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.
Riding good circles achieves many things; stretching and strengthening the horse on both sides; starting to engage their inside hind leg; placing them round the rider’s inside leg; developing balance, suppleness and strength. Good trainers never underestimate the importance of riding correct circles.
Nuno Oliveira always rode a few circles on each rein at the start of a training session regardless of the level of the horse, and the always had to be
“a correct geometric circle, not a potato or a egg.”
Different trainers use slightly differing aids for circles, but some general points to consider are:
Start with some basic exercises, beginning with some circles on each rein. Make them small enough so that your horse makes a little more effort, but not so small that he loses his balance.
Then come into the middle of the school and ride some changes of bend from one circle to another. Try to feel how your horse copes with the changes and adjust the size of the circle accordingly. Keep the changes of bend in balance; have a few steps straight before asking for the new bend.
Throughout the session, use circles to help re-balance and engage your horse to set them up for the next exercise.
In the pictures below, the chestnut horse on the left is correctly positioned round the rider’s inside leg and is bending though his body to create a balanced circle. In the picture on the right, the rider has pulled the inside rein back, blocking the horse’s inside hind from coming though and pushing the horse onto their outside shoulder with braced ribs.
When the winter weather making riding increasingly difficult, here is a suggestion on how to work your horse when you are short of time (or it's too cold to spend much time outside!). Often, when time is scarce, it is tempting to try to do everything as fast as possible to fit it all in, but this is a great opportunity instead to work on the basics. For novice horses, time spent confirming and consolidating the basics is invaluable, and more advanced horses benefit from a session focused on basic exercises to give them a mental and physical rest.
When time is short, stay in walk. For more advanced horses you can work in a collected walk or use school walk. Start with some simple circles on each rein. These can be 20m, going down to 8m depending on your horse. Be attentive to the quality of the circle so your horse engages their inside hind leg well and holds their balance across their shoulders.
From there you can do spirals, serpentines, shallow loops and figures of 8. Then come to the middle of the school and ride some circles changing from left to right as you feel your horse needs. If your horse is ready for lateral work; ride some lateral movements on the sides of the school as well as in the middle, making smooth changes from one movement to the next.
Twenty minutes of correct work like this will exercise your horse well and be far more beneficial than lots of trotting or cantering, and will show benefits in later work as your horse will be more balanced and supple.
To round off 2018, I held an evening get together for my clients as an opportunity to meet each other and talk about horses in the warm instead of the cold outside! As part of the evening, I gave 3 short talks on different aspects of dressage training and touched on the idea of having realistic goals for our training going into the new year.
Whether you are a resolution maker or not, in January our thoughts tend to turn towards the things we would like to do in the coming months, so this month’s blog is about setting goals. Goals give us a direction for training, especially if we are working a lot on our own, but often it is our expectations that can be the limiting factor, either by expecting too much or too little. I don’t want to limit your ambitions, but expecting your 5-year-old to be doing piaffe in a year is probably overly ambitious, as is thinking that your 12-year-old hunter can come into the school and piaffe in a month.
A long-term goal gives you a direction to develop the qualities your horse needs to be able to reach that level, and often - even if you don’t achieve your original goal - correctly working your horse through the development exercises can produce something different that is equally good.
Understanding the qualities that you need to develop for your horse allows you to have a plan that can be broken down into manageable steps, so that you have short term stages that will build to the larger goal e.g. shoulder-in will be difficult until your horse has good balance on a circle. So, if your goal is to ride shoulder-in, the work must go into preparing it through correct circles.
Remember that training is never a straight line; as you advance your training your horse will ask questions of you, and the good news is that if you have done the ground work correctly you will find the answer in an exercise you have already done.
A few points to keep in mind:
Christmas is upon us again and as we approach the end of 2018 it’s a good time to reflect on the past year and all that our horses have brought into our lives. Good or bad, our lives would be much poorer without them.
I wish you all a very happy Christmas and New Year and a successful 2019.
Jill has owned Thomas for several years and they first came to one of my clinics with an interest in doing some in-hand work. Having done some Parelli work together Jill wanted to expand her knowledge and develop new techniques of working horses from the ground.
We built on the knowledge they shared with the basic in-hand technique using the cavesson, working on circles and developing side steps and shoulder-in. With the understanding they already had we progressed quickly to shoulder-in on a circle to supple Thomas through his haunches and build his strength.
We changed to using the bridle and introduced more exercises to further develop Thomas’s suppleness and strength. Through this work Thomas developed a lovely light shoulder-in.
From there we introduced some more demanding exercises such as rein back to trot transitions and shoulder-in to renvers transitions, that were designed to continue to build Thomas’s strength and maintain his suppleness. As this improved we were able to ask for more impulsion in his trot, and carefully developed transitions through rein back to halt to walk, rein back to trot transitions and lengthening and collecting in trot to create a more athletic pace whilst keeping his confidence in the requests.
As Thomas’s collection and impulsion improved we worked through smaller trot circles, and trot to halt to trot transitions with attention to detail so he understood the requests and had time to process them. These exercises developed clarity and subtly and encouraged Thomas to engage his haunches as preparation for more advanced movements.
Through this work, Thomas lowers his haunches and engages his haunches well, maintaining his self-carriage. Jill is able to release and regain the contact in trot in "descente de mains" and we can now ask for a small piaffe step.
The focus was to create a strong supple horse whilst maintaining clarity and subtly with the aids. We continue to develop greater collection in his trot towards more piaffe steps and use the lateral work to develop better self-carriage and cadence in the school walk.
There have been times, particularly in the early days where Thomas found the work difficult and it required a lot of patience from Jill to bring Thomas through those phases without creating problems. Through consistent, careful work Thomas is now a strong, confident horse and we are continuing to develop his more advanced work.
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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