Dressage Competition Camp – July 7th & 8th

The popularity of training camps for riders is growing and for good reason. It is a training format that I had never experienced until last week. Although I did not take a horse along to Moulton Equestrian Centre I was made to feel very much a part of the group, which was a lovely experience. I took part in the dismounted sessions and found it to be both thought-provoking and valuable.

Where a camp varies from say a two or three-day clinic is in the scope of the activities that are included; This is where they have particular value. There is scope for both mounted and dismounted learning opportunities, focusing on the mind and body of the rider. Most importantly of all, there is plenty of opportunity for the riders to talk to one another and to the coach in a relaxed and informal setting.

I love to learn from riding in and auditing at clinics. Riders and coaches can learn a massive amount that way, but there are drawbacks. At a clinic there is usually silence prevailing because one or other of the riders is under tuition. When my riding session is coming to an end I have often had questions and invariably the clinician is only too happy to answer them but there is alway the sense of time pressure, sometimes a sense of intruding upon the tiny amount of time a clinician gets to have a drink and momentarily relax between the lessons. If I have four questions then for these reasons I ask only one or two. There have been times that clinics have ended with wonderfully social dinners or even parties, but asking riding related questions at times like that seems downright rude; unless the trainer brings up the subject of my horse or my riding then I am certainly not going to.

Where a camp differs, and certainly where Alison’s camp differed, is that the trainer spends more time with the participants. There are structured sessions and around these there is time where discussions can evolve in a less formal way, questions can be asked and discussions among the group can take place. This is something that, given the right company, I like very much.

Day One – Individual Ridden Sessions

The first day of the camp was dedicated to individual riding sessions, a dismounted session with work on rider mindset, and then a ridden session as a group. There was a positive, inclusive atmosphere from the beginning. The first horse in was Sardra, a beautiful mare who has only recently returned to work, ridden by her owner Tory Dobb. Sardra is in her late teens, but you really wouldn’t know it. Given the rather challenging whether we were having the indoor arena was very hot indeed. All of the horses and riders coped very well and Alison naturally tailored the work to suit the situation. For a horse recently returned to work, I was impressed with Sardra’s willingness. She really seemed to enjoy the work and became much more forward as the session progressed. One of the stepping-stones to this was Alison’s instruction to keep the correct tempo in the walk, not to hurry it and to use the trot to help Sardra think forward.

Let the rhythm come, don’t hurry the tempo!

Encouraging Tory to apply the reins, so that she had a light but more defined contact also helped encourage Sardra to go forward. She made some corrections to Tory’s lower leg position and leg aid application; this helped too. It has a double benefit of improving the rider’s body balance, which encourages a forward mindset in the horse, and it makes the aid delivery quicker and lighter, thus more effective. Tory took this correction on board and the benefit of it stayed in place through the rest of the session.

As Alison pointed out, it was important for Sardra that the gymnastic challenges were kept quite easily achievable. She is clearly a very giving and sweet-tempered horse. When you train an uncomplaining horse it is especially important to keep your demands at a level that will build the horse’s confidence. As they worked between the gaits she encouraged Tory to allow Sardra’s hind legs through into the downward transitions. This is something that we can all do well to think about, in every transition we ride. It encourages us to keep the contact soft and allowing, it encourages us to think forward when we transition down and not block the hocks.

Taking a rider’s focus off of a particular thing is sometimes the first step the coach must take to help them improve it. This was the case with Tory and Sardra’s use of the corners. By asking Tory to initially make easy, blunted corners whilst keeping the bend correct they were able by the end of the session to ride deeper corners in good balance. This doesn’t happen by magic of course and nor simply because of the passage of time. There was a key to the situation and it was all about straightness. Straightness is not simply a matter of travelling along a line that doesn’t wobble, in part it is about the horse using both hind legs correctly, both sides of its body equally, and connecting lightly but evenly to both hands. Early in the session Alison identified that contact was an area for this combination to work on and it was a clear focus through the session.

It was in the canter work that the most obvious changes took place, again due to the influence of straightening the horse and equalising the contact. One of the ways that Alison enabled Tory to achieve the improvement was through judicious use of counter bend. For a few strides prior to the transition she asked Tory to put Sardra into counter flexion and a gentle degree of counter bend. Upon returning to true bend they immediately struck off into the canter. This exercise has a clear gymnastic benefit to the horse and in addition it made the rider more aware of what became her outside rein going into the canter. The result was a clearer moment of suspension, more energy and more ‘jump’ in each stride. This was a great demonstration of the principle that straightness allows impulsion to develop in the mind and body of the horse.

