To round off 2018, I held an evening get together for my clients as an opportunity to meet each other and talk about horses in the warm instead of the cold outside! As part of the evening, I gave 3 short talks on different aspects of dressage training and touched on the idea of having realistic goals for our training going into the new year.
Whether you are a resolution maker or not, in January our thoughts tend to turn towards the things we would like to do in the coming months, so this month’s blog is about setting goals. Goals give us a direction for training, especially if we are working a lot on our own, but often it is our expectations that can be the limiting factor, either by expecting too much or too little. I don’t want to limit your ambitions, but expecting your 5-year-old to be doing piaffe in a year is probably overly ambitious, as is thinking that your 12-year-old hunter can come into the school and piaffe in a month.
A long-term goal gives you a direction to develop the qualities your horse needs to be able to reach that level, and often - even if you don’t achieve your original goal - correctly working your horse through the development exercises can produce something different that is equally good.
Understanding the qualities that you need to develop for your horse allows you to have a plan that can be broken down into manageable steps, so that you have short term stages that will build to the larger goal e.g. shoulder-in will be difficult until your horse has good balance on a circle. So, if your goal is to ride shoulder-in, the work must go into preparing it through correct circles.
Remember that training is never a straight line; as you advance your training your horse will ask questions of you, and the good news is that if you have done the ground work correctly you will find the answer in an exercise you have already done.
A few points to keep in mind:
In my blogs earlier this year, I covered how to start working your horse in-hand and how to do circles in-hand. When the circles are balanced and easy, you can begin to ask your horse for some side steps. These side steps teach your horse to move their inside legs across the outside legs as a preparation exercise for lateral movements.
Come to the middle of the school and halt with your horse’s fore legs level. If they are not level, walk on and halt again. Then ask for a very small inside bend with the lunge line.
Use the whip to gently tap your horse’s inside hind leg until he moves it. You will need to balance him with the lunge line to prevent him from stepping forwards. At this stage it doesn’t matter how much he moves; some horses will lift a small amount, others will pick the leg up higher. Reward him when he moves the leg. If he becomes anxious, go back to some circles and try again another day.
Once your horse is lifting his hind leg up immediately when you touch it, you can ask him to step across by continuing to tap his leg once he has lifted it. When he steps it across the other hind leg, immediately stop tapping, halt (whip on the quarters) and reward him.
As always, some horses find this easy, others take more time to understand. If your horse is finding it easy, don’t be tempted to ask for too much too quickly. Take time to build his strength and suppleness. If he is finding it more difficult, go back to the work he is comfortable with and then try the side steps just once in each session, and if he doesn’t lift the leg it doesn’t matter. Don’t push things, patiently repeat the aid a little more robustly.
Continue to do single steps for a few days until your horse starts to offer the side step straight away, then you can ask for a second and third step.
As your horse steps across with his hind legs, you should allow his front feet to follow, crossing round a very small circle. Try to keep your feet moving round a small circle as well, not stepping backwards. If you plant your feet, you will block his movement and he will become twisted and stuck.
Take your time. Don’t expect it all on day one. Be satisfied with a calm lifting of the leg for day one and build it over several days; work in your horse’s time. When he is confidently offering the steps, allow him to make the movement for himself, and just make corrections.
In last month’s blog I wrote about the benefits of in hand work with your horse and how to start and stop when working in-hand. This month covers the next stage, circles.
Once your horse is walking on and halting with confidence, you can start to go around circles. Begin by walking on a straight line and then start to bring yourself round the circle and your horse should follow you.
If your horse continues down the side of the school, don’t try to pull him round the circle as this could make him push his outside shoulder out and fall more away from you. Instead, gently indicate to him that you want him to follow you with a soft give-take on the lunge line to bring his head round.
The hardest part is for you to make a correct circle shape, usually riders step to the inside, so move slightly towards your outside shoulder to avoid this.
It is important that your horse starts to curve round the shape of the circle, so initially don’t make the circle too small, give both of you a chance to understand what you are doing.
Keep your space: if he crowds you by falling in through his inside shoulder, use your hand against his shoulder or the whip gently on his side to invite him to move away.
If he drifts away from you, make sure the whip is quiet and gently give-take on the lunge line to bring him round. Keep walking backwards to draw him round the circle.
Stay in front and to the side of him.
After you have completed the circle go on to a straight line making sure you give your horse enough space between you and the fence, and halt. You can then build up to more circles and, as your horse becomes more supple and balanced, you can make the circles a little smaller.
In-hand work is a very useful method for helping horses develop the strength, suppleness and understanding of movements without the added weight of a rider. I also use this technique to help riders with difficulties in certain movements.
