Lightness is a characteristic of classical dressage, sought by riders throughout the centuries. For me, lightness is the ultimate goal of dressage training, it brings a unique expression to each horse throughout their work, and it directs all my work and teaching. When a horse is truly light, dressage is elevated to another level, something that, once you have felt it, is never forgotten.
Lightness means to be nimble, with a lack of weight, or a lack of weightiness or force and each of these interpretations are relevant to classical dressage.
Horses are naturally weighted towards their forehand, and through correct training, the horse gradually learns to use their strength to bring their balance towards quarters. As training progresses and the horse engages their haunches more towards collection, their forehand elevates, and the horse becomes more manoeuvrable. This lightness in the forehand can ultimately create piaffe or even a levade.
The aspect of lightness in character should not be dismissed. Both horse and rider should enjoy the work. Where training becomes an effort with riders becoming stronger and the horse becoming resistant, the joy of dressage is lost.
Without lightness in movement, dressage horses become physically blocked and laboured, unable to produce the full beauty of which they are capable.
The pictures below show two very different piaffes, the bay horse is heavy in the fore hand, it’s head and neck are blocked, which has disengaged the hind legs which are stepping to the side, and the fore leg is drawn too far back under the horse’s body. The horse shows resistance throughout its body
The grey horse also shows a piaffe but in a completely different way. There is lightness in the fore hand, the hocks flex as the hind legs are brought under the body of the horse and the head and neck are elevated with the poll raised. There is no tension or resistance in the movement.
I recently rewatched a YouTube video, “Dressage Disaster: Heartbreak for Howington & Putten” at the Tokyo Olympics. Reading some of the comments, there was a split between those who believed it was just one of those things that happens with the pressure that competition horses are under, and those who viewed it as abuse.
Whatever your views, the causes are evident in the preceding movements and this month I am sharing my thoughts as a trainer on what is going wrong. You can watch the video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3-YqN_TVVU . The particular section I am reviewing is from the start to around 30 seconds.
In the first instance, the problems start in the extended trot. The rider has a tight hold on the reins, blocking the horse through its mouth and poll (picture below). This results in the horse being unable to correctly lengthen its frame in the extended trot, leading to a compressed neck, blocked back and disengagement of the haunches.
This disengagement of the haunches makes collecting the horse back from the extended trot difficult. There is a backward pull on the reins, and you can see the rider being pulled forward out of the saddle. This blocks the horse further, which can be seen in the action of the horse’s hind legs (5 seconds, picture below). At 7 seconds, she shortens her reins further and at 9 seconds makes a backward pull with her left rein, disrupting her horse’s steps and further contracting the horse’s neck.
To bring her horse to piaffe, she makes a backward movement with her right rein (15 seconds), which can be seen in a sudden movement of her horse’s head to the right. This is followed by a direct pull backwards with both reins, and the rider using the spurs to try and maintain the piaffe steps. The horse is now completely compressed between the bit and the spurs, blocked in its back and disengaged in its haunches. In this position, the horse simply cannot sustain any kind of mobility in its back, legs and haunches, and the piaffe stops.
To try and regain the piaffe steps, the rider uses the spurs more, and also makes another couple of backwards movements with her reins (22 seconds). As the horse backs away from the extreme pressure of the bits, the rider increases the use of the spurs and makes another backward movement in her left hand. Trapped between the rider’s unyielding hands on the bits, and the pressure of the spurs sending him forward, the horse takes the only other option available, to rear up.
In a correct piaffe the horse should be light in the fore hand, the head and neck are elevated. This set of photographs from Philippe Karl’s Twisted Truths of modern dressage shows classical masters in piaffe on various types of horse. In all the photos, the horses have elevation and freedom in the forehand and lightness in the reins and on the bit, and importantly, they are slightly in front of the vertical.
Throughout my riding and training career, I have been in a position to observe many hundreds of riders and trainers working their horses and see how training problems arise and the many different ways that people approach possible solutions to these difficulties.
It is clear that the primary causes of difficulties during training occur through either a lack of understanding between the horse and rider, or physical difficulty for the horse. Retrying the same exercise rarely produces the desired result, often the horse can become more resistant, and the rider or trainer more frustrated.
It is necessary to step back from the problem and for the rider/trainer to establish why the movement is not working. Is the horse blocked, is the exercise physically too difficult, does the horse understand what is being asked?
Solutions can more often be found by going back to a more basic exercise. Where the basic movements have been correctly trained, they not only provide a solid foundation for progression to the next level of training but can be used to re-establish the rider’s connection with the horse, to correct a lack of engagement or balance, or to set up the more difficult exercise again.
For example, your horse is falling onto their shoulder and running when you ask for a lengthened stride in trot. Riding a very correct walk or trot shoulder-in will help to reengage the horse’s hind legs and bring balance and lightness back to their forehand.