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Many riders don’t get to experience riding in a 20 x 60 metre arena on a daily basis and Karen Browne mentioned this at the start of her individual session with Harvey. Riding in the long arena when you usually train in a short arena, can challenge both the stamina of a horse and the spacial awareness of the rider. Harvey, an eighteen year old Welsh section D gelding, has belonged to Karen for nine years and they have explored a variety of activities together. Karen has an interest in biomechanics and is keen to explore dressage in greater depth with Harvey. They have taken part in tests at Prelim level before and also have experience together in endurance riding and jumping. Harvey is a gorgeous horse, with the energy levels and positive attitude that are so often found in Welsh horses. His basic gaits were very good and showed all the promise you could want for future development. What has struck me many times, and did so again with these horses, is how a well cared for horse in its late teens or early twenties often moves better than a poorly trained horse of six or seven.

The main focus for Karen in the early part of the session was a correction to her upper body position. Harvey had initially shown a tendency to fall in. There is a wise old saying that “a crooked rider never made a straight horse” and this applies to us all to some degree or other. We are endlessly correcting our bodies to correct the bodies of our horses. There are those who teach only the effect of hand or leg in cases like these but Alison is of course a far more educated teacher! She made numerous small, relevant changes to the positions of the riders throughout the camp and it was lovely to see that connection in place. Alison corrected Karen’s upper body position relative to the line of travel. She did this skilfully by asking her to bring her outside shoulder around, rather than by asking her to take her inside shoulder back. This has the advantage of avoiding excessive twisting of the upper body and the collapsing that can go along with it. It is also easier for the rider to maintain the outside hand position and rein contact when it is done this way.

It is great to work with riders who have done ‘a bit of everything’ rather than those who have dressage focused tunnel vision. The reason for this is that, like Harvey, their horses often have a lovely unspoilt basis to begin training. There was no incorrect training to undo, no hand imposed tensions in the poll or the back. The flip side, if it can even be called that, is that Harvey had not yet learnt to gather his body under him and explore its full power and gymnastic potential. Even at eighteen you could see that he had plenty of scope for this though. Alison gave Karen an idea, an image to keep in her mind. It was of a big elastic band around Harvey’s whole body, there to encourage spring and elasticity in his movement. It gave Karen the idea of elastic connection. Throughout the session I could see this starting to grow and develop. Like the corrections to a rider’s seat, a transformation like this is gradual and takes an ongoing effort to make sure it takes root.

“I loved this clinic. It was relaxed and everything was broken down so it was easy to understand. Roll on my next Dressage!”  Karen Browne

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A positional correction will usually feel alien to the rider at first. As Karen put it “it feels right and wrong at the same time”.  It is the reward the horse gives the rider that becomes a marker of the change and acts as a motivation to sustain the change. Harvey discovered a more springy, softer way of going through the session and the contact improved. Karen noticed his lower head carriage and Alison described it very appropriately as “a wonderful by-product”; Harvey had in fact begun to noticeably soften and lift his top-line into early stage roundness. It was a lovely transformation, that showed his movement to even greater advantage. Working into the canter transitions Alison gave the following set of instructions:

“Build the trot, engage the outside rein and think canter”.

The result fitted exactly with the imagery that she had suggested to Karen at the start. It was as though Harvey had a big elastic band around him, he had become more elastic in body and mind.

One thing that I noticed throughout the sessions was how the horses all gravitated to Alison when they had the chance; at the start and end of the sessions and when she stopped them to explain something to the rider. This is always a good sign to me. The horse, the rider and the coach are a unit of three and trust has to exist between all parties.

Karen Kendall’s thirteen year old piebald cob Seamus had previously hacked and taken part in endurance rides. Karen is aiming to improve his work in the school, with the goal of taking part in a riding club quadrille this September. Karen has Arthritis in both hips and, because of this, her legs take time to relax into position at the start of every ride. Improving a rider’s seat is as much about ensuring the rider has time for relaxation and comfort as it is about body alignment. Alison made a quick correction to encourage soft bend in Karen’s elbow, with a virtually immediate improvement taking place in the contact. Seamus’ primary issue has been with going forward. From my experience with horses of his type, and no doubt this was the case for Alison too, it is clear that fitness and coordination are the underlying factors, rather than a lack of willingness. Like many horses with substantial bone structures, Seamus will take time to develop the muscle power he requires to work at his absolute best.

Seamus and Karen have only begun working with Alison very recently and it was clear that they are both building self-confidence thanks to her knowledgable and patient approach. In the two ridden sessions I saw Seamus grow in confidence and offer work willingly that had apparently been something of a battleground in the past. A key factor in this was the rider’s tone of voice. How can something so subtle, that is not a body aid make such a difference? Well, I think it is because tone of voice reveals the rider’s underlying state of mind.  Alison picked up on some underlying mental tension and quietly reassured Karen, asking her to make a very specific change to her tone of voice if she uses it for upward transitions. From that moment on an upbeat, positive, friendly voice aid backed up the leg and it took both horse and rider onto an upward psychological spiral that was lovely to see. Seamus definitely needs a tone that says “you can do this” much more than he needs a tone that says”you will do this”.

