A word that is often used in relation to schooling horses is gymnastics, and it’s a good description because it creates an image of what we need to do in our training to create a light, balanced and manoeuvrable horse.
If you look at a gymnast, they are strong, supple and perfectly balanced, and from that balanced position. They can move in any direction. It’s the same for horses. A horse that is balanced, supple and strong will have a steady head carriage because they are light in the front and the weight is moved back towards the haunches which makes them manoeuvrable.
The exercises we use for developing this quality were created centuries ago, defined and refined by subsequent dressage masters. They consist of building the horse through circle work and moving on create suppleness through the lateral exercises; shoulder-in, quarters-in, and renvers, ridden both on the straight lines and on circles.
All horses are one sided, left handed or right handed, and it’s the work that you do to encourage the horse to release the stiff side and stretch the soft side that creates a horse who is even on both sides and ultimately straight.
Good training develops the qualities of
Balance is key to developing self-carriage and lightness. Circles start to create a supple horse and are the first lesson in balance.
A correctly ridden circle teaches a horse many things:
To give round the riders inside leg
To start to engage the inside hind
To stretch to the outside rein
To develop suppleness in both directions
You can feel when a horse is out of balance through the weight in their shoulder, the horse will drift towards the heavy shoulder. On a circle, your horse will drift out when the weight is to the outside shoulder. When the weight is to the inside shoulder, your horse falls into the circle.
Identifying a loss of balance
In the first picture below, you can see that the horse has lost her balance and put weight in the outside shoulder in order to come round the corner. The second picture shows the effects of this unbalanced corner, as the horse is comes down the straight side of the school crooked.
The third picture shows the same horse coming round a corner in balance.
The next two pictures show a horse in travers. The first picture shows a loss of balance; you can see the stiffness of the movement over the back and quarters, and weight is in the inside shoulder. You can also see the effect on the rider’s position, pushing her to the outside.
In the second picture, the rider has corrected the bend, which has taken the weight out of the horse’s shoulder, and brought the horse back into balance. The horse has moved her weight out of the inside shoulder and this has allowed the hind legs support the weight, the head and neck to soften and the back to lift. Also the rider is now sitting balanced and centred.
It takes time to build up enough suppleness for your horse to be able to keep the bend and his balance, but time spent now will be repaid later. If you rush this part of the training, you will have problems in later work and then you will have to come back to this work to make the correction.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer