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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