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.
Following on from my previous blog on circles, this time we are focusing on riding a serpentine. A Serpentine is a very useful exercise for all horses regardless of their level of training.
In young horses, a well ridden serpentine creates suppleness and responsiveness to the rider’s aids. By developing the positive reaction to the rider’s inside leg aid horses learn to release their ribs rather then brace them against the rider’s leg.
For more advanced horses a serpentine can be used to set up lateral movements and a few lateral steps can be inserted into the serpentine itself, developing more suppleness and engagement in your horse.
The simplest serpentine is a 3 looped serpentine. The key points to consider when riding serpentine:
There are several variations of serpentine that you can use. They all start at either A or C, in the middle of the short side of the school, and finish at the other end of the school, in the middle of that short side.
1. A 4 looped serpentine increases the difficulty as the loops are smaller and can be ridden when your horse is moving easily round a 3 looped serpentine.
2. Riding a serpentine with 3 squared loops in walk increases the difficulty and helps to improve the engagement of the haunches. You can then start to add a few steps of shoulder fore as you ride along the track.
3. A serpentine that loops back on itself, rather than going straight across the school, can be very useful as they give you more time to create a well-balanced circle at the top of each loop. To ride this shape, begin as for a normal serpentine, and continue the curve of the loop for a few steps more so that you come straight to change the bend heading back down the school. Each loop becomes a ¾ circle shape.
4. For more advanced horses you can ride a 3 looped serpentine in shoulder-in. Either doing a few steps of shoulder-in through the top part of the loop or maintaining shoulder -in throughout the whole serpentine. Well ridden this will improve your horse’s engagement and suppleness.
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.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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