For my blogs this year I am looking at some of the movements that we see at higher levels of competition and reviewing what is desired from the movement, and some of the problems that can occur.
This month I am looking at the sequence of flying changes at every stride performed by Edward Gal at the Dutch Dressage Championships in 2021. The full video of the test can be seen here at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzwxmnhGWvA&t=274s. The particular section I am discussing in this blog is a sequence of flying changes made at every stride which start at 4 minutes 15 seconds. For reference, below is the definition of a flying change from the FEI rules.
4.8 Flying Change of leg. The flying change is performed in one (1) stride with the front and hind legs changing at the same moment. The change of the leading front and hind leg takes place during the moment of suspension. The aids should be precise and unobtrusive.
Flying Changes of leg can also be executed at every 4th, 3rd 2nd or at every stride. The Horse, even in the series, remains light, calm and straight with lively impulsion, maintaining the same rhythm and balance throughout the series concerned. In order not to restrict or restrain the lightness, fluency and ground cover of the flying changes in series, enough impulsion must be maintained.
The main issue that can be seen with these flying changes is the impulsion being blocked by the rider’s hands. Impulsion has become the main force that dressage focuses on to the detriment of other qualities. Many horses now perform a flying change with weight in their forehand, disengaged haunches and a lack of lightness. This forces the horse to make the flying change by pushing up from their fore hand and swinging their haunches from side to side, not straight and effortlessly flowing as they should be. In a flying change the rhythm and tempo of the canter should not change and the horse’s legs should appear to switch effortlessly under their body with no upward bounce.
The issues with this sequence of flying changes begins with the turn on to the diagonal. At this point there is a backwards action on the inside rein, and the horse swings it’s head to the right (4 minutes 18 seconds). This is immediately followed by a heavy action on the left rein causing the horse to twist its nose to the left. These aids take the horse off balance immediately prior to the flying change sequence.
Throughout the sequence of changes, the rider maintains a backward pressure on the reins. This blocks the horse from coming through correctly with its hind legs, placing weight into the forehand and causing the horse to make the transition from one lead to the other by swing its haunches from side to side. (A) (B) (C) (D)
The rider continues to contract the horse through its head, neck and shoulders with a restrictive hand through the sequence of steps. This prevents the horse from flowing through with its hind legs and after a few strides, the 3-beat canter breaks down into a 4-beat canter. The horse makes more exaggerated movement in each stride, bouncing up from its front legs rather than swinging smoothly through. (E) (4 minutes 25 seconds).
Correct flying changes should be straight and flow through the horse’s body from the hind legs. This gives a smooth transition between the strides where the leg sequence changes effortlessly under the horse without the forehand leaping off the ground and preserves the 3-beat rhythm.
This month I’m taking a look at some footage of dressage shown at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The video is of Canadian rider Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu riding the transition between passage and piaffe. You can watch the full test here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGSYdsItiqU.
I am focusing on the quality of the passage, the transition into piaffe and the piaffe itself. This is a complicated sequence of movements that require the rider to have great tact and timing of the aids.
The passage starts at 5 minutes 37 seconds as the pair come out of the extended trot. The rider makes a backward movement on the reins which contracts the horse’s head and neck position creating a passage that lacks suspension. The steps are uneven, showing a breakdown in the diagonal movement of the horse’s legs because the horse is unable to correctly bring its haunches under due to the contraction in its neck and braced back.
As they turn out of the corner, the horse’s inside leg hind is disengaged and it has braced its ribcage placing weight in its forehand. The horse loses balance and rhythm through the turn from the long side (5:44)
As the horse approaches the piaffe transition, the rider makes several heavy backward movements on the reins, causing the horse to open its mouth and cross its jaw, and for the trot rhythm to falter (5:51).
In the piaffe steps, the horse is contracted in its neck and disengaged in its hind legs placing weight in its shoulders with no engagement of the haunches.
The next sequence of pictures shows the horse with its right hind leg moving straight up and down, whilst the left hind leg swings outwards. At the top of the step there is a circular movement of the foot, and the left foot moves inwards as it is replaced on the ground. The horse starts to swing its haunches from side to side with greater disruption to the diagonal pairing in the stride. The piaffe is incorrect and beyond improvement (sequence of stills from 5.52 to 5:55).
Following on from my last blog on canter, I’m looking at counter canter for this blog. In essence, counter canter is cantering on the outside lead. All horses can perform counter canter, but it must be done in balance and with the correct rhythm for the horse. Counter canter is an exercise that improves the canter by engaging the horse’s haunches, making canter rounder and more active.
Counter canter is often taught by establishing a correct canter lead and then changing the rein across the diagonal, maintaining the same canter to put the horse into counter canter. Whilst this has its benefit, it does create difficulties for the horse. Often, they start to back off as they approach the corner, and it also creates a tight turn through the corner which can take the horse off balance unless it is tactfully ridden.
Making a counter canter transition on the long side is easier for the horse, but more challenging for the rider who must be attentive to the rhythm, impulsion, straightness and balance of the horse throughout. By using this method, the horse becomes very responsive to the rider’s aids, which make flying changes easier to teach.
