A few years ago, I wrote a blog about the apparent introduction of rolkur into the Spanish Riding School - Flexions and Rolkur. At the time, the rolkur debate had been raging across the horse world for a while, with proponents both for and against vociferously arguing their case. The FEI banned rollkur in 2010, but continued to accept the use of low deep and round in its place. Years later, the legacy of this technique remains and continues to be used extensively in the equestrian world.
Rollkur has been used in horse training for decades and rewarded with high marks and medals in the competition arena. For some equestrians, it is the only method that they know and when the horse objects to these techniques, steps are taken to block their resistances with tighter nose bands, stronger bits, sharper spurs, more forceful riding etc.
The FEI took steps to mitigate these moves by introducing rules on the maximum tightness on nose bands, use of whips and the blood rule. How can it be acceptable that training methods, which mean rules are needed to stop riders inflicting injuries on their horse, continue to be endorsed? Monitoring the warm up area to prevent riding abuses does not stop this from being carried out away from the arena, particularly when the training continues to be rewarded with high marks.
The force that riders use in rollkur is at odds with the idea of dressage as the harmonious union of horse and rider, and the influence of these techniques is visible in the way the horse moves.
Many horses are unable to cope with the impact of this riding and start to display psychological and physical problems. The psychological problems manifest in many ways and can range from a horse who shows signs of stress and tension, such as tail swishing or grinding teeth, to extreme resistance to their rider or becoming impossible to ride.
Physical problems can show anywhere in the horse’s body, often in their mouths and backs, poll and neck, but also in ligaments, muscles, bones, joints and elsewhere, frequently resulting in horses being retired early instead of being able to work into their late twenties.
When the problems become too difficult to manage, riders look to find a trainer who can solve the issues that have arisen with their much-loved horse. Disappointingly, they only find more of the same. Many trainers use these techniques, as this is the way they have also been trained.
With this as the only history that many riders know, and the national and international governing bodies still reluctant to properly address the issue, is it not surprising that we are still seeing horses being ridden to breaking point both mentally and physically?
Canter pirouettes are one of the most difficult exercises for a horse to perform and many horses are unable to achieve them. The horse’s forehand moves around their hind quarters as the hind feet mark a small circle, maintaining the same cadence in the canter.
The rider must remain light in their aids, if the hand becomes hard, they block the forehand and hind quarters.
Common faults in the pirouette are listed, but knowing the difficulty of this exercise, the horse should not be overly criticised.
The pictures below show 4 horses in canter pirouettes, what do you think of the movements? It can be easier to see what is happening in a pirouette from a video, have a look at some on the internet to see what you think.
Extending a pace is an advanced movement. It is often thought to be a basic exercise because some lengthening is required in novice tests, however correct extensions require a high degree of strength, balance and engagement and come from collection, a horse cannot extend more than it can collect. If lengthening or extended paces are asked for too early, the horse simply cannot sustain the steps and falls to the forehand with quick, short strides.
In extended trot the horse should maintain the same diagonal steps throughout the trot but reach of the steps is longer. The movement of the foreleg should appear to start in the shoulder with the hoof landing at the furthest point of the step. The hind legs should match the step of the forelegs and the horse shoulder visibly lengthen their frame, head and neck extending with the legs. The trot should not speed up but cover more ground with longer, lower strides.
The rider should follow this movement with their back and seat, hands allowing the horse to lengthen their neck as necessary. This stride can be difficult to sit with, but the rider should not brace against the horse.
Common faults are
Compare the pictures below and see which you think is best.
(The black and white picture is from Kottas on Dressage by Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg, page 15).
Passage is one of the most difficult paces for horses to perform. A very collected trot, with highly elevated steps which progress slowly forward, not all horses have the ability to perform this movement. The horse needs to engage their haunches to hold the height and suspension in each step. The height and suspension of the steps is dependent on the horse’s conformation, strength and suppleness, and so this will vary from horse to horse.
The head and neck must be allowed to rise, the exact position will depend on the horse, and some horses will bring their nose slightly in front of the vertical. If the neck is lowered, the horse will be on the forehand.
These pictures show 3 different horses with the same rider, Nuno Oliveira, and each horse has a slightly different look to the passage.
