For my blogs this year I am looking at some of the movements that we see at higher levels of competition and reviewing what is desired from the movement, and some of the problems that can occur.
This month I am looking at the sequence of flying changes at every stride performed by Edward Gal at the Dutch Dressage Championships in 2021. The full video of the test can be seen here at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzwxmnhGWvA&t=274s. The particular section I am discussing in this blog is a sequence of flying changes made at every stride which start at 4 minutes 15 seconds. For reference, below is the definition of a flying change from the FEI rules.
4.8 Flying Change of leg. The flying change is performed in one (1) stride with the front and hind legs changing at the same moment. The change of the leading front and hind leg takes place during the moment of suspension. The aids should be precise and unobtrusive.
Flying Changes of leg can also be executed at every 4th, 3rd 2nd or at every stride. The Horse, even in the series, remains light, calm and straight with lively impulsion, maintaining the same rhythm and balance throughout the series concerned. In order not to restrict or restrain the lightness, fluency and ground cover of the flying changes in series, enough impulsion must be maintained.
The main issue that can be seen with these flying changes is the impulsion being blocked by the rider’s hands. Impulsion has become the main force that dressage focuses on to the detriment of other qualities. Many horses now perform a flying change with weight in their forehand, disengaged haunches and a lack of lightness. This forces the horse to make the flying change by pushing up from their fore hand and swinging their haunches from side to side, not straight and effortlessly flowing as they should be. In a flying change the rhythm and tempo of the canter should not change and the horse’s legs should appear to switch effortlessly under their body with no upward bounce.
The issues with this sequence of flying changes begins with the turn on to the diagonal. At this point there is a backwards action on the inside rein, and the horse swings it’s head to the right (4 minutes 18 seconds). This is immediately followed by a heavy action on the left rein causing the horse to twist its nose to the left. These aids take the horse off balance immediately prior to the flying change sequence.
Throughout the sequence of changes, the rider maintains a backward pressure on the reins. This blocks the horse from coming through correctly with its hind legs, placing weight into the forehand and causing the horse to make the transition from one lead to the other by swing its haunches from side to side. (A) (B) (C) (D)
The rider continues to contract the horse through its head, neck and shoulders with a restrictive hand through the sequence of steps. This prevents the horse from flowing through with its hind legs and after a few strides, the 3-beat canter breaks down into a 4-beat canter. The horse makes more exaggerated movement in each stride, bouncing up from its front legs rather than swinging smoothly through. (E) (4 minutes 25 seconds).
Correct flying changes should be straight and flow through the horse’s body from the hind legs. This gives a smooth transition between the strides where the leg sequence changes effortlessly under the horse without the forehand leaping off the ground and preserves the 3-beat rhythm.
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.
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Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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