If the horse makes a mistake and gives the incorrect canter lead, do not be tempted to stop them immediately, as this will destroy the horse’s confidence. Canter for a few strides, quietly return to trot and set the transition up again, with attention to the quality of the trot and the tact of the aids.
To perform a good counter canter, the horse must be supple and strong to retain his balance. Initially, ride the corners as shallow as possible to give the horse the best change to hold his balance.
Often, when the horse loses balance, he will speed up or change the canter lead, usually becoming disunited. When this happens, calmly return to trot or walk, re-establish the balance and impulsion, and ask again.
Canter is a 3-beat pace with a moment of suspension between each stride. The canter should be as smooth as possible, without an excessive up and down movement in the fore hand and should be straight. Straightness is difficult to achieve because the sequence of legs tends to move the horse into a crooked position, haunches slightly to the inside or to the outside.
There are many different ways of giving the canter aid, and each has their own merit. However, Nuno Oliveira said that the use of the outside leg to give the canter aid would result in straighter flying changes, whilst the inside leg maintains the impulsion and bend. In the transition, it is important that the rider sits in a well-balanced position, with their shoulders facing forward. If the rider’s balance changes or they turn their body, it will result in the horse’s haunches deviating from the line of travel, making the canter crooked.
Looking at the writings of the classical masters, they did not canter a horse in the school before the horse has been suppled, balanced, strengthened in trot, some even waiting for the horse to piaffe before cantering! By waiting for the trot work to become established, the horse is then better able to canter straight and balanced. If a horse is encouraged to canter in the school out of balance, he learns the canter with a crooked body which can be difficult to correct.
When you canter your horse, make the transition when he is not resisting, and only canter for a short time, the quality of the stride and balance is more important than how long you canter for. The transition to and from trot should be ridden frequently and in balance without weight in the reins. These transitions are important for the development of flying changes.
In this blog I’m looking at trot, the most useful pace for training horses. The diagonal pairing of legs in the steps provide equal movement on both sides of the horse (unlike canter) and it has natural impulsion (unlike walk). These gymnastic qualities help to create a horse who supple and balanced, providing the trot is ridden correctly.
As with walk and canter, it is important that the rider knows the horse’s natural trot. It is this rhythm that should be used for this horse’s trot, maintained with a level of impulsion appropriate to the horse’s level of training; too little impulsion the horse struggles to maintain the stride, too much power and the horse becomes unbalanced.
Once this is established, and the horse can travel around the outer sides of the school without using the reins for support, in a free moving regular and balanced way, other exercises can be introduced.
Common faults in trot occur when horses are ridden to fast, where the rider blocks the horse with their hand or legs, or when the horse is collected or extended before they are physically or mentally ready. This can be seen in one or more of the following faults;
loss of rhythm,
breaking of the diagonal pairs of legs,
restricted movement in the horse’s shoulder,
hovering hind leg,
weight in the horse’s shoulder.
Generally, these can be corrected by returning to the basic trot work and re-establishing the horse’s natural rhythm through improved balance and impulsion.
Training Riders, Transforming Horses.
This month I’m looking at the gait of walk, a pace that is often over looked as a training tool and frequently over ridden.
Walk is a four-beat pace, left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore with no moment of suspension. There should be 4 regular beats to the steps, 1-2-3-4, not a broken rhythm which often seen now where the beats are 1-2, 3-4.
The horse should walk slowly with activity and power. Developing this is not easy, often riders push the horse with their legs to create some impulsion, but unfortunately this usually serves to break the rhythm of the walk and some horses can now be seen making a 3-beat stride where they move a lateral pair of legs at the same time. What is most important is that the horse remains in balance and does not put weight into its shoulders.
The rider should move their back and pelvis with the horse’s back, and to extend or collect the walk, the rider must use their back and waist, not their legs which will press the horse too much and cause a break in the rhythm. Riders that move their arms in a pumping action are not correctly using their back and seat.
Although walk lacks natural impulsion, it is a good learning pace for horse and rider. Developing new exercises in walk gives the rider and horse time to understand the aids and position required for the movement. Both have the space to think and explore the movements, feeling the necessary corrections and for the horse to develop his balance.
Riding lateral movements in a steady rhythmical walk develops strength and suppleness in horses. When you are short of time, riding lateral movements in walk are far more beneficial to the horse than trotting or cantering for the same period of time.
The rider’s position is critical to the movement of the horse. Despite the massive inequality in size between a horse and rider, it takes only a very small movement from the rider to direct the horse. These small movements should help the horse to move freely and easily follow the rider, but if the rider becomes unbalanced, blocked or tense, they serve to negatively impact the horse.
Think about carrying someone on your back. If they don’t hold themselves, their weight pulls heavily down, if they are very stiff and inflexible, they block your movement or if they sit to one side, the muscles on that side of your body have to work harder for you to stay straight. All these positions are uncomfortable for both of you, make it difficult for you to move, and makes you quickly tire. It is similar for your horse.