At the Quinta all our young horses were started using this in-hand method and by developing the basic work in hand before the rider was in the saddle. The whole process of starting the horse was calmer and simplified. They had the strength and balance to carry the rider more easily, and understood the basics; walking and halting, circles, stepping sideways, shoulder-in and rein back. Further on in their training, in-hand work was used to introduce the first steps of piaffe and passage.
There are two methods of working a horse in hand, and I use both in my teaching. The first is to work the horse from the ground by using the cavesson and the second is to work them using the reins. I start horses and riders using the cavesson because it is easier for both the horse and rider and is less harsh for the horse if the rider makes a mistake.
The model for the pictures is a young pony who is learning in hand work as part of being backed.
Use the lunge cavesson and whip with the long end wound up round the whip handle. Stand in front of, and to the side of your horse, so that you can see all of him and he can see past you.
The lunge line should be safely looped up and held close to the cavesson. Have your elbow near your side so you can control your horse on the cavesson.
Hold the whip in your other hand. Have the handle in the palm of your hand so you can rotate your wrist, and hold it pointing it down towards the floor when you are not using it, and raise it gently when you use it.
Keep yourself on the inside; don’t step across your horse or allow him to step across you.
When you are walking, you need to step backwards and at the same speed as he does– but he should not rush past you. Use a light flick on the lunge line against the cavesson to slow him down. Keep your shoulders soft and your elbows bent, a lot of riders let the horse go past them and then they lose control of the horse, or hold their hand close to themselves which draws the horse’s head inwards, pushing the horse towards the outside shoulder.
Some horses are very wary of the whip, so you can use a schooling whip or just your hand if they are more settled like that.
Walking and Halting
The first thing to teach your horse is to stop. This is done by gently placing the whip on his quarters but first you need to acclimatise him to this. He already understands the lunging instructions and so start by using these voice directions.
Gently encourage him to walk forwards, stepping back at the same time and speed that he does (some horses can be confused when you stand in this position, but gently encourage them to walk and they will move forward.)
Then, using your voice only, ask him to halt. If he does not stop you can use a small jiggle on the cavesson to help. Try to keep the tension out of your body and just hold the whip softly, pointing down. It’s very important that this work is done calmly and quietly. Your horse will take triggers from your voice, body position and the whip (as well as any noises from outside!)
When he has taken a few steps, ask him to halt, again using your voice. You need to stop walking backwards when your horse stops. If you stop before he does he will walk straight past you!
When he stops, give him a pat. Repeat this a few times until you are both comfortable with walking and stopping.
Now you can introduce the idea that the whip is asking for halt. We do this through 3 steps. Firstly, ask your horse to walk and then ask your horse to halt by the wall or fence.
When your horse is quietly standing, very gently raise the whip up and rest it on his quarters. Some horses move away from the whip because they understand that this is what the whip indicates. Quietly lower the whip and ask them to stand again using your voice and repeat the raising of the whip to the quarters.
Once your horse is standing quietly from your voice command and doesn’t move when you raise the whip to his quarters, you can start to lift the whip while he is walking.
Ask your horse to walk on and then, using your voice ask him to halt and at the same time, raise the whip to his quarters. Repeat this several times until he is quietly halting as you use both your voice and the whip together. You can support this with a light feel on the cavesson, but don’t rely on this aid.
If he becomes anxious at any time, go back to the previous step.
Once he is stopping confidently from both your voice and the whip, start to bring the whip up before you use the voice command. You are looking for him to stop from the whip movement and your voice becomes a supplement to confirm the action. Look for the moment when your horse stops as you bring the whip up, before it touches his quarters!
Some horses pick this up very quickly, whereas others take a few sessions. It’s important that you don’t rush things. This work it takes as long as it takes, especially if both you and your horse are learning together.
Again, if at any point your horse becomes anxious, go back to the level he was comfortable with and repeat that step until he is calm again.
Common problems that riders find with this technique are:
Sometimes it is because the aid you are giving is too big or the whip is not still.
To start the new year I'm looking at definitions for some of the French terms associated with higher levels of classical dressage; Descente de Mains, Ramner and Rassembler. Please see my previous blogs for discussions on other dressage terms; Cadence and Collection and Rhythm, Impulsion and Engagement.
Descente de mains
This is a French term and the literal translation is “descent of hands”. For classical dressage purposes, descente de mains is a lowering or giving of the rider’s hands to softly release the contact and have the horse remain in the movement without altering the frame, rhythm or cadence, and is most telling in piaffe.
It is a simple and very tactful movement for the rider, but comes as the result of precise training; a horse in balance, with the correct level of impulsion and rhythm. Descente de mains is not riding with loose reins or when the horse has his neck stretched down with his nose near the floor!
