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 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.
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.
In-hand work is a very useful method for helping horses develop the strength, suppleness and understanding of movements without the added weight of a rider. I also use this technique to help riders with difficulties in certain movements.
At the Quinta all our young horses were started using this in-hand method and by developing the basic work in hand before the rider was in the saddle. The whole process of starting the horse was calmer and simplified. They had the strength and balance to carry the rider more easily, and understood the basics; walking and halting, circles, stepping sideways, shoulder-in and rein back. Further on in their training, in-hand work was used to introduce the first steps of piaffe and passage.
There are two methods of working a horse in hand, and I use both in my teaching. The first is to work the horse from the ground by using the cavesson and the second is to work them using the reins. I start horses and riders using the cavesson because it is easier for both the horse and rider and is less harsh for the horse if the rider makes a mistake.
The model for the pictures is a young pony who is learning in hand work as part of being backed.
Use the lunge cavesson and whip with the long end wound up round the whip handle. Stand in front of, and to the side of your horse, so that you can see all of him and he can see past you.
The lunge line should be safely looped up and held close to the cavesson. Have your elbow near your side so you can control your horse on the cavesson.
Hold the whip in your other hand. Have the handle in the palm of your hand so you can rotate your wrist, and hold it pointing it down towards the floor when you are not using it, and raise it gently when you use it.
Keep yourself on the inside; don’t step across your horse or allow him to step across you.
When you are walking, you need to step backwards and at the same speed as he does– but he should not rush past you. Use a light flick on the lunge line against the cavesson to slow him down. Keep your shoulders soft and your elbows bent, a lot of riders let the horse go past them and then they lose control of the horse, or hold their hand close to themselves which draws the horse’s head inwards, pushing the horse towards the outside shoulder.
Some horses are very wary of the whip, so you can use a schooling whip or just your hand if they are more settled like that.
Walking and Halting
The first thing to teach your horse is to stop. This is done by gently placing the whip on his quarters but first you need to acclimatise him to this. He already understands the lunging instructions and so start by using these voice directions.
Gently encourage him to walk forwards, stepping back at the same time and speed that he does (some horses can be confused when you stand in this position, but gently encourage them to walk and they will move forward.)
Then, using your voice only, ask him to halt. If he does not stop you can use a small jiggle on the cavesson to help. Try to keep the tension out of your body and just hold the whip softly, pointing down. It’s very important that this work is done calmly and quietly. Your horse will take triggers from your voice, body position and the whip (as well as any noises from outside!)
When he has taken a few steps, ask him to halt, again using your voice. You need to stop walking backwards when your horse stops. If you stop before he does he will walk straight past you!
When he stops, give him a pat. Repeat this a few times until you are both comfortable with walking and stopping.
Now you can introduce the idea that the whip is asking for halt. We do this through 3 steps. Firstly, ask your horse to walk and then ask your horse to halt by the wall or fence.
When your horse is quietly standing, very gently raise the whip up and rest it on his quarters. Some horses move away from the whip because they understand that this is what the whip indicates. Quietly lower the whip and ask them to stand again using your voice and repeat the raising of the whip to the quarters.
Once your horse is standing quietly from your voice command and doesn’t move when you raise the whip to his quarters, you can start to lift the whip while he is walking.
Ask your horse to walk on and then, using your voice ask him to halt and at the same time, raise the whip to his quarters. Repeat this several times until he is quietly halting as you use both your voice and the whip together. You can support this with a light feel on the cavesson, but don’t rely on this aid.
If he becomes anxious at any time, go back to the previous step.
Once he is stopping confidently from both your voice and the whip, start to bring the whip up before you use the voice command. You are looking for him to stop from the whip movement and your voice becomes a supplement to confirm the action. Look for the moment when your horse stops as you bring the whip up, before it touches his quarters!
Some horses pick this up very quickly, whereas others take a few sessions. It’s important that you don’t rush things. This work it takes as long as it takes, especially if both you and your horse are learning together.
Again, if at any point your horse becomes anxious, go back to the level he was comfortable with and repeat that step until he is calm again.
Common problems that riders find with this technique are:
Sometimes it is because the aid you are giving is too big or the whip is not still.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer
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