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)
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.
Whilst a lot of time is spent thinking about which bit to use, nose bands tend to be used solely to keep a horse’s mouth shut. Mostly riders use a flash or a cavesson, done up tightly to prevent the horse from opening its mouth. Apart from the obvious physical pain and harm that this inflicts on a horse, it masks a very important communication channel between a horse and their rider.
The art of dressage riding is to finesse the communication between the horse and rider so that, to an observer, the rider appears to be doing nothing. Part of achieving this is having the horse soft and mobile throughout their work, and the horse’s mouth is a very good reflection the level of that relationship between horse and rider.
For example, if a horse is finding an exercise difficult or feels too much pressure from the rider’s hands, this will show first through the horse’s mouth with blocks such as fixing the jaw, opening the mouth or putting their tongue over the bit.
Tightening the nose band to prevent this behaviour does not solve the problem. Unable to express himself via his mouth, horses often become harder in the jaw and the tension occurs elsewhere in his body. As the stress ripples throughout the horse’s body, blocks can often be seen in the horses neck, back and hind legs.
The solution is to change what you are doing, rather than increasingly tightening the nose band. It may be as simple as modifying an exercise slightly, or you may need to look a bit deeper at how you are asking. Riding with a softer hand and working more tactfully from your seat and back or with your leg.
The connection between bit and rider’s hands should always be the weight of the reins. For very skilled riders, the slightest tension in the horse’s mouth is felt in their hands, and they make appropriate adjustments to make the horse comfortable. With a nose band that is done up tightly, the horse is unable to speak to the rider and training becomes an exercise in force.
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.
Shoulder-in is the aspirin of dressage – Nuno Oliveira.
In his book, School of Horsemanship, published in 1733, François de la Guérinière describes shoulder-in as the alpha and omega of all exercises for developing suppleness and agility in horses. An exercise used by classical dressage trainers for centuries, unchanged and instantly recognisable, it is one of the earliest lateral movements taught to horses.
Well ridden, shoulder-in provides major benefits in the schooling of horses, essentially the suppling of the horse’s shoulders, preparation for the horse to be placed into their haunches and it trains the horse to move away from the rider’s leg.
The basic principle of shoulder-in is that the horse brings their shoulder away from the line of travel, with the hind legs remaining on the line of travel, and then the horse proceeds stepping slightly sideways in the original direction. The angle may vary from horse to horse, depending on their conformation, suppleness and level of training, but all shoulder in shoulder exhibit the same qualities.
Common faults are;
Have a look at the pictures below, the horses are in the same stride in shoulder-in, but the pictures look quite different. Both horses show a good degree of suppleness but the horse on the right has disengaged his haunches, hollowed his back and is dropping towards his outside shoulder.
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.
Following on from circles and the serpentine exercises, another useful movement is to ride shallow loops. These are performed down the long side of school and can vary in depth from 2 metres to 10 metres. These are used to supple and strengthen your horse and great attention needs to be taken on the quality of the changes of bend.
A basic shallow loop
2. Increase the depth of the loop so your horse has to turn more through the loop.
3. Introduce some lateral steps to the work. Begin by riding off the track with a well-balanced inside bend. Keeping the same bend, move down the inner track, parallel to the wall in a slight shoulder fore position. At the end either go straight towards the short side or move back to the track with an inside bend, taking care to ensure that your horse does not drop to their outside shoulder.
4. This can then be developed further to a few steps if shoulder-in. I find that this exercise works well with horses who tend to try to run through their riders’ aids when shoulder-in is asked on the long side.
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.
This is a simple exercise and prepares the horse and rider for shoulder-in. It also develops suppleness, teaches control of the rein aids and places the horse from inside leg to outside rein and developing the on off aids. The exercise is hard to do well and requires consistent riding and aids.
This can be started when your horse is balanced round circle, responsive to your aids, and when you have good control of your leg aids and a balanced seat and soft hands
Start the exercise with a shallow bend and then gradually increase the bend as your horse's strength improves. Teach the exercise in walk to give you both time to understand it and then progress on to trot.
Over bending or horse drops to outside shoulder. Usually caused by the rider using too much inside rein. Keep your inside rein light and turn your shoulders slightly to the inside.
Your horse moves off track with insufficient bend. It may be that the inside rein is too tight, blocking the inside hind leg from moving, or that your horse has braces their ribs against your leg. Correct this by ensuring that you are correctly balanced, then close your body slightly towards your outside elbow.
If your horse becomes very contracted and short, check the balance of your rein aids and, if you are in walk, circle and stretch your horse softening the inside rein. If you are in trot, ride straight forward and ask for a little lengthening with a loose rein
Some horses have weak necks, and so their neck moves a lot. Ensure that your inside rein does not take back and support the movement delicately with your outside rein so they move from your inside leg to your outside rein.
This simple exercise provides many benefits for both horse and rider, creating more suppleness, starting to engage the inside hind, teaching the light connection to the outside rein and beginning to move away laterally from the rider's inside leg.
A basic spiral exercise can be started once your horse understands how to form a correct circle. The circles don’t need to be perfect, but the rider needs to be able to correct any mistakes well.
The variations for this exercise are many, and you can decide what to do during the exercise depending on how your horse feels. One thing that is important to remember is that if you have planned to do a specific series of movements, but your horse does not feel ready, change your plans for something easier. If your horse feels better than you expected, change your plans to something more advanced!
All variations improve the connection from inside leg to outside rein if ridden correctly.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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