Exercises - Their Purpose and Correct Execution
By Paul Kathen © 2004
Very often after a series of collecting exercises I will ask my students to just trot along the rail and enjoy the collected trot followed by a few steps of a freer trot for the benefit of the horse. By doing this I am trying to give them a sense of what we are intending to accomplish with our work. All dressage organizations from the FEI down state in their rules what these goals of riding Dressage are. I do not know the rules of all the organizations but I would bet that not one of them mentions the riding of Piaffe or Passage as their goal. The purpose of all that hard work of schooling is to create a horse that is supple, obedient, rhythmic in its gaits, and in spite of its powerful and expressive movement, comfortable to ride. You will also see these goals reflected in the collective remarks of your test.
Exercises like Piaffe and Passage have no purpose of their own, but are tools of the trainer to achieve the goals stated above. Yet watch trainers at work and you will often see an endless string of exercises ridden without ever checking the gaits to see whether the exercises had the desired effect. We can not blame the trainer too much since she is pulled to this kind of work by the need to ride for instance the Renvers correctly, in order to make it effective as a collecting exercise. The horse must be taught and trained to be able to execute an exercise and therefore we often see such drilling in workouts. It is counter productive however, since it will sour the horse and sow the seed of evasions and loss of motivation. As a trainer I must balance the need for the training of the horse in the exercises and the need for a horse enjoying its work
Trainers may also be tempted to drill exercises because of the tests at horse shows. The scores seem to be based mostly on the execution of exercises, rather than on the quality of the movement. That should not be the case. The collective remarks have a coefficient of two, which makes them important marks. However, in most cases when a new exercise is introduced to the next level it receives the same coefficient. That then puts it on par with the collective remarks. We should never forget that the gaits must remain pure, and that the need for harmony between horse and rider by far outweigh the need for precision. If the exercises were trees and harmony and expressiveness of movement were the forest, we could say that such a view of dressage would mean the inability to see the forest for the trees.
On the surface this truly appears to be quite a dilemma. Exercises, in order to be effective, must be ridden correctly, yet the repeated practicing of such exercises may cause the horse to lose interest. In my experience the best way to avoid drilling is to first clearly access the horse’s ability and devise a plan to strengthen the horse in the area that needs improvement before we challenge him with hard work involving this weakness. Second, horses have one side which they prefer and where the work seems much easier for them. This is the side that I use to teach them new skills. As soon as they understand the exercise, I move to their weaker side and spend the majority of time on that side to gradually make the horse equally skilled for this exercise on both hands. So I take advantage of their strength to teach a particular workout and then ride this exercise on their weaker side to strengthen it. Third, I keep a very close eye on the demands of the training scale at all times so as to not lose what I have worked so hard to gain up to this point. In other words the rhythm, suppleness, connection, and the desire to move forward must stay at an acceptable level while riding an exercise or I must stop and restore these conditions before returning to the exercise.
This in my opinion is important enough to take a closer look at what it means exactly. It takes us back to the forest and trees situation. The conditions set forth by the training scale take priority over the exactness of the exercise. If, for instance, I am to ride a Shoulder-in from K to E it is more important that my horse stay through and move with impulsion than it is for me to start exactly at K and end precisely at E. Even an insufficient degree of bend by a horse that stays supple and active is better then a sufficient bend that is the result of a pulling inside rein. The main reason why I feel this way is that the tests at the shows are designed to show the result of training be it correct, poor or even unacceptable. They also give credit to the talent of the horse. In the case of the supple and active horse it may not have advanced enough yet, but its training is correct. In the case of the stiff horse the training is poor. The former horse with continued work by that rider will soon show a sufficient or better Shoulder-in. The latter horse will not improve its suppleness under the same training. In most such cases the gaits will soon deteriorate, the horse will find additional ways to evade the demands and the stiffness will eventually become permanent. Never ever must we allow the purity of the gaits to suffer from our training!
Here is the solution to this dilemma. When we run afoul of the training scale we can always return to an easier exercise without loosing a great deal of training effect. Let me continue with the example of the Shoulder-in and explain what I mean by that. I am riding a Shoulder-in on the long side and feel that my horse is dropping his back, raising the neck, and pulling on the inside rein. A couple of half- halts and a softening inside rein do not correct the problem and so in order to avoid making a bad situation worse I decide to turn onto a circle of about fifteen meters, ride forward and with a sponging inside rein ask him to soften onto the bit and bring his back up again. If it works I continue first with a Shoulder-fore gradually increasing the bend to a Shoulder-in again. If my efforts on the fifteen meter circle did not succeed to return him unto the bit, I increase the circle to twenty meters and if necessary rise in the trot and allow him to stretch for a few steps and ask him to allow my aids to come through again. In most cases this will bring my horse and me back into harmony. Now I test this result with a fifteen meter circle followed by a Shoulder-fore. Out of the second corner of the next short side I ask for a ten meter circle followed by a Shoulder-in. If my horse will carry this Shoulder-in for about half the length of the arena our earlier problem was most likely rider error. Should I lose the throughness again my horse needs further improvement in either suppleness, strength or both. It is also possible that he just simply does not understand the exercise. In any case circles, spirals, and Shoulder-fore will help prepare him for the demands of the Shoulder-in.
This system of schooling a horse has worked very well for me. I ask for an exercise, feel how my horse responds, analyze what I feel, if necessary correct, feel to make sure that the correction has had the desired effect. If not, analyze and correct again. If my corrections do not improve my horse’s performance I must change them. At times all I have to do is to apply the correction a bit stronger. Sometimes I react as I described in the example of the Shoulder-in by ending the exercise and prepare my horse anew.
By dealing with problems in this way I have avoided two major pit falls. First, by avoiding tension, I have maintained the purity of the gaits, and second, by staying within the limits of my horse’s current ability and knowledge I have preserved his motivation to work and to please. In other words, by my momentary retreat to avoid a battle, I have improved my chances to win the war and gain harmony. As trainers we often are tempted by this knee jerk reaction of “I must not let him get away with this.” If you feel this way, stop, cool off and repeat your demand. This allows the two of you to work as a team, and when he obeys, he did not get away with anything anyway.
The other part of riding an exercise correctly is in the actual execution. The old masters used great care to describe the movements precisely because they were well aware that horses would be quick to find ways to evade the difficult parts of such an exercise and if the rider did not insist on correctness the exercise might loose its value.
In this article I do not want to limit myself to exercises per se, but I would also like to explore exercises that are the result of transitions combined with ordinary movements. It is because of their combined effect that they improve a horse towards the goals of dressage. I am sure you, for instance, are aware of the benefit in collecting a horse when you ride a few walk-canter transitions. For the purpose of simplicity I will call such combinations exercises also.
A good way to explain the exercises and their purpose is to divide them into three categories: Suppling exercises, exercises to develop impulsion and collecting exercises. As you can see, this also follows the line of the training scale. I will describe the exercises more or less in the order in which they are ridden in the training of the horse and in which some of them also appear in the progression of the tests at the shows.
• Large circles, shallow loops along the long side, serpentines, riding corners, figures of eight, spirals in and out
• Cavaletti work
• Riding up and down hills, jumping small obstacles
• Stretching forward downward
• Half turns around the forehand
• Leg yields
• Transitions (especially trot-canter with a horse that shows a tight back)
As you can see there are no fancy moves here, but that does not mean that they shouldn’t be executed correctly. Quite the contrary, great care must be taken because you are dealing with horses fresh out of the stall. They are often stiff and still uncoordinated and therefore more likely to injure themselves.
Many of these exercises deal with bent lines. The rule for correctness on these lines is that the back of the horse must be evenly bent according to the line it travels. At times it seems that students have more trouble with the even bend of the circle line itself. The operative word in the last sentence is evenly. That means that the spine of the horse has the same bend from poll to tail and the hind legs follow in the tracks of the front legs. The same rules apply for corners, serpentines, loops, figures of eight and spirals. The figure of eight poses an additional problem in that it takes an already somewhat supple horse to execute the change of bend without tension. So the rider must at first allow for a few steps on a straight line to flex and bend the horse in the new direction before starting the next circle. This does indicate that in training horses there are degrees of demands, and in this way one exercise prepares the horse for the next more difficult one. A twenty meter circle for instance starts the process of making the horse supple enough so that it is able to execute a fifteen meter circle without tension. This then continues the suppling process to where the ten meter circle is no longer difficult for the horse.
The cavaletti require a horse with some experience. While teaching your horse to school over cavaletti start with one cavaletti and walk over it, then try it at the trot, next add a second one at the correct distance for that particular horse. I think it is a good idea to check your horse’s stride by measuring it at a working trot in your arena. You want to avoid his stepping on a cavaletti, because that could cause him to pull a muscle or other soft tissue. Round poles placed on the ground are particularly dangerous, because they might roll as he steps on them and could causes such a pull to be even more severe. I suggest not putting more than four cavaletti in a line. It is important that your horse stay relaxed as he approaches such a line and is allowed to stretch forward downward as he crosses it. Under no circumstances should you interfere with your horse while in the line. As he stretches down he must stay connected and maintain his self carriage. Since mistakes made in cavaletti work can be costly it is of utmost importance to keep your horse relaxed yet attentive.
I am a firm believer in taking horses out of the arena and onto the trails. It relaxes them, desensitizes them to strange objects and sounds, increases their self confidence and motivates them to work harder when in the ring. Hopefully there will be a hill on the way and you can use it to teach your horse to shift its weight according to the incline of the hill and in this way stay in balance. It is important to observe here to approach the hill up or down in a direct line and perpendicular. Working in this manner will also strengthen your horse’s back. On the trail you may also encounter a small obstacle that would be much easier to jump then to ride around. This too has a beneficial effect on the back of your horse since he has to stretch it to bascule (round his back) over the jump.
So far you have stretched the muscles along your horse’s back by bending him laterally and by asking him to stretch over the top of his back working the cavaletti and jumping small jumps. Most horses just naturally want to drop their head down because it is how Mother Nature intended for them to travel. It is also natural for them to move on the forehand, and that we must change through our schooling to a more balanced distribution of their weight. Frequently you will encounter a horse that does not stretch when given the opportunity to do so. Since a back willing and able to stretch is a condition without which the horse can not work correctly, you must find a way to convince him to let go in the muscles of his back. Sadly, I must say that there are many horses that have worked with their backs tight for so long that they are conditioned to work in that way, some even successfully. One can only speculate how well these horses could have performed had they been trained correctly. There is, however, no need to guess at the fact that having to work with their back in a knot was highly uncomfortable all the time.
There are many reasons why some horses tighten their back under saddle. The terms we use to describe these horses are “cold backed” or “sore backed”. They may also be sensitive mares or horses with conformation problems. Now you are to work such a horse and must correct this problem. I would start by taking this horse on a trail and quietly walk it on a long rein. Let nature take its course and the horse’s natural curiosity will make it look left and right (stretch one side or the other) it may even want to smell something on the ground or grab some grass. You can easily see how this will stretch the horse’s back and hope that these momentary stretches will convince the horse that it is ok to drop the neck all together. In tough cases it may not work, some horse’s temperaments may not lend themselves for such rides, or you may not have the opportunity to ride the trails. In some cases careful and skillful lunging may convince the horse of the benefits of working with a relaxed back.
