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)
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.
Watching competitive dressage at the highest level it’s easy to think that dressage is only for very big moving, talented warm blood horses, but dressage is simply schooling a horse. All horses do some training at some time and whilst dressage may not be their specialty, all can benefit from a basic level of schooling and training to reduce injury and create a responsive, more comfortable horse to ride.
It’s easy to dismiss a horse’s ability because he’s a 10 yo who has only hacked out, or has less than ideal conformation, or exhibits behavioural issues, but with a considered training programme issues like this can be overcome. The experience of working with many horses has shown me that with correct training horses can often achieve more than we think. (Have a look at the case studies to see more)
By working towards building suppleness and strength through correct development of lateral exercises, all horses can attain the basic lateral movements; shoulder-in, travers, half pass and renvers, in walk and trot.
Training must consider the horse’s conformation, along with the work they have previously done, their temperament and natural movement. When the horse is ready, introduce the exercises that build up to more advanced movements, starting with very simplified versions and developing the exercise as far as the horse allows.
By identifying the qualities required in a movement, it becomes easier to see that each horse gives a movement its own expression. For example, some horses have a steeper angle in lateral movements because they are naturally more supple than others. By looking to see that the horse has a consistent bend through their body, they do not lean to their shoulders and maintain an even rhythm, every horse can produce a good lateral movement, from a Shire X to a Lusitano to a 23 year old cob.
And all the others!
In my blogs earlier this year, I covered how to start working your horse in-hand and how to do circles in-hand. When the circles are balanced and easy, you can begin to ask your horse for some side steps. These side steps teach your horse to move their inside legs across the outside legs as a preparation exercise for lateral movements.
Come to the middle of the school and halt with your horse’s fore legs level. If they are not level, walk on and halt again. Then ask for a very small inside bend with the lunge line.
Use the whip to gently tap your horse’s inside hind leg until he moves it. You will need to balance him with the lunge line to prevent him from stepping forwards. At this stage it doesn’t matter how much he moves; some horses will lift a small amount, others will pick the leg up higher. Reward him when he moves the leg. If he becomes anxious, go back to some circles and try again another day.
Once your horse is lifting his hind leg up immediately when you touch it, you can ask him to step across by continuing to tap his leg once he has lifted it. When he steps it across the other hind leg, immediately stop tapping, halt (whip on the quarters) and reward him.
As always, some horses find this easy, others take more time to understand. If your horse is finding it easy, don’t be tempted to ask for too much too quickly. Take time to build his strength and suppleness. If he is finding it more difficult, go back to the work he is comfortable with and then try the side steps just once in each session, and if he doesn’t lift the leg it doesn’t matter. Don’t push things, patiently repeat the aid a little more robustly.
Continue to do single steps for a few days until your horse starts to offer the side step straight away, then you can ask for a second and third step.
As your horse steps across with his hind legs, you should allow his front feet to follow, crossing round a very small circle. Try to keep your feet moving round a small circle as well, not stepping backwards. If you plant your feet, you will block his movement and he will become twisted and stuck.
Take your time. Don’t expect it all on day one. Be satisfied with a calm lifting of the leg for day one and build it over several days; work in your horse’s time. When he is confidently offering the steps, allow him to make the movement for himself, and just make corrections.
The half pass is a lateral movement where the horse takes steps to the side and forward, moving in a diagonal line away from the starting point. Unlike shoulder-in, the horse is moving towards the bend, i.e. a left half pass has left bend. It is of great benefit to the suppleness of a horse and the engagement of the hind legs.
Half Pass essentials from the FEI rule book;
To ride half pass, the horse must be placed round the rider's inside leg and lightly connected to the outside rein. Evidence of a good half pass is arriving at the end of the movement with your horse still connecting from your inside leg to your outside rein. Many problems occur when the rider creates a half pass by using the inside rein to force the bend and the outside leg to push the horse in the direction, abandoning the inside leg and outside rein.
