Plan for success in Training

The importance of planning for successful dressage.

Start planning for success and it will be far easier to achieve the things you want. Highly effective riders tend to have clear goals and use a defined process to reach those goals. Planning for optimal health and fitness (human and equine) is essential, as is deciding on a strategic competitive campaign, but the element I am going to focus on here is the training plan. Selecting the right help and varying the intensity to suit your specific needs are the keys to smart planning.

First define why you want to be in training.

The frequency, intensity and duration of the training will depend a lot on the goals a rider sets. The resources you need will be different for each scenario. These are just a few of the ways in which I have defined my own and some of my clients training needs over the years. There are probably other and better ways in which you would define your specific needs; the idea is not for you to use my framework but to think about defining your own. Hopefully this kind of analysis will give you an idea of who you need to see, when, how often and why.

  1. General steady progress – for example a rider who wants to be as good as they can be but is not necessarily very ambitious. This is ideal if you are a rider who enjoys improvement for it’s own sake and likes learning. This need is best met by regular but not necessarily frequent tuition, with occasional clinics to for extra inspiration and a fresh perspective.
  2. Continual accelerated progress – for the ambitious rider who wants to reach a very high level of competence during their lifetime. If lifetime learning at a high level is an idea that appeals then this approach is probably for you. This means basing yourself with a coach, ideally in a high performance training environment where you are one of several riders in training. Training several times per week on as many horses as possible is the ideal scenario. If that is not affordable it still makes sense to be in that environment, train when you can and the rest of the time watch all of the lessons and daily training that you are able to.
  3. Goal Specific (with a short term focus) – this is for times when there is a competition or event imminent. For this the best plan is to base your horse with a coach but not necessarily long term. Make sure the focus is on preparation for the specific event in question, it is no time to start making radical changes. Combine work with your horse and work on schoolmaster horses if you can because this will give you the opportunity to practice whatever you need to work on frequently without driving your horse to distraction.
  4. Goal Specific (with a medium term focus) – when a competition or event is planned within a time frame of several months. Generally speaking you will need to step up the frequency of coaching as you get closer to the event. If you need to make structural changes to your riding or your horse’s way of going then carefully consider whether the time frame is realistic; if you decide that it is, then begin with an intense burst of training and schedule another for the last month leading up to the event. In between times try to see a coach twice each week at least.
  5. Trouble shooting – when you have a problem with a specific horse, a movement, an issue of confidence or anything else that blocks progress in clearly defined way. These situations need customised solutions. What is common to them all is finding someone supportive to help you. Problems make us vulnerable and that means the person we need is not only an expert but an emotionally intelligent one. The best advice I can give is do your research and choose wisely, especially if it is a problem with a horse. Trailing a horse that has issues around several different experts usually deepens the problem. Find someone you trust and then give them enough time to really make a difference.

Decide on the type of help that you will need to access.

This is a very important step because few of us can just throw unlimited time and money at our riding. Even when there are very few constraints it is still valuable to plan; when your resources are very limited then you really need a strategy in order to make the best of them.

Coaches and clinicians are often specialists in a particular aspect of dressage. As I have mentioned before I have ‘go to’ people for meeting specific needs. You may find one coach who can help you with everything but I like to identify specialists in a few key areas

  • Training young horses
  • A seat and balance specialist
  • A test riding specialist (a judge is often a wise choice for this)
  • Jumping coaches for cross training the horses

This is in addition to working with a regular coach and riding in clinics. Finding the right coach or coaches to work with is vitally important to make progress. Personality fit is at least as important as expertise. It is important to appreciate the difference in teaching style that exists between coaching and giving a clinic. When I start to coach a rider I will often take their riding apart and put it back together; this is an in depth process which can effect radical change and unlock the doors to higher levels and better quality work. As a clinician I simply cannot do that. In clinics I tend not to make much in the way of significant changes to the rider. My focus is firmly on the horse. This is because I cannot be sure that there is enough time for me to put things back together again and let them go home feeling that it was a positive experience. Making big changes to how you ride is definitely the job of a coach rather than a clinician. This is one reason why it is a major mistake to substitute riding in clinics regularly for regular coaching. Worst of all is the idea that competing often and working on the feedback of a judges sheet is a viable alternative to coaching. This would hardly work if you saw the same judge every time; as you are likely to see different judges it will never give you a reliable idea of your progress. Seeing your percentages rise is indicative of progress, as a general trend, but it is a rather hit and miss way to train.

Consider the resources available to you.

We all work with different constraints. Location, finances, time, health and other commitments in our lives impose limitations. The ideal scenario for making progress with your horse may be impossible for any number of reasons but sit down and work out how to make the best of the resources you do have.

Know your budget and how it can fluctuate from month to month. Set aside a realistic portion for your training and work out how much that represents per year. The bulk of this will be spent on working with your regular coach but it does not have to be evenly distributed throughout the year. I take December, January and August out of the equation because I rarely get enough peace through those months to train consistently. Consider the actual value of any big ticket items like high profile clinics or training breaks abroad; they may be expensive but they may also be highly beneficial, inspirational experiences. However if you think they are not going to represent real value for money then cut them out.

Consider the possibility of competing less frequently and using the money you save to access more training. In my experience the better the rider the more strategic and sparing they are with their competitive outings. Get out frequently enough to keep you and your horse at ease with the competition environment but beyond that set distinct goals and make a competition plan for the year that enables you to reach them. Sinking more of your resources into coaching means that when you do go out next there will be a visible difference in the quality or even the level of your performance.

If time, rather than money, is the thing you are short of then consider focusing your training into intensive short courses. This is particularly helpful if childcare or eldercare is needed in order to let you relax and focus on your horse. Block out a day or two when you can and get training on several horses instead of having two lessons a week through the month. I find this approach is sometimes easier than fitting in regular training sessions. If work is really not letting you spend the time you want to on training then taking a coaching holiday might be a good idea. Book some holiday time and head off to a training yard, with or without your horse for an intensive and hopefully also a fun break.

Look for creative solutions to help meet your training needs.

My ideal is to be based with a coach and to participate in clinics several times a year. I have worked out that my optimal schedule is to have three or four training days each week and ride as many horses under instruction as I can afford to. This is expensive and frankly it isn’t always possible. When there have been times that I could not sustain this level of training I found it really difficult to stay motivated.