Let us just say none of these possibilities would be available to you and you must work in the arena. You still can take fifteen minutes to just walk your horse. He needs it in order to warm up his muscles and joints to be ready for the more strenuous work. Give him ten minutes on a loose rein, urge him forward in a brisk walk and see whether that will convince him to drop his neck. If not, take up the reins, establish a firm contact, and continue to drive him into the bit. It is not just the long back muscle that is tight, the broad back muscle (connecting back and forearm) and the gluteus muscle (connecting the long back muscle to hind quarter) are also affected. This explains the short and choppy strides of such a horse.
If you have any questions regarding the biomechanics of the horse, this is a good time to read the article, “Why God Wants Us to Ride Horses,” in the August and September issues of the HDS newsletter or go to the Tex-Over Farms website, www.tex-overfarms.com, and check under Articles.
Your horse showed no tension when you led him out of the barn. He behaved well during grooming and tacking up yet now he is stiff and unwilling to move forward. The difference is that now you are sitting on him. In spite of your long walk on a loose rein he is still tight. The neck and back ligament is pulling his head up and the hind legs can not reach far forward for the same reason, plus the contracted croup muscles add stiffness to the hind leg. All of this is the result of the back being defensive about your weight or, heaven forbid, just the prospect of being ridden. You must first create some suppleness in this system of locomotion before you can start the trot. It is the tightness in the back and croup that shorten the stride behind, and it is mainly the contracted broad back muscle that binds the front leg. A horse moving like that, even in the walk, is on the forehand. Following is the scenario if you were to start the trot now. The joints in the hind leg do not bend and thus the weight is lifted over that leg and then pushed down onto the forehand. The stiff hind legs act like a catapult. The front legs are striding short as it is and now they have to step even shorter because they have to brace the weight thrown at them by the hind leg.
While he is still walking, try to stretch one side of the horse by maneuvering him onto a large circle. You will find that an opening inside rein will serve best for this purpose. If frustration tempts you to just pull his head around remember that it is his defensiveness that caused this trouble to begin with. You want to correct a problem and not get even with a horse that gives you trouble. I will tell you now that you will be able to feel your horse’s relief once he has relaxed. He does not like this way of going any better than you do. So while you walk him on a circle use your inside leg to start a bit of a bend. Do not force it but start to convince him. Do this on both hands. Soon you will feel him begin to give and along with the increased bend in the ribs you will find that his neck begins to drop down also. If he pushes his nose out as his neck moves down he is offering you a compromise. He will relax the back muscles but not bring his back up. Take the compromise and reward him for that.
Your new situation now is a relaxed back that is not working. Exercises at the trot must help you to start him involving his back in his movement. As usual you begin with the simplest exercises and as you succeed you move to the more difficult ones. Shorten your reins and start the trot. He will probably resist the shorter rein, because giving to the rein now means to stretch his back up which requires actively working muscles. Set your hands and ask him to move forward. Again at first he will be more willing to give on bent lines. It is almost as though you have only half of the horse able to resist. Balance also requires that the inside hind leg work harder and move farther under the body. At the same time gently sponge on the inside rein in order to ask for the turn, encourage a flexion at the poll and help your inside leg create a bend. Again, be patient and be satisfied with a little at first. If you want to soften something you work it both ways and not just to one side, do the same here. As you feel more energy coming from the hindquarter and a softening at the poll, reward him, then shorten the reins some more and continue the work on bent and straight lines. You continue with this exercise until you feel he has reached his limit then let him take the reins and stretch his neck.
Just as a reminder do not bore your horse with endless circles. Change direction often and add diagonals and long lines to your schooling. Also, horses will forgive you for asking for the entire arm when they give you a finger, but they will argue when you ask for more than they can comfortably give at that time.
When we stretch an object, we pull on its ends to either straighten it or make it longer. If you have done your work correctly, your horse will drop the neck as far as your reins allow him to. He should maintain the same contact he had when you were working him. If you take a close look at him now there is a good chance that you will find his nose slightly behind the vertical. In my opinion that is no reason for alarm. If you were to give him more rein, the nose will come out in front of the vertical. Remember, I said if you did school him correctly, that means he is not actively dropping behind the bit. Instead he is actively stretching the top of his neck while staying connected. We must draw a clear distinction between stretching and resting the neck. The horse rests on a loose rein and stretches on a long rein. He accomplishes the pull for the stretch by pushing the forehead forward. This again is the result of the neck carrying muscles lifting the bottom four vertebrae of the neck and giving it a slight upward curve (see side bar). This way it becomes longer and exerts a pull on the nuchal (neck) ligament forward at the poll. This pull is felt at the top of the withers and back along the top of the spine, raising the back. This action of the neck is supported by the also active hind leg that causes a pull backward on the same ligament. The effect is also a raising of the middle of the back as the leg moves forward. That is one of the reasons why the back swings up and down as the legs move backward and forward. When the horse just drops the neck down it also becomes longer, however that is not the result of active muscles but the position of the neck. The vertebrae of the neck now form a straight line. With his neck in this position the horse now moves the way he would at liberty. He uses the weight of his head and neck to carry his barrel and its contents as well as you.
Any athlete will tell you about the value of stretching. It creates the condition necessary to work under stress without injury. It also allows for greater range of motion in the joints and easier development of strength, both of these mean a better performance. In the case of the horse this also enables him to be obedient because he now possesses the strength and suppleness to do as asked. The fact that we have achieved the suppleness and the connection with our horse does not, however, guarantee that we will maintain it without fail. On the contrary, they are very fragile and must be guarded to insure a proper execution of the exercises. In order to avoid unnecessary repetition let us state that it is essential for all riding to preserve rhythm and suppleness in the horse and a connection with the horse. As you move up the scale and school exercises to straighten the horse impulsion must also be sustained. In case of collecting exercises, straightness is added as a necessary ingredient for success.
Next month we will examine the exact execution of exercises and the most common mistakes riders allow their horses to make.
Drawing A shows the vertebrae and the neck carrying muscles at a stretch. The muscles are actively working. B shows a horse while resting the neck. The muscles are relaxed. C indicates the muscles at maximum contraction raising the neck as far as relative elevation will allow. The maximum stretch of the same muscles while actively working is demonstrated in the boscule over a jump in drawing D.
When you read a book or a magazine about riding, do you ever put the pages down and imagine yourself practicing what you just read? Do you ever stop riding while you are experiencing a problem riding a particular exercise with your horse and try to remember a solution to a similar situation you read or heard about? It happens to me quite frequently, even more so when I am writing. When I describe a problem on horseback and offer a solution, I often visualize and feelalize my advice to make sure that it has a chance to work. I also examine the solution for correctness in theory. It is foolish in my way of thinking not to benefit from the mistakes others have made and the corrections they have found to be effective with most horses.
Theory and practice are interconnected. One loses meaning without the other; at least it does so for the serious student and rider. Nothing about training and riding of horses is really new. I believe the most often quoted author is still Steinbrecht, and the most universal training system is the training scale which in turn is based upon Steinbrecht’s book, The Gymnasium of the Horse. That was started well over a century ago yet I believe the performances have improved. For this we must thank the breeders. Several trainers have tried different methods of training but have returned to the training scale. It is perfectly natural for competitive persons to want to improve their performances at all times, which is why we continue to look for new ways to get more out of our horses. In my opinion the answer to this ambition lies in perfecting our work within the proven system and not in trying to re-invent the wheel.
Since I want to concentrate on the exercises, their purpose and their correct execution, it may be a good idea for you to search back in the HDS newsletters of May and June 2004, and read the articles, “The Aids –A System of Communicating With Your Horse,” and the April edition, “Riding, A Dialog Between Horse and Rider.” You may also find them by going to my website, www.tex-overfarms.com, and looking under, “Articles.”
One of my former instructors and friend, Uwe Wiechmann, used to say, “The easiest and fastest way to get your horse to perform for you is by riding the appropriate exercises correctly.” This statement contains three major points to consider. Point one is that exercises are the easiest way, point two is to choose the appropriate ones, and point three is to ride the exercises the way they were designed.
We hear it said that practice makes perfect. The truth is that only perfect practice makes perfect. If we then combine this truth with Uwe Wiechmann’s statement, we must, in order to progress with our horses, ride exercises and ride them perfectly correctly. That sounds so easy and self evident that you might wonder why I even bother to write about it. The simple fact is that it is very difficult. Every time you start an exercise you take your horse out of its comfort zone. Up to this point you rode your horse under the minimal conditions of rhythmic gaits, supple body and on the bit. You have to fulfill these conditions to be able to call even a ride on a straight line good. Any work at first level adds the requirement of a degree of impulsion. Exercises at second level require a degree of straightness and the beginnings of collection. “All right,” you say, “So you know the training scale.” Let us go and ride a twenty meter circle while maintaining in our horse all the conditions necessary to fulfill the demands of the training scale.
Well, was it perfectly round and your horse did not change his rhythm? Did he stay supple throughout and not once did he feel like he was going to object? If you feel that was how it happened, you must have done a great job training your horse and riding the circle. How many judges have agreed with you and awarded your circles with a ten?
They do not award many tens and there is a good reason for that. Usually it is because the shape did not look quite round or the horse lost its straightness. Sometimes the horse showed resistance to the bend or slowed down due to the increased load on the inside hind leg. If one or several of these problems happened to you on a twenty meter circle you must now decide how best to improve your horse’s work. I would start by making him more supple by working him in exercises designed for just that purpose.
At this point I feel I must make sure you understand the place the exercises play in the training of the horse. They have no purpose of their own but are strictly tools to improve the horse’s way of going, its suppleness, obedience, and comfort for the rider.
Is riding a circle considered an exercise? Yes it is, and a great one. You can vary its degree of difficulty by changing its size, the number of repetitions, changing from one hand to the other and spiraling in and out. But again, it is only helpful if you ride it correctly so it makes more sense to ride a large circle well than to ride a small circle on a struggling horse. Now let me describe a circle for you. It is round. That means the circle line is at an equal distance from its center at all points. Now, let me translate that into its appearance in the dressage ring. The spine of your horse is bent equally throughout its body and to the same degree as the circle line. I am describing the center circle of the dressage arena. We give it four circle points: One at the rail (E), one at the crossing of the centerline, one at the opposite rail (B), and the fourth at the next crossing of the centerline. This divides the circle into four quadrants. In a perfect circle these quadrants are exactly equal. The body of the horse is parallel to either the short or the long side of the arena every time he passes a circle point. If your circle looks like that and your horse stayed forward and on the bit, you deserve a ten.
While riding exercises to supple your horse you will also strengthen him. Ride straight lines in position and round off the corners. The benefits are doubled in this exercise because you have the loosening effect of the flexion in the poll and the bending in the corner since it represents a quarter of a circle. Most horses will handle a corner well if it is rounded enough for their level of work and if they are properly prepared through the positioning on the straight line. Next, add a half circle to your program. Ride, for instance, two large corners at F and K followed by a half circle from E to B, and ride the two large corners again. Change rein through any diagonal and repeat the combination of exercises on the other hand. It is the constant change in the degree of bend between the corners, the straight lines and the half circle that achieve the suppling. Notice that only if you ride correctly enough that these subtle changes will occur.
