“Dressage Formula” by Erik Herbermann

 

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When I was eighteen years old I bought a copy of Erik Herbermann’s “Dressage Formula”. At that point in my life I was trying to train a grumpy 14hh show jumping pony and a green 6-year-old OTTB. I had a great thirst for knowledge but knew very little. I was earnestly trying to put into practice what I read and so the wrong books could have been a real problem. I could not have bought a better book than “Dressage Formula” though. There is such a wealth of information in it that I will always be able to pick it up and learn. It is written by one of the world’s greatest horsemen after all. But if you are new to dressage, as I was then, it is accessible and the format is absolutely reader friendly. As you can see in these photos, there are illustrations throughout, bullet point lists break down the ideas very clearly, everything is streamlined and simplified. You could not possibly end up confused by this book.

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One of the things I have always loved about this work is the choice of horses that Erik Herbermann chose to feature throughout.

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Atlantis – a 16.1hh Percheron – Thoroughbred cross. Atlantis is described as having ‘Klunky’ gaits, he was a family hack and hunter who started his training with the author at the age of 10.

Meteorite – a 15.3hh Standardbred cross who had been down the severe bit route and utterly ruined. Herbermann states that his ‘mind and body were knotted with tensions’ but that he was by far the most athletic mover of the horses featured in the book.

Barty – a 14.2hh Arab x Pony with choppy gaits and a thick-set throat area. Barty is described as having a very willing disposition.

Not only are these horses relatable for so many riders but, through the pages of the book, we get to see them transformed in the hands of a master horse trainer. Sadly this is not something that we often see! I have this book to thank for the initial understanding that there are great riders out there who love and totally see the point in training the ‘ordinary’ horse. If anything it helped a young person validate her instinct that these horses are perhaps the most interesting of all to work with and help.

Erik Herbermann’s love and respect for the horse shines through in every line of this book. It is a serious work, suited to the most expert riders and yet it made sense to me when I knew very little. That is rare too and I suspect it is a reflection on the brilliance of the author. Whatever stage you are at in your dressage education and whatever the challenges you face with your horse I would absolutely recommend buying a copy!

Christine xx

“Dressage Formula” by Erik Herbermann was published by J A Allen and is available from ABE Books and Amazon as well as from Trafalgar Square Books as an audio CD

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Riding Renvers & Travers.

Renvers is an often neglected lateral movement. Travers by contrast is something most riders use a great deal. Why would this be? Well, I’m tempted to be a little cynical and say that Travers is easier (though not necessarily easier to do well). Done correctly these movements are identical; if you rode travers down a narrow corridor, just wide enough for your horse, travers relative to the left wall would be revers relative to the right wall.

So, if they are the same, why would some riders find Travers easier? It is often a perception problem. Naturally enough the rider often focuses on the one part of the horse they know must move off the line.

“One of the keys to dressage training is that the horse learns to move towards you weight and away from your leg.”

The two elements of this advice are blended together for best results but each  also works in isolation. The first element, drawing the horse towards the weight, is the really valuable one. It is always a great feeling when a newly trained horse begins to understand this concept. The second element is the easier one for many riders to grasp in the beginning. Though it continues to be important throughout the training of the horse, and is in no way an inferior type of aid, it is also the more dangerous and can lead us into difficulties. We are faced with the issue that the hindquarters of the horse are generally far easier to displace than it’s shoulders. It is temptingly easy just to push one part of the horse or other away with the leg.

A rider participating in a clinic with me put it this way: “When I am asked to ride a lateral movement I still feel under pressure to get it right, to make it obvious. I feel silly if I don’t get ‘enough’ of the movement when lots of people are watching. I’m not thinking about setting it up properly. If you say Travers I think leg back and push. So thats what I do and I hope for the best.” Whilst some riders tend to panic a bit, because they don’t feel totally at home with lateral exercises, there are also a lot of experienced riders who fall into this fault for the opposite reason; they become blasé and can become mentally disconnected from the movement because it is so familiar.

That susceptibility of the horse’s quarters to displacement leads to a number of problems. These are just a few, off the top of my head.

  • In pirouettes at canter a heavy outside leg can cause lateral steps. This looks like a little sideways stagger on the circle the hind legs are describing.
  • In the counter change of hand, when we change direction, the quarters can start to lead even if they were not doing so in the initial half pass. This happened to me a lot in canter! My outside leg was too heavy in the change.
  • Haunches flying all over the place in tempi changes – and in single changes for that matter. Again I speak from experience of committing the error and then patiently working to correct it.