  • I found the best way round this was to engage the help of a another rider, a training buddy, who could give me accurate feedback. Sharing space with good riders helps you to keep your edge and your motivation. If you find someone you get along with well then support one another in training by being each others ‘eyes on the ground’. I have learned a lot from being in this role for some of my coaches in the past. For me it starts to recreate the collegiate environment of a professional training yard, which is where I am happiest.
  •  Having regular video footage taken of your work is a great help too. This is particularly useful if the people around you are not riders who know enough to give you constructive help. Keep the footage for at least a year because it is great to look back over and see how much you have changed. When you watch it don’t be harsh on yourself, as we all tend to be; instead look at it as though the person on the screen were your pupil rather than yourself. Self awareness is the key to learning but self criticism can be destructive if it is excessively harsh. One of the best bits of advice I was ever given was to be proud of the rider I am today as well as to be aware of the rider I want to become in future.
  • Offer to write for judges. This is useful in itself but it often leads to being invited along to sit in, which means you are free to look up and watch for a change! So long as you save any questions for the end and are totally discreet about any conversations you have with the judge it is a learning opportunity not to miss. If you don’t know anyone who judges the best thing is to get in touch with a regional or national federation and volunteer.
  • Audit at as many clinics as you can and go along to seminars when possible. Federations and clubs often have training events available at subsidised rates. There is a wealth of information out there for little or no money at all; some of the best books about dressage can be bought as older editions for pennies. Online resources have become increasingly abundant and it is even possible to have your work assessed remotely by expert teachers. Whilst this doesn’t give you the instant feedback that a coach on the spot would be able to, it is a useful training tool nonetheless.

Dressage can be a seriously expensive pursuit but, whatever your budget may be, training really is a core priority. Getting the best out of the resources you have at your disposal is one of the keys to successful and happy training. With good training experiences comes confidence  and that is the most vital ingredient in success.

Key Skills for Lateral Work

Key Skills for the dressage rider.

Quite a few articles in the ‘Better Dressage’ series are about riding lateral work. It is a huge part of the process of training your horse. Learning to ride all of the movements, even if that means going for some lessons on a schoolmaster horse, will be a very sound investment. Think of them as a toolkit; more options increases the odds of successful training. What I would like to do here is to look at one of the skills which underpins those movements and the way we transition between them.

In a previous article, Better Dressage – Shoulder In, I talked about the change of flexion being the crux of an exercise and touched briefly on the importance of this moment to many movements. In fact all of the most difficult aspects of dressage training can be broken down and made relatively simple by recognising the key skills involved. The way you change the flexion and bend is one of the most important.

For several years I was lucky enough to ride in a school equipped with pillars. Of course I learned about their correct use for work in hand but some of the other things I learned were how to ride movements accurately and avoid riding straight at them or hitting my kneecaps on them! One important lesson from that time was to internalise the mantra for changing bend – “Flexion, Weight & Leg” in that order, without fail, without exception, for every movement from a simple figure of eight to tempi changes. I developed an idea of using the pillars as an ally, two blocks or cones will do just as well though.

So here is a statement of the obvious: your horse is going to pass between the pillars, or cones, head first and tail last. This is obvious but important. Ride a circle to the left and pass between the cones. After a couple of circuits you are going to circle away to the right to make a figure of eight. The spine of your horse has been adapted to the left bend and there is no straight section to ride between one circle and the other. Left bend is going to become right bend, one vertebra at a time as it passes through the gateway of cones. This is how I used the pillars – simply to remind me that a change of bend is always progressive, from front to back through the horse’s body, one vertebra at a time. Thus it takes the space of one body length to change the bend. What this stopped me doing was ‘flinging’ my horses carelessly and quickly from one bend to the other. It was shortly after focusing on this that I managed my first really controlled one tempi changes – without the back end flying from side to side. I also felt improvements in the way I rode zig zags. I had always known that good basics were important but the significance of them really started to sink in. Difficult things got easier, became more correct and my inner perfectionist stopped giving me such a hard time.

Before looking at the rider’s aids in more detail it is useful to contrast two of the movements I’ve already mentioned, the 6, 8 or 10 meter figure of eight on the one hand and the flying change on the other. I have chosen them because they both involve this key skill but they are at opposite ends of a spectrum; one involves a lot of bend and the other involves only a change of flexion and the barest hint of lateral positioning. Consider the difference between them and you will see that in learning to change bend systematically you will also increase your awareness of how much bend you are creating and controlling through your aids. It should also help you to appreciate when the bend is uniform and when perhaps the horse has ‘broken’ the neck at the wither.

In most cases this will be a reworking of something that you have probably been doing for years. Just as a tennis or golf coach has to slow us right down in order to clean up the mechanics of our practiced actions, so must a rider follow a similar process. Slow down, clean up and then speed up again with the new improvements in place. So back to how we change the bend, starting at the poll and working through the body of the horse.

Flexion.

There are two ways to change the flexion, to give and to take. The first is by far the best when you are in motion, especially when the gait has a moment of suspension. At halt and at walk I will ask for poll flexion with a very careful inside rein aid. I usually raise my hand to be sure that I am talking to the lips and corner of the mouth, never the bars, and I vibrate the rein finger until I get a response and can see the inside eye socket of the horse. The reins are very light throughout. This is how I work flexions to release tension in muscles around the poll and jaw, it is not how I create flexion in ordinary ridden work. Think of that as part of the warming up or when tension manifests itself as a problem. Ordinarily, in walk, trot and canter, I allow the flexion to change by permitting it through the outside rein rather than asking for it with the inside rein. The contact through both reins remains intact but a fractional change in the muscles of the outside hand constitutes a little yield. The poll flexion will change as a result.

If your horse has tensions in the poll area, you might meet with a limited response. If your horse needs a bit of help to get the concept you could combine a light vibration through the inside rein with the micro yield of the outside rein. Then precede the inside rein vibration with the small yield of the outside rein and see how soon the horse picks up on the precursor to the aid.

“The precursor to the aid is what eventually becomes the aid”

The clever horse will soon be responding to the precursor to the precursor to the aid and that is where we start to suffer from anticipation! In this case you will need to get good at keeping your outside rein light but very steady.

Weight.

Changing your weight is mostly about changing your shoulder alignment. To see how this works you can sit at halt with your eyes closed and turn your shoulders to one side. You will feel an increase of weight in the seat bone on that side. Turn the other way and you will feel the same thing on that side. Usually that is all of the weight aid you will need, so the second part of this process is called a weight change but it is more often than not simply a change of your shoulder alignment.

Should that not be enough then you can think about a little ‘step’ over the new inside stirrup with the ball of your foot. Imagine you are pressing a button on the stirrup tread. Alternatively it can help to imagine your inside knee just got heavier. Two things to remember as you turn your shoulders

For the purposes of riding horses your shoulders are a single entity, they move as a pair and keep their alignment relative to one another constant. Seat and balance exercises on the lunge line often focus on our arms being out to the sides on circles. This helps the shoulders to work together and it helps them to remain at the same height.
Your relaxed elbows and thus your hands come with the shoulder alignment and adapt perfectly along with it – that is one less thing to worry about. Remember the advice in 10 Tips for Seat and Balance to think of the elbow connected to the ribs on a very short piece of elastic, and don’t stretch the elastic as your shoulders turn.
Generally avoid the idea of pushing weight down into a seat bone. This is usually overkill as far as the horse is concerned and it sets us up to collapse our inside hip and/or waist and thus push the horse away from the line we want to be on.

