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.
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.
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.
What is a correct piaffe? Over the years I have seen many horses performing piaffe, and the way each horse creates the steps can make the movement look very different. Some horses have the strength to lower their haunches and show strides with good elevation, whilst for other horses the piaffe steps are much smaller and less elevated.
It is easy to be impressed by horses who make big extravagant steps, but is the piaffe still correct? A true piaffe should show: -
Common faults in piaffe are:-
Phillipe Karl has a diagram in his book "Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage" which shows some of these common problems. (See right)
These faults can occur because the horse is asked to piaffe too early in their training, when they are not strong enough to make the steps or they are asked to give more than they are capable of. The horse becomes compressed into the piaffe which results in these types of errors.
That is not to say that every piaffe will look the same, some horses find the movement easier than others and have more expression in the steps, whereas other horses will have small, almost shuffling steps. Looking for the qualities of a movement can show that the less spectacular piaffe is more correct than some of the dazzling steps we see at times.
In the pictures below at first the piaffes look similar, but when you look in detail at the position of the horses, you can see that the chestnut horse is blocked by the rider’s hands. The head and neck are compressed causing the fore limbs to track too far back under the horses body, the back is blocked, the haunches are lowered but the hocks are braced and you can see the resistance through the horse's mouth and tail.
The grey horse is in a similar position, but he is correctly engaged, more open in the head and neck, elevating the forehand and flexing his hind limbs with correct weight transfer towards the haunches and with the fore legs stepping down vertically.
Have an objective look at some videos of different horses in piaffe and see if you can spot the differences and which are more correct.
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.
Half pass, travers and renvers and are all excellent exercises for developing suppleness, performed in different places in the school.
Introduce travers with care or your horse will not produce travers but a twisted contortion. Start at the beginning of the long side of the school and maintain a slight inside bend with your inside leg. Do not over bend the horse. Lightly touch with your outside leg back to bring your horse's quarters to the inside. As with half pass use intermittent touches with your leg, and only use the leg as necessary so you don't rush your horse in the movement. Don't over bend them to the inside or the outside shoulder will fall away.
The wall on the long side can prevent forward movement, to resolve this ensure your horse is carrying the movement from the inside hind leg not the inside shoulder.
Renvers is the reverse of travers, the quarters are to the wall and the shoulders are on an inner track with the horse bent in the direction of the movement. To position your horse for renvers, turn on to an inner track on the long side of the school. Change to bend towards the outside of the school. As with travers use your outside leg (outside to the bend, which will be on the inside of the school) to move the horse's haunches towards the wall.
Travers and renvers can be ridden on a circle and are both very beneficial to the development of a horse’s suppleness, engagement and collection. Care must be taken to ensure that the horse is correctly round the rider's inside leg and not just crooked.
The picture below shows the position of a horse in half pass, travers and renvers. The red line represents the wall and you can see how in each exercise the position of the horse is the same.
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.
In the third picture the same horse coming round a corner in balance
Self-carriage is a quality that results from correct basic work and gives lightness to the horse. A trained horse should be able to maintain self-carriage throughout his work, whereas a younger horse may only be in self-carriage for a few steps before losing balance and needing help from the rider to correct himself. Self-carriage is a combination of balance, strength, straightness and energy, maintained by the horse without intervention from the rider. Additionally the horse needs to be mentally calm and receptive, as a tense horse will be trying to escape the rider’s aids and therefore will not be in self carriage.
Developing self-carriage in your horse takes time, carefully working through simple exercises (ref Circles) makes your horse supple, improves their balance which leads to a straight horse, and this is where self-carriage begins. Once the horse is straight and has no weight in the shoulder, you can increase the impulsion which will elevate the forehand.
There is a lot of discussion around horses being in self-carriage but the rider must also have self-carriage. An unbalanced rider who uses the reins and grips with the legs to stay in the saddle will create and unbalanced tight horse. A correctly seated, balance rider is able to give clear aids to the horse and remain quietly with their horse when the horse has responded and is performing the movement. The ultimate test of self-carriage is “descent de mains”, where the rider simply opens the fingers, and the horse remains in the same posture, gait and cadence.
The pictures below show horses in self carriage (top row).
Below them are 3 more of the same horses when they have lost their self-carriage. (All the riders brought their horses into self-carriage again after the photos were taken.)
The first horse has fallen through his outside shoulder on a circle, he has lifted his head in order to regain his balance.
The bay horse has lost his balance on a straight line, he has dropped onto his shoulder and is leaning on the rider’s hands.
The last horse has come off the rider’s inside leg in travers, she has lost the bend and is pressing weight to the inside shoulder.
Impulsion is not just the energy required to move a horse, nor is it having a horse going round the school as fast as it can, (that just creates a tired horse), so I am starting this blog with a quote from Nuno Oliveira,
“Impulsion means to maintain the energy within the cadence.”
Impulsion is often misunderstood by riders, in dressage it can be your greatest friend or your greatest enemy. Too much energy at the wrong time unbalances and makes the horse heavy in the shoulder. Whereas insufficient energy makes the horse flat and unable to perform the movement you are asking. The right energy at the right time gives a freedom, mobility and lightness to a horse, linking to self-carriage.
Impulsion is not a one size fits all, different horses need different levels of impulsion at different times, and it is the skilled rider who knows how much to ask and when. Good impulsion exists when you have a straight horse, supple and balanced with his hind leg travelling straight under his body, the impulsion directs the horse forward and up, lightening the forehand. When the horse has impulsion it is the rider who directs it either upwards to give a collected step, or forwards for a more extended step.
With young horses don’t ask too much too soon, begin by asking for a very little lengthening and collecting in trot, in balance, on the long side of the school, retaining the energy from the lengthened steps to the collected steps. As the horse develops his strength and suppleness so the balance improves and the impulsion increases.
And a final though on impulsion; don’t ride with more energy than you or your horse and cope with.
Collection is the result of correct training, with a strong, supple, balanced horse that has self-carriage, can control his paces and respond instantly to his rider. It is developed over years from methodical training, starting with correct circles, where you begin to engage the inside hind leg and balance your horse, moving on to suppling the quarters and shoulders through carefully selected lateral work, and then developing strength and impulsion.
Classical collection comes from the horse engaging the hind leg under his body which results in a lightening of the forehand. The degree to which you can see this engagement depends on the level of training and the horse’s conformation. Some horses show a distinct lowering of the quarters, and the lightening of the fore hand is easy to see. For other horses, the change in the quarters is not so evident, but this does not mean that the horse is not collected; you can see the same qualities in both horses, just displayed differently.
A horse that is heavy in the hand and has weight in the shoulder is not collected, regardless of the perceived action in the legs. The hind leg should appear to be working under the hips, not out under the tail, the back should not be hollow or braced and the fore hand should have a lightness and freedom of movement through the shoulder with the neck stretching forward from the withers.
The ultimate expression of collection is in the “decente de main” and “decente de jambes”, most easily seen in piaffe, where the rider lowers the hands and releases the contact and lightens the action of the legs, while the horse remains in the same piaffe.
Collection is the result of the careful development of a horse through training, ensuring each stage is correctly developed, creating a supple, balanced, strong horse, able to control their impulsion and therefore able to respond instantly to the riders aids. If you rush the early training, you will have problems in the more advanced work.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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