Another exercise to help in loosening your horse is the leg yield. It also helps to confirm your horse on the outside rein. How casual we are at times about the training of our horses was driven home to me by a conversation I overheard between a coach and his student. The student was lamenting that her horse had a hard time with the leg yield. The coach answered by saying something to this effect. “Don’t worry, you only need it for first level.” While I agree that the leg yield loses its value at the higher levels, it still is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the purpose of exercises. The leg yield is not designed to test your horse, but to teach it to move away from the pressure of your leg and to stretch the shoulders and the croup. This in turn along with the movements of the joints will improve the suppleness of the young horse. The reason the test writers included the leg yield in the test is to insure that your horse has acquired the skills necessary to move on to the next level.
The last paragraph already mentioned the dual purpose of the leg yield, teaching the yielding to the sideways driving leg and the suppling of shoulder and croup. There is, in my opinion, a third very important effect of the exercise. When executed correctly the leg yield helps establish the horse on the outside rein. Like with many exercises they require a skill from the horse but then improve it. The horse must be accepting in the outside aids in order to execute the leg yield correctly, but by doing that the horse will improve its connection to the outside aids.
There are basically three ways in which we can ride the leg yield. We can move our horse away from the long side toward the centerline or from the centerline toward the rail. We can also ask our horse to yield to the rider’s leg along the rail with its tail to the rail. A third possibility is to leg yield along the rail with the head to the rail. The criteria for correctness would be the same in all cases. The horse is straight with a slight flexion in the poll away from the direction of movement. When riding away from the rail the horse’s body should be parallel to the rail and when traveling along the rail it should be at an angle of about thirty to forty degrees. That means that front and hind legs must cross at the same amount. The rider asks for the leg yield by moving the inside leg slightly behind the girth and pushing the horse’s body sideways. Remember by moving to the right the horse is flexed to the left so the left is the inside. Let us stay with the example of the leg yield right. The most common mistakes would be a horse that is too bent in the neck, leading with the hindquarters, rushing forward or just simply moving on a diagonal line toward the center or side of the arena, not crossing in the legs.
The underlying cause for just about all of these mistakes is that the horse does not understand or properly react to the sideways driving leg of the rider. The best way to teach the horse that particular leg effect is the turn around the forehand. To me this is one exercise you can forget about as soon as it has fulfilled its purpose of helping the horse understand the sideways driving leg. The reason I feel that way is that we work constantly to shift our horse’s weight away from the forehand while the turn around the forehand loads the weight onto the forehand. To minimize that effect I like to teach it first in-hand. If I want my horse to move away from pressure behind the girth on the left side and move his hindquarters to the right, I stand on his left side, put my hand where my leg would be as though I were mounted, and apply pressure. The natural temptation will be to help the pushing hand by pulling his head toward me to the left. To a small degree that is fine but please remember that you are teaching him to yield to the pressure on his side, not to a pull on the rein. Just ask for a step at a time. You do not want him to rush around. Once he moves around step by step and you no longer have to help with a pull on the rein, he is ready to start under saddle.
Mount, flex his poll to the side away from the direction of movement, move your inside leg back a little and apply pressure with it. If he does not listen, help your leg with a little tap of the whip behind the leg. When he steps over one step, stop the leg pressure and repeat it. As soon as possible start to move to the leg yield. If your horse overreacts and wants to rush forward, try the leg yield along the rail with his head to the wall. This again is not one of my favorite exercises. I do not use it unless I deal with an overreacting horse and even then I just may delay working the leg yield until the horse becomes more relaxed. The exercise with the tail to the wall works well, however, and can also be employed to prepare the horse for the shoulder in.
The rider must take responsibility for some of the other mistakes like a popped shoulder, a leading hindquarter or a loss of balance by the horse. The popped shoulder is often the result of too much inside rein or not enough support on the outside rein to limit the amount of bend in the horse’s neck. The leading hindquarters often are the result of the inside leg too far back and/or an inside rein applied too strongly and thus preventing the front end of the horse from moving over. Often a rider will try to help the horse move sideways by sitting to the outside in order to help the horse in that direction. That is how it works in the half-pass but in the leg yield the horse is moving away from its bend so the rider will throw the horse off balance onto the outside shoulder. This, of course, will only cause tension in the horse and, therefore, be counter-productive.
I have also found the leg yield helpful in teaching canter departs to young horses. While riding at a trot along the short side of the arena I will turn into the arena parallel to the long side about two meters from the rail and leg yield toward the rail. As soon as I have reached the rail I will turn onto a twenty meter circle and ask for the canter. Rarely have the youngsters refused the canter or taken the wrong lead. The same effect seems to happen when I prepare a horse for canter pirouettes. A few jumps of leg yield before asking for a working pirouette guide my horse onto the outside rein and leg, shorten his jumps a bit and make him attentive to the aids. One more jump to activate the inside hind leg more forward with my inside leg now at the girth and my outside leg behind the girth will simultaneously stop the sideways motion and along with the inside rein introduce the turn. The horse will move its front end around the hindquarters while the hindquarters describe a small circle still jumping forward.
Another example of how the trainer can use a known exercise to introduce a new one to the horse is the leg yield with the tail to the rail preparing the horse for the shoulder-in. In both exercises the horse travels with the front legs inside the track and it is flexed at the poll in the same direction. The difference is that in the shoulder-in the horse’s body is bent and the hind legs, therefore, do not cross. This alters the way the horse must balance and consequently changes the purpose of the exercise. That will be the subject of my next article.
In dressage we always look at moving from the back to the front. In this article I have reversed the order-so far. We have looked at exercises that will help us loosen the muscles of the horse so that it will become supple in its body and relaxed in the mind. These exercises require a degree of control that only a horse that is willing and able to listen can allow. We did not want a great degree of power because it would have made controlling it that much more difficult to achieve. Now that the horse is allowing our aids to go through we can move on to the next set of exercises. These exercises are designed to improve impulsion. They, however, need energy to be successful. Now our focus is on the motor, the haunches of the horse.
Exercises to improve impulsion:
• Transitions between gaits
• Transitions within gaits
• Lateral movements
Just last week I read somewhere that Dressage is a sport where the opportunity for learning is unlimited. I am sure that your experiences riding have already borne that out for you. One of the challenges I find myself confronted with much of the time is to understand what exactly happens to the horse as we train, condition and educate it. The demands we make on its body, mind and character are continually increasing and I am aware that the performances we expect from an FEI horse would send a horse of equal age but without the benefit of training into despair or orbit. Schooling clearly has changed the horse. The increases of his level of strength and agility are obvious but there are also improvements of his mind and character. Some horsepersons claim that training will enhance a horse’s intelligence. In my opinion it will certainly sharpen it. The aids are more and more complex and it takes a greater sensitivity to discern between them. They also follow in a much more rapid order, forcing a much faster processing of information, which in turn causes the horse to stay more focused on its rider. On top of that the rider expects her mount to stay at that high level of focus over a longer period of time.
I am convinced that horses with this amount of training learn to think. Observe such a horse under an inexperienced rider and see how the horse is trying to figure out what is expected of him. He will go through many trial movements checking which one will satisfy his rider, and one can just feel the frustration when nothing seems to create the harmony he is looking for.
We condition the strength and skills of the horse, we train its mind and I also believe that we educate its character. As I mentioned earlier, schooling is stressful. The trainer is constantly pushing her horse against his limit both physically and mentally. The horse needs to learn to live with this level of stress. He must also give up his natural desire to serve his own needs and work toward pleasing the trainer in order to enjoy harmony. The horse, an animal of prey, naturally strives first and foremost to survive. It must learn to submit even in moments when it is not sure about the consequences of that obedience. This horse has learned to trust. Only a horse with a self confidence that has been strengthened through the guidance of a thoughtful trainer, can achieve such trust. This horse is now a team player. Many trainers and rider cheat themselves out of such a relationship with their horse by not matching the horse’s generosity in tolerance and desire for harmony. Do not misunderstand me, the horse must obey and do its best to be correct. It is the methods used to take the horse to that point that causes concern in our horse community and that of the animal protection societies.
This is a different way to explain why maintaining the conditions set out in the training scale are of utmost importance while schooling your horse. In order to avoid confusion and unnecessary repetition it is equally imperative for you to understand that exercises often overlap in their purposes. Let us look at the shoulder-in for instance. It is considered an exercise to improve impulsion as well as collection. Some trainers even use the shoulder-in as a means to further the suppleness of their horse. I do not disagree with either use of the exercise. It is in the emphasis of the various aspects of the shoulder-in that determines its purpose. The bending of the spine supples, the increased engagement of the inside hind leg and the corresponding stronger push off improves the impulsion and the rider insisting that the horse increase the bend of the haunches through well timed half- halts during the carrying stance develops the strength necessary to collect.
Impulsion seems to be one of the most misunderstood concepts in Dressage. Some riders seem to look at it as speed. That is wrong. Some look at it as energy. That is a good part of it. In my opinion impulsion is an attitude of the horse expressed through forwardness under the control of the rider. It is the desire to go forward. Some horses are blessed with a great deal of natural impulsion. In some we can develop it. Unfortunately there are some who will always need to be prodded into using energy in their work. They are not candidates for the higher levels of dressage. Jumps in front of them however might get enough adrenalin flowing to have them energetic enough to do well as jumpers.
The term prodding reminds me of another area of misunderstanding. Lately we often hear or read about the terms ‘electric hind legs’ or horses that are ‘hot of the leg’. This is to indicate a horse with an active hind leg and a quick response to driving aids. To me these terms are unfortunate. Imagine yourself touching an electric wire or a hot plate. Your reaction would be a jerk. It would be totally out of your or anybodies control. That is undesirable. What we are looking for is a horse that is sensitive to the rider’s leg and is willing to obey in a measured way. By that I mean that the horse will move forward according to the strength of the aid. The old masters had it right when they wanted horses to allow them to ride them forward. This brings about the correct direction of riding from the back to the front. In my view the ‘hot of the leg’ horse needs to be ridden backwards.
The naturally motivated horse must accept the controls of the rider so that the desire to go forward can be turned into impulsion. The exercises to achieve that goal are the same as the exercises we employ to create the attitude of forward. Remember, the idea is to develop a horse that will move forward off the rider’s leg, not a horse that will charge forward or a horse ignoring its rider. So in order to be successful we first must prepare the horse for the exercise by making sure it is working in its best rhythm, is supple and on the aids.
Ride this horse on a twenty meter circle at a walk and change gaits between the walk and a trot. Outside of keeping your horse on the aids pay close attention that you develop a strong first step into the trot and an active hind leg in the transition down. Just like we did not want a horse racing forward like it was cued by a cattle prod (electric shock), we also do not want breaks on our horse that will lock the wheels. We want ‘Anti Lock Brakes’. The horse is allowed one or two steps that move further under its body and transition from the trot to the walk by use of the hind leg and thus maintaining its balance and connection. Only two or three steps at the walk and we ask for another active step into the trot. About half a circle later we ask for the walk again. In case you wonder why so few steps at the walk, it is because the walk is a gait without impulsion. As you can see, we use the transitions to engage the horse and at the same time prepare it for the next transition.
