily while degrading your position.


In the face of a lack of reaction, release your legs and renew your request, enough to wake your horse from his torpor. At the extreme, continuous leg rubbing exposes the horse to a spur injury. Prefer to ride a cold horse with a minimum of leg to preserve his freshness. Conversely, keep your legs in contact with a hot horse who might tend to evade them. Encase him with your calves until he fully accepts their presence, reassuring him while strengthening your control. Be careful not to confuse amplitude or even activity with reactivity. Your horse may gallop large or at a fast pace without truly being forward of the leg. He is reactive if he accelerates the activity of his hind legs, if you can vary the tempo as you wish. Reward him immediately by releasing all leg pressure and stroking him.


Key Tips to Remember


Reactivity improves and requires maintenance. Dedicate time to it in each session. With repetition, your horse will gain autonomy.

If your horse does not react correctly, they simply did not understand your aids. Be more precise.

Each horse requires different leg action. Adapt to their needs.

Demand a reaction to every action.

Completely release the legs following a positive reaction.

A reaction is satisfactory if it is 100%. Do not settle for less.

Ask often and reward abundantly.

Prefer a firm and brief action to constant pressure.

Do not always ride with the whip. You risk creating dependency and indifference.

Do not hesitate to use the famous "kick" of the British Olympic champion Charlotte Dujardin. If your horse ignores you, dare to make a clear leg action without fearing the gallop or even disorder.

Following your leg action, the horse should continue the forward movement until the rider indicates otherwise.

Ensure the progressiveness of your request. Start with calf pressure. In case of insufficient reaction, apply your heel or even your spur. A clear action will capture the attention of your horse, who will become more attentive to your legs. These can then be more discreet.

Be convinced and convincing in your leg actions.

Remember to distinguish your leg actions according to the expected reaction. If to develop the size of strides you apply pressure, try a "tac tac" double, brief and firm to accelerate the hind legs.

Prefer an imperfect reaction to a lack of reaction. Do not get upset if you had planned to speed up the walk and the horse starts trotting. Repeat the exercise patiently until you get the precise correct reaction.

The quality of an upward transition is prepared upstream of the departure. From walk to trot, if the calf pressure is insufficient, use the "tac tac" to awaken the horse, then calmly request the transition again.


Using Transitions to Improve Reactivity


"Readiness for forward movement is created and maintained mainly through transitions, ascending and descending, within each gait and from one gait to another. These are what will keep horses ready to react, as monotony in gaits extinguishes sensitivity to moving forward. Unintentionally too dynamic, even violent forward movement, that a hard hand does not block, will have fewer negative consequences on the horse's behavior than weak impulsion that runs into a retaining hand," explains Henriquet.

As soon as you mount, you can very simply test reactivity at a long-rein walk. Without worrying about contact and while your position is intact, check that the horse responds positively to your legs. Continue with transitions between walk and trot. Gradually reduce the number of walking strides until only one walk stride is left. Remain in trot between ten and twenty meters between each transition, enough to engage the forward movement while maintaining the element of surprise and the attention of your horse.


Increase the difficulty by alternating between a stride of walk and a halt, restarting as vigorously as possible into the trot. Strive to vary the exercise to avoid anticipation. You can prepare a transition without ultimately executing it. Occasionally, stay an entire round in the arena at trot to avoid routine. The exercise should remain surprising and stimulating for the horse. Continue with transitions between trot and canter, then walk and canter. When you're ready, even incorporate a few stops. Increase subtlety and the level of difficulty by adding short transitions within the gait: collected trot, working trot, medium trot, extended trot. Beware, the goal is not the extended trot but the transition stride between two different trots.


While it may seem strict to correct your horse's lack of reactivity, remember that an isolated but conclusive action is less unpleasant than a constant leg pressure. By consistently being rigorous and demanding in terms of reactivity, your horse will quickly become more receptive and autonomous. Remain consistent in your approach, and they will understand your request better. Communication, relationship, and results will all be improved.