The development of suppleness should be at the forefront of our minds when training horses. Suppleness creates a horse who is light, balanced and maneuverable. A horse that is out of balance will carry weight in one shoulder, which often shows with problems with the canter lead on one side, your horse is unable to stay on a circle and is being heavy in the hand.
Much like humans, horses find things easier to do on one side than the other. This is most recognisable on a circle. When the stiffer side is to the outside of the circle, the horse stays reasonably on the line of the curve. But when the stiffer side is to the inside, the horse continually falls in and the circle gets smaller and smaller. This asymmetry can overload one foreleg can result in tendon problems and the asymmetry of the whole horse can develop into neck, back or joint issues.
The exercises you chose should encourage your horse to release on their stiff side and strengthen the softer side to create a straight horse. Over the centuries, the classical masters created different exercises to supple horses. These exercises are still in use today; correct circles, shoulder-in, half pass, travers and renvers being the five key movements.
All horses can achieve these five basic movements, provided the rider considers the horse’s conformation. A cob may not show as much crossing in their legs as a more lightly build horse, but this does not mean the movement is incorrect.
Choosing an appropriate exercise encourages the horse to release any blocks 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. If the exercise is not working as you expected, analyse where the problem is and make the necessary changes or use a new exercise.
In all these movements the rider must be well balanced in the center of the saddle. It is remarkably easy for your body to tip to the side which will block your horse. Pulling the inside rein back will also block your horse by preventing their inside hind leg from moving through and dropping them onto their outside shoulder.
Creating a balanced horse who moves straight through their body allows the energy from the haunches to be used efficiently. Work in the school does not need to be complicated but must be precise. A few hours in the school riding, circles, spirals, yielding and serpentines can develop a more supple and responsive horse that is safer and more comfortable to ride.
The bit is a subtle way of communicating with your horse, a whispered conversation between horse and rider. No-one else can see the conversation happening, but they can see the results. The bit gives the rider instant feedback on how the horse is feeling in that moment. A soft, relaxed mouthing of the bit shows a unity between the horse and rider. If this continues through the work, the horse is comfortable and both horse and rider are content with the relationship.
This fragile contact is lost if the rein contact is more than the weight of the reins in the rider’s hands. Having X pounds of pressure blocks the horse and hardens the delicate structures of the mouth. Long loose reins does not create any communication between horse and rider.
If a problem with the work occurs, the first place this will be shown is in the horse’s mouth, communicated to the rider via the bit. The skilled rider will recognise this and make the necessary adjustments to the work. If this feedback is not recognised and acknowledged by the rider taking the steps needed to change what they are doing, the horse will start to raise their voice by blocking elsewhere in their body and avoiding the exercise.
When this unwanted behaviour is displayed, riders often look for an external solution, a stronger bit, a tighter noseband, a martingale. This simply ignores the issue and unless trainers and riders are willing to uncover the root cause of the problem, the fix masks the difficulty until it emerges somewhere else. To achieve this level of control and subtly requires riders to have a good position and balance, a lifetime’s work.
Whilst a lot of time is spent thinking about which bit to use, nose bands tend to be used solely to keep a horse’s mouth shut. Mostly riders use a flash or a cavesson, done up tightly to prevent the horse from opening its mouth. Apart from the obvious physical pain and harm that this inflicts on a horse, it masks a very important communication channel between a horse and their rider.
The art of dressage riding is to finesse the communication between the horse and rider so that, to an observer, the rider appears to be doing nothing. Part of achieving this is having the horse soft and mobile throughout their work, and the horse’s mouth is a very good reflection the level of that relationship between horse and rider.
For example, if a horse is finding an exercise difficult or feels too much pressure from the rider’s hands, this will show first through the horse’s mouth with blocks such as fixing the jaw, opening the mouth or putting their tongue over the bit.
Tightening the nose band to prevent this behaviour does not solve the problem. Unable to express himself via his mouth, horses often become harder in the jaw and the tension occurs elsewhere in his body. As the stress ripples throughout the horse’s body, blocks can often be seen in the horses neck, back and hind legs.
The solution is to change what you are doing, rather than increasingly tightening the nose band. It may be as simple as modifying an exercise slightly, or you may need to look a bit deeper at how you are asking. Riding with a softer hand and working more tactfully from your seat and back or with your leg.
The connection between bit and rider’s hands should always be the weight of the reins. For very skilled riders, the slightest tension in the horse’s mouth is felt in their hands, and they make appropriate adjustments to make the horse comfortable. With a nose band that is done up tightly, the horse is unable to speak to the rider and training becomes an exercise in force.
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.
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