Nuno Oiveira and Arthur Kottas Heldenberg both give clear precise descriptions of descente de mains.
Arthur Kottas Heldenburg from Kottas on Dressage (glossary) describes descente de mains as
A term from French equitation; basically, a yielding of the rein contact, either as a reward or to check the horse’s self-balance. In respect of the hands, ‘descente’ can mean either a physical lowering, or ‘reduction’ (lessening) of the contact – commonly both.
Nuno Oliveira, Reflections on Equestrian Art
Descente de main: the rider relaxes his fingers and the horse meanwhile maintains the same pace, the same attitude and the same cadence.
A good definition of Ramner can be found in Dom Diogo de Bragança’s book Dressage in the French Tradition (page 18)
Ramner, the neck is raised and self-supporting, verticality of the head (or a position of the head close to the vertical, and in front of it), the poll at the highest point of the neck.
It is possible to position the horse’s head by raising your hands, but this will not create ramner, which is a position that the horse chooses for himself based on other factors. The horse must be supple, balanced and able to control the impulsion generated from the haunches. As these qualities develop, the horse becomes more engaged, and the forehand will become lighter, the neck will lengthen from the withers and the poll will appear to advance with the nose near vertical. It is important to understand that this starts from the withers, not the head.
The translation of rassembler is given as
To bring together.
To assemble, to gather together.
To gather together, to collect.
In classical dressage terms it defines a horse who is in perfect balance, haunches engaged with the weight displaced back to the haunches as much as the horse’s conformation will allow, creating lightness in the forehand and a very maneuverable horse. Again, it is a position that the horse acquires for himself through careful and precise training and is one of the ultimate goals of classical dressage.
In Dressage in the French Tradition by Dom Diogo de Bragança, he describes rassembler as
..balance or equilibrium on a short (collected) base of support (the horse's feet placed close together).
…which is the harmonization of the means necessary for the execution of natural gaits, or those that are derived from them, on a short base of support.
Rassembler is indispensable for classical high school training. It is different to collection because it is a quality that is more tied to lightness and ramner than collection alone implies. Whilst ramner refers to the position of the horse’s head, rassembler refers to the whole horse.
Talking with many people about dressage I have found that there are a lot of different interpretations of the terms used to describe the qualities we are trying to develop in our horses.
I have looked at the Oxford Dictionary, the FEI Judging guidelines, and descriptions from the works of classical riders to try to find a common thread between them. In this and the next two blogs, I have attempted to draw together some of the differing concepts for commonly used terms.
The interpretation that generally comes to mind when talking about rhythm is
“A strong, regular repeated pattern of movement or sound. A regularly recurring sequence of events or processes.” -oxfordenglishdictionaries.com
For dressage, this dictionary definition is appropriate, however the FEI Dressage Hand Book Guidelines for Judging give a more precise definition relating to dressage:
“The characteristic sequence of footfalls and phases of a given pace. “
In dressage terms, rhythm is the regularity of the foot falls the horse makes; it is not the speed of the footfalls, that’s the tempo.
The following quote by Arthur Kottas Heldenburg from his book Kottas on Dressage, (page 100), expands on the definition and starts to define more of the qualities that are needed for a horse to have a good rhythm.
“The rhythm is correct when the horse moves with ease, in a stable and balanced posture, active and relaxed at the same time. The horse feels good and works with pleasure; the rider is relaxed stable and can work without tiring.”
The emphasis here is that the horse has learnt to balance himself through correct suppling exercises and has the strength to maintain the regular rhythm.
Points to consider
The definition on Impulsion from oxforddictionaries.com gives the impression of force or pressure being used, which is not quite in line with the dressage meaning:
“the act of impelling or the state of being impelled
motion produced by an impulse: propulsion
a driving force; compulsion."
The FEI Dressage Hand Book Guidelines for Judging gives a slightly different description:
“Impulsion is the transmission of controlled, propulsive energy generated from the hindquarters in to the athletic movement of the eager horse. Its ultimate expression can be shown only through the horse’s soft and swinging back and is guided by a gentle contact with the rider’s hand.”
Arthur Kottas Heldenburg From Kottas on Dressage page 203
“The propulsive energy generated by the horse’s hind quarters and controlled by the rider’s leg, seat and reins.”
Nuno Oliveira’s description takes things a little further, showing that impulsion is more than just power or energy:
“Impulsion can be defined as the ability by the horse to stay in the same cadence, the same position [attitude], with the same level of energy without the constant help of the rider.”