One of my students after proofreading this article asked me: “my horse is forward at the walk, he lets me control that forwardness, why do you say that the walk is a movement without impulsion?” In the walk there are always two legs on the ground. So the push off phase does not produce much lift and that makes the walk a relatively flat gait. Those of you who have ridden the collected walk may agree with me that it is dressage’s most unexciting and most anxiety creating gait. It feels like not much is happening and at the same time your impression is that you are going nowhere. That is the result of engagement and shortened strides. Since two legs stay on the ground the push off stays without expression other than the shortened frame and elevated carriage of the horse. There is no moment of suspension in the walk, and it is the duration of the moment of suspension either forward, upward or a combination of both, that determines the amount of impulsion.
After a few (three to six) of these walk-trot-walk transitions we move him unto the rail at a trot and see whether the exercise has improved his impulsion. We can also ride these exercises on straight lines. In my experience however, the engaging effect is greater on a circle. As always when we ride on bent lines, we need to repeat the exercise on the other hand. Circles are a great tool for the trainer, but they must be used carefully not to bore the horse or even cause excessive stress on the horse’s joints.
Also very effective in improving the horse’s desire to go forward are the transitions between trot and canter. The canter is naturally even more forward then the trot. That is why it is now our goal to take the impulsion of the canter with us into the trot. Again the quality of the transitions determines the success of the exercise. This quality is in turn a direct result of the balance the horse shows in the gaits and especially in the transitions. This also clearly indicates that speed is not a factor, engagement is. To be able to ride the transitions forward without loss of balance proves the need for the second part of the definition of impulsion, a horse that is willing to put its desire to go forward under the control of the rider. Should it happen that our horses after the transition down from the canter starts to run in the trot and shift a great deal of weight into our hands, the exercise has failed because the impulsion of the canter has turned into momentum at the trot.
The way I understand the physical aspect of momentum, is that a body is carried forward strictly because weight once moving will not stop on its own unless it hits an object that will not move or because of other forces such as friction, gravity etc. that will gradually slow it down and cause it to stop eventually. Jump off a moving vehicle and feel the effect of momentum. It will cause you quite an effort to stop. If the vehicle moved too fast for your ability to run, you will fall forward onto your face. Anything that rolls or slides down a hill is carried forward by gravity and even if it moves onto a level surface it will continue to move because of momentum. Momentum is the result of an imbalance forward in the horse. It is highly undesirable. Impulsion is a function of the muscles of the horse, not its weight. You can control the actions of the horse’s muscles with a simple command but the result of the horse’s weight carrying it forward will wind up in your hands and then it is your muscles that must help the horse with its balance.
To avoid momentum in the transition to the trot the preparation is the key to success. The canter must be shortened so that he can trot at the same speed in a working tempo. I use speed here as a measure of meters per minute, not as an indication of fastness. The half- halts to shorten the canter must be ridden in such a way that the horse will not lose his engagement and balance. This improved engagement should create the impulsion for a powerful but balanced trot. Ride these transitions three of four times on the circle then go straight and test the result of your schooling. After that, change rein since both sides of the horse need to be challenged to work with more impulsion.
So far the work has been relatively easy. Now we advance to the transitions within the gait. Here balance and control become of major importance. Let us not despair however, because if our horse has cooperated so far without loss of throughness and has improved in impulsion and balance, he is ready for the task. The question now is: do we ask for it on straight lines or on the circle? I would say that it depends on the horse. If the question is control, use the circle. Should we feel our horse may not be able to balance much more than working gaits on a circle or may need more help lengthening we choose the straight lines. In the later case it would also be wise to limit the degree of lengthening and continue mostly with transitions between gaits until balance strength and impulsion are advanced enough to do the work without creating tension or rhythm problems. The most mistakes made in this exercise are in the transition down, by overusing the rein aids. Remember, we do not want to stop the engine, we want to engage the hind leg.
Let us move onto the circle in a trot. Choose a circle at the end of the arena. This circle now has an open and a closed side. The closed side is at the end of the arena while the open side faces the middle of the ring. We want at first to use the rail as a natural barrier to help us transition down, so we lengthen on the open side and travel in the working gaits on the closed side of the circle. We start the exercise at the trot. I like to prepare my horses for this exercise by riding several walk- trot transitions. Let us do the same. When we feel comfortable with the horse’s balance and energy, we carefully start to lengthen the stride as soon as we leave the rail. Between the centerline and the upcoming rail we shorten the stride again. Important here is to keep the motor going while we slow the horse. Again, like before, we must ride the transitions forward. Remember the purpose of this exercise is to improve impulsion, the desire to go forward expressed in a stronger push off the ground. Pulling on the reins is not going to encourage the horse to move forward. So instead of pulling we firm in the reins while sitting deeper and slowing the movement in our hip. At first the rail is going to help us as we through repetition teach our horse the language of shortening the stride while encouraging the hind leg to engage more.
Again the purpose is to improve impulsion not propulsion, so we must control the direction of the energy. Our horse must stay balanced in the lengthening only then will it be able to come back with improved impulsion. So while we ask for the lengthening of the stride we allow for a lengthening of the frame but not a significant lowering of the neck. Technically that means that we ask the horse to push its weight forward harder, but we do not allow it to move its center of gravity forward at all.
As soon as we feel that our horse can stay balanced in this exercise without using us to support him and does it equally well on both hands it is time to move to the straight lines. The major source of problems here is the rider’s ambition. At first a lengthening will do. As the horse does that well we can move to medium gaits. This is also quite strenuous for our horse; let us therefore start on short lines like the short diagonal, half the diagonal or half of the long side. The actual effect of the exercise is in the transitions not in the amount of lengthening. Once we can ride the transitions with invisible aids, impulsion should no longer be a problem for us.
In the lateral movements the exercise does most of the work. Until now it has been direct rider influence that produced the effect of the exercise. In the following work the rider’s task is to ensure that the horse executes the exercise precisely and then the exercise will cause the horse to engage more on the side of the bend and thus create the stronger push off that result in greater impulsion. Since these exercises tend to affect the hollow side of the horse more, they must of course be ridden on both hands.
The shoulder-in is a good example to explain the sources for mistakes in these exercises. As I have mentioned earlier, it is the increased engagement that causes the stronger push off and that is the impulsion. What brings about the engagement is the need for the horse to support it’s weight more with the inside hind leg as a result of the bend of the horse and it’s shoulder moving to the inside of that leg. This takes the horse’s center of gravity in front of the inside hind and since in a correctly ridden shoulder-in the hind legs travel straight that leg is placed under the weight of the horse and must carry a greater load than it’s partner. The greater load causes a deeper flexion in the joints, which in turn then pushes off harder etc. This extra work is what the horse tries to avoid. Outside of actual rider errors in the aids, most of the mistakes made are the result of uncorrected evasions the horse produces to escape harder work. There are basically two ways in which the horse achieves that. One is no bend or insufficient bend, the other is bending in the neck only. In the first case the horse will travel in a leg-yield with the hindquarter to the wall. From the front it looks like the horse is traveling on three tracks as it is supposed to but both front and hind legs cross. From the back it gives the appearance of the outside hind leg stepping out. It is a good suppling exercise but fails to improve impulsion. If the horse bends in the neck only it travels on a straight line along the rail inconvenienced by a neck bent too strongly inward. Often it is also described as a “popped out shoulder”. The horse no longer follows his head but his shoulder. Proper use of the outside aids will correct this mistake.
It is however not always to be blamed on the horse. No matter how wiling the horse may be, if the rains are applied too hard the hind leg will not reach further forward. Ever wonder what it would be like if the riders had the same corrections applied to them that they apply to the horse?
The shoulder-in is also a great exercise to improve collection, but we will talk about that next month.
Every horse used for riding should be trained at least through a small degree of collection. It is just simply the wise thing to do because it makes a ride safer, more comfortable, and also preserves the health of the horse’s limbs and back. Dressage riders, however, need to collect their horses to a greater extent as they progress through the levels. It is quite often the horse’s inability to collect further that limits its progress. Frequently, however, it is the rider’s limits as a trainer that proves to be the stumbling block. Collection is a result of the horse’s ability to carry a larger amount of its weight on its hind legs without stiffening them. This is important to consider because you can put all of the weight on the legs while they are held stiff and not increase their strength for future work. Yet again, that is the main reason for your efforts; you want to strengthen the hindquarters so that they can carry more of the weight over a longer period of time. The joints of the front legs are straight while bearing weight and that is why they are subject to wear by heavy loads. The hindquarter joints are bent and, therefore, protected by the muscles that operate them. We must strengthen these muscles in order to be able to direct more weight toward them.
This tells me that in order to ask my horse to work in collection it must already be prepared for the work. The horse must have its hindquarters strengthened to be able to accept the extra weight they are asked to carry. Most of the suppling exercises and all of the exercises to create impulsion also contain within them a demand for a stronger use of the motor and in this way already activate the hind leg to work a bit farther under the weight of the horse; thus they learn to carry and not just push. This shows the genius of the training pyramid as well as its danger. Everything is fluid and often overlapping. At the same time it is very rigid and requires a great deal of discipline. This is not a contradiction but rather a reflection of the nature of the horse and its training. As long as we stay within the limits of the horse’s ability at the time, most horses will stay focused and supple. Once we push beyond it, however, we encounter tension and resistance.
Stepping outside the box of the pyramid is, in my opinion, at times helpful for a sensitive and experienced trainer. It is acceptable, however, only if it is temporary and coupled with an instant return to the box at precisely the point where she left it to solve a problem. This sidestep is limited to facilitate the solution of a problem, not to act as a shortcut in the training of a horse. Our breeders produce horses that seem to be born in a third level frame with athletic ability and correct attitude galore. Many trainers seem to use this gift to shorten the time of training, not to raise the level of performance at the end of the training. Why else is it that we see so few of the spectacular youngsters at the top of their sport when they are adults?
Only very few experienced and sensitive trainers could teach a horse to collect without the use of exercises designed for that purpose. When you watch such a trainer schooling a horse to collect, you will notice that she is constantly using collecting exercises to help her with that task. She knows that the exercises help her to overcome the horse’s natural resistance to collecting. In enumerating the exercises I want to again add some aids like the half-halt to that list. The half-halt with all its variations is such an important tool that it has been the subject of many articles and entire chapters in books with authors proclaiming it impossible to do justice to all the various situations in which the half-halt would be the solution. In my mind it is also the most misunderstood concept in riding, and yet we cannot effectively ride without the use of it.
In this article my goal is to explain the purposes of exercises and their correct use to make sure they do achieve that purpose. I believe we cannot ride any of the exercises without the use of half-halts. At this point let us engage in a brief review of the teaching of the aids to a horse.
Lightness and invisibility of the aids are the main goals of our training the aids to the horse, along of course, with obedience. We also know that we cannot expect from our horse what we do not adhere to ourselves. If we want him to be light, we must be light. If we want the aids to be invisible, we must be still in the saddle. If we want him to be obedient, we must correct every disobedience from the horse regardless of whether it was willful or the result of misunderstanding. We cannot, of course, correct the horse when the mistake was ours, like asking for more than he can do at the time. Such consistent behavior on our part will make the horse more sensitive and more quick and precise in his reaction to the aids. This increased sensitivity means also less need for strength in the aids. That in turn allows us to be less obvious in our application of the aids. So, it is consistency in our application of the aids and consistency in our expectation of the horse’s reaction that will at first teach our horse to understand the aids and then allow us to become light in their application.
