Yesterday, one of my working students asked me "What exactly is a school exercise? And which exercises are school exercises?"
I explained to her that in my opinion, a successful school exercise shows that the horse is fully schooled in this exercise. Meaning, that you can decide the shape (where to place the shoulders, hips, head of the horse), the direction of movement, the speed and the degree of collection. All within the physical limits of the horse at that point in time.
For me, a school horse is a horse that responds to the seat, leg and rein aids. That allows itself to be shaped, collected and extended at the rider's request. This does not mean that it needs to be able to make a perfect piaffe. For me, the trot is schooled when the horse can collect and extend in the side movements within the horse's physical limits at that point in training. This means for me that school exercises are those exercises that we use to, exactly, school our horses. To educate them, to let our seat, reins and legs shape and guide them. Side movements are meant to teach the horse that we can place their shoulders and hips, transitions to practice their response to our seat and legs and to prepare them for collection. We explain to them that our seat asks them for collection and extension.
A school horse is for me a horse that lets itself be shaped by the rider. This does not mean it is a 'pre-programmed' horse to perform it's tricks under novice riders. A properly schooled horse will follow your seat, and therefore respond to everything you ask it to do, even if you did not intent to ask anything, he will respond to each change in your balance.
We in the Academic Art of Riding world, have a tendency to put 'school-' in front of things. We make school-halts, school-walk, school-trot, school-canter. With this, we try to discern this type of halt, walk, trot or canter from 'normal' canter and indicate that in this exercise, the horse is properly schooled to be 'between our aids'. For me, it does not automatically imply that the horse needs to be at the maximum of his capacity in collection. Just that we could take the horse there if we want to and take it out of it again too. So a school halt is not a fancy looking shaped horse with a front leg in the air. It is the horse that makes a halt being exactly between the rider's aids, halting exactly as the rider asks. Unfortunately, I see often people pursuing perfection in an exercise by repeating the exercise, rather than working on bringing the horse more to respond to the aids, and training their bodies to give the aids in a subtle and correct way.
Christofer Dahlgren described schooling horses beautifully to me: imagine that everything your horse is capable of doing is already there, in his body, just like a wood sculpture is already inside wooden log. It takes time to cultivate the wood and to slowly bring the sculpture out. This is what we do when we school horses. Our horses are able to do all these beautiful movements in their fields. We teach them to respond to our aids so that we can ask them to make the same movements with us on top, at the moment we ask for it. Our horses are schooled in a certain exercise when they can perform the exercise in the shape, direction, speed and degree of collection that we ask.
Is an accomplished rider, clinician and published author who combines her extensive knowledge in classical dressage, biomechanics, ethology, human anatomy and zen principles to guide riders on their journey to self-improvement. The goal: harmony & lightness in the cooperation between human and horse.