When the horse is able to do shoulder-in from the long side on to the centre line, you can begin some steps of half pass. Start with your horse in a shoulder fore or shoulder-in position. The degree of the angle depends very much on each the horse; for novice horses, have a shallow angle. The inside leg gives the bend, and then the outside leg, slightly behind the girth, pushes the horse to the side.
It is important for the inside rein to yield and the legs to alternately touch and release, or the horse will become blocked. The rider's shoulders should be turned slightly in the direction of the movement so they remain parallel to the horse's shoulders, and the rider's seat should be balanced across both seat bones.
The horse twists his head when:-
Usually these errors need to be corrected by going back a level in the training and spend some time placing the horse correctly around circles and shoulder-in, ensuring suppleness on both reins.
Then set up the half pass again, ensuring that you don't take the inside rein, as this prevents the inside hind leg from coming through and creates resistance on the inside rein, blocking the horse.
If the horse is stiffer on one side, return to shoulder-in to supple them more before starting half pass again.
Initially, you may need to ride half pass at a slightly shallower angle until your horse is comfortable in the movement, then you can gradually increase the angle and the number of steps.
Don't use your legs together as this will confuse your horse. If necessary, touch lightly with alternate legs, in rhythm with the movement of the horse.
A correct shoulder-in benefits your horse in several ways:
But when problems occur the benefits are lost and, in some instances, it can be detrimental to your training. In two of my previous blogs I have addressed some of the problems that can occur with riding shoulder-in: Loss of Impulsion and Travelling and Correcting Bend.
When shoulder-in has gone wrong it is usually better to ride out of the movement, set things up again and then come back to the exercise, paying attention to the necessary corrections as you start the movement.
Rider blocking the horse or behind the movement
If the rider sits to the inside during the movement, they will be moving against the direction of travel. Closing your body towards the outside elbow helps to maintain correct balance during the movement and release the horse’s inside hind leg, allowing it to cross under the body more easily. Be careful that you don’t sit too far to the outside or you will create a similar problem!
Asking for too much angle
Only ask for the angle that your horse can manage at that time. The exercise will supple your horse and the angle will increase as they become more supple. Also, be aware of your horse’s conformation; a short coupled, stocky horse will have different angles to those of a narrower horse.
Circles and shoulder-in are exercises to supple your horse, and so you must ensure you ride each side the same. On the easier side, ride with less angle, and, as your horse’s stiffer side supples more, the angles will even up and can be gradually increased.
Asking too many steps
Asking for too many steps before your horse is able to maintain them independently will be physically challenging for him, and he will lose the rhythm and angle. Build the number of steps progressively.
Asking for too much stretch
It can be tempting to push your horse for bigger steps in shoulder-in, which results in them running on, losing balance and negates the purpose of the exercise. Initially keep the steps small with the hind feet moving close together so your horse builds strength and suppleness.
François de la Guérinière
If a horse refuses to move sideways in one of the two directions, it is a sign that he has not been rendered supple enough on the opposite side.
…the shoulder-in means controlling the outside much rather than driving the inside.
Only when the horse is calm and confident can he give the rider his impulsive forces which the rider can then use at will.
Nuno Oliveira on Half Pass
François de la Guérinière
This exercise [shoulder in] has so many benefits that I regard it as the alpha and omega of all exercises for the horse which are intended to develop complete suppleness and perfect agility in all it’s parts.
In the shoulder-in hold your body against your outside elbow.
The most common fault made by riders in doing shoulder-in is to have the horse more bent in front of the wither (or saddle) than behind it. The horse must be the same in front of the withers (or saddle) as he is behind.
Correctly done the shoulder-in gives great results as it relaxes and straightens the horse.
The most important aid [in half pass] is given by the rider’s inside leg which pushes the horse forward and is responsible for correct bend.
The position of the [horse’s] head [in half pass] should be such that the neck is not more bent than the whole body.
Don’t exaggerate the bend in the half pass. Otherwise you block the inside shoulder.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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