This understanding of the system of communication by the horse is the first of the three conditions we must fulfill before we can think about collecting our horse beyond mere balancing it under the rider. Much more difficult and time consuming to achieve is the next condition. We must instill in our horse the desire to please and a trust in his rider great enough for him to obey, even if it is demanding on his body to the point of being painful. In case you think I am being overly dramatic, do yourself a favor and start walking with your knees bent at all times. Watch yourself as to how long it takes for you to take a break and straighten the knees for just a step or two. This is the equivalent of asking your horse to accept more weight on his hind legs without stiffening in the joints. Remember, you know and understand why you are walking unnaturally with your knees bent but the horse has no idea why he is expected to move with his weight distributed in an unnatural way.
Let me emphasize again that I am not trying to turn you into, “Do not ask anything difficult of your horse because it is hard on him,” riders. I just want you to be aware that resistance is often the result of fatigue, not laziness. I think it is unfortunate not to get everything out of your horse but I believe that understanding and a sense of fairness will help you more towards reaching that goal than being too demanding and tough.
The third prerequisite is to always maintain your horse’s physical condition a little bit ahead of the demands made on his strength and agility. Should you violate this aspect of preparation, your horse will give up some of the requirements of the training scale. As we already know, that will result in ineffective training.
Now both you and your horse are ready to start some serious work on collection. Here are the
exercises to best help you achieve that goal:
• Half and full-halts
• Lateral movements
• Transitions between lateral movements
• Transitions, halt-trot-halt
• Transitions, walk-canter-walk
• Pirouettes, walk and canter
• Rein back
While the half-halts are not considered exercises in themselves, they are the glue that makes the exercises work. They also clearly show the direction in which the collection must happen; from the back to the front. Since the horse would rather move on the forehand the rider has to use restraining aids to prevent that, and since she wants to achieve the opposite effect, a lightening of the forehand, she must be active in the driving aids to succeed. No restraining aids without driving aids is not different from the way she has applied the half-halts in the past, however, it takes on an added importance in her efforts to collect her horse. Moving from the half-halt to the full-halt (coming to a stop from any gait while keeping the horse balanced) requires an even more sensitive hand. It must accept the additional energy created by the drive of the seat and leg and bring the horse to a halt without acting as a fifth wheel. The horse must stop its weight and movement with the hind legs, thus staying in an uphill direction, balanced and square, ready to move off uphill again. Too strong an influence with the hand would cause the horse to either shift its weight forward onto the rider’s hand or come to a sliding stop, equally off balance.
This clearly shows that collection does not mean that the farther we drive the horse’s hind legs under its body, the better the collection is. If we are looking for an outward indication of a horse halting well under but off balance, we often see the front legs not perpendicular to the ground but back behind the vertical line. This horse is on the forehand and it cannot move off in balance. When asked to trot off, it most likely will raise its head to lighten the forehand and start with short strides until it has regained its balance.
Collection is a gradual process. Compare the collection of a horse working at second level with the collection of a Grand Prix horse. With the young horse we ride ten meter circles to improve collection while the mature horse is asked to execute pirouettes to advance its collection. Even the same exercise will appear different between these two horses. In order to ride the exercises correctly we must, therefore, be aware of the horse’s current level of understanding, strength and agility. To watch a shoulder-in at the Olympics and then go home and expect the same level of collection from your young horse is unrealistic, and to insist on that performance is a recipe for failure in your training. Your young horse, however, can receive high marks for the shoulder-in he performs at his level of training. The same progression applies to all collecting exercises.
The shoulder-in is the first of the lateral movements we introduce to the horse. We guide the shoulder into the arena to the extent that, by looking at it from the front, the outside front leg and the inside hind leg travel on the same track making the hind leg invisible. This way the observer sees the horse traveling on three tracks. The shoulder’s position to the inside must be the result of a bend in the horse’s body around the rider’s inside leg. It is just a slight bend and it must be even throughout the horse’s spine. As a result of this bend, the front legs of the horse cross while its hind legs travel straight.
One of the reasons we start the lateral movements with the shoulder-in is that it is the easiest to teach to the horse. Another is the variety of benefits the shoulder-in offers the trainer. She can start with small steps, like the shoulder-fore, and develop the strength and agility necessary for the shoulder-in. At the same time she improves the straightness of the horse which is an absolute condition to achieve higher degrees of collection. This straightness also helps keep the horse physically sound since it allows the horse to work with less strain on its muscles and joints.
Usually we start the shoulder-in at the first corner of the long side. The corner allows us to prepare the horse for the exercise by flexing it at the poll and bending it around our inside leg. After the corner we guide him with the inside rein off the track as though we wanted to ride a volte. As soon as the shoulder has left the rail, a half-halt with the outside rein stops the horse from moving farther off the rail and the inside leg pushes him in a straight line along the rail. Our outside leg has made sure that the horse truly bends throughout its spine by keeping the hindquarters from falling out. To do this our leg was positioned slightly behind the girth. In order to help keep the outside hind leg active we apply the outside leg at the girth. To be effective at this double task, positioning and timing of the leg are of great importance. Our inside leg is active at the girth to encourage the inside hind leg of the horse to reach forward under the center of gravity of the horse. It also helps keep the horse from leaving the rail and turn onto a volte. In this effort it is supported by the outside rein. The second responsibility of the outside rein is to limit the bend the horse can have in the neck, this way preventing the outside shoulder from popping out and allowing the horse to become straight in its body, bending in the neck only, or even turning the hindquarters into the arena. Our inside rein along with our inside leg maintain the bend of the horse and the position of the horse’s shoulder away from the track. The positioning of the shoulder should be such that the outside shoulder of the horse is traveling in front of the inside hind leg. This way the outside front leg steps on the same track as the inside hind so that, viewed from the front, the horse travels on three tracks.
As you can probably tell by the various aids described to prevent the incorrect execution of the shoulder-in, horses do not normally perform this exercise voluntarily. It is demanding and, therefore, horses are looking for evasions to escape the work. What seems to bother them the most is the extra weight the shoulder-in shifts to their hindquarters, especially the inside hind leg. In this, however, lies the most important effect of the exercise and, therefore, we must not allow the horse to escape that burden. Running over the outside shoulder, stepping out with the outside hind leg, slowing down the rhythm, shortening the strides and bending in the neck only are all easily noticed evasions. The hidden one is the stiffening of the hind legs. On the surface everything appears to be correct but the horse has managed to avoid the difficulty of carrying more weight on a leg that bends deeper under that weight and demands more strength from the muscles of the hind legs to support the joints of the leg. The rider will notice this evasion by a more jolting gait while for the observer the horse travels croup high. The rider cannot correct this evasion through rider influence alone. She must look for exercises to prepare the horse better for the shoulder-in. The shoulder-fores, voltes and spirals in and out will strengthen the hindquarters sufficiently to prepare them for the added load.
Often we hear said, “Forward through sideways,” meaning progress in our training through the use of lateral movements. In riding the lateral movements we must keep in mind, “Forward in sideways,” meaning we must ride forward in the lateral movements. Anytime we ride our horses with their bodies bent they tend to slow down. That is one of the benefits of such exercises. They allow us to ride our horses more aggressively forward without the need for strong restraining aids. It also means that we do have to ride forward or risk losing our horse’s impulsion. The idea is to always mix medium gaits with collected gaits or collecting exercises in order not to shorten the steps too much and lose the clean beat of a gait or its rhythm as well as the impulsion.
The next article will explain the rest of the collecting exercises and how to improve the effects of the exercises by combining them.
One of the most important conditions that the trainer must meet in order to ride exercises correctly is strict adherence to the requirements of the training scale. I have repeatedly stated that fact to emphasize its importance. As with any good rule there are exceptions, like the short step away from the correct order of the scale in order to solve a problem the horse may have. Only experienced trainers should allow themselves that shortcut knowing that they will return to the rules of the scale as soon as the problem is solved. The scale demands from the horse throughness (rhythm, suppleness and connection) as well as impulsion and straightness for it to further advance in collection. The scale does not claim that it is the only way, but that it is the easiest and most natural way. It takes into consideration the horse’s physical, mental, and emotional make-up and, therefore, it enhances its chances for a happy, healthy, and long life in spite of hard work and a life in captivity.
In previous chapters we talked about specific exercises to develop throughness and impulsion, and now we move to collection beyond just balancing the horse. It appears as though we have skipped straightness. Actually we did not since all the schooling we have done up to this point helped to overcome the horse’s natural crookedness. The best way to straighten the horse is to work him on bent lines. It is important, however, that we have the horse properly bent when we ride these lines. Corners, circles, spirals, serpentines, and shoulder-in, when ridden correctly, will supple your horse and teach him to accept the bit equally on both sides. I believe that straightness was made a part of the scale because this condition needed to be emphasized so that riders would not proceed with collection before the horse had been made straight. The Germans call it, “Straightening bend work.”
Should you find that your horse is through, has the desire to go forward, and is powerful enough to collect more but still does not travel straight, go back to schooling him on bent lines and in the shoulder-in until you feel an even connection in both reins. It is imperative that your horse step under his center of gravity in order for him to place his weight a little farther back towards his hindquarters and still be able to carry and balance it. Some horses evade the heavier load by becoming crooked again, stepping alongside their body, and thus weighing the shoulder down. In this case often the demands are too much for him at this time and the trainer must go back to improve the strength of the horse. She can accomplish that by returning to the exercises the horse performed without resorting to evasions. Under no circumstances should she now try to force the horse into compliance. He may obey and she may think to have won that battle but the price will be paid in loss of confidence and desire to be in harmony. This may then turn out to be the beginning of a downward spiral where a little force creates the need for more force, etc. The time spent to strengthen the horse’s hindquarters will pay off in much faster progress later and in better performances.
The reason I stepped away from just the exercises is that we now enter into the area where collection becomes the main focus of our efforts. The shoulder-in is certainly an exercise to improve collection but it also plays an important role in suppleness, impulsion, and straightness. Riding a travers, for instance, will also help improve our horses in all these conditions. It, however, already requires collection to also be present in the horse to quite a degree in order to execute this exercise correctly. So, we will now look at the following exercises strictly with increasing the collection of our horses in mind.
Unlike at the shoulder-in, in travers, renvers, and half-pass, the horse looks in the direction it is traveling. In these exercises the outside legs step around the inside legs, while in the shoulder-in the inside legs move around the outside legs. Another difference is that we start schooling the shoulder-in at working gaits while the other lateral movements require a degree of collection. The reason is that they demand a stronger bend and the horse is asked to travel at four tracks rather than the three tracks of the shoulder-in.
To me the best way to introduce the travers to the horse is to ride a volte in the first corner of the long side to establish the bend, throughness, and collection sufficient for a travers. At the moment the shoulder of the horse arrives back at the track, the outside rein prevents the horse from continuing on the volte and guides it along the rail. Simultaneously the outside leg behind the girth keeps the hind legs from moving onto the track and drives to maintain impulsion and their position inside the track. Once the travers has been established, the inside rein with the inside leg preserve the bend while the outside rein assures an even bend throughout the horse by limiting its bend in the neck. The inside leg at the girth and the outside leg behind the girth sustain the activity of the horse in its hindquarters. The rider’s weight helps the horse with its balance by sitting more to the inside. This interaction of all the aids shows that riding the lateral movements is not for beginner riders. It takes a great deal of feel to know what aid is needed and when to apply it to correctly help the horse. This can only be accomplished from an absolutely independent seat.