Leg.

The change of leg position is very much an individual matter for the horse in question, it’s prior training, it’s degree of responsiveness and the extent to which it is generally crooked or straight. It is also about the build of the rider and the flexibility of the rider. The very small rider or very tall rider will not be pressing buttons in the same place. The displacement of the outside leg always carries with it the risk of torsion in the hips of the rider. This creates stiffness and a conflict with the shoulder position of the rider.

I was lucky enough to be based for a while on the same yard as a rider who has reached the very top in both dressage and eventing. One of the tips I picked up was to keep the displacement of the outside leg to an absolute minimum. Move it only an inch or two at most and move it only when you really have to. This is how I train my own horses but it is definitely not how every horse I have taken on mid career has been trained. Some expect the outside leg to go a long way back, to stay back through certain movements, and will become confused if the leg is not where they expect it to be. Reprogramming this expectation is a priority for me. My legs will remain pretty close to the girth at all times and the differentiation in position is deliberately minimal. Most horses adapt fairly happily to this situation given time and consistency. I feel more balanced and my body control is better this way.

However minimal it may be there is almost always a change of outside leg position as the bending changes. The idea that our outside leg prevents the quarters from escaping outward presupposes that we have created a need for them to do that, this is often not the case at all. What might create that need for the quarters to escape?

We might be riding a curved line which our horse is not yet supple enough to execute easily and well.
We might be setting up a conflict with our inside leg, hip or hand, which is pushing the horse’s back end away.
If neither of the above is the case then our outside leg won’t have much to do. Slipping it unobtrusively back a couple of inches becomes a formality, an indicator, rather than a constraint. Moving the outside leg smoothly and adeptly is a key skill in itself for a dressage rider. Practice it and your horse will thank you!

Putting these skills into practice.

The figure of eight with cones, or between empty jump wings, is one excellent way to refine this skill set. Another is to turn left off the the wall at C, ride the centre line in position left (see Better Dressage – Shoulder In) and when you get to X, where your cones are located, change progressively through to position right and then take the track to the right at the top of the school.

You can use the shallow loop off of the long side or serpentines; really any school figure which offers you the opportunity to practice changes of position and bending. Every corner you ride through involves going from a straight line to a curved line and back; this in itself can be a rewarding and surprisingly difficult thing to perfect.

“It is constant repetition with conscious awareness which creates a good habit in the rider.”

The correct thing to do becomes muscle memory and will be intuitive for the rest of your life. The bad news is that it takes time, the good news is that you will have it forever after, once it is fully internalised.

When you ride a counter change of hand in trot or canter this key skill will really pay dividends. It will also help with changes directing the power from the hind quarters up and straight over the poll. As the changes become straighter they will gain power and stronger uphill expression. For any dressage rider, event rider or show jumper, regardless of the level they work at, this focus on controlled change of bend should be very useful indeed!

Better Shoulder In

Straightening your Horse

Shoulder In is one of the first lateral movements we learn as riders and one of the first that we teach our horses. It has been called the aspirin of dressage and is one of the two movements that I consider indispensable. In case you were wondering, the other movement I could not do without is the Pirouette. The reason for this is that I am firmly in the camp of preferring to straighten a horse by gaining control of it’s shoulder mass and these two movements focus primarily on shoulder control.

First of all, what do I mean by straightening the horse? In brief, what I am trying to achieve is to create as straight a line as possible from the poll, through the middle of the shoulders, the middle of the horse’s hips to the croup and tail. If you were long reining from the croup you would be able to see the poll and then the withers sitting in the middle of the croup, lined up like sights on a gun. To achieve this from the saddle we need to be careful of two things

The poll must not be taken too far to either side – it can flex fully in either direction but it should not be displaced.
The shoulder mass of the horse must not fall to the inside or the outside – it must sit aligned centrally in front of the horse’s hips.
Energy can then flow straight along the line of the spine. Setting this up and keeping it whilst the horse is in motion is most easily achieved by riding in what it often referred to as ‘position left’ or ‘position right’. So what is this?

Positioning your Horse Correctly.

Position left or right is like a very diluted form of Shoulder In. I think of tucking the shoulders in a little. I was taught to think of the space between the wall and my horse in Shoulder In as a wedge of cake – well this is a very skinny wedge of cake. Riding a horse with a perfectly aligned spine takes awareness, understanding and lots of practice. It also takes time for the horse to develop the strength to do it consistently. Younger and weaker horses will readily offer you glimpses of true straightness and then they will suddenly begin to struggle. As riders we have to be aware and remember that like every ideal state of being we cannot trap the horse there, ready or not, and insist on it. If I rode a weaker horse in perfect spinal alignment and with the poll as the highest point and I would not allow it to deviate from these ideals at all then I would have a tired and miserable horse on my hands very soon. Alternating this kind of work with free rein rest periods is my preferred way of building strength progressively. Do not be disappointed and least of all angry when your horse decides that his back end would rather be curled off to one side or the other. Crookedness is often simply a way of saying ‘take the pressure off for a while, I’m tired now’!

Teaching the Shoulder In

By teaching the horse Shoulder In we become better able to create straightness through position left or right. I’m going to focus, as usual, on a series of progressively more difficult training patterns. I’m going to start with a breakdown of how I train this work with the young horses and the floor patterns I would use to help them learn.

Exercise 1

Starting to teach a young horse the Shoulder In is quite a different process to that of teaching the movement to a rider on a trained horse. This exercise is underpinned by the ability to choose your poll flexion and change it smoothly, regardless of your position in the school. Step one is therefore to ride along the wall keeping the poll flexion to the inside for several steps after the corner. Then allow the poll to straighten and reward the horse. Step two is to confirm the horse’s response to the outside leg and outside rein.

“Creating high quality Shoulder in is principally about your exterior aids.”

Ride the few steps with inside poll flexion after the corner and then ask the horse to move off onto a diagonal line using your outside leg at the girth, a little weight into the inside seat bone and an outside rein that closes towards the wither. Turn along the diagonal line, straighten the poll and reward the horse. Repeat these steps a few times until the horse turns easily. Be careful not to allow the neck to bend at the base near the shoulder. If you do, the horse will find it more difficult to bring the shoulders over. Step three completes the process. After you pass through the corner, keep the flexion to the inside, apply the outside leg aid at the girth, close the outside rein towards the wither and briefly emphasise the weight on the inside seat bone. As you feel the horse begin to turn, as for the diagonal line taken in step two, simply change your weight onto the outside set bone, look straight down the wall out of the corner of your eye and it sometimes helps to slightly open (but not throw away) the outside rein. This helps to indicate the change of directional emphasis. The main indicator of direction is the change of weight and if you have been working on teaching the horse to follow your weight this will be easy enough for the horse to understand. At this preliminary stage you may need to suggest movement down the wall with your inside leg as well. After a few steps, however wobbly or uncertain, down the wall at an angle (however inconsistent) ride away on a diagonal line or a shallow half circle with no lateral displacement, reward your horse and let it rest.

