Ok so we know that dressage evolved as a way to train the horse first for war, as well as for the hunt, livestock work and safe, balanced transport.
Basically as a martial art with side benefits.
One of the benefits of human martial arts is fitness, and another, wellness, and still another, suppleness. a good martial arts master can train a warrior to fight, then use the same exercises applied more gently and slowly to rehab the wounded warrior, as well as using the system for aging warriors, pregnant women - whatever the tribe needed...in places like south India you still see this; the local martial arts master is also the yoga teacher, massage therapist, herbalist, physiotherapist and often the ayurvedic doctor too.
The same is true of the best dressage schools. At the Spanish riding school they don’t just train horses, they maintain them to keep performing into their late twenties and beyond - the same at Saumur, Lisbon and Jerez. In sport dressage the emphasis is on youth and power and many horses are looking to retire in their late teens, when in fact they have at least another decade of good working life ahead of them if maintained with dressage as a yoga for their benefit, rather than just for the rider's.
Over the years our mentors have shown us some invaluable dressage-as-maintenance-yoga approaches. All of them lunged their horses and worked them in hand for at least two thirds of their work so that two thirds of the work did not involve bearing the rider's weight.
Janine Pendlebury showed us how working travers (quarters in) to shoulders in at a circle in gentle trot builds back muscle. Marta Renilla showed us how shoulder in to renvers in a straight line gave the horse strength in the stifle and flank. Bernard Sachse of France showed how jaw flexions and work in hand can help strengthen ageing joints and make arthritic horses youthful again. He also showed us how working from piaffe to canter put strength in an injured horse's lion, croup and hocks.
Manuel Trigo showed us how working the horse in long lines builds topline and strengthens the loins. Marijke de Jong showed us how working the horse long and low, flexed to the inside first in hand then ridden, took away the underneck and massively strengthened the whole back, allowing the horse to come into self-carriage by itself. master Luis Valenca and his amazing daughters, Filipa and Sofia, showed us how working shoulder in to renvers in first a large, then a smaller circle and back again gave a horse strength through the whole body that had to be seen to be believed, and that developing the piaffe and work on the hind legs saved horses from always having to carry their weight on their front legs when working, thus saving the valuable joints and tendons there.
This wasn’t all they showed us - but it opened our eyes to a new world where dressage wasn’t just there for the rider, or in horse boy's case, the autistic child in need of oxytocin. It was there for the horse.
Thank you mentors, we are forever students.