Nuno Oliveira from “The Wisdom of Nuno Oliveira” by Antoine de Coux (page 74), and on page 67
“Impulsion has nothing to do with speed. Impulsion begins by the mind of the horse, not his legs.”
By this he means that the horse must be willing to go forward when the rider lightly touches with the leg.
The FEI definition only focuses on the physical side of impulsion i.e. the energy and where it is directed, and emphasizes a gentle contact through the reins. Classical dressage combines this with the attitude of the horse in terms of its self-carriage, enable through controlled strength and balance.
For this term, the oxforddictionaries.com description is far from the meaning that dressage implies by the word. It defines engagement as :
“The action of engaging or being engaged”
However, the definition of Engage gives a more meaningful description in dressage terms
“Engage, (with reference to a part of a machine or engine) move into position so as to come into operation.”
If we take this explanation and relate it to the action of the horse’s haunches, it becomes more meaningful. The FEI Dressage Hand Book Guidelines for Judging shows it is more than simply bringing something into position, such as the horses haunches.
“Hind legs stepping well under the horse’s body. Increased flexion of the joints of the hind quarters during its weight-bearing phase. This causes a relative lowering of the hind quarters/ raising of the forehand, thus shifting more of the task of load bearing to the hind quarters. A prerequisite for upward thrust/impulsion.”
This explanation has a good description of the mechanics of engagement, but a horse cannot engage without impulsion, so you have a circle of requirement: increase the impulsion and you can increase the engagement.
Arthur Kottas Heldenburg (from Kottas on Dressage page 203) describes engagement as
“The hind limbs are said to be engaged when, during the forward (stance) phase of the movement, they are placed sufficiently forward under the horse’s mass to enhance balance and provide a good level of forward propulsion/lift.”
Whilst these definitions give good descriptions of engagement, they don’t convey the whole picture. Engagement is part of a process that enables to horse to carry their weight towards the haunches and lighten the forehand. It is one element combined with balance, suppleness, rhythm and impulsion which brings the horse to its point of collection and lightness.
The leg sequence in canter creates an uneven, twisting movement, unlike trot where the diagonal pairing of legs gives a more even step. In canter, it is harder to straighten the horse who is often bent more towards the soft side and travels with quarters to that side, quarters in on one side and falling to the shoulder on the other side, and the rider can be pushed to one side by action of the horse's back.
Some common problems in canter are that the horse;
And among the most common cause are;
It is always worth giving your horse a general check, - particularly the back, saddle, bit and teeth - to ensure that there are no physical problems causing the reaction to canter.
Clarity of aids very important, start your correction here, checking that you are not tipping your upper body and causing a loss of balance and that your aids are correct. There is a lot of discussion over which aids are best, some people favour lateral inside aids, others prefer diagonal aids and still other use outside lateral aids. It doesn’t matter which you choose, but you must be 100% consistent with them.
If your horse is crooked in trot, holding weight in one shoulder, the canter transition will be difficult, and these horses often only canter on one lead. In this instance, go back to suppling work using circles and shoulder-in, half pass travers and renvers to rebalance your horse, and then ask for the canter again. Working correctly in a well-balanced trot will improve your horse’s canter.
Whilst young horses can benefit from cantering in straight lines outside, cantering in the school is difficult for them because of the frequency and tightness of the corners. The masters worked in trot, developing collected trot and sometimes even taking this as far as piaffe and passage before introducing canter in the school. A good collected trot will help all canter work, and any time spent developing the trot work and improving the collection and balance in trot will follow through to the canter and help to improve the balance and suppleness there.
Canter is improved by having well-balanced canter transitions from trot. Ensure that your horse is balanced and light before you ask for the canter. Then canter for a short time, once or twice round the school, as you will improve the canter by a good transition, not by cantering for a long time.
I recently read with interest in a Horse and Hound article that the German Dressage Federation has published an updated version of the well-known Training Scales. (http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/features/the-principles-of-riding-book-627462)
The origin of the training scale is unclear, but it has become widely adopted by the dressage community. The training scales identify some of the major elements required in training horses, and attempts to display the scale pictorially show how difficult it is to portray the complexity of dressage training as the qualities are very interconnected. Add to this the variety of alternative elements used by different authors as well as differing terms, it becomes confusing.
The diagrams tend towards a linear format that encourages the reader to follow a linear approach to their training, however, dressage training is not linear. Each element affects the others and progression is more circular than linear. Some authors have tried to portray a more interconnected version of the training scale, but these diagrams are, necessarily, very complex.
It’s easy to see how all this can be misinterpreted, however, the key is that each element is dependent on the others, and trainers should be conscious of this throughout their riding, e.g. ask for more impulsion and the cadence changes and needs to be readdressed.
