Dressage Jargon Defined

Corrine Fierkens Blog "Proceed to C"

By Corrine Fierkens

“She keeps saying that like I ought to know what it means,” you say to yourself during a dressage lesson, “but I’m beginning to think it doesn’t mean what I think it means.”

What to do? Do you stop at the risk of appearing to be a “back country simpleton” (even though you’re not) to the dressage trainer and ask for clarification, or keep plugging away at it until she says, “Good! Yes, like that!”?

If you choose the latter, don’t worry! You are not alone. It’s easy for dressage instructors to assume that students who are seasoned riders understand the terms used in the dressage world. That presents a problem for accomplished riders who are making the transition into Western Dressage, and often leads to frustrations for both Instructor and Student.

This article is intended to begin clarifying just a few of those most commonly used terms for Western Dressage Association members who might need it.

  1. “Open (or Close) your Hips”.  This refers to your hip joint opening and closing in-line with your body’s meridian. It does NOT mean opening your knees/legs like french doors. Opening and closing your hips is what you do with your hip joints when you stand, knees and toes pointing forward, and execute a squat.

  2. “Soften your knee/s”. This means: take the rigidity out of your leg, stop bracing into the stirrup, and allow your knee to bend naturally and softly. Your leg usually needs to do this to allow for your seat to shift laterally and stay supple, without “running into” a leg/knee that is braced against the stirrup.

  3. “The Vertical”.  Horses carry their heads either on, behind, or in front of “the vertical.” This term is sometimes interchanged with “the bit”.  Imagine a plumb-line hanging down from your horse’s poll. When your horse’s facial profile (the line that is the forehead and nose of his skull) is parallel to the plumb-line hanging from his poll, he is “one the vertical”. If he is over-flexed and his nose gets closer to his body than his poll, he is behind the vertical. When his throat latch opens and his nose is ahead of his poll, he is in front of (also called above or ahead of) the vertical.

  4. Corrine Fierkens "Proceed To C" Blog“On the aids.” Sometimes people think this means “on contact”, and when they hear, “get your horse on the aids”, they take up and maintain a heavy contact. However, “on the aids” simply means that the horse is readily obedient to the aiding cues you give as a rider. Perhaps your instructors sees that while the horse responding to pressure from the bit (your hand aids), he is not listening to your leg aids.  An instructor can tell a horse is not listening to your leg when he/she sees that you have to kick to get a response. The ultimate execution of being “on the aids” is watching a horse and rider whose communication is so subtle and quiet that you, the observer, cannot detect the cues. Getting a horse to be on the aids means you have to “sensitize” them to the cue or aid. When a rider is trail riding a horse and the reins are hanging down, the horse can and should still be on the aids. This is, by the way, one of the ways in which dressage training translates to “real world” life skills and safety.

  5. That leads to the last term for this article: “Behind/ in front of the leg”. A horse that is on the aids of the leg is referred to as being “in front of the leg”. His energy in any of the gaits and transitions (even downward transitions) is forward…. From back to front. A horse that evades or avoids the leg aids does so by getting “behind the leg”.  Horses that are behind the leg are also sometimes the ones that became unintentionally de-sensitized to the leg cues and need to be re-sensitized to them. When a horse spooks, he gets behind the leg of the rider very quickly, and the rider will not be able to regain control until he/she gets the horse back on his/her aids, starting with getting him back in front of his/her leg. Riders who can keep a horse skillfully in front of their legs also have a greater chance of de-escalating or avoiding explosive spooks.  Finally, do not confuse “speed” with being on the aids. A horse can be moving forward quickly and still be off the aids and behind the leg. For one example, this is why a lateral canter is undesirable in dressage. In a lateral canter, the 2 diagonal legs of the second beat that should land together, or slightly “hind/front” actually land “front/back”. This causes a backwards direction of energy and does enable the horse to get behind the rider’s leg even in a forward moving canter.

I hope this helps you in your quest for harmony in your riding. If there are other terms and jargon you’d like to see defined in future articles, please email them to me at shetoucheshorses@me.com.

Stay tuned in for more dressage education in my WDAA Blog called “Proceed to C


Corrine is a professional Bodyworker and Trainer serving clients in the Douglas /Elbert County area in Colorado.
Learn more about Corrine Fierkens at www.SheTouchesHorses.com




2 Responses to “Dressage Jargon Defined

  • paula walker
    6 years ago

    This was a great article especially the diagrams. Can I get on an e mail list to be notified of upcoming articles???

    • DMD-Admin
      6 years ago

      Hey Paula… glad you liked the blog post. You can subscribe to our RSS or EMAIL feed and it will email you every time a new blog post is created. Simply click on the RSS or Email icon in the upper portion of the page. Regards, Deirdre