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.
This month I have something a little different for the blog. I recently received a book by Keron Psillas Oliveira, containing beautiful photographs of Lusitano horses. The book “Lusitano, Noble, Courageous, Eternal” is the result of years spent photographing these wonderful Portuguese horses.
I first came across the Lusitano horse when I was studying with Nuno Oliveira in Portugal. In stable full of this incredible breed, I found horses who were generous in spirit, brave and agile, and who would willingly teach me all I needed to know.
Keron Psillas Oliveira has captured the essence of these versatile horses with beautiful photographs, showing them in all their many moods: mares with foals in the scenic Portuguese countryside, horses in piaffe, or simply exuding the joy of being a horse. This book captures the Lusitano at his very best.
If you are looking for a Christmas present for someone (or a treat for yourself) this could be the book for you.
Cookie was 10 years old when Catherine bought him, he was a retired show jumper and had been competing at a high level. She brought him to me for some lessons so that she and Cookie could have a good start together, however Cookie was showing some physical problems which were diagnosed as
“..a strain in his lumber sacral junction which left the pelvis and hind quarters compromised. This restriction has resulted in reduced support from the hind quarters for the rest of the body leading to reduced spinal suspension and a shift in the centre of gravity forward and down increasing the loading of the fore quarters to a degree.”
Cookie was moving with a high neck and head carriage, a hollow back, and the movement of his hind legs was very disconnected and unsteady, resulting in a very disengaged walk, and trotting exacerbated the problems.
Catherine had a good position and her work as a Feldenkrais practitioner gave her a very good feel for Cookie's movement and responses. We began with work to strengthen Cookie’s haunches, establishing very correct circle work and remaining in walk until Cookie was better balanced and moving correctly in his hind legs. Over the first few weeks, Cookie's balance improved, and he was able to release his neck, softening the muscles underneath.
As his suppleness and strength improved, he began to connect his fore hand and haunches more. We worked him round smaller circles which improved the action in his hind legs and the strength over his quarters. We introduced trot work, keeping the trot steps small, starting with a single circle and gradually building up the time he stayed in the pace.
Following on from this work, we used serpentines, counter flexions and spirals on circles to develop suppleness, strength and balance, resulting in a more connected horse. As Cookie understood the different requirements of the work, both physically and mentally, he began to develop a good frame, releasing the tension in his neck and back and developing some self-carriage.
The ridden work was complemented with some in-hand work and lunging to help him with his self-carriage. This work has not been without problems as he was initially very tense. With Catherine's patient approach, he is now working quietly and easily from the ground, further developing the engagement in his haunches and reducing the effort in his fore hand.
Cookie is mentally calmer and is finding his own rhythm; he engages his hind legs and is not relying on Catherine to hold him up.
Cookie's previous owner had said that he had been one of the most difficult horses to back, and even now, training Cookie is not straight forward, but with a steady, consistent and patient approach from Catherine, he continues to make progress with his new career.
The picture on the left shows Cookie before retraining, the one on the right shows him working towards a more balanced and relaxed way of going.
One of the most important things I learnt from Nuno Oliveira is that you cannot train each horse exactly the same way. Although there were many Lusitano horses at Mr Oliveira’s stables, we also trained other breeds, Selle Francais, Arabian, Russian Budyonny and Thoroughbred among others, and Mr Oliveira adapted his methods to suit each horse’s physical and mental needs throughout their training.
By closely observing the horse that I am working with I can see how and why they move in a particular way. Some things to look for are;
Choosing an appropriate exercise encourages the horse to release restrictions they may have by developing suppleness, strength and balance. Sometimes it is necessary to be a little creative and adapt an exercise or develop a new pattern of work that is more effective for the horse and if the exercise is not working as you expected, again analyse where the problem is and make the necessary changes or use a new exercise.
If the rider is not sitting well it has a huge impact on the way the horse moves. Working on the rider’s position, balance and aids is central to creating a horse that is well balanced and supple. If the rider is off balance their horse will be constantly adjusting his balance to compensate, and the rider’s aids will be unclear which leads to difficulty in communication.
Watch the horse continually and make small adjustments as necessary. Don’t expect too much, be satisfied with small improvements and give plenty of rests, tired horses become sour, and always reward their efforts.
Last month I blogged about how dressage is for all horses (click here to read it) and it can be difficult to appreciate the same movement with different horses. There are a lot of factors that affect how a movement looks with different horses, some of the main ones are
Whilst I take these factors into consideration, I always look to develop the horse as fully as possible. Often by using the developmental exercises to build towards a more difficult movement, the horse comes into their own and offers you the steps you were seeking to create.
Each horse gives movements their own expression and unique quality and this can be difficult to appreciate. When you see big moving expressive horses striding through half pass, it’s easy to dismiss such a movement from your cob’s training program.
However, if you train the qualities of each movement more things become possible. For example the qualities to look for in a shoulder-in are
With this in mind, it becomes easier to train all horses in the basic lateral movements, and often further movements develop from there.
Watching competitive dressage at the highest level it’s easy to think that dressage is only for very big moving, talented warm blood horses, but dressage is simply schooling a horse. All horses do some training at some time and whilst dressage may not be their specialty, all can benefit from a basic level of schooling and training to reduce injury and create a responsive, more comfortable horse to ride.
It’s easy to dismiss a horse’s ability because he’s a 10 yo who has only hacked out, or has less than ideal conformation, or exhibits behavioural issues, but with a considered training programme issues like this can be overcome. The experience of working with many horses has shown me that with correct training horses can often achieve more than we think. (Have a look at the case studies to see more)
By working towards building suppleness and strength through correct development of lateral exercises, all horses can attain the basic lateral movements; shoulder-in, travers, half pass and renvers, in walk and trot.