To teach a horse these exercises we must not expect that the horse will execute them if only we apply the aids correctly. At this point he does not have a clear understanding of what the trainer wants, and to move laterally is awkward to him. He will be very hesitant to follow all the aids and may, therefore, not oblige. This is not disobedience and the horse should not be punished, but it must be corrected. The degree of correction depends on the horse’s response to the aids. This means that the trainer must feel her way to the least severe but effective correction. That takes a great deal of sensitivity for the horse’s reaction to her aids. This is also the point where the trainer must realize that without throughness in the horse, without the horse’s desire for harmony, and without the horse’s body sufficiently prepared in strength and flexibility to be able to execute the exercises, she is stuck.
The best approach to teaching lateral movements to the horse is to expect progress in small increments. The temptation to want it all right now is very great but equally great is the number of ways in which the horse can evade correctness and protect itself from the physical harm it may inflict upon itself by obeying a command its body just simply is not ready to execute. Many of the evasions are very subtle, like a tilt in its head, stiffening of the hind legs, a change in rhythm, and worst of all a change (often almost imperceptible) in the beat of the gait. Such a trainer is not only stuck, but has entered quick sand.
Let us do the math to explain the merits of the small increments approach to teaching the travers. You decide to just add one inch per day to the bend of your horse. You measure it by the amount with which your horse steps into the arena with its hind legs without resorting to any evasions or showing any kind of resistance or tension. That would mean that after only thirty riding days your horse has mastered the travers. That is fast considering all the other benefits that come along with this accomplishment. The shoulder-in has improved, the renvers is a gift that only requires little work to be added to your horse’s knowledge, your horse is prepared to start schooling the half-pass, he seems to enjoy his work more, his confidence level is up, etc. Of course this is a rather simplistic explanation. There will be days where adding even a single inch appears too much, but the next day he seems willing to try for two. He is still a horse and not a machine, but with this idea of a little progress every day your progress will be faster and you will have preserved your horse for better performances, a longer useful life, and much, much more fun at your work.
In the travers we want enough bend in the horse that he travels on four tracks. This increased bend is the additional difficulty for the horse of the travers vs. the shoulder-in. A further problem for the rider is that she must rely solely on feel to determine whether her horse has bent enough to correctly execute the exercise. Mirrors in the arena or knowledgeable eyes on the ground are helpful in that case.
As far as the renvers is concerned, the increased difficulty lies in the start of the exercise, not in the exercise itself. In the shoulder-in and the travers the rider has the opportunity to prepare the horse by creating the proper bend in the corner or off a volte. The renvers, when executed along the rail, requires that the rider must start with a shoulder-in and then change the bend of the horse while maintaining the hindquarters at the rail and the shoulder on the second track inside the arena. It is the change of bend that often proves to be the source of tension or loss of cadence in the movement. The horse must have acquired a greater degree of suppleness and throughness to be able to change its bend seamlessly.
As long as your horse still shows some tension or resistance to the shoulder-in or the travers, it is not ready to school the renvers. Spirals and figure of eight will help to accustom a horse to changes in its bend. Also, shoulder-in to leg-yield and back to shoulder-in help prepare the horse for the renvers. By first only asking the horse to vary its spine from bend to straight and back to bend in the same direction again we have once more reduced the demand and made it easier for the horse to obey. This obedience allows the trainer to stay in harmony with her horse and strengthen the horse’s confidence to give the change of bend from one side to the other a try. The technique of asking for only a little more every time will prove effective again.
Sometimes when I read my own articles I believe I could have made it as a preacher. It seems that I have no hesitation about repeating myself over and over again to make a point. Patience, so it appears, leads in the list of priorities when it comes to training a horse according to these articles. This is followed by sober judgment. It takes courage to be honest in the assessment of one’s own work up to this point, but it is essential to proceeding in the training. The answers to three questions must be clear in the mind of the trainer: First, where is my horse physically, mentally, and does he have a clear understanding about what he has been taught? Second, what are my horse’s strengths, weaknesses and limits? Third, where are my strengths, weaknesses and limits? The last one, of course, takes the most nerve to face and judge correctly. It is the trainer’s ability to properly evaluate her current situation with her horse that will show her how to progress from here successfully.
The half-pass is the logical next step in the horse’s education. It is a travers along an imagined diagonal line. We ride it across the width of the arena, half the width of the arena, across the width of the arena in only half the length of the arena, half the width of the arena in only half the length of the arena, half the width of the arena in half the length of the arena and back half the width of the arena, across the width of the arena in half the length of the arena and back the width of the arena and the zigzag half-pass. While training at home we can, of course, use any combination of diagonals along which to travers and we can combine the half-pass with other exercises to improve our horses. The aids are the same as in travers. One of the characteristics of the correctly ridden half-pass is that the shoulder slightly leads the hindquarter. The most effective way to guide the horse into the half-pass is, therefore, to ride a step in shoulder-in before asking for the half-pass. The horse is bent around the rider’s inside leg and looking in the direction in which it will travel. Also in the half-pass we must be aware of the horse’s tendency to lose impulsion when traveling bent lines or with a bend in its body. Our inside leg, while actively maintaining the bend in the horse, must also work against the loss of impulsion. Our outside leg placed behind the girth also must double task in not only pushing the horse sideways, but also forward.
What causes me a headache in defining the correct execution of the lateral movements is how to describe the correct bend in the horse during lateral movements, especially the half-pass. The bend in the shoulder-in is determined by the tracks of the horse’s feet. The outside shoulder is arranged in front of the inside hip, the outside hind leg travels close along the inside hind leg thus establishing three tracks. The bend must be even from poll to tail. That sounds real simple. The bend, however, will vary from horse to horse. A horse with a wide shoulder will need a stronger bend than the narrow shouldered horse. A longer horse will need less bend than the short horse. The same horse will show a different degree of bend when collected than when traveling at a working gate. In all of my research I found that the only definite answer to the bend is its evenness throughout the length of the horse. Most warnings about avoiding mistakes were about too much bend or a bend in the neck only and the loss of impulsion as a result. It becomes even more unclear in the travers and renvers. How far from the inside front does the outside hind step to describe the four tracks?
As you know, when in doubt we bring in the experts to share the blame. My experts in this case were: The German manual, then Harry Boldt as competitor and trainer, the view of an international Judge through Alfred Knopfhart, Egon von Neindorf to champion the classic position, Hans von Heydebreck represents Dressage of a hundred years ago, and finally the rules of the FEI. Here are the results. The German manual speaks of a, “Slight bend around the inside leg of the rider.” At the half-pass Harry Boldt does not want a bend larger than at the shoulder-in. Egon von Neindorf also speaks of a slight bend and then quotes von Heydebreck who wants the bend in the travers such that the outside hind foot travels on the edge of the first track, in other words, close to the inside of the inside front leg. The rules and regulations of the FEI want a slight bend that is even throughout the horse’s body. How clear is that? Alfred Knopfhart took a stand. He declared that the bend should be such that the body forms an angle of about thirty degrees with the rail in travers as well as in renvers. If we were to measure the angle of a horse moving with the outside hind stepping on the outside edge of the track of the front legs (Heydebreck’s and Egon von Neindorf’s position) we would discover that it is about the same angle. Since we have no clear description of the bend in the German manual, the FEI rule book, or by Harry Boldt, other than that four tracks should be visible, I will accept Alfred Knopfhart’s definition.
The half-pass, although a travers along a diagonal line, changes the angle a little. All my experts agree that the horse should travel along that line in such a way that its body is about parallel to the long side with the shoulder leading a little. Imagine your horse at a half-pass along a line from F to G with its body parallel to the long side. This would make it a very small angle and it would require little bend to create that angle. Now imagine your half-pass goes from F to E and it is easy to recognize the need for a much greater angle if we still want our horse’s body parallel to the long side. In my view a horse cannot stay parallel to the long side and travel in a half-pass along a diagonal line as steep as going from F to E. Even if it could manage to bend well enough to look at E while its body stays parallel to the long side it would now have trouble not to get tangled up in its front end. The outside front leg has to reach over the inside front leg to such a degree that the inside front leg would bump it when bending the knee to lift the foot off the ground. In case the rider would insist on such a bend the horse would just straighten in the back and bend in the neck only. It could also escape the situation by trailing in the hindquarters. The answer would be to assume a lesser bend, as Harry Boldt states, or to allow the shoulder to lead in a greater degree. In this case the criterion for a correct travers along the imagined diagonal is no longer fulfilled. Since the requirements for the half-pass ask for a body parallel to the long side, the bend must be less than in the travers to allow the horse to stay supple and forward in the exercise.
Now that I have described the exercises I must say that they are easier to ride than to explain and that is why we should watch those who do it correctly and try to imitate them. This knowledge of the theory, however, is important to recognize who is correct and worthy of observing and to understand the purpose of riding the movements. Again, theory adds meaning to practice, so keep reading.
Almost everything in the training of horses is progressive. This holds especially true for collection. Taking a closer look at what makes this progression possible for the horse we must realize that it is the development of his physical strength and his understanding of what is expected. As we begin to gradually move the young horse from his natural balance on the forehand to the even balance that we need to ride our horse, he learned the purpose of the half-halt and shifted his weight back towards the hindquarters. That requires a great deal of strength and by carefully developing this strength we enable the horse to work in the proper balance over a long period of time. It also allowed us to ask for more collection. The wise trainer is constantly challenging her horse in this fashion but she never asks for more than the horse is capable of producing at that time.
It is 6:30 AM, I feel great, I have had my cup of coffee and yet I have sat in front of my computer for about thirty minutes thinking of how best to say what you are about to read next. It has been another twenty minutes since I wrote the last sentence and I must get on with it or I will never manage to finish this article. The reason for my hesitation is something everybody knows but nobody wants to hear about when it comes to their horse. Not many horses are capable of performing at the FEI levels and very few can do the work when it comes to Grand Prix and yours may not be one of the few. There it is and it did not hurt all that much. Reading this you may think that maybe I did not feel all that well this morning.
Let me describe to you what I have experienced many times and I am sure you have encountered the same situation. You watch a rider taking a horse to task in a pretty rough manner. She notices that the expression on your face indicates you do not approve. At first she will explain to you why she is beating on her horse by talking to her horse loudly enough for you to hear her telling him why he is being punished. Later, if your opinion is important enough to her, she will seek you out and explain to you that her horse really has a hard time with this exercise because of his low set neck or straight shoulder or any other shortcoming he may have. Bingo. She knows that she is at or past the natural ability of her horse. This horse may only be six or seven years old. That is unfortunate, agreed, but trying to beat another level out of this horse only makes it sad.
We often compare our sport to that of ice skating. You skate and really enjoy gliding over the ice. It is at the jumps that your limit shows. You have competed and done quite well at the local shows but at the next level you must execute jumps and your bruises prove that you are at the end of your talent. Life has many other challenges for you so skating becomes your recreation and you continue to enjoy it. Your horse’s options, on the other hand, are limited He has to be what you want him to be and thus he relies on your wisdom and good will for his well being. If your goal is the show ring and your horse shows problems with the demands of second or third level, you must look for another partner. That does not mean that your horse is condemned to a miserable life. There is a place for horses like yours. Right now I am looking for two horses just like the one I described; schoolmasters for young riders. I am having a hard time finding one because such a horse must be sound and easy to ride. A horse that has been pushed beyond its limits usually is neither.