So you get the picture! This a problem for a lot of riders at absolutely all levels.  The answer for everyone is relaxed, focused preparation.

Renvers challenges riders in part because they have to move the shoulder mass of the horse away from the wall whilst keeping the bend towards the wall. Bottom line is, you can’t just push one end of the horse away from the line and hope for the best. In Renvers, just like in the Pirouette and the Half Pass, it becomes necessary to draw the horse towards your weight in the direction of interior bend. Relying on the ‘push’ element of the aid in not sufficient. The gymnastic value to the horse is only part of the benefit; I have found that getting good quality Renvers helps riders to make better Pirouettes and Half Passes. We get habituated to motion in the direction of bend and get better at drawing the horse towards the direction of travel with our weight aid. 

There are two particular exercises I like to use in teaching this movement. One is to ride in shoulder in, then gradually change the flexion, change the bend, but keep the position relative to the wall. I certainly didn’t invent this one, its a classic! You can transition gently from Shoulder In to Renvers and back again; which is great for suppling. The second exercise is really a perception trick. Imagine that corridor, or create one with movable boards, a little wider than the length of your horse’s body. Ride Travers away from the boards. Now glance at the wall or fence of the school and you are in Renvers relative to that wall. Once you get used to the movement you can get rid of the boards but keep them in your mind if you ever feel confused or flustered by the exercise.

To create higher quality lateral work in general we need a whole body approach to the movements. Don’t think about one part of your horse. The positioning for the movement involves its entire body.

Here is a quick checklist to run through:

  • As you prepare for the movement, have you got inside flexion?
  • Check your body position and weight distribution.
  • As you begin to deliver the aid which will displace the haunches or the shoulders, is your outside rein gently monitoring the degree of bend in the neck. Most importantly is it preventing excessive bend at the base of the neck where it joins the shoulders?
  • Is your inside hip relaxed, your inside hand relaxed enough to let the horse step under with the inside hind, closing the stifle and enabling the quarters to sit around your softly relaxed inside leg?
  • Does the gait you are in continue to flow forward in the same tempo?

In all lateral work the quality of the gaits is paramount – once you have got to grips with a movement, forget it and focus on the walk, trot or canter that you are riding it in.”

If the gait is really deteriorating through the movement it is worth riding straight out of it and getting the quality movement back. When you try again go for a little less angle and/or a little less bend. Make it easier and let it flow. As you get more proficient and the horse gets stronger and more supple you can ask for a bit more.

This really isn’t designed to be a ‘how to’ guide; it is just a few reflections on the subject. If you have very little experience with lateral movements and want to do them I would recommend finding a good teacher, ideally one with a schoolmaster horse. In my opinion, riding regularly with a coach is the very best way to understand all of this. Books and articles are only really designed to support that practical learning.

Successful Lateral Work

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If you are finding that you lose impulsion, balance and cadence as soon as you start riding a lateral movement it might be because your focus is on how to ride the movement and not on the gait that you are riding it in. Internalising the movement means practicing it on as many horses as possible, maybe going for a schoolmaster lesson with a good coach, and getting to the point where you can ride that movement in your sleep. You might already be there and not realise it. Many riders keep focusing on the how to, or the how to not go wrong, for far longer than they really need to.

Getting your mind off of the movement, trusting yourself to know what to do, is really important to riding it really well. What makes all the difference to the quality of the movement and therefore the score that you are likely to get is the horse’s way of going. It is the quality of the walk, trot or canter that reflects success in both the competition arena and daily training.

Key Stages of Learning

A key factor for success is to recognise where you are on the scale from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. For anyone unfamiliar with this, there are four stages:

  1. unconscious incompetence – eg: when I knew what a Half Pass was but did not really know that I lacked the skills to ride Half Pass. A lovely pupil of mine told me that when she began learning to ride she anticipated learning all of the dressage movements in around six months. I met her three years after that and eleven years after that she could ride Grand Prix!
  2. conscious incompetence – eg: when I realised that I did not have those skills but wanted to acquire them. When it looks easy but you discover it isn’t!
  3. conscious competence – eg: when I could ride a Half Pass if I focused consciously on what aids to give the horse.
  4. unconscious Competence – eg: when I could breeze into a Half Pass and focus on keeping the trot expressive, the tempo regular and the horse loose over his back.

Which stage are you at?