Problems with passage steps can be seen in a number of faults:
It is not uncommon to see a big moving horse making exaggerated steps in the front legs, giving the impression of a correct passage, but when you look to the details of the movement, they are often disengaged and do not have correct steps. To see this more clearly, look at the action of the hind leg.
Have a look at these images, which do you think is most correct? With passage and piaffe it can be easier to see faults from video footage, look up some video’s online and see if you can observe correct steps and faulty ones.
Half pass is a movement across the diagonal of the arena, where the horse’s body remains roughly parallel to the side of the school and they step forward and then sideways. It follows on from shoulder-in and develops greater flexibility and strength in the horse. Half pass can be ridden in walk, trot and canter.
It needs to be developed with care so that the horse remains in his haunches, leading the movement with his inside hind, not his inside shoulder.
Go back to shoulder in and circles if the horse has difficulty in half pass.
Common faults are;
Look at the pictures below and see which half pass you think is most correct.
For more information on correcting problems in half pass please see
Half pass – Correcting Problems – Horse twists the head.
Half Pass – Correcting problems 2 – Changes to the rhythm.
Half pass – Correcting problems 3 Quarters or forehand lead too much.
Half pass – Correcting problems 4 – Horse confuses aids for canter.
Shoulder-in is the aspirin of dressage – Nuno Oliveira.
In his book, School of Horsemanship, published in 1733, François de la Guérinière describes shoulder-in as the alpha and omega of all exercises for developing suppleness and agility in horses. An exercise used by classical dressage trainers for centuries, unchanged and instantly recognisable, it is one of the earliest lateral movements taught to horses.
Well ridden, shoulder-in provides major benefits in the schooling of horses, essentially the suppling of the horse’s shoulders, preparation for the horse to be placed into their haunches and it trains the horse to move away from the rider’s leg.
The basic principle of shoulder-in is that the horse brings their shoulder away from the line of travel, with the hind legs remaining on the line of travel, and then the horse proceeds stepping slightly sideways in the original direction. The angle may vary from horse to horse, depending on their conformation, suppleness and level of training, but all shoulder in shoulder exhibit the same qualities.
Common faults are;
Have a look at the pictures below, the horses are in the same stride in shoulder-in, but the pictures look quite different. Both horses show a good degree of suppleness but the horse on the right has disengaged his haunches, hollowed his back and is dropping towards his outside shoulder.
What is a correct piaffe? Over the years I have seen many horses performing piaffe, and the way each horse creates the steps can make the movement look very different. Some horses have the strength to lower their haunches and show strides with good elevation, whilst for other horses the piaffe steps are much smaller and less elevated.
It is easy to be impressed by horses who make big extravagant steps, but is the piaffe still correct? A true piaffe should show: -
Common faults in piaffe are:-
Phillipe Karl has a diagram in his book "Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage" which shows some of these common problems. (See right)
These faults can occur because the horse is asked to piaffe too early in their training, when they are not strong enough to make the steps or they are asked to give more than they are capable of. The horse becomes compressed into the piaffe which results in these types of errors.
That is not to say that every piaffe will look the same, some horses find the movement easier than others and have more expression in the steps, whereas other horses will have small, almost shuffling steps. Looking for the qualities of a movement can show that the less spectacular piaffe is more correct than some of the dazzling steps we see at times.
In the pictures below at first the piaffes look similar, but when you look in detail at the position of the horses, you can see that the chestnut horse is blocked by the rider’s hands. The head and neck are compressed causing the fore limbs to track too far back under the horses body, the back is blocked, the haunches are lowered but the hocks are braced and you can see the resistance through the horse's mouth and tail.
The grey horse is in a similar position, but he is correctly engaged, more open in the head and neck, elevating the forehand and flexing his hind limbs with correct weight transfer towards the haunches and with the fore legs stepping down vertically.
Have an objective look at some videos of different horses in piaffe and see if you can spot the differences and which are more correct.
The Christmas holiday normally gives me a little time to do some reading, usually a mix of technical books and some more easy reading ones. This Christmas I revisited François de la Guérinière’s sizeable work, “School of Horsemanship”, a book I have read many times over the years and I always find a new understanding of the methods for training a horse.