The exercises I want to write about next are the rein back, the walk and canter pirouettes, the piaffe and the passage. In my opinion they are the most demanding on both horse and rider. They challenge the rider’s coordination in the application of the aids and sensitivity toward the horse’s movement and attitude. I strongly believe that if the rider has not turned the horse into a willing partner by now her attempts to teach these exercises will fail. That is why I feel the horse’s attitude is of great importance for its future. Needless to say that if a trainer encounters a horse with a bad attitude, force may get her something looking like what she is trying to ride but it will deprive her of correctness and harmony. Besides the attitude the horse must be prepared correctly in its development of strength and coordination in order to successfully execute these exercises. Yet we encounter the rein back and the walk pirouette already in the second level. We actually must perform the little sister of the walk pirouette, the turn around the haunches. It is a great deal less demanding and, therefore, appropriate and helpful. The rein back, however, is in my opinion, too early for the horse working at second level.
I think it is even reasonable to question why to ride the rein back at all since it is an unnatural movement for the horse. Horses at liberty will not step backwards unless they find themselves cornered. The advantages of the rein back, however, outweigh that consideration. It is a great test of the horse’s strength and obedience as well as a means to further activate the hind legs of the horse. My question is to the strength of the horse this early in its training. To correctly execute a rein back we want the horse to be perfectly straight in a balanced square halt. We expect him to stay round in the back as he moves back with the diagonal pairs of legs taking short steps and lifting the feet off the ground as he does so. As the result of this movement his hindquarters should be lowered, the neck should stay up, and the connection should remain at, or slightly in front of the vertical. He also must not hurry backwards nor step sideways. That is the description of quite a job. This is why I believe that the third level would find the horse better prepared to introduce the rein back. We would still have the advantages of a tool to activate the hind leg further and test throughness. I feel particularly strong about the timing of this exercise since evasions and tension once developed seem to be especially hard to correct in the rein back.
This cloud, however, also has a silver lining. Many trainers do not start to teach their horses in hand until it is time to start the very collected exercises like piaffe and passage. This will remind us that many commands can be started on the ground. The rein back can already be practiced in hand along with teaching our horses to lead. Tell him to stop and when he does, move in front of him and ask him to step back with just a short tug on the halter towards his chest and say, “back,” at the same time. If he steps back, reward him, move forward, halt again, and repeat the tug and the command, “back.” Should it work again, consider yourself blessed. In most cases you will encounter resistance since horses do not naturally step back. There are several ways in which you can make him obey. One is to just simply push against his shoulder. More effective is to take your outstretched fingers and place them between his sternum and his point of shoulder into the muscle of his chest and push again also verbally commanding to back up. If all else fails, take a crop and tap him at his chest or forearm. Nowhere is the term, “step by step,” more appropriate than here. Please remember that this is an unnatural movement for him. A reward for every step and repetition of the command will soon make him understand what you expect when you say, “back.”
You can employ the same technique with your horse when he is ready to learn the rein back under saddle. Once you feel he has understood your command, mount up and give it a try. Most likely he will hesitate or want to move forward. First, make sure you ask him correctly. A precondition for a correct rein back is a straight horse standing square in balance. You, the rider, must sit centered on the horse, weight evenly distributed, and legs symmetrically on the horse. I move my legs slightly back and drive forward. Let us describe in slow motion what ideally is going to happen next. Your horse wants to move forward but instead of encountering a giving rein he feels a slight taking of the rein which causes him to push off the bit and step back. At that very moment you soften in your hand and leg only to firm again as you ask for the next step back. You repeat this as often as the number of steps you want him to move back. Most trainers will tell you, “Dream on.” Horses just are not that eager to step back. Even the familiar demand, “back,” is often ignored.
Get some help. Halt square and ask the helper to push against the shoulder, poke him in the chest or tap him with a crop while you apply the aids and ask with a voice command. If you pull back too hard, your horse may jerk his head up, drop his back, and drag his feet. If you sit or push unevenly, he may step sideways. If he is weak in his back or hindquarters, he may lean on the bit and lower his neck. If your helper hits the horse too hard, the horse may run backwards. These are all evasions that can be corrected through a patient step by step approach to teaching him. Should your horse evade by rearing, back off the backing up. Make sure there are not any physical problems and go back to exercises designed to strengthen him.
While it is important to have the seat available to drive, I personally like to lighten my seat a little with a young horse to help him stay up in the back. This is an important aspect because only then is he able to lift his hind feet off the ground as he steps back. Once he is competent in the exercise I will sit back a bit more to have my seat more effective in the driving. As you can see, the demands on horse and rider are great and the possibilities for evasions are numerous but the rewards are worth it. It gives the trainer another tool to activate the hindquarters and test the throughness of the horse. If you are lucky enough to work with a young horse, either three or four years old, start asking him to back up while leading him each day. If you are patient, you are not going to do him any harm and you will have a year or two to make walking backwards second nature to him. That will make it less likely that he will develop evasions when you start to ask him to back up from the saddle.
I was tempted to write about the turn around the haunches before the rein back, especially since some trainers will use that exercise to help teach the rein back in case their horse refuses to step back when asked. In my opinion that is dangerous since stepping back is one of the major sins in performing the turn around the haunches. Horses seem to have an unlimited number of evasions so please let us not give them any further ideas.
The turn around the haunches is executed from the walk. The movement forward is stopped and simultaneously the front end of the horse is led around the hindquarters. Throughout the turn the horse maintains the rhythm of the walk, a clear four beat. It is as always highly important to maintain throughness in the horse. That is more essential than the smallness of the circle the hindquarters describe. As long as the circle of the hindquarter is smaller than the circle of the front end I am satisfied at first. Gradually reduce the size of the circle at the hindquarters until it is not larger than one step at show time.
Whenever I have any doubt about what is most essential in an exercise I go back to the purpose of riding it. The turn around the haunches is designed to help the rider supple and strengthen the hindquarters and thus enable the horse to collect more. The same holds true for the walk pirouette. It gives the rider even more leverage to bend the inside hind leg. Logic, therefore, tells me that I must keep my horse relaxed throughout the exercise because tension in the mind leads to stiffness in the body which prevents the joints from bending and stops improvement in suppleness. This stiffness is the result of muscles held tight by the horse’s tension. Such a tight muscle does not allow for proper blood circulation and, therefore, that muscle does not receive a sufficient supply of nutrients. That means it will not grow and strengthen. Since the purpose of riding the exercise is to supple and strengthen muscles, the rider has failed on both counts if she allows the horse to become tense. In addition there is the chance that she may have caused the joint to be injured since the tight muscle did not protect the joint from the extra weight shifted onto it by the pirouette.
Next we must maintain the idea of forwardness. I believe that a pirouette with the hind leg describing a circle the size of a dinner plate serves its purpose better than a pirouette where the inside hind leg is lifted up and then placed back into that same spot. Here is my reasoning. We want the horse to collect more. He should, therefore, become shorter in his base (distance between front and hind legs). The horse turns his front end around the hindquarter by stepping sideways with his inside front leg and then moving its outside front leg across and in front of the inside front leg followed by another step sideways with his inside front leg. If the horse were to pivot on his inside hind leg, the distance between the inside hind leg and the inside front leg has remained the same or has become slightly longer. Since we want the distance to become shorter it is necessary for the inside hind leg to step forward-sideways just a little bit. The outside hind leg then follows by advancing forward-sideways a bit more than the inside hind leg. I have in my description ignored the proper sequence of footfalls to simplify drawing a mental picture of the walk pirouette. If you were to look at the hoof prints in a freshly dragged arena after a walk pirouette you should see three circles with the smallest one the size of a dinner plate.
The difference between a turn around the haunches and a walk pirouette is only the size of the circle and the aids are, therefore, the same. I am going to describe the aids and the sequence in which they are to be applied and you will see that these exercises are not only a challenge for the horse but also for the rider.
The horse is positioned in the direction in which it is going to turn. The rider sits to the inside and maintains an even contact on both reins. Both legs at the girth prod the horse into shorter steps. As the outside rein stops the horse from moving farther forward the outside leg slides back a little. At the instant the horse stops moving forward the inside rein asks the horse to turn. Next, two aids happen at the same time. The outside rein relaxes to allow for the turn and the outside leg becomes active to prevent the hindquarters from stepping out. The bend of the horse and the turn loads down the inside hind leg of the horse and he would like to level the load by stepping forward. The outside rein must guard against that and it may have to firm again. Another way a horse may try to relieve the pressure on that leg is to step back. The rider’s seat and legs must prevent that.
Pivoting on a stiff inside hind leg is quite often seen and, like stepping back, is considered a major mistake. The correction used most frequently is a tap with the whip on the inside or a touch with the spur. This will fix the symptom but the cause, in my opinion, is often a tight outside rein or a late release on that rein. If everything worked according to plan you have now completed the first set of steps. Your horse has lifted up and set down each of his legs once and he should have done it in a clear four beat as well as in the same rhythm of the walk before the turn. With the exception of the initial aid on the outside rein that stopped the forward progress, you now repeat the same process again and again until your horse has turned as far as you want it to.
As you can see, there are two very important preconditions the rider must fulfill before she can attempt to ride this exercise. First, she must be coordinated enough to use all the aids independently, either in rapid succession or sometimes simultaneously. Second, she must be able to feel the movement of the horse, interpret it, decide on the appropriate correction and turn it into action, all at a high rate of speed. She also must not let this concentration turn into tension since that would, of course, cause the horse to become tense himself and spoil the effectiveness of the exercise.
One of my favorite exercises is the canter pirouette. I think it is fun to ride and a joy to observe when it is performed well. In many ways it is very similar to the walk pirouette. It is designed to improve strength in the hindquarters and to help supple the hind leg by causing the joints to bend more and push off harder.
In the canter pirouette the horse jumps in a circle around the hindquarters. To complete a pirouette the horse must perform between six to eight jumps. At fourth level and Prix St. George we execute the half pirouette and it requires three to four jumps. The number of jumps is important because if it were to take more than the required number, the horse would not turn enough per jump, thus making it easier. Often we see a horse just throwing itself around completing the turn in less than six jumps. This horse is out of balance during the pirouette and that is considered a major fault. As a rider, I want to be able to end the pirouette at any time and a horse so much out of balance would not be able to obey. Once out of the pirouette the horse also would have to be rebalanced before it could perform other commands like a flying change or a counter canter.
Another mistake we see quite often is loss of impulsion during the pirouette. As a result the horse will change his lead behind or drop into trot steps. While the pirouette requires a strong collection, too much of it will also cause the horse to stick on the ground and pivot or jump sideways instead of forward. A horse that seems to rear up and fall back onto its forelegs also has collected beyond its ability to carry the weight on the inside hind leg. When the circle described by the hindquarters becomes too large we just simply can no longer call the movement a pirouette.
Trainers have a name for a pirouette that allows for a circle up to three or four meters while the horse turns its front end around the hindquarters. They call it a working pirouette. It is an apt name because it is an exercise designed to prepare the horse for the pirouette. Other than rider error, the main reason for the above described mistakes in the pirouette is the result of lack of strength in the horse’s hindquarters. The working pirouette is an excellent tool to develop that power. Lateral work, as well as the counter canter, is also often employed to achieve the necessary strength.