If you are at the first or second stage with a particular movement then this is a wonderful phase of learning too. In discovering dressage as a sport what you have really discovered is a process, a whole load of valuable things to learn and to teach your horse. Approach each at the right time, with the help of a good coach. You will be able to establish the skills you need to ride the movement, practice them and move in turn from riding them competently to riding them beautifully.

When you are learning a new movement you will be at the third stage and holding there for a while. That is valid and necessary; don’t be in too much of a hurry to move on from competent to spectacular just yet. Get it fluent, become familiar with how the movement feels at all training levels by riding different horses. The Shoulder In of a young horse will feel very different to that of a fully schooled horse. That of a pony will feel different to that of a Thoroughbred or Iberian horse. Gain lots of diverse experience and hone your skills.

It can be difficult to know when you have become unconsciously competent, because you remain always consciously competent too. I know innately that I can ride a Pirouette but naturally I know it consciously too. One key shift can be determined in the way you describe how to do something. If asked how to ride some movement that I have a level of unconscious competence in I will have a sensory memory pop up, which I then have to put into words. When I was at the stage of conscious competence I would have been more likely to think in words rather than in memories. If someone asks you how you ride Shoulder In and your mind supplies a strong memory, a muscular memory then you are almost certainly already there.

If you suspect that you are one of those many riders who might be getting stuck at the third stage then the message in this post is most of all aimed at helping you. Sometimes we stick at that stage out of sheer habit or because we are too self -critical. Can a dressage rider be too self-critical? Yes, I think they can in this case. If you are getting a sub-optimal result it could be the result of over thinking the movement itself. So trust yourself, let go of analysing the aids you are giving because your body already knows what to do. Success will follow when you get your focus onto the beautiful walk, trot or canter that you could be in.

When you know that you know, you can relax into the movement and really set your horse up to shine!

If you would like more help with your lateral work then check out these articles in the #BetterDressage series:

Riding Renvers & Travers.

Better Dressage – Shoulder In

Better Dressage – Exercises for improving lateral work.

Better Dressage – Key Skills for Lateral Work

#Wednesdaywisdom from Charles de Kunffy

Charles de Kunffy is a rider, coach and author who has inspired me a great deal over the years. Back in 2016 I was at a training seminar that he gave and I found it utterly fascinating. So much so that I took down pages and pages of notes! He is truly one of the greatest horsemen of our time and his love of horses shone through in every last detail of his work.

I discovered that he has shared a number of interviews on YouTube. There is a lot of valuable information in them for all riders. It made me reflect that there is no real link between the quality of content and the number of people who connect with it online. Unless you go looking, as I did, or unless the marketing is right then it will sit there undiscovered except by a fortunate few.  Although Dressage Perspectives is not a YouTube content creator (yet) it has a presence there in order to curate interesting and valuable content from other people.

Here is a link to one of the Dressage Perspectives playlists, which features some of the interviews which Charles de Kunffy shared. I really hope that you enjoy the wisdom and dry humour of this wonderful man as much as I do!

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKb41zORXi-P0A4Rj9ObjnWDZE7MMKrsM

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“Rider Biomechanics” by Mary Wanless

It might seem odd to start a book review by talking about the cover design but I think it is a really important facet of what makes a book successful. As soon as I set eyes on this book I was intrigued. The colours are well chosen and the design is clear, modern and attractive. Just above the title of the book there is a circle in which it says “An Illustrated Guide – How to sit better and gain influence”. This is the essence of what rider biomechanics can offer you. This is the crux of the entire matter for me. The ability to sit is what gives us influence; it governs every aspect of how we ride and how successful we are in achieving our chosen outcomes. When books about dressage talk about harmony between horse and rider it can seem nebulous. Many riders are left thinking that it is an ideal they are doomed to fall short of. This book makes its practical and effective message clear from the very start.

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Before I get carried away with talking about why I loved this book I want to get a tiny little quibble out of the way. It is the use of the word “elite” to describe certain riders and “average” to describe others. I was a little put off when I first encountered this description; this is why. As I may have mentioned in a previous post, I had a teacher early in my career who did me a massive though quite unconscious favour. The horse I was on kept falling out of balance and out of canter. I had been riding for a few months at this stage. I was very average and no way was the future me visible. I’m sure I looked like a soggy mess. He said to me “When you can ride Grand Prix I’ll expect you to be able to hold a horse in balance.” I believe that it was critical that he didn’t say if, he said when. Added to that I was in a place where I could watch incredibly competent, highly trained riders training horses every day. I knew there was a gap between them and me but I never though in terms of “I am average, they are elite and I want to be more like them”. I knew I could become one of them if I did the work; and so I went on to do the work. So I don’t like to talk about ‘elite’ riders and ‘average’ riders as though they were somehow separate groups of people. After all, thinking you want to become like an elite rider could still lead to you feeling inauthentic, even when you have essentially become one. A Zirconia can be very like a diamond but it isn’t one. Perhaps I’m arguing semantics, and it is only my personal opinion, but the impact of words on the emerging rider’s mind can be more powerful than we realise sometimes. That said, this book will certainly help any rider get from where they are to where they want to be.