 

Seamus offered much more sustained forwardness as the session progressed and many of the improvement that were coming into Seamus’ work were by products of this. Controlling his shoulders on the circles was an area that Alison and Karen focused on. Keeping the shape and dimensions of the circles depends first on controlling the shoulder mass of the horse and only then can consistent bend exist. By the end of the session Karen had a great deal more control of Seamus’ shoulders. He was flowing around the circles in trot better than ever before. The physical change in him was clear and he had a happy look on his face, as did Karen! Looking at Seamus I could clearly see his potential; given time to get stronger and lighter, fitter and even more confident he will make a beautiful quadrille horse or competition horse. There is no such thing as a dressage horse. Dressage is a process that exists to serve the horse and the rider. As they continue to train with Alison I am certain that this process will be the making of Seamus, mentally and physically. He showed a lovely hint of things to come in the free walk towards the end of the session when he stretched down, held the connection, lifted his back and his walk got a rather lovely swing to it.

“I really benefitted from the ridden sessions and then discussing and breaking it down into chunks. I feel positive about our future in dressage and excited to move on”  Karen Kendall

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Mindset Session

We chose to take the dismounted session outside. Once the horses were settled into their stables we found a bench in the shade. I took part in this session and so my impressions are those of a participant as much as an observer. Preliminary 13 was the test Alison had chosen to look at for the session. We began by talking about how we learn tests. For me letters don’t really come into it much because I learn patterns, usually linked together in blocks. Alison asked us to begin learning the test, she then stopped us part way through to focus on one particular movement. Our minds were in a focused state at this point. The movement that we focused on for the visualisation was the section of trot along the wall after the corner and a twenty metre circle halfway down the long side – working trot H to E, with the circle at E. There is a give and retake of the reins on the second half of the circle as you cross the centre line. We used this movement to create a visualisation.

Despite being familiar with visualisations and accustomed to using them in training I did something that surprised me. I set myself up in my mind, trotting down the wall and onto my circle. The sun was warming me, the scent of gently perspiring horse was rising to my nostrils, I could feel the stirrup treads gently under my feet and my seat bones  were moving with the horse, the birds were singing and all was well. The trot tempo was steady, the contact was nice and the bend was rather pleasing. Then I came to the give and retake. I did a quick, token arm gesture totally unlike anything I would normally call a decent give and retake. I need not have moved my arms at all during a visualisation. The phrase “what I should be doing” came up from one of the riders and although I hadn’t said it, I too had thought it. Alison suggested we reframe that as “what I would like to do”. The way we talk about ourselves and to ourselves is critically important; language really matters to mindset. When I went through my visualisation again I made sure that my give and retake was the real thing! In our visualisations we must not mark the movements but fully create them in our mind.

For riders who might not have worked with visualisation before, the main surprise and the main challenge too is that they must be in real-time. It must take you as long to ride your movement in your visualisation as it would to ride it on your horse. The second thing is that they are multi sensory. Alison encouraged the riders to think about what they could see, hear and feel through the visualisation. For the exercise to work it is vital to make the experience as real as possible. We all jotted down what we had been aware of. Because I have been trained to soften my eyes, look up and, on a circle I take my outside eye line to the inside ear tip of the horse, the view for me was a wide-angle, soft focus, constantly moving panorama of my current home arena. I was aware of hearing birdsong and the footfalls of the horse. The perceived sensation of movement revolved around my hips and seat bones primarily, with the pleasant rein contact and the stirrup tread contact being part of my awareness too. Overall I was aware of my body positioning for the circle. My thinking felt clear and calm because of the soft focus and the steady tempo. My state of mind could have been categorised as calmly alert. That is probably the ideal state to ride and also to compete in. This is one of the ways in which repeated visualisations really do help riders.

We were then asked to choose a movement in the test which we would find challenging. I thought of a particular horse I know and decided that the free walk would be our greatest challenge in that test. It is a quietly challenging movement and not to be underestimated. In Prelim 13 it carries a double score and that in itself says something about the challenges and importance of that movement as an indicator of quality training. One of my teachers used to say to us

“Remember it is free walk on a long rein, not long walk on a free rein!”

Whilst there will be less contact than in an extended walk, there is still a connection to preserve through the stretch. With a horse that is nervous and who can be inattentive it is often easier to ride an extended walk, where the horse remains on a more defined contact and therefore is more easily kept on the aids, than it is to ride a free walk. That was what I jotted down for my “issue” with the movement. I was asked to make a second column for what I wanted in the movement and it looked like this:

  • Staying focused, taking the contact down, moving freely into a good over-track, with the back lifting and swinging under me.
  • Remaining focused and on the aids for as long as I want the stretch to last.