The aids are very similar to those of the walk pirouette. The additional difficulty in the canter is the need to keep the canter active and clean. The rider must, therefore, ask the horse in every jump to continue with another jump. The best way I have heard it described to achieve this is to apply the aids as though the rider wants to start a canter from the walk at every jump.
In many cases when an exercise does not go well it is the result of poor preparation. This preparation began when the horse was first started. The rider is now asking the horse to give its all. This exercise will cause the muscles to burn even in the strongest horse. In order for the horse to willingly endure that much strain it must trust the rider. This trust is earned by the rider in her daily work with the horse. Her fairness towards the horse at all times will pay great dividends at this point.
In the immediate preparation the horse must canter in short jumps with a great deal of impulsion. It must be slightly bent to the inside and stretch well into the outside rein. The last one or two jumps before the actual pirouette the rider should guide it into a shoulder-fore like position. At the start of the pirouette the rider stops the forward jump with a half halt on the outside rein. The inside rein guides the horse’s forehand into the turn while the outside leg behind the girth holds the hindquarter in place. The outside rein with well timed short half halts prevents the horse from jumping forward. The inside rein and inside leg maintain the horse in the canter and help to preserve the slight bend in the horse. When the horse has jumped the pirouette as far as the rider wants it to, the outside rein and inside leg guide the horse out of it. One can easily see how the outside rein affects the inside hind leg of the horse if its action coincides with the leg’s position on the ground. I had stated earlier that one of the conditions for a successful pirouette was throughness in the horse. That means that the firming outside rein causes the inside hind leg to stay on the ground just a split second longer and thus allows the horse’s weight to bend its joints just a bit more, resulting in a stronger push off. So, we can see here the production of collection and the effect of it. In the canter pirouette we can also witness the consequence of too much collection when the horse can no longer bear its weight on the inside hind leg alone and loses its rhythm in the exercise or steps out of it.
It is fair to say that the more difficult an exercise for the horse, the more cautious the rider has to be in her use of the aids and in her own balance on the horse. It also requires a better knowledge of all the difficulties a horse encounters during the exercises in order to avoid reaching beyond the limits of the horse and losing its confidence. Too much caution, on the other hand, may cause the trainer not to challenge the horse enough and prevent it from performing at its best. The three most difficult exercises, piaffe, passage, and the changes from jump to jump are yet to come. Read about them next time.
When I first started this series of articles on the exercises I promised myself that I would stay positive in my approach and explain the exercises according to what they should look like in order to fulfill their purpose. I would also explain how best to teach the horses to execute the exercises well. I believe I have kept my promise. The Piaffe and the Passage now have me struggling. The reason is that we see so few of them performed correctly. One of the explanations for the often strange looking movements is the speed of training of the horse that at this point catches up with the rider. Another is just simply the fact that so many horses will never be able to perform a correct Piaffe or Passage because they lack the talent to function at that level. Unfortunately, the ambition of the rider often exceeds the horse’s talent and the result of that discrepancy as demonstrated in the show ring is anything but correct or beautiful.
Both the Piaffe and the Passage are designed to improve the horse’s strength to carry weight and to further improve its suppleness. In order to execute these exercises the horse must already possess a great deal of strength or else it must resort to evasion. These avoidances are often subtle and remain unnoticed or uncorrected. When the rider realizes the problem, it is harder to correct it than it would have been had she been patient and built up the horse’s power so it would not have needed to dodge correctness. Let us first determine what the exercises look like when performed as intended.
The Piaffe is a trot-like movement in place. The horse steps farther under its body with its hind legs, thereby lowering the croup. This increased engagement brings the base of the hindquarters, the hooves, directly under the hip. This is the best position for the horse to carry weight on its hind legs and thus free the front legs of some of their weight enabling them to lift up higher. The back of the horse is rounded upward, the neck is stretched upward-forward and elevated due to the lowering of the croup. The poll is the highest point and the nose is slightly in front of the vertical. The movement of the legs is straight up and down both in the front and the rear. The forearm of the front leg when lifted approaches the horizontal position. In the hindquarters the lifted hoof reaches to about the height of the fetlock of the carrying leg. The legs move in a clear two beat and stay in an even rhythm. Now notice the clear forward tendency of the horse as it is expressed in an advance per step, but not more than about the length of a hoof. When you observe such a Piaffe and realize that the horse stays relaxed and the only stress visible is the work of the powerful muscles in the hindquarters, back, and neck, it is time to feel in awe. Very few horses can perform it to such perfection and very few trainers are capable of training their horses without allowing imperfections or stress to ruin the picture.
The Passage, like the Piaffe, is a trot-like movement that also requires a great deal of collection from the horse. The horse moves in a clear two beat gait with the hindquarters lowered due to the increased engagement. As a result the direction is forward-upward with the poll the highest point and the nose slightly in front of the vertical. Unlike in the Piaffe, in the Passage the horse moves forward in a cadenced rhythm and gives the appearance of a slight hesitation at the moment of the highest reach of the lifted legs. In my opinion, that is precisely the moment when the supporting phase of the carrying leg is about to end and the pushing phase is about to begin. The joints of the hind leg have bent as far as they can, the horse’s weight has depressed that coil and now the coil is beginning to expand. This is the spring action of the hind leg and it moves only upward, not forward, causing the pause in the forward motion, creating the impression of a hesitation. The then contracting muscles of the hindquarters move the body over and past the now extending supporting leg. In this exercise relaxation is also of utmost importance since a horse is quite capable of producing a tense trot that is often mistaken for a Passage.
To many of us ambitious riders, Grand Prix is the goal for which to strive. On the surface it seems a worthy goal and, in spite of what you are going to read next, I believe that you should keep it in the back of your mind. The dirty little secret about dressage is that it is not at all about you, the rider, or shows or money or ribbons or interviews or top hats. It is all about training a horse. Do you remember when they “invented” dressage? These masters never showed any of their horses. They trained them so that their sponsors (usually noblemen) could ride them comfortably, expect them to be obedient and, of course, collect compliments for their beauty under the rider. Looking into the goals set forth by our various governing organizations, that still seems to be what we are striving for today. Correctness in training is the goal. To me, that is comforting because I would be very upset if I had a horse unable to perform at the highest level. With Grand Prix as my goal, why bother? And as I stated earlier, the vast majority of all horses reach their limit before they reach Grand Prix. If, on the other hand, I make absolute correctness of training my goal and do my very best to stick with that goal, I assure that my horse will reach its potential and I will avoid frustration and a sense of failure when Grand Prix is not in his genes. Instead I will be able to enjoy every little bit of progress achieved as a result of my work as long as I stayed within the boundaries of humane and natural means. The purpose of the show is to demonstrate to an expert the correctness of my horse’s progress up to the level at which I am training him. Of course, we humans are quite competitive creatures and so we also want to prove that we have done a better job than everybody else. I said keep Grand Prix in the back of your mind. This is meant to motivate you, not to have you throw in the towel too early when difficulties occur.
What prompted me to travel this little detour into the philosophy of dressage was a search for the best explanation about how to train Piaffe and Passage. If we have faithfully followed the guidance and the demands of the training scale through Prix St. George, these two exercises are the next logical steps in collection. According to Gustav Steinbrecht, if we have done everything right, they will fall into our lap. So, we could say that all the work until now has served to prepare the horse for this final accomplishment. What a reward for patience and persistence. Steinbrecht also claims that the trainer only needs absolutely balanced seat, legs and reins. Again and again he reminds us of the importance in keeping our horse in a forward attitude and straight.
At this point I would like to, one more time, urge you to read Gustav Steinbrecht’s book, The Gymnasium of the Horse. He devoted forty pages to explain to his readers why Piaffe and Passage can only be performed correctly by a horse that is athletic enough to be capable of it and prepared carefully from the very beginning of its training. He will also convince you that training these exercises should only be left to very experienced riders. So, please do not experiment with them unless you fit that category. In order to reach that particular goal you must constantly strive to develop your seat, to improve your feel for the horse’s movement, and to learn to read the physical and psychological state of your horse. Then search to find a horse that is a schoolmaster in Piaffe and Passage. Ride it and learn the feel of these exercises before you think of trying to teach them to a horse. Even then you should at first only work under the supervision of an experienced trainer.
When I talked earlier about the “inventers” of dressage, we only read about their work in the arena. Most of them lived in Northern Europe and if you have followed this area’s weather reports lately, you will have noticed that it is cold and wet a great deal of the time there. We also, of course, know about the Lipizzaner of Vienna. So, we come away with the impression that it all happens indoors in very confined quarters. I would like to quote Alois Podhajsky in his book, The Complete Training of Horse and Rider. He actually paraphrases H.E. von Holbein, who was Director of the Spanish Riding School from 1898 to October of 1901, and who is also given credit for having first laid down the instruction for training in the school. Von Holbein divided the training into three phases. I am quoting a part of phase two. “In the Campaign School” (dressage, jumping, cross country riding) “the ordinary natural paces and cross country jumping will be developed; the horse will be given the necessary bend in the ribs, neck, and gullet, as well as the correct position appropriate for his conformation. This second phase of riding has to be developed from the first and presents the only possible preparation for the third, namely the High School.” About phase three he said, “This phase of riding can not exist without the first two and especially without the Campaign School. The dressage horse is not a super specialist working in the arena only. On the contrary, he must be out in the field to maintain his desire to go forward and his joy of moving and feeling his strength.” H. E. von Holbein must have been a man I would have admired greatly because he also stated the fact that, “The shorter time allowed for training and the universal demand for speed has caused a decline in the art of riding throughout the various armies.” Imagine that. They felt that way already a hundred years ago. Compared to today they worked at a snail’s pace. Two other statements of his are worthy of reflection. “By making High School so artificial, a gap has been created between school riding and campaign riding to the disadvantage of both. There is no reason to separate the movements of campaign riding from those of the High School. Every effort must be made to clarify and simplify the instructions and theories that have been handed down by word of mouth, and to follow the doctrines of only those masters who have proven themselves by showing that the horse can be trained to the highest proficiency, even of the High School, by natural methods and without restraint.” Second, he stated, and I hope I have lived up to his expectations in my writings, “The art of riding must be divorced from all mystery by simplicity and truth.”
I would like to add that riding is a privilege granted to us by a very generous creature. Each horse is different and, therefore, the best way to train them differs to some degree. That means that you must think and study to be able to find the best way for your horse. The training scale gives you a framework within which you will find the approach to your horse. The old masters developed exercises that are the tools to implement the approach. The horse gives you hints about how you are doing and God gave you the sense of feeling and a brain with which to think. You will need to use all of that to succeed.
One of my students, in an effort to download all the articles that I have written over the last several years, told me that it was now like a book. Maybe it is time to change the format a little bit. So far I have written about what I thought was important and interesting to riders. If you will tell me what you would like to learn more about, I will do my best to put on paper what I know concerning your subject. It could be a question you have about a specific area of dressage, a problem you are wrestling with in your training, or anything else as long as it deals with horses. You can best reach me by e-mail at email@example.com or you may write to me at Tex- Over farms, 13217 Kidd Road, Conroe, TX 77302.
Thank you for reading.