The latest version in the “Principles of Riding: Basic Training for Horse and Rider” (above) shows that the elements are connected, but still implies a linear training system. The text that accompanies the diagram is much more informative. Each element has a relevant description and the main focus of the writing is that the steps influence each other and that the rider should understand and respect the natural abilities of each horse, never pushing them beyond what they can achieve at any given time. There is also more emphasis on the rider taking responsibility for the problems that occur, looking to themselves first before their horse. This is an improvement to previous versions, but despite efforts to clarify and refine the training scales, it remains a linear process; a good starting point but not necessarily the whole picture.
Half pass is a lateral movement where the horse takes steps to the side and forward moving in a diagonal line away from the starting point. Unlike shoulder-in, the horse is moving towards the bend, i.e. A left half pass has left bend. It is of great benefit to the suppleness of a horse and the engagement of the hind legs. (for more information see Half Pass - Correcting Problems 1)
Changes in rhythm are quite common and are due to a variety of reasons. It can be difficult to understand why the rhythm has changed, but once you can identify why the rhythm has changed, the correction is straight forward.
Rider blocks with rein
This is a very common fault, when the rider uses the inside rein to create or maintain the half pass, rather than the legs. The outside leg asks for the side step, and the inside leg gathers the horse, maintaining the impulsion and the bend. If the rider doesn't use their legs in time with the horse's rhythm, or uses the legs together, the horse starts to rush, or is blocked, and the rhythm changes.
The horse blocks with shoulder
If this occurs, the horse presses the inside shoulder into the half pass. The correction for this is by using the inside rein away from the horse's neck. By opening the inside rein, the horse is encouraged to stay in the correct bend and is lead into the half pass. It is vitally important not to pull the rein back as you do this or the horse will be blocked in the hind leg.
Horse quickens towards end of half pass
Sometimes a horse will speed up as they feel the wall approaching, to correct this, first decrease the pressure from your outside leg, and stop the half pass 2 or 3 metres from the wall by tactfully riding forwards.
The horse changes the rhythm
In this instance, the horse performs a good half pass but the rhythm is not consistent throughout. Ensure that your horse is bent round your inside leg and lightly connected in the outside rein. Once in half pass, check the use of your legs; using them out of rhythm with your horse will quicken his steps and alter his natural rhythm. Each horse has their own rhythm and it is important that you ride him in that rhythm.
For some horses, if the angle is too steep, they will lose the engagement of the inside hind leg and the rhythm will alter. This may be due to conformation, or suppleness, so ride the half pass at a slightly smaller angle.
Alternatively, it may be that you are asking too many steps and your horse is not able to keep the movement for so long. In which case, ask fewer steps, and gradually increase the number of steps over a few days.
The half pass is a lateral movement where the horse takes steps to the side and forward, moving in a diagonal line away from the starting point. Unlike shoulder-in, the horse is moving towards the bend, i.e. a left half pass has left bend. It is of great benefit to the suppleness of a horse and the engagement of the hind legs.
Half Pass essentials from the FEI rule book;
To ride half pass, the horse must be placed round the rider's inside leg and lightly connected to the outside rein. Evidence of a good half pass is arriving at the end of the movement with your horse still connecting from your inside leg to your outside rein. Many problems occur when the rider creates a half pass by using the inside rein to force the bend and the outside leg to push the horse in the direction, abandoning the inside leg and outside rein.
When the horse is able to do shoulder-in from the long side on to the centre line, you can begin some steps of half pass. Start with your horse in a shoulder fore or shoulder-in position. The degree of the angle depends very much on each the horse; for novice horses, have a shallow angle. The inside leg gives the bend, and then the outside leg, slightly behind the girth, pushes the horse to the side.
It is important for the inside rein to yield and the legs to alternately touch and release, or the horse will become blocked. The rider's shoulders should be turned slightly in the direction of the movement so they remain parallel to the horse's shoulders, and the rider's seat should be balanced across both seat bones.
The horse twists his head when:-
Usually these errors need to be corrected by going back a level in the training and spend some time placing the horse correctly around circles and shoulder-in, ensuring suppleness on both reins.
Then set up the half pass again, ensuring that you don't take the inside rein, as this prevents the inside hind leg from coming through and creates resistance on the inside rein, blocking the horse.
If the horse is stiffer on one side, return to shoulder-in to supple them more before starting half pass again.
Initially, you may need to ride half pass at a slightly shallower angle until your horse is comfortable in the movement, then you can gradually increase the angle and the number of steps.
Don't use your legs together as this will confuse your horse. If necessary, touch lightly with alternate legs, in rhythm with the movement of the horse.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer