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!
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.
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.
The shoulder-in is one of the most useful exercises for your horse; it supples both the shoulders and the quarters, and brings the inside hind leg under the belly of the horse which helps to engage his quarters and lighten the forehand. Of course, none of this happens if the movement is not ridden correctly.
To prepare your horse for shoulder-in
Firstly, your horse should be well balanced on a circle and able to move away from the rider’s inside leg. It is usual to begin this with leg yield, but this can make horses twisted. As an alternative either start this using in hand work or do quarters out of the circle.
In shoulder-in it is important that the horse is bent throughout his body. The degree of angle will depend on the horse’s level of training and conformation. The exercise should be ridden slowly, and in walk the steps should not be too wide or the horse’s back will become hollow. You should feel the horse’s weight remains on the inside hind, not the outside shoulder.
Shoulder-in is created in the corner so your horse should come out of the corner well balanced and in a good rhythm. You should feel as though he is offering the movement to you. If not, continue on a circle and set things up again. If the movement doesn’t go well, ride out of it and start again. It is more important to have a few very correct steps then many incorrect steps.
The rider should sit well-balanced in the centre of the saddle. It is very easy to allow your body to tip to the inside, which will unbalance the horse. Move the horse’s shoulders over by a slight movement of the hands to the inside; don’t pull the inside rein as this will block the horse.
Using light touches with the inside leg, step the inside hind leg across and use half halts to help the horse stay on the line. Once the horse understands the movement, the rider should stay quiet in the saddle, moving with the horse, and be attentive to the steps, ready to make a correction if needed.
Reasons for loss of impulsion or travelling
Too steep angle
The degree of the angle will depend on the conformation and suppleness of your horse. Have a smaller angle to start with and only ask for two or three steps. Build the number of steps and degree of angle as your horse becomes more supple.
Horse not round inside leg
In this instance the horse will brace against the rein and either drop to the outside shoulder and travel down the wall with a straight body and twisted neck, or they will step the inside hind leg forward, not across, and then they will travel forward away from the wall. Correct this by riding a very accurate circle to set the movement up again. Keep the inside rein soft and don’t use it to create either the circle or the shoulder-in.
Rider not sitting correctly, usually leaning to the inside, or tipping forward.
Not sitting correctly puts the horse out of balance; they will not be able to step sideways and the movement will travel forwards. If the rider tries to hold the shoulder-in through the reins, the horse may stay on the side but will be twisted in the neck, not bent through the body. The rider’s position should be slightly turned to the inside (hips and shoulders mirroring the horse’s hips and shoulders), closing the body towards the outside elbow to keep the balance and prevent leaning to the inside.
Horse does not bring the inside hind leg under sufficiently
This error is very dependent on the suppleness and conformation of the horse. Some horses find it easier to have a large angle in shoulder-in, others (such as a cob) may find the angle needs to be smaller and in this case the hind legs may not cross. What is important is that the shoulder-in is ridden correctly, then it will have a good suppling effect.
The horse will hollow if the steps are too big, or if the rider takes the inside rein as this blocks the inside hind. In shoulder-in the steps should be slow and unhurried; they should be small with the hind legs passing close together particularly in walk.
Left below - the horse is falling to the outside shoulder and the rider is twisted
Right below - horse is not round the inside leg, is hollow and resisting the rein.
François de la Guérinière was born in France in 1688 shortly after the death of William Cavendish. De la Guérinière was the director of an equestrian establishment in Paris for 15 years, and in 1730 he was appointed director at the Manege of the Tuileries, home of the royal equestrian academy. He held this position for over 20 years until his death in 1751.
During this time he wrote “The School of Horsemanship” and the complete book was published in 1733. Building on the work of previous masters of dressage, he developed shoulder-in on a straight line, which he states is the “alpha and omega of all exercises”.
The School of Horsemanship is over 300 pages and covers all topics of equestrianism from naming the parts of the horse, to feeding and grooming to surgical procedures – not all of which we would agree with today! However, the section on training covers about 80 pages and is still very relevant for today’s rider.
He begins with discussing the correct riding position and how it is important for the rider to be able to give correct aids and remain in balance with their horse. He observes that there are riders who have not spent time developing a good posture to the detriment of both the horse and the art of riding.
It is important to note that he agrees with William Cavendish that different horses need different training depending on the temperament, conformation and intended final use of the horse. He views dressage as an art and throughout these pages he often refers to the need to observe the horse and train according to the nature of the horse. The qualities of a well-trained horse are suppleness, obedience and precision, as this horse is able to respond to the rider with ease and grace, and has no difficulty responding to the rider.
The section dealing with the hands and reins is slightly more difficult to transpose into today’s riding as he describes the use of a double bridle with the reins held in one hand, however there are some important details that we can learn from his description. He writes at some length about the action of the hand; a rider’s hand must be light, gentle and firm. A gentle feel being the primary contact, moving to either lighter of firmer, depending the aid needed, but always returning to the gentle contact. He is adamant that the hand should never move directly from a light contact to firm contact as this is too abrupt for the horse’s mouth and will provoke a resistance.
He defines the role of the rider’s leg as being used to control the body and quarters of the horse. A very long straight leg position with the lower leg resting close to the horse, with the thighs and calves turned inwards. So far, so easy, but he then says they must “be held firm in addition to being relaxed, for if they were not they would touch the horse’s belly incessantly, which circumstance would put the horse in a continual state of confusion.”