Exploring the things I wanted gave me the blueprint for how to change the issue into the things I wanted. I was able to come up with a plan. I decided that I would not try initially to go for gold in that movement. In training I would ride it progressively from a smaller stretch, keeping the connection between horse and I, to a greater stretch as time went on. In a very spooky environment I would ride for a modestly respectable mark, so as not to wreck the movement altogether. I have always believed in knowing when to ride for a modest gain, a solid confidence building result. Showjumping taught me that. There is definitely a dressage version of the slow careful clear round and it is a valuable thing. Like all of the participants I had, through this exercise, found my own solutions. Therein lies one of the differences between coaching and teaching. An exercise like this helps riders to draw on their own reserves and that is something every rider can benefit from. It really creates confidence.

“I love the inclusivity of the session and the opportunity to discuss and process the ridden sessions. It was really helpful to share experiences and have the chance to learn from each other”  Tory Dobb

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The Group Ridden Session

We were all back indoors for the group ridden session. This was designed to have some shared objectives and some individual ones. Some of the shared objectives were about using the space and getting used to sharing the space. Sooner or later we all come up against others who warm up in a less than friendly fashion. Alison had some great, constructive advice for dealing with this. It involved positive body language and making a polite personal connection with the rider in question. A confident smile or a compliment can go a long way. It enables you to feel pro active rather than reactive to that person. Many riders don’t get the opportunity to ride in with others on a day-to-day basis and warming up arenas can come as a shock to the system. Having a group session built into the camp was a very good idea for this reason alone.

When it came to deciding the individual objectives it was clear how much confidence all of the riders had gained throughout the day. Rather than focusing on more of the same from their earlier session, they wanted to explore some lateral work with their horses. These choices were very appropriate extensions of what they had already been working on. There is nothing like shoulder in or quarter walk pirouettes to help gain control of the horse’s shoulders and increase straightness. For some horses it was the very beginning of their work in these movements and others had already made a start. By the end of the session all of the riders were more at home with the aids, more relaxed in their bodies and the horses showed some very nice responses. All through the session Alison built upon the basics that had been put in place earlier, keeping the riders aligned correctly and the horses on an even contact through both sides of their bodies. The work was approached very correctly and the horses all showed better walk, trot and canter as a result. That is the mark of correct lateral work, that it improves the forwards locomotion on a single track. You can’t ask for more after a day’s work than for greater longitudinal balance, better lateral balance and a marked increase in the beauty of  a horse’s movement.

Day Two – BD Competition at Moulton EC

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The second day of the camp was dedicated to the competition itself. Not all of the riders from the previous day were planning to compete and two new horses joined the group. The beautiful Stella, who belongs to Diane Underwood, totally lived up to her name. I watched Alison work with this combination at the start of the day and again through their warm up. Stella worked with great consistency and focus. She has the ride-ability factor and seemed, admittedly on short acquaintance, to be an absolute sweetheart. Her movement clearly had the potential to be big and I really liked that Diane and Alison kept her in good tempo and good balance throughout. Stella’s movement is cadenced, but soft, which shows that she habitually works in a state of relaxation.

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Stella clearly has a high level of confidence in Diane. She worked in a strange arena just as though she’d been there forever. That attitude to life is a wonderful thing to work with; it means you can focus on the technical aspects of training rather than on managing behaviours. I suspected that she might, at some point in her life, have been ridden in a way that had destabilised the base of her neck. This usually leaves a mark on the horse’s way of going that takes skill and determination to correct. As Alison put it “she is learning that we are not at home to wiggling the neck”! Stella was showing very sound Elementary level work with lots of promise for reaching the higher levels. Keeping the focus on straightness and balance is certainly the way to do exactly that! Diane and Stella produced a really lovely test to take second place in the BD Elementary Freestyle to Music.

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I also got to meet the very handsome Beau, who belongs to Tamasine Thompson. It is clear that Beau is a horse with a lot of personality. He and Tamasine clearly have a very strong bond. I can totally understand why someone would fall for this horse. Something that seems paradoxical in horses applies to him; I realised I had met yet another example of the brave but spooky horse. Beau had quite a career as an event horse and his courageous, idiosyncratic nature is written in every line of him and every gesture. His eyes have a powerful look I’ve seen in great racehorses. On the other hand he clearly finds the world a spooky place to live in. This paradox is familiar to me and I have ridden several horses who exhibited similar behaviours of high courage and high reactivity. My conclusion is that they are the ones most determined to remain alive, the successful ones in survival terms. When asked to do a job other horses would balk at, they get on and do it, but if a leaf blows off a tree then you’d better fasten your seatbelt!  That Beau showed some tension in his test was no surprise. From observing him outside of the arena I was pretty much expecting it. He’s the kind of horse that can give you fireworks, of the sort you want and the sort you don’t!