Once the fundamental problem has been resolved, returning to the original exercise is usually more successful.
Within dressage training there is a great emphasis on developing a straight horse, and riders work carefully to create this quality. However, without balance a horse will never be straight. Imagine walking along a narrow wooden beam. When your balance is perfect, walking along the beam is easy, but when you are unbalanced, you wobble from side to side, arms waving to regain your balance and prevent you falling off.
When a rider is unbalanced, they make it hard for their horse to move freely in any movement. Unbalanced horses use their shoulders and neck to support themselves making it difficult for the rider to turn or move them on a straight line as the horse continually falls to one side.
By regularly riding some simple exercises, such as correct circles and serpentines, it is possible to develop a horse who is supple to both sides. Accurately ridden, these exercises improve the horse’s balance, freeing the forehand, and allowing them to release and lengthen their neck. As the horse’s shoulder becomes free from supporting the horse’s weight, the horse is more balanced, and the impulsion from their haunches starts to elevate the forehand.
Compare the two pictures of half pass below. Both horses are in the same phase of half pass steps, the red lines show where the rider’s balance is on each horse. The horse on the left is balanced and stepping freely into the half pass. The horse on the right has been taken off balance by the rider’s position behind the movement, and the horse is blocked though his right shoulder and foreleg.
For more information on exercises to help balance your horse please see my blogs on circles (link to foundations-circles-and-corners) spiralling exercise (link to spiralling exercise) and serpentines (link to foundations serpentines) and also a blog about the rider’s influence on balance. (dianefollowell.com/blog/rider-position)
In dressage, your position is critical to being able to move with your horse, which in turn is important for feeling the communication that your horse gives you and this allows you to give precise, well-timed aids without interfering with your horse. A good position creates a balanced rider, necessary for riding in harmony.
An important aspect of the rider’s seat is balance. As soon as the rider’s balance is lost, the horse also becomes unbalanced and heavy in the forehand, leaning on the rider’s hand. A good position allows the rider to maintain balance in movement with the horse, whereas an unbalanced rider impedes the horse’s natural movement.
There is a lot of information about the correct position, and whilst the basic principles of posture for the dressage seat remain the same, it is important to apply them in relation to each rider. The position of a tall rider will not necessarily look the same as the position of a shorter rider, especially on different shaped horses.
A common phrase used for dressage riders’ position is a deep seat, which refers to the ability of the rider to move their pelvis and lower back in complete harmony with the horse’s back movement. This seat is developed by having your leg stretched out from the hip, around the horse’s rib cage without gripping, and your upper body balanced over their seat bones, without wobbling from side to side or backwards and forwards. In this position, your spine can move precisely with the movement of the horse’s spine.
Once the rider loses balance, they often resort to gripping with the legs or pulling on the reins to regain their balance, or just to stay with their horse! When this happens, the horse is instantly blocked, and the rider’s aids are indistinguishable from the gripping or pulling. As the horse tries to compensate for the rider’s lack of balance, they too become unbalanced.
The strength of the rider’s position or seat comes from being able to maintain balance. Toned core muscles are needed for this, muscles that can react quickly by an appropriate amount and then instantly release. Full on muscles are not always needed, sometimes the slightest movement is sufficient to rebalance the horse.
When the rider finds that state of perfect balance, the horse begins to move more freely and then they can start to develop their suppleness. The rider can feel the responses the horse gives and adapt the exercises accordingly.
Have you ever wondered why it’s worth perfecting a circle? It may feel as though a circle is a basic movement, useful for young horses and in a warmup, but after that the benefits of a simple movement can often be forgotten as we move onto more interesting things.
Circles provide a foundation for all the other work and they are extremely useful throughout a training session. For a novice horse or rider, a circle teaches the basics of balance and engagement. For a more advanced horse, a circle rebalances and reengages them, that is, if they are ridden correctly.
A correct circle is very hard to ride for both horse and rider. Many horses fall in or out of the shape without the rider even being aware of it. The major benefits of the exercise are wasted, and poorly executed circles can leave your horse more out of balance before.
To quote Nuno Oliveira, “a circle is a correct geometric shape, not a potato or an egg.”
Whilst different trainers use different aids for a circle, the qualities that come from the movement should be:
To ride a circle, the rider’s hips should match the position of the horse’s hips, and the rider’s shoulder should match the position of the horse’s shoulders. This means that they rider needs to rotate at their waist, advancing their outside shoulder without allowing their inside seat bone to follow the movement, which would bring their hips out of position.
Simply trying to make a circle by use of the inside rein only achieves a twisted and resistant position in the horse’s head and neck. The difference can be felt by the rider and can be clearly seen in the pictures below.
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?
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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