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.
This year I have been kept busy as I continued to work with all my clients as well as welcoming some new ones. I said goodbye Jane and her lovely horse Lucy, who is now semi-retired. The work we have done has kept her fit and supple into her mid-twenties and although she is no longer able to have lessons, she still doing some gentle work.
The great joy of my work is training and developing new skills for horses and riders. Even as the days become colder and shorter, I still love to go out and teach, wrapped up in thermals and big coats! The range of horses that I teach is always interesting: some of the more advanced partnerships have begun their first steps of piaffe this year, whilst newer riders are mastering the art of riding a perfect circle (which is harder than you may think!). Seeing the relationship between horse and rider develop into good understanding of each other, and building their strength and skills together is one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do.
As the 1st of January approaches and we look forward to setting goals and targets for the new year, it can be enlightening to look back to see how far you have come from the very beginning. A frustrated rider with a horse who couldn’t go around a circle without falling in is now doing shoulder-in, the horse who could only canter on one lead is now cantering on both leads and working towards counter canter and the horse who spooked in every corner now works quietly in the school, offering his rider movements at every opportunity.
I wish you all a very merry Christmas and every success with your riding in 2020. Diane
By the way, if you are following the Monday quotes, you may have noticed I have repeated some previous quotes for December, because somethings cannot be said too often!
Nuno Oliveira often said that "The hands receive the work of the legs" and this succinct phrase sums up the very complicated and delicate connection between the rider’s hands and their legs. During my time at Oliveira's, I became very aware of the effects of the leg aids and how subtle they needed to be, not to mention the timing of the aids. Get it wrong and nothing happens, or you get an explosive reaction! Using your legs with the necessary tact takes time. It is not just the pressure from the legs that is important, but the timing of the aid, which varies for each horse.
For the horse to be light in the hand, the rider must give light leg aids. I sometimes work a horse in-hand with the rider, and I can feel instantly how the rider is using their legs from the feeling the horse gives my hands through the bit.
Heavy leg aids create heavy horses, and this can be easily seen. Often, if a horse is unresponsive to the rider's leg, the instinct is to use a stronger aid and repeat it until the horse moves. Whilst this can produce the desired result, when the leg is used in a strong manner, the horse often, braces their ribs against the leg and becomes more blocked and slows, or rushes off and hollows.
Having observed the responses of many horses to the leg aids, I encourage all riders to keep the leg aids as light as possible. If your horse is not responding, check that you are not blocking with your seat, back or hands, that your legs are softly against the horse and not gripping, as all these blocks will prevent your horse from moving. If necessary, use a light touch with the whip to support the leg aid and ensure that you allow your horse to go forward: they will be confused if you are asking them to go forward but blocking them with your seat or hands. If your horse has not responded, then a stronger leg aid may be needed but it should not become the normal aid - always return to a light aid afterwards.
Your position affects the aids, if you have an unbalanced seat, it is easy to allow your legs to become tight and grip harder to compensate for an unbalanced seat. Equally a rider with a balanced seat can give aids that are imprecise or poorly timed. It is important to be attentive to the pressure from your legs and the feeling of the horse’s ribs beneath them. Feeling the responses your horse gives to the aid will help you to learn the correct moment and pressure to use usually lighter that you think and then riding becomes invisible and harmonious.
Cookie was 10 years old when Catherine bought him, he was a retired show jumper and had been competing at a high level. She brought him to me for some lessons so that she and Cookie could have a good start together, however Cookie was showing some physical problems which were diagnosed as
“..a strain in his lumber sacral junction which left the pelvis and hind quarters compromised. This restriction has resulted in reduced support from the hind quarters for the rest of the body leading to reduced spinal suspension and a shift in the centre of gravity forward and down increasing the loading of the fore quarters to a degree.”
Cookie was moving with a high neck and head carriage, a hollow back, and the movement of his hind legs was very disconnected and unsteady, resulting in a very disengaged walk, and trotting exacerbated the problems.
Catherine had a good position and her work as a Feldenkrais practitioner gave her a very good feel for Cookie's movement and responses. We began with work to strengthen Cookie’s haunches, establishing very correct circle work and remaining in walk until Cookie was better balanced and moving correctly in his hind legs. Over the first few weeks, Cookie's balance improved, and he was able to release his neck, softening the muscles underneath.
As his suppleness and strength improved, he began to connect his fore hand and haunches more. We worked him round smaller circles which improved the action in his hind legs and the strength over his quarters. We introduced trot work, keeping the trot steps small, starting with a single circle and gradually building up the time he stayed in the pace.
Following on from this work, we used serpentines, counter flexions and spirals on circles to develop suppleness, strength and balance, resulting in a more connected horse. As Cookie understood the different requirements of the work, both physically and mentally, he began to develop a good frame, releasing the tension in his neck and back and developing some self-carriage.
The ridden work was complemented with some in-hand work and lunging to help him with his self-carriage. This work has not been without problems as he was initially very tense. With Catherine's patient approach, he is now working quietly and easily from the ground, further developing the engagement in his haunches and reducing the effort in his fore hand.
Cookie is mentally calmer and is finding his own rhythm; he engages his hind legs and is not relying on Catherine to hold him up.
Cookie's previous owner had said that he had been one of the most difficult horses to back, and even now, training Cookie is not straight forward, but with a steady, consistent and patient approach from Catherine, he continues to make progress with his new career.
The picture on the left shows Cookie before retraining, the one on the right shows him working towards a more balanced and relaxed way of going.
One of the most important things I learnt from Nuno Oliveira is that you cannot train each horse exactly the same way. Although there were many Lusitano horses at Mr Oliveira’s stables, we also trained other breeds, Selle Francais, Arabian, Russian Budyonny and Thoroughbred among others, and Mr Oliveira adapted his methods to suit each horse’s physical and mental needs throughout their training.
By closely observing the horse that I am working with I can see how and why they move in a particular way. Some things to look for are;
Choosing an appropriate exercise encourages the horse to release restrictions they may have by developing suppleness, strength and balance. Sometimes it is necessary to be a little creative and adapt an exercise or develop a new pattern of work that is more effective for the horse and if the exercise is not working as you expected, again analyse where the problem is and make the necessary changes or use a new exercise.
If the rider is not sitting well it has a huge impact on the way the horse moves. Working on the rider’s position, balance and aids is central to creating a horse that is well balanced and supple. If the rider is off balance their horse will be constantly adjusting his balance to compensate, and the rider’s aids will be unclear which leads to difficulty in communication.
Watch the horse continually and make small adjustments as necessary. Don’t expect too much, be satisfied with small improvements and give plenty of rests, tired horses become sour, and always reward their efforts.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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