There were some issues with the sound system and before the test got going Beau was met with a screeching noise that would have put the wind up many horses! He dealt with that really rather well but I don’t think it increased his general happiness level with that particular environment. Each time Beau had a spook Tamasine handled it tactfully and effectively; encouraging him to relax and listen. You cannot force relaxation, it is impossible. If the tension comes from the mind of the horse then all you can do is ride correctly, confidently and reassuringly whilst you wait for it to pass. Of course the tension levels will have a domino impact on other factors in the horse’s way of going. It would be my hope that as Beau advances in his training he will offer more of his best and exhibit less of the tensions. I say this because when Beau settles he shows movement that is eye-catching, athletic, and cadenced. He has all of the presence you could ever want, but of course it tends to be the challenging horses who do.

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Sardra’s test in the BD Preliminary Freestyle to Music was absolutely lovely to watch. In spite of being recently back in work, having travelled on both days of the weekend and having worked fairly hard on the first day, she was if anything more forward. Her canter work was enthusiastic and she looked like she was really enjoying herself. Some horses just come alive to music and I wonder if she is one of them. All of the improvements that Alison and Tory had worked on through Saturday were visible in the test and it was great to see everything fall into place. Not only was the test a pleasure to watch, it had a very successful outcome; a good score and a red rosette, but most importantly of all a happy horse and rider!

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The level of support that Alison gave each of the riders was wonderful. Having a coach on hand to help you warm up is something that many riders don’t get to experience very often. Knowing that they will be there to talk through their impressions of your test is valuable too. What a rider remembers of a test is often a little at odds with what an observer sees. The judge has no context on you or your horse, they must comment and mark within fixed parameters. Your coach knows the background and context and can offer vital input as well. It is ironic that the riders with the most experience, who may well be coaches themselves, are the ones most likely to have coaches of their own in attendance when they compete. This particular camp format gave the riders a taste of what it is like to have the support system that some, though by no means all, professional riders experience.

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Reflecting on the experience of the camp in general I would absolutely recommend it. I did so beforehand because I firmly believe in Alison’s capability as a coach. Now, my conviction is even stronger. Although I was there as an observer I felt very included. The company was great. I realised that it did me a lot of good to sit and chat with other riders. Had I been planning to compete on that Sunday I would have felt like part of a team. Camps offer us a chance to be open, to share, to support one another. One of the things I wanted to do when I began writing was to show the connections and common ground that exists between all riders. The two days of the camp were full of opportunities to learn, to build confidence and to have fun. I won’t be able to be at the next one, but I really wish I could. I will look forward to hearing how all of the horses and riders are getting on though and hope to meet them again before too long!

There was a lovely goodie bag for each of the riders and one for me too! A big thank you to Alison and to Equissimo, Laura Mary Art and Equilibrium Products for putting this together; it made a great weekend even more memorable!

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Keep the balance, don’t burst the bubble!

 

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Imagine that there is a bubble around you and your horse. It moves along with you as you ride. At any time we could hit a pause button and ask the following questions about everything within that bubble:

  • Have I got enough engagement?
  • Do I have the full attention of my horse?
  • Are we correctly aligned?
  • How is our balance?

You are answering only for that moment – it comprises of:

  1. The last stride, which is fading fast from the mind of you and your horse but has a residual bearing on the stride you are in.
  2. The stride you are currently in with your horse, which it is not too late to influence. This is why we build the speed of reaction in a dressage horse and why riders value a ‘quick’ hind leg. What they mean by that is a quick brain to leg reaction.
  3. The stride you are moving in to, which is the most important one of all.

It is impossible to store up impulsion for the future. The body of the horse is not a battery. You cannot create impulsion in one moment in case you need it half an arena later, or even 30 seconds later. If you give in to that temptation you risk ruining the tempo or takt of your horse. If we drive on with our legs, or even our seat, too fast we will end up supporting an unbalanced horse in our hands. This is something that riders can get away with at certain levels. For the horse that moves too quickly, the work of high school that is the basis of FEI levels will never come easily or well without a total re-think in training.

So what might tempt us to ride too quickly? Usually it is a fear of lacking impulsion. My advice is this:

Do not panic about impulsion. You do not create impulsion, that is the job of the horse.

Impulsion is a product of training, not an ingredient. It is second to last on the training scale for a very good reason. rhythm comes almost at the beginning, also for a very good reason. Not everybody loves the training scale, but I do. I have kept to it faithfully and it has been the bedrock of success in even the most challenging remedial training cases.