Some horses genuinely find this easier to learn from the centre line or an inside track. The same progression can be adapted to work away from the wall too. These are a few things which I have deliberately avoided in order to suit the very young or green horse:

  • Any particular emphasis upon bend within the movement – there is no preparatory circle at this very early stage of learning and no expectation of performing Shoulder In with bend for a little while.
  • Riding the shoulders back to the wall when the required number of steps have been performed. The best exit for the young or green horse is directly along the line it happens to be facing, which will be out into the school rather than down the track.
  • If and when you try this away from the wall don’t be alarmed if you lose the back end slightly. Control over the hind quarters will come soon enough, along with the bend.

Angle Versus Bend

The exercise outlined above is about making the raw beginning of shoulder in with your horse. From the day you first begin to teach the exercise to the day you retire your horse many years later, hopefully fully trained, the Shoulder In will grow in correctness, collection and bending as your horse’s physique develops. At the start it may feel, and look, a little too like leg yielding for comfort.

There is always a trade off between angle and bend – with any horse at any level of training. I think that Shoulder In is a movement which can be ridden with subtle differences of emphasis in this regard and each rider will have his or her priority. Although I begin teaching this to horses with little or no bend I am keen to develop the bending as soon as it is appropriate for the horse. The bend must however be genuine! Beware the shoulder in with ‘broken neck’ bend at the base of the neck and much crossing of the inside hind leg. The weight of the horse will be pushing out over the outside shoulder and although the horse will move at an angle to the wall in something that looks a lot like Shoulder In, strictly speaking it is not.

“In Shoulder In, more than in any other movement, beware of your interior aids.”

Bear in mind that your horse, when fully trained, cannot bend it’s spine more than the line of a six metre volte would require. So in the first years of training it will bend much less than that. Your bend in Shoulder In will reflect the ability to bend on curved lines in general. There is an old and very wise saying that you do not improve lateral work by riding lateral work. This is where exercises which combine Shoulder In with circles become useful.

Exercise 2

I mentioned that initially I don’t return the horse’s shoulders to the wall when the steps of Shoulder In are complete. In the beginning it is less likely to unbalance the horse if you ride out of the exercise on the line you are pointing along. As time passes and your horse’s forehand becomes lighter it is easy enough to return the shoulders to the original line and continue along the wall. Once this is the case you can begin to benefit from careful and frequent repositioning of the horse’s shoulder mass. The focus of this exercise is exactly that. It is a simple, classic exercise called the ‘Change of rein through Shoulder In’ and can be ridden with and without circles.

To start with we ride it with the circles because they make the change of bending very easy for the horse. One golden rule is to take the Shoulder In position that is the same as your turn and the first circle goes that way too. So turn left down the centre line, take Shoulder In left as far as X and then make a 10m circle left. Then take a 10m circle to the right (which completes a small figure of eight) and off of that continue down the centre line in Shoulder In to the right and then turn right. What matters most in this exercise is what happens over X. The change of positioning was easy in this instance because of the circles.

The first progression is to eliminate the second circle. Again I will use the example of turn left, into Shoulder In left and then circle left. Keep the first circle because that takes the horse back onto a single track position. After the circle ride straight for one horse’s body length and take shoulder in to the right. Secondly eliminate the first circle also, but extend the straight section for as many steps as your horse needs to find balance.

When you feel ready to transition from Shoulder In left to Shoulder In right directly over X be careful you don’t fling the shoulders all of the way across in one action. I think of it as four phases

  1. Shoulder In left position
  2. Straight body with left flexion
  3. Straight body with right flexion
  4. Shoulder In right position

This may only take a few seconds but keep it logical and broken down into clear micro steps. That way you will know what your body has to say to the horse. The very crux of the exercise is the change of flexion and position between step 2 and step 3. The value of the outcome depends totally on how well you handle that. This moment, where the flexion changes, is very brief. The movement of the poll and withers onto the centre line and back off of it takes a little more time, so the 1,2,3,4 steps are not evenly spaced in time. It is more like 1..2,3..4. Carry the shoulder mass over with the support of both calves. One calf is sending the shoulders across but the supportive role of the other calf is vital to the balance and your horse’s confidence through this exercise. It might seem a little thing to move from Shoulder In one way to Shoulder In the other way but it is quite a difficult thing for the horse to do. It is so valuable though, because every time you succeed in moving the shoulder mass across in balance it becomes a little lighter. That lightness is one of the fundamental benefits of dressage training for the horse.

Exercise 3

Perhaps the ultimate test of our controlled bending (what I like to call the straightness within the bending) is to be able to ride lengthened strides straight out of it. The simplest exercise to test this is to ride a small circle at the start of the long side and take Shoulder In down the wall for a few steps. The number of steps is not important but when you feel that the outside shoulder is definitely under control take a straight diagonal line out across the school and open the gait up, progressively at first. Think of your Shoulder In as coiling the spring and release that energy into the longer strides.

If your horse has any ‘break’ in the bending, most often this happens at the wither, the transition onto the straight line will feel awkward and the impulsion to open the stride will not be there fully. This will also be the case if you are pushing the horse too strongly into the outside rein during the Shoulder In – again, beware your inside aids getting too dominant. As your horse develops strength to transition directly from collected to medium or extended gaits you would expect the opening of the stride to be pretty immediate in this exercise too. It is all about keeping the bending and controlling the bending, so that energy can flow through the body easily and immediately.

In all exercises involving the Shoulder In it is important to remember that lateral work, when ridden well, builds energy. The horse grows in power rather than losing power. If you find yourself having to ride forward out of it because power levels have dropped it means something has gone wrong somewhere. Good lateral work, like good collection, is about building up the power of the horse underneath you, lifting the forehand and giving you direct-able energy.

Suppleness for the Dressage Horse

Suppleness is vital to the performance of a dressage horse but is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Each horse I have ridden, when I try to recall it, felt quite different in regards to it’s degree of suppleness. If I put them into rough categories it would go something like this. There were the stiff horses, some badly trained, most in reality just untrained. They were the simple ones to work with. Get any physical issues sorted, find the right bit, set them up with a good saddle, then work correctly and wait. That is all there was to it in 99% of the cases.

There were the over supple horses, usually badly trained, almost always over trained. They wriggled and wiggled their way through life and were very tricky to stabilise. Riding this kind of horse is like eating a badly made sandwich where the filling falls out. The more complex the training they had been given, the harder it was to retrain them. Even world renowned authorities told me it wouldn’t always work & it didn’t always work. Riding what I call the Spaghetti necked horse is a subject for a whole article, or even a book, in it’s own right; so I’m going to save that for another day.