The remainder of this section gives a lot of other information. The timing of aids is important, as is the stillness of the rider in relation to the horse and the need for clarity in everything the rider does so as not to confuse the horse.
A well-timed, mild correction is most effective, as it preserves the good will of the horse, observing that horses make mistakes from misunderstanding or weakness, and if the trainer punishes them though anger or frustration it is likely to make the horse resistant to the rider, rather than respectful.
Trot was used extensively to build suppleness in horses, as this pace has a natural impulsion and uses all the muscles of the horse. The trot should not be used excessively, as the horse needs to have sufficient strength and energy in the work, and should not be worked until he is tired.
Famous for developing shoulder-in, de la Guérinière dedicates a chapter to the movement. He found that Cavendish’s exercise of quarters out on the circle created supple quarters in the horse, but could place them onto the forehand. It was this observation that led him to develop shoulder-in. He used shoulder-in to develop circular suppleness in the shoulders of the horse, which is needed to make turning easier and for lateral movements. He lists the benefits of shoulder-in as;
Following the work in shoulder-in de la Guérinière then moves on to croup to the wall, whereby the horse moves with the quarters towards the wall and the shoulders away. The horse should be curved round the rider’s leg in the direction of the movement.
However he advises that circles are still of benefit during all training, as they keep the horse supple and forward and can be used to refresh the horse after difficult exercises such as shoulder-in. De la Guérinière uses this movement as a natural progression from shoulder-in.
The book also covers passage, turns, changes of hand and offers some exercises and work patterns for riders to use.
Interestingly, he comes to the canter work late in the book. He agrees with other trainers of the period that horses should only canter once they have been made supple in the trot, so they do not lean on the reins. (I use correct trot work to improve a horse’s canter work.) De la Guérinière advised cantering only after “the horse is supple in its entire body, trained to the shoulder-in and croup to the wall, and is accomplished in the piaffe between the pillars” and then they will canter easily.
The canter should be short and energetic and created through impulsion, half halts, and “descente de main” (lowering of the hands and releasing the contact while the horse maintains the position). De la Guérinière deals with the various problems that a trainer may come across in canter, covering how to work horses with differing conformation and ability.
The final chapters deal with the voltes, pasades, pirouettes, terre-a-terre movements and the airs above the ground with a short paragraph dedicated to each.
When you pick up a copy of The Manual of Horsemanship it is a bit daunting to start to read, but see what you can glean from it. The first reading can be perplexing, but if you reread it you will begin to gain huge insights into classical techniques for training horses.
De la Guérinière’s legacy is that of a progressive training system, in line with the horse’s natural abilities, seeking to develop a light, calm and responsive horse. Although his book was written nearly 300 years ago, it is much easier to read than earlier books and the advice he gives on training horses is still applicable, and the criticisms he makes shows that there have always been conflicting ideas in the dressage world!
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.
Lateral work is essential in developing suppleness, balance and collection in your horse, and includes shoulder-in, travers, half pass and renvers. A correct shoulder-in, creates a horse with a lowered hind quarter and raised forehand. In the beginning, use shoulder-in to build a strong supple horse, and later use it to correct problems with more advanced movements. Incorrectly ridden, it only creates a crooked, blocked horse with weight in the forehand.
The movement shoulder-in is described in the book ‘A General System of Horsemanship’ by William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle published in 1600’s, and was seen as an exercise to supple horses. The following century François de la Guérinière’s work lead him to a full understanding of the benefits of shoulder-in, he also developed it’s use on a straight line.
A shoulder-in is created by moving the horses shoulders off the line of travel, and the horse continues in a sideways movement with his hind legs on the original line of travel and his body evenly bent round the rider’s inside leg.
I prefer to start teaching shoulder-in by using quarters out on the circle. Other trainers favour the use of leg yield or turn on the forehand, which are perfectly acceptable methods, but I find that these exercises can put weight back onto the horse’s shoulder, whereas quarters out on the circle keeps the forward movement, prevents weight dropping into the shoulders, mobilises the quarters and maintains better balance.
Quarters out on the circle can be started as soon as the horse has reasonably good balance on the circle. It is ridden by using the inside leg to send the quarters slightly out of the circle. This aid is supported by the outside rein and a slight turning of the rider’s body to the inside of the circle with a balanced seat.
In shoulder-in it is important that the horse is bent throughout his body, the degree of angle will depend on the horse’s level of training and conformation. The exercise should be ridden slowly, and in walk the steps should not be too wide or the horse’s back will become hollow, and you should feel the horse’s weight remains on the inside hind, not the outside shoulder.
The rider should sit well balanced in the center of the saddle, it is very easy to allow your body to tip to the inside which will unbalance the horse. Move the horse’s shoulders over by a slight movement of the hands to the inside, don’t pull the inside rein as this will block the horse. Use light touches with the inside leg step the inside hind leg across and half halts to help the horse stay on line. Once the horse understands the movement, the rider should stay quiet in the saddle, moving with the horse, and be attentive to the steps ready to make a correction if needed.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
Please CLICK HERE to read more about Horses and Riders I have been able to help with Classical Dressage Training