When you ride only in the moment you will not run the risk of making the horse move too fast. The horse will have good tempo and therefore will be rhythmical, relaxed and balanced. That is when the horse will offer you all of the impulsion it can. Many of us are familiar with the advice not to confuse speed and impulsion. That is great advice but doesn’t really explain the difference. Of course we can legitimately exert a forward driving influence over our horse. It is simply a matter of knowing when and how much is right for that moment. Years ago I watched Lucinda Green give a clinic. The riders were amateurs with various levels of experience. One of the key skills that she outlined was knowing when to use the leg. She said we must identify the moment that the horse questions us and be swift with the leg then, we must not be using the preventative leg half a field away. The context is different but the advice is the same. Riding cross-country, out hacking, schooling dressage, it is all the same deal. Ride the stride you are in and let the future take care of itself, because if you do then it will!

There is more detail about how to use our contacts to communicate with the horse here:Better Dressage – Contact

and more detail about the importance of takt and balance here: Better Dressage – Developing your horse’s trot.

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Develop your Horse’s Trot.

There is an old horseman’s saying that you must buy a good walk and canter (and if a horse has one it will tend to have the other) but you can make a trot. I used to ride sales horses for a gentleman who told me exactly this. He claimed that he always knew if he would buy a horse from seeing it walk across the yard. Many years later I find exactly the same thing. I see a horse walk and I know more or less all I need to about it’s movement and quite a lot about it’s character too. Incidentally my old employer’s advice is also the reason I always buy horses from breeders, usually ones who are friends, and never from auctions. I have no interest in a lit up sales ring trot. I want to see the horse walk calmly from it’s own box to the school.

The ideal is to find a horse with three good gaits but if you are wise you will prioritise the walk over all others. A horse with a truly beautiful walk is a treasure. In the young or less trained horse the true quality of the trot and canter might be temporarily obscured by poor balance. If the walk is good then the other gaits will come right in time. The idea that we can make a good trot is all very well but it is necessary to know how.

The advice in this article is applicable to two scenarios:

  1. You have just bought a horse with a trot that is less spectacular than you might like.
  2. You have just bought a horse with a breathtakingly spectacular trot and you want to preserve and improve further upon it.

The importance of balance in training the dressage horse.

It is balance that makes all gaits beautiful and brilliant. In cultivating balance you will do the horse the greatest favour of all.

“Dressage can be distilled into two basic tasks – balance your horse and straighten your horse.”

Many dressage horses are seriously out of balance and still successful up to a point. These horses usually hit a ceiling and progress little, or badly, when they enter the realms of high school. In competition terms they peak below fifth level and struggle with the movements beyond it. Lack of talent is often cited as an explanation where lack of balance is a big part of the actual problem. This explains why a rider who comprehends balance can teach most movements to most horses, even horses with limited athletic ability.

Balance is always relative and it can always be improved upon. No rider is ever truly 100% satisfied with either the balance or the degree of straightness; we are perfectionists and detail oriented. We have to make a start somewhere though and each time you lunge, work in hand, hack out or train in the arena you have a chance to make a positive difference. The following activities are part of creating balance, treat them as a ‘pick and mix’ to keep you and the horse amused!

  • Riding over varied terrain – start slowly because some horses may not have encountered these challenges before. Hills are useful and so are forest tracks where the horse has to pick up its feet and look where it is going. Tall grass and shallow water are valuable training aids too!
  • Gymnastic jumping – cavaletti and grid jumping helps to perfect the balance of the horse. It will also build stamina (which the advanced horse needs in bucket loads) and will build muscle too.
  • Hangbahn training – this is rather more specific than just riding over varied terrain. Find an area of grass or woodland that has a gentle slope and school over it as you would in the arena. The footing must be good and the slope must not be steep. Here is a link to an excellent video made by  Pferdia TV featuring Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner teaching riders how to use the Hangbahn to good advantage. Note the engagement achieved in the transitions. The benefit of the hangbahn is that the horse works over an area repeatedly and can learn for itself, by repetition, the way to better balance.

    Hangbahntraining, Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner, pferdia tv

The link between tempo and good balance

Working on balance to optimise the trot involves one cardinal rule – do not ride too fast! There is a trot which is not talked about enough and it is called the ‘Ordinary Trot’. This does not necessarily track up in the way a Working Trot would and it does not have the elevation of the Collected Trot either. It is exactly what it says on the tin – a very ordinary trot! It is the trot of warming up, the easy trot which will begin to get the blood flowing and the muscles loose. A dancer at barre does not begin with large movements, much less with jumps, they begin with tiny movements to warm the legs and they progress from there. I once heard the ordinary trot described as the ‘cheap trot’ as in ‘I would not pay much for that horse’ kind of trot, but as that coach went on to say – spectacular, expensive looking trots are what we build out of it!

To find the tempo of the ordinary trot, which is unique to each horse, watch the horse loose or on the lunge line. When it has lost any excitement and is not yet tired the horse will fall into a pleasant, easy trot that is rhythmical.  The tempo will settle to something regular, if you neither speed it up nor slow it artificially. Watch the trot and learn the tempo; that is your horse’s personal baseline trot. Every day, when you begin to trot, work in that tempo. This is where balance is easy for the horse. Think of this as the middle point of a spectrum. It is where we start at the beginning of training the horse and it is also our day to day starting point.