Then there were the sublime horses, the ones where you want to hug them and then hug who ever trained them. These horses are both very supple and perfectly stable; the two elements of flexibility and strength had been developed in tandem and kept in perfect balance. Taking on a horse like this is a wonderful experience and one that always fills me with gratitude.

Avoiding Extremes

Part of my personal understanding of the need to find the balance between strength and flexibility came from outside of the equestrian world. I studied ballet quite seriously for fifteen years and it is still a much loved part of my fitness regime. There are so many parallels that I could draw between the training of the ballet dancer and the dressage horse. The human body, like the equine, is taken to extremes and must be similarly respected if it is to last; and in ballet companies these days it is too often disrespected and broken whilst still young. Flexibility and strength are opposite ends of a spectrum; going to either extreme is inadvisable. The best dance teachers recognise that when a pupil is very flexible they must strengthen the body in order to protect it. When a dancer is very strong, as I was, they have to work at flexibility because it is vital to correct execution of movements and because without it the movements could damage the body.

When I think of the horses I have known who were overly supple and I analyse why I would regard them as badly trained it is because, in most cases, the focus has been placed heavily on suppling the neck. To be honest that is usually the part of the horse that least needs suppling and the one part that even a relative beginner can have a huge impact on. That is perhaps why it happens in so many cases, because it is easy. The neck of the horse is naturally flexible in it’s construction and sadly it is an easy toy to play with. The bad news is that flexing the neck this way and that doesn’t influence the poll in a positive way and nor does it influence the torso of the horse. It only creates a shoulder mass that it is harder to position reliably, hind legs that jump up and down without advancing and which tend to criss cross under you. The overall effect is one of destabilisation. It isn’t my favourite feeling to get from a horse.

Insufficiently supple horses aren’t always the same as stiff horses. It is a subtle distinction but important. There are highly trained horses which are very strong but lack the flexibility to perform well. Some time ago I bought a horse who had all of the movements for Grand Prix but who reared frequently. I knew about his issues when I took him on. It was really frightening at times and it was a long process. Understanding the link between mental and physical tension was a key factor. He had a brilliant Piaffe and Passage but he couldn’t bend very much at all. He was entire and nervous of everything from the other stallions to the sheep we met on trail rides. His strength had been developed but his suppleness needed a lot of work. I went back to the beginning and worked him like a young horse. Reworking all of the basics took the best part of a year but it was worth every day taken to make him a safer, happier horse.

Finding the middle ground and creating strong, stable suppleness.

With stiff, tense horses, I work with poll and jaw flexions but I virtually never flex the neck itself any more than the bend on a six metre volte requires. For me any more bend than that constitutes a laterally broken neck.

Good quality lateral work and correctly ridden school figures are all you will ever need to render a horse perfectly and beautifully supple.

Creating that ideal of stable suppleness is all about this. The poll must be free first and foremost. If it is not then progress will be very slow. Work on relaxation in the poll can be done in hand and from the saddle at halt and then carefully at the walk. Any kind of restrictive noseband will be very counter productive because a jaw which cannot move naturally will create tension in the poll and thus the neck. Provided that we have a good range of lateral poll flexion at our disposal it becomes a natural part of every suppling movement we ride.

One easy exercise to begin with is to ride shallow loops on the long side of the arena. Be conscious of the controlled bending through the corner and how you allow it to change as you come onto the line for the loop. After a few attempts at this try riding a loop without changing the bend. Counter bend is a very valuable training tool. Make sure that you keep the degree of bend quite slight, particularly if you are riding the exercise in trot or canter. A progression exercise from this is to make a small circle at the halfway point of the shallow loop. This will be when you are meet the B – E line, which I call the middle line. If you approach it in true bend, with the bend through the horse’s body following that of the loop, then you will have a change of bend coming onto the circle. If you approach in counter, or false, bend then you will be changing the bend onto the line of the small circle. You have several opportunities to make careful and controlled changes of bend.

Working with school figures is all about the moment when the bend changes. Think carefully about how you help to shape the horse’s body through each and every change.

Change the poll flexion, your weight and then your leg – that is your order of aid delivery for every change of bend from a simple figure of eight, up to the day you ride one tempi changes. All you need, to build up from one to the other, is to retain the fluidity and build the speed at which you co-ordinate the three elements. Awareness of the this and practice is what makes it possible.

For the horse who knows a range of lateral movements we have a great range of possibilities. Even riding the movements down the long side of the school will help but the real value lies in changing the position of the horse’s body. This is an exercise with scope for progression and many elaborations.

Ride the Shoulder In along the second half of the long side and come onto a half 10 metre circle at the marker before the corner. That will take you out to D or G depending on which end of the school you were riding towards. Ride the half circle without any lateral displacement to start with.

Then take a line of return to the wall that you started from, make it a short return to the middle of the long side. On this line you could opt for riding Travers (which is good way to develop your Half Pass).

As you reach the marker at B or at E begin a 10 metre circle. As you feel at home with the exercise and want to intensify the effect it has you can ride Shoulder In, more Travers, a different gait, some counter bend, whatever will offer you a constructive challenge. If I have made a Travers return on the diagonal line it is enough to make the change of bend onto a plain circle. If I have ridden a straight line of return, or if I am on a more advanced horse, then I might take the Travers the other way on the circle. Be careful if you go from one Travers on the return line, to the opposite Travers on the circle that you are not pushing the back end across abruptly or too far.

As your circle is complete you can take Shoulder In position again down the second half of the long side and repeat the same pattern, with or without variation.

Bend and counter bend exercises are very constructive if carefully controlled and well ridden. The usual rules apply, keep the neck shoulder connection smooth and don’t forget to keep the outside hind engaged. Don’t drop your outside rein (we’ve all been there – it is a pet mistake of mine) otherwise that will often create the ‘break’ at the withers. Your inside hand may not have got stronger but if your outside rein contact is dropped then the inside one is suddenly heavier by default. The loss of outside rein contact will also deactivate the outside hind leg. The key to useful work on curved lines is not lots of bend but rather lots of changes of bend.

Introducing counter bend for the fist time is easy on the shallow loop exercise outlined above. A progression from this is to ride a figure of eight comprising fairly big circles. Change direction but keep the bend, hold it for a few steps and change it back. Gradually progress to riding the entire circle counter bend. Eventually you can ride counter bend on both circles, changing from one to the other should be gradual and support should be given to the shoulders of the horse throughout the change.

Serpentine loops are another golden opportunity to use counter bend. The central loop of three is the obvious choice for placing the counter bend. Ride, for example, on the left rein ride left (true) bend on the first loop, keep left (counter) bend on the second loop and then return to left (true) bend for the last loop. If you want to add a little more of a challenge you can ride some left Shoulder In steps on the straight sections which run across the school.

