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.
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.
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 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?
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.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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