 Piaffe and extended trot – the two ends of the spectrum.

These are the extremes at either end of our spectrum. Our Ordinary Trot sits right in the middle. Gradually, day by day, we take the horse a little towards one end and a little towards the other and we keep it in good balance with light, steady contact. At any given time we might feel that the progress is better in one direction, towards the collection or the extension, but the work will develop more or less equally out from the middle towards the extremes if our training is correct. By nature horses are gifted equally in this regard too. A young horse or pony (of even the most indifferent breeding) will show both natural Passage and floating extensions until it has to carry a rider. Good training works outward from the middle of the spectrum and reaches both extremes more or less at the same time and to a very similar standard.

The trot of a horse that moves too fast and out of balance will show extension that is big but not extension that is good. It will be tight through the back, wide behind and sometimes crooked. The diagonals will be un co-ordinated. When it comes time for the extended trot to collect again the rider will struggle. When it comes to collection the rider will have to rely upon induced tension to achieve high steps.

Much has been said of the need for co-ordinated diagonals, where the cannon bone angles match. This is often an accurate indication of the quality of the work but it should not be taken out of general context. One other way to evaluate your trot work is to to watch the exact timing of the steps. The hooves of the diagonal pair must either be lifting or descending. There should not be a break or pause at the highest point of the step. Neither the Passage nor the extended trot is supposed to be a staccato movement. Think of the horse as a ball of pizza dough; it should be stretchable, whilst retaining elasticity, and then come back easily into a ball. Much of this elasticity is in the horse’s state of mind, for it’s body state will always mirror that.

How to develop cadence and range within the trot

What matters most is not so much what we do but what we do not do. When we think of the horse being in front of our aids, as it should be, we remember that it should be an inch in front of our aids not half a mile. When the horse connects to the hand it should only feel the need to connect lightly, though securely. In earlier articles “Better Dressage – Creating Good contact with Your Horse”  we looked in more detail at the issue of contact and balance.

If we accept that we must not ride too fast and we have found the ‘sweet spot’ of the ordinary trot in good balance, what then? How do we create the cadence for collection and the scope for extension? How do we keep all of that in balance? Like many riders of my generation I have developed a great deal of respect for the training scale and the interplay of the concepts contained within it. One of the best detailed explanations of it I have found is in Johan Hinnemann’s book “The Simplicity of Dressage” published in English  by J.A.Allen & Co Ltd (30 Sept. 2003)

Relaxation means that the horse is no longer speeding up or slowing down because of tension or inattention; thus it has settled into a tempo, with which we are not interfering. Just those two elements of the training scale give us the opportunity to improve the balance and thus the trot. Keeping the horse relaxed, and respecting the rhythm, we make many transitions between and within gaits. We also ride school figures of increasing complexity and we combine these with the transitions.

Your aids and the trot.

It is very difficult to effect much change in the trot with only our hands and legs. In the early stages of training we play around the middle of the trot spectrum and, with care, we can do this in rising or posting trot. In this case it is the tempo of our rise and sit that helps to hold the horse in tempo and our legs must be tactfully applied in order to avoid making the horse run. The spur has no place at all in this and routine use of it will result very quickly in poor balance.

The simplest formula for success in the rising trot is to think of your hips keeping time like a metronome; mark the tempo that you have and, as you sit, your calves ask for more energy. As you rise, do not let the tempo of the hips speed up. You are the metronome!  Do not ask too much with the leg at first and reward the horse when it gives you more power in the same tempo. Repeat this often and the result will be an increase in cadence. With this it is easy to slightly open the stride. Take the horse into a slightly smaller trot and build cadence within it. Then open the trot up for a few steps to the length it originally was and reward the horse. At the very beginning I usually transition back to walk at this point. Later on you can bring the trot back, rebuild the cadence and repeat. Keep thinking of the pizza dough idea!

Keep coming back to the baseline trot to rest and only take the trot higher or longer for a few strides at a time.

When you are able to open the stride considerably and you are able to make a short cadenced trot easily then it should be no trouble to play around between the two. If it ever feels difficult then go back a little towards the middle ground, rebuild the horse’s confidence and try again. Once it is consistently easy, and the horse is stronger through the back, you will want to create bigger differences within the trot spectrum. For this you will need a good sitting trot. If you don’t feel you have this and you want to ride anything above elementary dressage then there is nothing for it but lunge lessons and a long time with no stirrups. The reason that Passage and fully extended trot are very uncomfortable to rise to is that the moment of suspension elongates considerably in both of them. I have tried riding to both in rising trot and it is not a good feeling. You also miss out on using the one part of your body that can create better aid distinctions than any other.