When a rider is not in the best position, they are less able to follow the horse’s movement through their seat and back, and often over use their hands and legs to compensate for the imbalance. Unbalanced or blocked riders can frequently be seen overriding their horse in order to try and achieve the response that they desire, but this has the opposite effect because it further blocks the horse. The solution is to re-establish your balance, release any over tense muscles and give lighter aids (see the case studies to find out more)
The most important aspect of a good position is that rider is remains perfectly balanced with their horse, moving precisely in time with the horse and not blocking in any way. In order to accomplish this the rider must put is a lot of work developing their position and balance so that they are able to correctly train the horse to their aids.
Once this becomes a natural position for the rider, they have control over their aids and can direct the horse, and the work does not end here, a rider must continue to refine their aids to develop more subtle communication with their horse. We must not forget that the horse is very sensitive to our body and will pick up on the slightest movement. Riders who are out of balance or who override their horse will always have difficulty in their training.
Training Riders, Transforming Horses
Historically, the type of dressage training shown in a competition was based on classical dressage principles. It was a way for a rider to check their horse’s training and have some input on which areas needed to be developed with their horse. However, as competition dressage became more focused on the rewards of competing, placings and rosettes, riders began to look at their next test to direct the training and the test itself became the training manual.
The modern dressage training used today came to the fore during the 1980’s, when we began to see riders competing on horses trained in a new system that created horses with greatly exaggerated fore leg movement and a compressed frame at the expense of correct action of the haunches and hind leg.
As the early proponents of the system became more successful, the method was copied, and by the 1990’s it was accepted as the correct way for horses to perform the movements, rapidly filtering down into mainstream equestrian practice.
This system was criticised by advocates of classical dressage. The debate on the values and method of training being shown and judged as correct became louder. Initially the FEI sought to resolve the issue by adjusting the existing rules and advice to better reflect what was being shown in the arena. This only pushed the debate further as it did not address the most significant point argued by the supporters of classical dressage. The main concern was the pressure that riders applied to horses via the use of rollkur.
Horses continued to be presented in world competitions with riders using extreme force to bring their horse’s head in, with the use of ever tighter nosebands to prevent the horse opening its mouth, and their mounts showing greater signs of great distress. Occasionally blood could be seen in the horse’s mouth or on their sides from the rider’s spurs.
Finally, the FEI were compelled to resolve the situation that had developed and, following a conference, they banned rollkur but continued to allow the use of low deep and round for short periods of time.
Did this change anything in training methods used? Many trainers and riders and began to call themselves a Classical Trainer yet did not modify their techniques away from rollkur or change the forceful techniques that they had previously used.
Classical dressage centres on the process of training, and purity of the gaits which take more time to develop than modern techniques. Dressage training should result in a strong, supple, well-balanced horse and is soft in the contact and responds to the lightest aid form the rider. There should be an overall quality of lightness in all work which is the result of self-carriage with no tension in the reins, with a loose fitting nose band that allows the horse to move its mouth. The horse’s neck should be lengthened, stretching up and forward from the withers, and there should be free movement in the horse’s legs and shoulders.
Whilst modern dressage began with classical principles, it has moved further away from those ideals and is now barely recognisable as the same thing.
For comparison the pictures below show horses in the same movement, on the left, horses trained with modern methods, and on the right, horses trained with classical techniques.
Diane Followell - Training Riders, Transforming Horses
In a previous blog I looked at the causes of a horse rearing whilst in the middle of a dressage test, What Went Wrong? In this month’s blog, I wanted to look closely at a piaffe shown in a grand prix freestyle competition and the qualities that the horse shows in the movement in this video
I am focusing on the piaffe that begins at 1 minute 8 seconds. Before this piaffe, the horse is in passage and to bring the horse into piaffe, the rider makes a backward pull on the rein (1:09) whilst simultaneously using her spurs and bracing her body backwards. This has the effect of compressing the horse through its neck which puts the horse on its fore hand, disengages its haunches and disrupts the diagonal steps (below).
Consequently, the horse can only bounce its haunches up in the piaffe as it’s front legs barely come off the ground (1:13) and there is no elevation of the neck and withers. Unable to correctly engage its haunches the horse is now fully on its fore hand as the front feet land significantly before the hind feet and the rhythm of the diagonal steps is completely lost.
Through the piaffe, the horse swings its left hind out to the side whereas it should move up and down under the body of the horse. The rider makes continual backward movements on the reins, blocking the horse and creating resistance in the horse’s jaw, neck and back.
Due to the incorrect movement in the piaffe, in the transition out of the piaffe, the horse makes two canter strides before picking up passage steps(1:22).
In a correct piaffe, the horse moves its centre of gravity back, the hind legs flex more and the fore hand becomes lighter and more elevated. The haunches should not bounce higher than the withers.
The front feet should be raised higher than the hind feet, or the hind feet and front feet should come to the same height if the horse’s conformation or level of training does not allow for the former. If the hind feet are raised higher than the front feet, it is a clear indication that the piaffe is on the fore hand and incorrect.
The pictures below show two horses with different conformation showing correct piaffe steps and the piaffe shown by this horse and rider for comparison.
Diane Followell - Training Riders, Transforming Horses
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.
Diane Followell - Training Riders, Transforming Horses
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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