There are many more exercises I could have focused on and it always seems a shame to keep it to so few. Some of these I have collected from my coaches, some I have read about and adopted into my work, others are the product of careful experimentation with basic floor patterns. I often ask my pupils to invent exercises and talk me through them before we put them into practice. It is vital to learn to think for yourself in this way because it means you reach a better understanding of the underlying gymnastics. Pick a floor pattern and use it’s structure to create a more challenging exercise involving changes of bend and lateral exercises. Start with the easiest version and develop the level of complexity gradually. Listen to your horse’s feedback and scale the difficulty up and down accordingly. You will soon be well on the way to creating a stronger, more supple horse.

Better Pirouettes

Riding the Walk and Canter Pirouette

The pirouette has to be one of the most charismatic and challenging movements you can train your horse to do. When I began to study dressage I longed to ride the pirouette at canter; I assumed it was easier at walk and more difficult at canter, after all that is the order of difficulty in terms of test riding. Now I know that I was both right and wrong. It is easier for the horse to pirouette at walk, because there is no moment of suspension and not the same requirement to ‘sit’. It takes far longer to prepare the horse muscularly and mentally for the canter pirouette. But for the rider a pirouette at walk still has t’s challenges even when you have been riding them at canter for years. It is never a movement to underestimate in any gait.

The Pirouette is one of the movements where the direction of travel is to the interior of the bend. This means that you need to be sure that your horse understands that it should follow your weight as well as to move away from your leg. Differentiate consistently between a ‘foreleg button’ at the girth and a ‘hind leg button’ a couple of inches further back. This is important because you may need to send instructions to the shoulders in one moment and control the hind quarter a split second later. Your outside rein can be a very important part of indicating to the horse that you want to move into the pirouette. Sitting the hand towards, or even over, the wither is a good indication that you want the shoulders to move around. Using the Shoulder In to create and deepen your horse’s understanding will help a lot.

Being able to create collection, without compression or destroying the vivacity of the gait, is really important. Tempo control is vital to this. Long before you pirouette at any gait you need to be sure that you can work with maximal energy in a slow enough tempo to perform the exercise. Work that gait change on circles, straight lines and square voltes in preparation for training the pirouettes.

” The single most important factor that separates a good pirouette from a bad one is the quality of the gait you ride it in. “

Key ingredients of a good pirouette

  • The gait quality you begin with is maintained throughout – with regular tempo so keep your focus on activity but don’t hurry the horse.
  • The bend is even through the body of the horse. Look after the outside hind, because it often gets neglected, but generally think about riding both sides of your horse.
  • Each step has the same amount of crossing – think of even sized segments. Think of creating crisp, clear, expressive steps.
  • Hind legs step a little forward and around – not directly sideways. Make sure your outside leg is activating with the calf and not too heavy with the spur. It is very easy to create ‘lateral’ steps with too much prodding!

A note on rider position – staying in balance through the exercise will really help your horse to be expressive and confident. If your horse has a very high lift of the forehand (lucky you!) you will need to sit back a little more than if the canter is low. Beware of leaning forward as the forehand lifts because this will make the horse’s task more difficult. Unlike a Levade, where the angle between horse’s neck and rider’s upper body closes a little, the rider in the pirouette at canter is usually going to remain the same. You don’t increase the angle but as the horse raises the forehand you will feel as though you are further back. I was once asked to ride the pirouette with the back of my inside hand resting behind the saddle; this gave me a good appreciation of where my body needed to be in relation to the horse. One final point is not to look down into the middle of the pirouette, or down the shoulder of the horse; if you do it may lead to you leaning in and pushing the horse out of the exercise, think of stepping over the inside stirrup tread and keep the inside of your waist long.

Some common problems with walk and canter pirouettes

The horse roots it’s inside hind to the spot and ‘swivels’ around it – This is usually a problem to do with the quality of the gait. If you are losing animation in the gait it may help to make the base circle of the pirouette a bit bigger. I always tell students to begin thinking of the base circle being the size of a hula-hoop to start with and the size of a dinner plate in the end. It is far better to ride a pirouette that is on the large side than to end up with irregular footfalls and a loss of impulsion. Make sure you are not jamming the brakes on, your aid to assist with the collection should be momentary rather than continual. It is in between one aid and the next that the lightness and brilliance can be fully expressed. Ideally this moment of lightness and rider silence should happen as the outside fore leg is lifting and crossing. Don’t aid with the hand as the fore leg is advancing, let it go!

Head tilting – This is an issue that I call ‘banking’ because it reminds me of an aircraft that banks to turn. There are two principal causes of this and they are linked in most cases. First it often seems to happen when the bend is not even through the body and the horse bends too much at the base of the neck. The second cause, often linked to the first, is that the outside hind leg has lost activity. The common cause of these two problems is often loss of connection through the outside rein; when it disengages the outside hind deactivates and the inside rein becomes dominant by default and the horse often bends at the wither. Either way, the weight falls onto outside shoulder and the crossing becomes a struggle. If you notice that your horse’s inside ear has dipped then check your outside aids, rein and leg. Get the outside hind back on track and ensure that your outside rein is controlling the degree of neck bend.

Rearing around – This one is also linked to the quality of the gait and is similar to the issue of swivelling around on the inside hind, but this one manifests itself at canter. It is also sometimes a response to the disengaged outside hind leg. I have found this issue to be common in horses whose riders focus on riding very small pirouettes too early in training. It can be an excessive focus on getting the shoulders around at all costs; a kind of panic approach. If you chop the pirouette up into segments, riding crisp defined steps this is less likely to happen. 360 degrees, or even 180 degrees seems a long way to go but call that six, or three, big, clear canter steps and your horse’s shoulders will be round before you know it.

Scampering sideways – I hinted at this issue when I was talking about the key ingredients of a good pirouette but it deserves a little elaboration. One reason that this may happen is that many riders teach the pirouette from Travers, which is a time honoured and valid way to approach this movement. With Travers you have to be very careful that the outside leg aid is not too strong and this carries over into any pirouettes you prepare from Travers. Even at the most advanced level the inside hind is meant to travel forwards and around a tiny circle. If it goes too much sideways you are likely to get a comment about ‘lateralisation’ or ‘lateral steps’ and it will bring your mark down. More importantly it will put stresses on the inside hind leg joints that are not supposed to be there. The little forward jump of the inside hind is vital and forward riding off of the inside leg, even in the smallest pirouette, will be easier to accomplish if your outside leg is not too strong. Don’t make one leg fight the influence of the other.


Training exercise for teaching the canter pirouette – The Lozenge

To train the horse for the pirouette at canter requires a fairly high level of familiarity with the exercise; as always I would advise getting some experience of riding pirouettes on a trained horse under the eye of good coach. Make sure you have watched and preferably ridden open, easy working pirouettes as much as the finished, test ready article; they are all an important part of making this work successful. This particular exercise works for improving pirouettes in any gait once they are established but this version of the exercise is about progressing your horse’s understanding of the pirouette at canter.