Movements that lend themselves well to this phase of work are, among many others, short diagonal lines, demi- voltes with long and short returns to the wall and large circles with smaller circles nested within them. Let the tighter curved lines encourage the horse to collect and use the more open lines to encourage the horse to open the stride. If the horse feels too full of power use a more complex floor pattern to ‘mop up’ the energy.  It is better to let the movement gather the horse than to use your body for this.

The use of the seat and leg to create collection and extension.

The role of the seat in mutating the horse’s trot.

The basis of this system is what I call neutral seat. In this you have good core balance upon the three points of your seat. For a detailed description of this (including X-rays) I would recommend “Dressage Formula” by Erik Herbermann.

When I want to have a generally animating effect upon the horse I bring a slight anterior tilt into my pelvis. Think of tucking the the cocxyx underneath you to emphasise the back of the seat. Do not lean back into this otherwise it will put you behind the movement and out of balance. There are times that all riders will get a little left behind if the horse extends with a vigour they didn’t anticipate but there is no point setting yourself up to fail by leaning back to begin with. Keep your centre of balance over that of the horse and remember that this is going to be travelling forward in big bounding steps; anticipate the forward movement and stay over it.

When I want to have a collecting influence I make the back of the seat lighter. I think of this as I would lightening my foot on the accelerator of a car. When doing this it is very important not to lean forward. As with the driving aid it is only the angle of the pelvis which changes, our shoulders stay above our feet and our core balance stays correct. This is the theory anyway! In reality it takes quite a bit of practice.

So we sit in neutral seat, we can apply less seat or more seat depending on whether we wish to animate or soothe the horse. This in itself is not what tells the horse to collect or extend; it is an influence not an aid. The ability to lay off the accelerator (to limit the driving effect of my seat) is what has made riding some particularly hot horses possible. With such horses I think of sitting softly on a little air cushion under the back of my seat. The weight of my body is diffused over the muscular surface of my seat and thighs. This diffusion of weight is what seems to have a calming effect – simply by avoiding the driving effect. To ride extension on such horses is a matter of extreme tact; the driving seat comes into play so lightly, so carefully, that (most of the time at least) explosions are avoided.

Equally I have found that with the less sharp horse it is helpful to get it acclimatised to a light seat. Perhaps this is simply because it has been made impervious  to the driving aids throughout it’s life by their over use. They say if you want to be heard you should whisper. This is very true with horses!

The role of the leg in mutating the horse’s trot.

I habituate my horses to adapt their tempo to the tempo of my calf pulses. Lighter or stronger will depend on the horse but either way the timing is what counts. This is totally different to the stronger leg equals faster motion paradigm, which is useless for advanced dressage. Quicker pulses mean quicker tempo, slower pulses mean slower tempo. Reward all signs of the appropriate adaptation and the horse will soon understand you perfectly.

Now, I mentioned earlier that the moment of suspension elongates in both the Passage and the fully extended trot. This means that in both of these trots you will feel as though you and the horse have gone slightly into slow motion. I always think of it as sound waves running through my body that are elongated. Your calf pulses are therefore slower. They are what elongates the moment of suspension in the trot. Of course it takes time and a progressive approach but that is one way to make the Passage. I tell pupils to think of slowing the calf aid down in both Passage and extension. When you want to ride back into the collected trot from either you simply adopt the usual collected trot tempo with your calves and either gather back or ride out into it depending on the gait variant you started from. The seeds of this understanding are sown from the first year of training.

Putting it all together to make collected and extended trot.

It is not as simple as to say my seat is always lightened in Passage and always emphasised in extended trot. The seat is an influence, not an aid, and it may sometimes need to animate a Passage (in which case it will act as it would for medium or extended trot) or it may need to sooth  a horse in extension. There is no rule, but in general it is fair to say that you begin the Passage with less seat and a slow pulsing calf aid (which may be a little behind the usual position – but not too far) whereas you start off the extension with a little more seat and the leg at the girth which delivers slow pulses within its gently clinging contact. If anything I find that the moment of suspension is often slightly longer in extension than in any other variant of the trot.

All of this begins with small changes around the middle of the trot spectrum and over years of training you will be able to reach the extremes. I am aware that many people reading this will not expect to reach those extremes but it is helpful to have an overview of the process. It is not unrealistic, with the right coaching, to expect most horses and riders to get a lot further than they might originally have expected.

You will have noticed that I make little mention of the Piaffe. It belongs on our spectrum but as something that lies at the very limit of the collection end, far beyond the Passage. Most horses will have a moment of suspension in extension that is roughly the same as their moment of suspension in Passage; both are similarly slow. The Piaffe has no equivalent in extension. The tempo of the Piaffe is quicker and the body base of it is much shorter than in any other trot. For this reason I have excluded it from this article. It is a subject really deserving of an article of it’s own.