Training must consider the horse’s conformation, along with the work they have previously done, their temperament and natural movement. When the horse is ready, introduce the exercises that build up to more advanced movements, starting with very simplified versions and developing the exercise as far as the horse allows.
By identifying the qualities required in a movement, it becomes easier to see that each horse gives a movement its own expression. For example, some horses have a steeper angle in lateral movements because they are naturally more supple than others. By looking to see that the horse has a consistent bend through their body, they do not lean to their shoulders and maintain an even rhythm, every horse can produce a good lateral movement, from a Shire X to a Lusitano to a 23 year old cob.
And all the others!
Following on from circles and the serpentine exercises, another useful movement is to ride shallow loops. These are performed down the long side of school and can vary in depth from 2 metres to 10 metres. These are used to supple and strengthen your horse and great attention needs to be taken on the quality of the changes of bend.
A basic shallow loop
2. Increase the depth of the loop so your horse has to turn more through the loop.
3. Introduce some lateral steps to the work. Begin by riding off the track with a well-balanced inside bend. Keeping the same bend, move down the inner track, parallel to the wall in a slight shoulder fore position. At the end either go straight towards the short side or move back to the track with an inside bend, taking care to ensure that your horse does not drop to their outside shoulder.
4. This can then be developed further to a few steps if shoulder-in. I find that this exercise works well with horses who tend to try to run through their riders’ aids when shoulder-in is asked on the long side.
Following on from my previous blog on circles, this time we are focusing on riding a serpentine. A Serpentine is a very useful exercise for all horses regardless of their level of training.
In young horses, a well ridden serpentine creates suppleness and responsiveness to the rider’s aids. By developing the positive reaction to the rider’s inside leg aid horses learn to release their ribs rather then brace them against the rider’s leg.
For more advanced horses a serpentine can be used to set up lateral movements and a few lateral steps can be inserted into the serpentine itself, developing more suppleness and engagement in your horse.
The simplest serpentine is a 3 looped serpentine. The key points to consider when riding serpentine:
There are several variations of serpentine that you can use. They all start at either A or C, in the middle of the short side of the school, and finish at the other end of the school, in the middle of that short side.
1. A 4 looped serpentine increases the difficulty as the loops are smaller and can be ridden when your horse is moving easily round a 3 looped serpentine.
2. Riding a serpentine with 3 squared loops in walk increases the difficulty and helps to improve the engagement of the haunches. You can then start to add a few steps of shoulder fore as you ride along the track.
3. A serpentine that loops back on itself, rather than going straight across the school, can be very useful as they give you more time to create a well-balanced circle at the top of each loop. To ride this shape, begin as for a normal serpentine, and continue the curve of the loop for a few steps more so that you come straight to change the bend heading back down the school. Each loop becomes a ¾ circle shape.
4. For more advanced horses you can ride a 3 looped serpentine in shoulder-in. Either doing a few steps of shoulder-in through the top part of the loop or maintaining shoulder -in throughout the whole serpentine. Well ridden this will improve your horse’s engagement and suppleness.
Riding good circles achieves many things; stretching and strengthening the horse on both sides; starting to engage their inside hind leg; placing them round the rider’s inside leg; developing balance, suppleness and strength. Good trainers never underestimate the importance of riding correct circles.
Nuno Oliveira always rode a few circles on each rein at the start of a training session regardless of the level of the horse, and the always had to be
“a correct geometric circle, not a potato or a egg.”
Different trainers use slightly differing aids for circles, but some general points to consider are:
Start with some basic exercises, beginning with some circles on each rein. Make them small enough so that your horse makes a little more effort, but not so small that he loses his balance.
Then come into the middle of the school and ride some changes of bend from one circle to another. Try to feel how your horse copes with the changes and adjust the size of the circle accordingly. Keep the changes of bend in balance; have a few steps straight before asking for the new bend.
Throughout the session, use circles to help re-balance and engage your horse to set them up for the next exercise.
In the pictures below, the chestnut horse on the left is correctly positioned round the rider’s inside leg and is bending though his body to create a balanced circle. In the picture on the right, the rider has pulled the inside rein back, blocking the horse’s inside hind from coming though and pushing the horse onto their outside shoulder with braced ribs.
When the winter weather making riding increasingly difficult, here is a suggestion on how to work your horse when you are short of time (or it's too cold to spend much time outside!). Often, when time is scarce, it is tempting to try to do everything as fast as possible to fit it all in, but this is a great opportunity instead to work on the basics. For novice horses, time spent confirming and consolidating the basics is invaluable, and more advanced horses benefit from a session focused on basic exercises to give them a mental and physical rest.
When time is short, stay in walk. For more advanced horses you can work in a collected walk or use school walk. Start with some simple circles on each rein. These can be 20m, going down to 8m depending on your horse. Be attentive to the quality of the circle so your horse engages their inside hind leg well and holds their balance across their shoulders.
From there you can do spirals, serpentines, shallow loops and figures of 8. Then come to the middle of the school and ride some circles changing from left to right as you feel your horse needs. If your horse is ready for lateral work; ride some lateral movements on the sides of the school as well as in the middle, making smooth changes from one movement to the next.
Twenty minutes of correct work like this will exercise your horse well and be far more beneficial than lots of trotting or cantering, and will show benefits in later work as your horse will be more balanced and supple.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
Please CLICK HERE to read more about Horses and Riders I have been able to help with Classical Dressage Training