Your lozenge can be situated anywhere in the arena, in a field or on a canter track. I tend to use a long diagonal line in an unfenced arena if possible. If you are in a fenced space or indoors you will need to avoid riding the end of the lozenge too close to the fence or wall because this can be inhibiting for the horse. The two long parallel lines of the lozenge lie equidistant from the long diagonal line. Joining these two parallel lines is a semi circle at each end.

Walk through the exercise with a walk pirouette at both ends. Repeat on both reins.

As you exit the walk pirouette strike off into collected canter, canter the line and include a few strides of the highest, bounciest, most collected canter you can do. Then walk as you approach the end of the lozenge, pirouette at walk and repeat. Ride this a few times on each rein.

Now we are going to abandon the walk pirouettes and set the parallel lines a bit further apart. This is to accommodate a semi circle large enough to ride Travers at canter. Strike off to canter and encourage the horse to be active but also to sit; some Shoulder In steps in may help. As you get close to the end of the line apply the aid for Travers and make some steps of Travers on the semi circle. It can still help to come back to walk and rebalance. For some horses a few walk steps prior to the Travers helps. Walk at the end of the line, strike off and take the horse into Travers on the semi circle. Again, repeat this to both sides.

The above exercises can keep you occupied for weeks, months, as long as it takes. The next step, when you feel ready, is the half working pirouette. I try to think of a complete working pirouette as happening around a base circle the size of a hula hoop, at the smallest. The size of this is dictated by your horse’s needs so be flexible in what you ask for.

“We want to encourage the horse to play with the idea of the pirouette, for it to be a fun game rather than a struggle.”

Use the long lines to make any kind of rebalancing you need, transitions, Shoulder In steps, bounce the canter almost in place; whatever works best for your horse. As you approach the end of the line look out of the corner of your inside eye for the line that will take you back in the direction. Still keep the idea of Travers position but focus on moving the shoulders around in three clear jumps. Walk and reward the horse for this effort. You will feel the intensity of the steps is greater than it was on the Travers semi circle. Ride walk, prepare and repeat.

When you can ride a working pirouette at both ends there are two directions to progress in. The first is to play around with the size of the pirouette and the other is to shorten the connecting lines progressively. When the two half pirouettes are very close to X and only separated by a couple of canter strides on the straight line it is a small step to riding a complete working pirouette.

To put the progression in perspective: a horse might begin learning the rudiments of big working pirouettes at six years old but it will not be making the kind of pirouettes we see in the classical academies or in Grand Prix tests until it has had a further four to six years of training. That is not how long it takes the horse to learn, it is how long it takes the horse’s body to develop enough suppleness and strength. When I say to play around with the size of the pirouette, bear in mind that on any given day a rider will make the easier working pirouettes with fully trained, strong horses too. Just because we can ride them small doesn’t mean we necessarily should do that all of the time. Certainly if there are issues with the quality it never hurts to enlarge the movement and improve it.


Training exercise for better pirouettes – The Sundial.

Think of a sundial with it’s many lines radiating from a central point. Now think about your pirouette having as many potential exit lines as there are steps. After every step you could ride forward along this exit line. However large or small your pirouette is, and in whatever gait you are riding it, you should be able to take a straight line out in good balance.

To begin with decide in advance how many pirouette steps you will ride before riding forward along the exit line. The test is that, if you don’t keep a good balance in the gait, if you allow the neck to break at the wither, if you don’t have both hind legs working optimally, then the canter on the exit line will be poor and so will the line. This exercise will keep you riding both sides of your horse and looking after the walk or the canter, ready to ride a really good line out of it. When you have worked with this for a while, get someone else to shout a number between one and six at random, as you ride into the pirouette. When you have worked with that for a while and feel comfortable with the demands of the exercise get them to simply shout ‘exit’ and you take a line from the next completed step; that is the most challenging form of the exercise.


I hope that you will find some of these observations useful and if you have any questions about the exercises please get in touch!

Improve your lateral work

Over the next few weeks I am going to write about some exercises which can improve the way you ride lateral work. They will be a few of my personal favourites and are not in any particular order of usefulness or technical difficulty. Most of them can be adapted to suit horses at different levels and can be ridden in any gait

The Staircase:- Half Pass to Shoulder In and back again.

This combines either half passes with shoulder in or you can ride leg yield instead of half pass. The exercise works particularly well to solve problems with shoulder control, which can be an issue in both leg yielding and half pass. If you find that your horse tends to take over when you set up a half pass, and goes onto auto pilot through the exercise, then this will encourage the focus back onto your aids. It keeps the horse listening to the rider’s inside leg and keeps the rider riding the inside half of the horse effectively.

To start with I would ride one section – that is one transition from half pass to shoulder in and then back again. Make three or four steps of each. Come off the wall or centre line, set up the flexion and position the horse’s shoulders. Half pass several steps. When I ride half pass I look at the marker I am riding towards; I don’t turn my head all the way to look at it because I would be tempted to turn my shoulders too far if I did, but my sightline is looking right at the marker. This is important because part of the transition to shoulder in is to change the sightline.

After a couple of steps, prepare the transition to shoulder in. The flexion and position of the horse is not going to change but the direction of travel is. Your weight emphasis may need to shift a little to the outside seat bone and your sightline will move to a point straight in front of you on the short side of the school. Sometimes the inside leg needs to take over at this point and encourage the shoulders down the new line.

Once the shoulders feel as though they are committed to the new line, and your shoulder in is established for a few good steps, prepare to transition back to the half pass. Usually the change of sightline and weight is enough to effect the change of movement.

When you feel confident in making one set of transitions you can add more sets to the exercise. Riding this exercise reminds me of a staircase, it is a line that goes across a bit, along a bit, across a bit more and so on; not exactly like a staircase but you get the idea!
Hints and Tips.

There are a few key ways I personally like to differentiate half pass and shoulder in when I am training the horse. In shoulder in I keep my outside rein close to the wither, in half pass I open it to influence the quarters. My horses know this little clue well enough for it to begin instigating change. The other difference is my outside leg. I try to keep it on the girth in the shoulder in and I slip it back a couple of inches for the half pass. If you remember that half pass is travers on a diagonal line then this makes even more sense. As I mentioned before I think the sightline is a key factor; your neck flexion should mirror the poll flexion of the horse, but your line of sight defines direction of travel.
Progression Exercises.