It’s a challenging book, my copy is 322 pages of A4 size, and it covers every part of horse ownership from choosing horses by conformation and suitability, descriptions of paces and airs, to tack and stable management. Whilst the book contains some outdated advice on care, treating illness and dealing with problem horses, the relatively short chapters covering training, about 80 pages, are as relevant today as they have ever been.
With the rider’s position being such an important aspect of good riding, starting 2020 with a blog about François de la Guérinière notes on the subject should help to get us all on track for productive riding this year. A rider who sits well moves with their horse and can feel the movement and responses and can properly influence the horse towards greater collection.
The chapter on the rider’s posture in the book is only 4 pages long and begins by describing the overall requirement of the rider.
“By grace, I comprehend a air of ease and freedom which must be maintained in a controlled and yet supple posture, be it in order to maintain the depth of the seat int eh saddle where necessary, or to relax at the appropriate moment, keeping in so far as possible during all the movement of the horse that exact equilibrium which comes for judicious balance of the body’s weight. Furthermore, the rider’s movements must be so subtle that they serve to improve his seat, rather than being ostentatious aids to the horse. “ (page 108)
The important point in this section is in the very first sentence, is the control and balanced rider improves both the horse and themselves, whereas the unbalanced rider will never achieve the horse’s full potential.
He then notes that he feels that some of the methods in use at the time were diminishing the brilliance of the art of dressage.
“Given that this accomplishment has been neglected, and that nonchalance joined to a certain laxity has displaced the efforts made in the past to acquire and maintain that attractive seat which so charms the spectator and brings out the beauty of a handsome horse, it gives no cause for surprise to note that the art of horsemanship has lost a measure of its former brilliance.” (page 108)
Next, he covers mounting, insisting that the rider is responsible for checking the tack and they always mount quietly and with great care. Once in the saddle the rider must check their position, ensuring their seat is centred and on tipping towards the cantle.
His notes on holding the reins describes how to hold them in the left hand only whereas today, we use the reins in two hands, but he comments
“The bridle hand governs the forehand and should be placed over the neck of the horse neither too near or too the off side, two inches above elbow height and in front of the saddle, so that the latter does not interfere with the effect of the reins.” (page 110)
The reins are then centred over the horse’s withers with a quiet steady hand. With the reins in two hands it is much easier to allow them to wander off to the side or drop down towards the rider’s thigh. I have found that it is better to teach riders to carry their hands as a level pair just about the withers. This is so that, whilst they are developing an independent seat, their hands interfere less with the horse’s mouth, and once the rider has a secure seat and good control of their arms, they can then position their hands to help the horse more.
For the rider’s legs, de la Guérinière comments that they
“…serve to guide and control the body and the hind quarters of the horse: their proper position is to be straight ad relaxed from the knee to the foot, close to the horse without touching it, the thighs and calves turned somewhat inward, so that the side of the thigh rests close along the flap of the saddle. The legs must, however, be held firm in addition to being relaxed, for if they were not they would touch the horse’s belly incessantly, which circumstances would put the horse into a state of continual confusion.” (page 110 – 111)
This is a particularly difficult position to obtain with the legs, to be relaxed and firm at the same time! This is obtained from a good balanced seat, and having the thighs rotated as described, which makes the rider’s legs stable (firm) with the minimal muscle involvement (relaxed).
The position and use of the rider’s foot is of great importance, but can only be achieved from a correct leg and seat position.
“The heel of the foot should be held a little lower than the toe, but not overly much, for that would make the leg rigid; it should also be turned very slightly to the inside, in order to control the spur easily, and not be too close to the belly, which it should meet at approximately a hand’s breadth behind the girth…..
…. If the toe were turned too far outward, the heel would be too close to the belly and the spur would touch the horse incessantly…
… Properly speaking, it is not the legs which are turned when riding, but rather the upper thighs; and when the thighs; and when the thighs, and consequently the legs, are turned in one direction or another as much as they ought to be, so will be the feet. (page 111)
De la Guérinière notes that maintaining this position when the horse is in motion is difficult, and advises that riders spend five or six months in sitting trot without stirrups in order to develop good balance and a deep seat.