I don’t doubt that maybe this book was written with the rider in mind who might self-identify as average. Personally I think that this book has a lot to offer any rider, no matter how educated or ‘elite’ they might already be. For all the wonderful inspiring horsemen and women who have been my teachers, mentors and muses, none have given me any of the information on which this book is based. They could not have done. The science behind this work is cutting edge; it is not within the accepted cannon of equestrian wisdom yet. I believe it will be and I really hope it will be.

For the rider who is in an early formational stage there is a wealth of clear, accurate insights, which they can apply to their personal learning and the training of their horses. For the rider who has an established seat, and even the rider who already has an advanced skill set, there is much to value in this book. Even if ideas that are pointed out for the benefit of the less experienced rider seem obvious to you, there will be a great deal that is new. For me it was not so much the ‘what’ as the ‘how’. I know how I must sit and I know the consequences for my horse if I fail in a particular moment to be what the horse needs me to be. What this book offers is a fresh evaluation of why and it never hurts any of us to gain a better understanding of why. It will make me an even more mindful rider and it will help me immeasurably as a teacher. This could really do to be a core text for trainee instructors. There is a lot here for the general riding instructor and for coaches in the specialist disciplines.

Thomas Myers meeting with Mary Wanless and the recognition that each had of the other’s expertise was a fortunate thing for all of the riders wise enough to read this book. When experts in seemingly separate fields meet they often see in one another ideas that will translate or inform something seemingly unrelated. I happen to think that all things are related.

This book is too well written ever to over face the reader but it certainly demands our focus. If you want to get the best from it you cannot skim read, but that is true of most really good books. It deserves and demands our full attention. The excellent illustrations supported my growing understanding of just what the Fascial Net is and what it does. My understanding of it prior to reading this book was minimal and hazy. It was possibly at a similar level to many riders. Thankfully part one of the book walked me through the basics that I would need later on. It is entitled “The Fascial Net and Feel”. The explanations are clear and gave me confidence that this book was definitely going to make sense to me. One measure of a good teacher is that they can explain a complex matter simply. This extends to writing and Mary Wanless is highly skilled in both teaching and writing.

Part One is designed to equip us with an understanding of the concepts that underpin the rest of the book. I felt that it does that very well. The subsequent parts are structured to lead us deeper into our understanding of how the human body functions on the horse, the role of the Fascial Net in that functionality, how it interacts with the Fascial Net of the horse and how that impacts the functionality of the equine body. The interplay between our body Fascia and that of the horse is the heart of the matter and the heart of the book. Far from being a dry academic synopsis of what can go right and what can go wrong, this book offers no nonsense advice for how to put things right between you and your horse. In this regard we get the best of Mary Wanless as a riding teacher as well as a glimpse into a fascinating aspect of biology, which is relatively new to the mainstream understanding. The knowledge that this book offers really needs to filter out into the mainstream and add its weight to the growing general interest in rider biomechanics.

I always say there is one caveat with any book about riding or training horses. Understanding alone will not make you a better rider. Only a combination of reading and riding will allow us to improve. The riding must always be the greater proportion of this equation but the reading is also essential if we truly want to change. This book inspires me to think, to reflect and, most importantly, to get on a horse and try to be better at what I do.

I would highly recommend this book to any rider, at any stage of their personal journey. I would particularly recommend it to teachers of riding at all levels. For those of us who want to make our students and their horses happier, more comfortable and more successful there are valuable keys in this book to achieving that. If you decide to get a copy please leave a comment and let me know what you think. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!

Rider Biomechanics by Mary Wanless is published by Kenilworth Press, an imprint of Quiller Publishing Ltd. My copy of this book was kindly provided by Quiller Publishing.

You can buy a copy directly from www.quillerpublishing.com

You can find out more about the work of Mary Wanless at www.mary-wanless.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.