There is a more advanced progression exercise that follows neatly on from this one. It involves a change of direction in half pass through shoulder in. It goes something like this:

Half pass left several steps, shoulder in left for several steps, 10m circle left. Then 10m circle right, into shoulder in right, into half pass right. Then take out the circles and eventually lessen the steps of shoulder in to both directions. I love this exercise for teaching horses the counter change of hand, or zigzag. If you are progressing to this in canter it is a particularly useful exercise because you have a very easy set up for the flying change. Even when you omit the shoulder in altogether, and ride the zigzag as you would in a test, having used this prep exercise will help ensure you focus on the shoulders and avoid the issue of quarters leading after the change of direction.

Just like the first exercise, it is beneficial to work through this with the less trained horses too, substituting the leg yield for the half pass. As you will have noticed it is all about the shoulder control and not about pushing the back end over. Once you have precise control of the horse’s shoulders it is easy to build up some awesome crossing, knowing that you will never have to sacrifice accuracy or correctness to get it!

Achieving Better Contacts

Contact and Lightness.

Really good dressage depends very much on the quality of the contact. In an earlier post I talked about lightness and described it as a seam of gold that I am always looking for. How your horse connects with you, and you with it, is a very big part of creating lightness. It can be really tempting to disconnect from the horse because we are striving to ride lightly. This doesn’t usually create the best dressage our horse can give us. It is important to remember that true lightness comes from having contact in the first place, the connection has to be there and then through correct training it gets lighter. You should look out for it getting comparatively lighter within each session and lighter overall as you train the horse.

Contact with your horse is about a great deal more than the reins. You have a three point interface with your horse: your calf contact, your seat and your hands. Information flows both ways through these. One of the skills sets we develop over time is to simultaneously listen and talk to the horse through the calves, seat and hands. This is how we can skilfully mutate the gaits into increasing degrees of collection and extension, whilst regulating the degree of straightness and bend, through changes of direction. Doing these three things at once sounds complex but, taken one step at a time, it really isn’t. Establishing those three contacts well is the first step.

Rule out physical problems first and understand emotional factors.

One important thing is that issues with the contact can be caused by, among other things: the need for dentistry, the wrong bit or an ill fitting bit, musculo-skeletal issues, ill fitting saddles, etc. Another thing to be sure of is that your horse’s diet and prior training has equipped him or her to offer you the way of going you are wanting. If a horse is struggling physically, or tiring, it will usually express this in it’s mouth. It will also do so if it is distracted, excited, scared or stressed. A nervous or highly strung horse will relate very differently to the leg, seat and hand than a laid back horse will. The contacts will often feel different at a competition in comparison to everyday training at home. Training is the major factor determining quality of contact but, realistically, there are other factors.

 Honestly assess how you are sitting.

If you feel that the connections between you and your horse are not as you would like them to be it is worthwhile investing in a few lessons with a seat and balance specialist. Not every coach, no matter how famous or successful, is good at or even enjoys this kind of work. It is worth asking around and doing some research to find a teacher who has this very specific skill set and frame of mind. I have one coach for seat and balance work who is superb and I have another coach who is the best for test preparation. If I tried to reverse their roles in my life it would be frustrating for all of us.

What should the contacts feel like?

The right degree of contact for one horse will be the wrong one for another. My advice, when you ride an unfamiliar horse, is to start at the lighter end of the scale and build things up if you have to. This is very true for the ‘hotter’ type of horse. However, it can be equally disastrous to let your contacts be inconsistent and ‘rattly’. Horses tend to dislike the extremes that our contacts can go to.

  • Sit still at halt and feel the weight of your calf against the flank of the horse. Remember it is sitting on the rib cage. Just let the leg softly rest and hang down but it should cling gently but consistently and not disconnect.
  • Your muscular seat is a large surface area which should be as relaxed and springy as possible; it your shock absorber and it ‘reads’ the movements of the horse under you. The seat bones form a triangle, on which your upper body balances. Keep your weight distributed over them as evenly as possible.
  • As you pick up the rein contact just think of ‘applying’ the reins; that is taking the slack out of them and making a basic connection with the lips of the horse. It is worth taking a few moments to let the horse explore this connection at the halt.

Once these contact are in place at the halt, move away and keep the same qualities as much as possible in motion. This moment of focused calm is indispensable in competitive riding. Before you begin to warm up, and again before you ride into the test arena,  just take a few  seconds to take stock of the contacts. Then take a deep breath and smile!

 Why is it so important to maintain the contacts throughout the training session?

First of all, the contacts are our communication channels with the horse. We use them to feel what the horse is doing from moment to moment. It is sometimes said that teaching feel is impossible; a rider either has this quality or does not. I don’t believe this. Feel comes more easily to some riders than to others but sitting well and having consistent contact allows for feel to develop in most riders.

The contacts are our aid delivery channels. If these are inconsistent it is like sending important information over a crackly telephone line. In addition to this, inconsistent contacts tend to irritate horses. As training progresses through the levels, and the work we expect of the horse is increasingly complex, it is very difficult to communicate exactly what we want if the channels are not clear. Stillness is equally important. If there is one pragmatic reason to ride with quiet hands, aside from that it is nicer for the horse, it is the fact that a horse will know the tiniest change in your finger tension is an aid, not an accident.

Contact also plays a role in the horse’s balance. Anyone who has race ridden or ridden fast across country will relate to the dangers of a horse coming off the bridle. When we train the horse to find it’s own balance, this is a progressive thing. The horse will need our support from time to time and this is a perfectly legitimate need. One common scenario is through extension. If the horse extends the gait more than it’s current state of balance and strength can handle it may well fall against the hand. When you feel the horse lose balance and ‘land in your hands’ it is advisable to apply a collecting, gathering up leg aid. Do not let the leg bounce or rattle through extensions because this will cause running and even more loss of balance. De- emphasise the driving seat aid and quietly support the horse through the reins whilst making a transition down. Depending on the horse’s capability we can transition back to collected trot or all the way to walk. Recover composure and establish balance, then try again. As you train the horse, no matter how good a rider you are, there will always be minor losses of balance. They never go away altogether, they just become less obvious.

Impulsion builds within contact.

This paragraph is more specifically about the rein contact. If you think about the relationship between balance and contact it is easy to see why horses need a degree of contact to engage well and commit to forward movement. There are, as always, extremes to avoid. Too little contact usually leads to very little engagement. Too strong a contact can lead to a horse that is running away from the pressure on its mouth. Of course the more it runs out of balance, the more pressure it exerts on the bars of mouth. Though riders often exploit this tendency in order to show off big gaits they do pay a price for it, aside from aching arms they often get a horse that moves ‘wide behind’ and gaits that become irregular.

In between these extremes there is a lot of middle ground to experiment with. No two horses are quite the same in terms of optimal contact for optimal impulsion. When the rein contact is acceptable to the horse it will activate the hind legs and move more powerfully. As the training makes the horse lighter this power grows rather than diminishes. The contacts may fade to almost nothing in the end but they remain in their most subtle and wonderful form; the draped leg and the weight of the rein alone.