“It is by degrees that a rider gains this firmness of seat, which must proceed from equilibrium and not from the iron grip of the calves and heels which should be left to rough riding jockeys.“ (page 111)
He closes the chapter by admitting that, should the horse spook or shy it is necessary for the rider to change his posture in order to stay in the saddle (we’ve all been there!), but he insists that proper posture should be restored as soon as the horse is under control.
“By a natural process and without noticing, the rider will with time assimilate the method for maintaining a deep seat and an erect posture without rigidity or ungainliness; he will become relaxed and poised without laxity or nonchalance... (page 112)
And a final comment on balance.
…and above all without being bent forward, which is the gravest fault of all; for responsive horses move well or poorly depending upon whether or not the counterbalance made by the rider’s body is properly maintained. (page 112)
As rider’s we must continually check and correct our position until it becomes instinctive, so that we make it as easy as possible for our horses to follow our aids with ease.
Book – School of Horsemanship by François de la Guérinière, translated by Tracy Boucher, published by J. A. Allan press
This year I have been kept busy as I continued to work with all my clients as well as welcoming some new ones. I said goodbye Jane and her lovely horse Lucy, who is now semi-retired. The work we have done has kept her fit and supple into her mid-twenties and although she is no longer able to have lessons, she still doing some gentle work.
The great joy of my work is training and developing new skills for horses and riders. Even as the days become colder and shorter, I still love to go out and teach, wrapped up in thermals and big coats! The range of horses that I teach is always interesting: some of the more advanced partnerships have begun their first steps of piaffe this year, whilst newer riders are mastering the art of riding a perfect circle (which is harder than you may think!). Seeing the relationship between horse and rider develop into good understanding of each other, and building their strength and skills together is one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do.
As the 1st of January approaches and we look forward to setting goals and targets for the new year, it can be enlightening to look back to see how far you have come from the very beginning. A frustrated rider with a horse who couldn’t go around a circle without falling in is now doing shoulder-in, the horse who could only canter on one lead is now cantering on both leads and working towards counter canter and the horse who spooked in every corner now works quietly in the school, offering his rider movements at every opportunity.
I wish you all a very merry Christmas and every success with your riding in 2020. Diane
By the way, if you are following the Monday quotes, you may have noticed I have repeated some previous quotes for December, because somethings cannot be said too often!
Nuno Oliveira often said that "The hands receive the work of the legs" and this succinct phrase sums up the very complicated and delicate connection between the rider’s hands and their legs. During my time at Oliveira's, I became very aware of the effects of the leg aids and how subtle they needed to be, not to mention the timing of the aids. Get it wrong and nothing happens, or you get an explosive reaction! Using your legs with the necessary tact takes time. It is not just the pressure from the legs that is important, but the timing of the aid, which varies for each horse.
For the horse to be light in the hand, the rider must give light leg aids. I sometimes work a horse in-hand with the rider, and I can feel instantly how the rider is using their legs from the feeling the horse gives my hands through the bit.
Heavy leg aids create heavy horses, and this can be easily seen. Often, if a horse is unresponsive to the rider's leg, the instinct is to use a stronger aid and repeat it until the horse moves. Whilst this can produce the desired result, when the leg is used in a strong manner, the horse often, braces their ribs against the leg and becomes more blocked and slows, or rushes off and hollows.
Having observed the responses of many horses to the leg aids, I encourage all riders to keep the leg aids as light as possible. If your horse is not responding, check that you are not blocking with your seat, back or hands, that your legs are softly against the horse and not gripping, as all these blocks will prevent your horse from moving. If necessary, use a light touch with the whip to support the leg aid and ensure that you allow your horse to go forward: they will be confused if you are asking them to go forward but blocking them with your seat or hands. If your horse has not responded, then a stronger leg aid may be needed but it should not become the normal aid - always return to a light aid afterwards.
Your position affects the aids, if you have an unbalanced seat, it is easy to allow your legs to become tight and grip harder to compensate for an unbalanced seat. Equally a rider with a balanced seat can give aids that are imprecise or poorly timed. It is important to be attentive to the pressure from your legs and the feeling of the horse’s ribs beneath them. Feeling the responses your horse gives to the aid will help you to learn the correct moment and pressure to use usually lighter that you think and then riding becomes invisible and harmonious.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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