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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“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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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

Successful Test Riding.

The Challenges of Competitive Dressage

I believe that test riding is an art in itself. Good dressage exists quite separately to it and equally good dressage can exist within it; though perhaps, because of it’s origins, slightly against the odds. There is Dressage the sport and dressage the process; the two are indivisible of course because the sport could not exist without the process. The process can, and for millennia did, exist perfectly well without the sport; the sport is a new development and needs to be seen in context. This is not a negative perspective at all; I believe that riders need to know where dressage competition originated in order to understand it’s particular nature. Only when we understand something can we be good at it.

The dressage test is derived from late 19th and early 20th century military equitation. It has mutated and adapted over the decades to a sports format and is under pretty constant review by the FEI. If we choose to engage with dressage as a sport it is worth understanding what a test is designed to do and what it cannot do. A dressage test is exactly what it says on the can. It tests the training of your horse. It was not created to allow you to showcase the training of your horse, in the way a freestyle test or display riding can do. They are not easier than test riding by any means, as those who have done them will know very well; the challenges are simply  different.

The way in which a standard dressage test functions is very like a course of show jumps. The designer is asking you a set of questions.

The biggest mistake I see riders make is to imagine that the question they are being asked is “can you execute this list of movements required for the level.”

The need to be proficient in the movements for the level is a given, but that is far from the heart of the matter.

The real questions are around the horse’s way of going and the order in which the movements are required to happen.

The way in which one test movement flows into the next is where you must focus your analysis. It is analysis which makes for good test riding.

My horse might be able to perform all of the movements for a given level and yet to perform them in a test format might seriously reduce the overall quality of the work. Why would that be? In day to day training we can use one movement to perfectly set a horse up for the next. We might take shoulder in to assist in setting the green horse up for a canter transition or we might wind a travers circle down into a working pirouette. Tests are not set up like that. Often a movement is preceded by the very last thing that you would want to use in order to set that movement up in training; that is the whole point of it being a test. To compete successfully we need to treat the dressage test as though it were a course of jumps and work out exactly what question we are being asked.

How to Break Down Your Dressage Test.

I will always help a pupil prepare for a test with equal seriousness regardless of the level they are riding at. There is no such thing as an easy test, no matter how experienced a rider you are or how basic it’s elements.

From the start of the test to the end ask yourself this “when I ride from movement X to movement Y what is it that could go wrong, why is is difficult to do that?” Because it will be difficult, it is designed to be so. Knowing what could go wrong tells you what you must do, because that is the inverse of what you must not do.

Understand the possible negative outcome, acknowledging it is perfectly healthy and necessary.  If you know that it is realistically within your power to ride the movement really well then work out how you can best ride from movement X to movement Y. It can be useful to talk someone through it, as you might walk a course of jumps with a pupil, explaining your thinking as you go.

We want to end up in a place where we can focus our mind purely on the positive, on the desired outcomes. In order to get to that place however we need to look closely at the potential pitfalls which the test designer has put in place for us. Once we have examined them and we know how to avoid them we can create our positive visualisation. Then, having visualised how, we can ride from movement to movement calmly, happily and in the best possible way.

The Process

My process is something like this. I will use one set of movements from from a mid level test as an example. If the test is asking me to make extended trot over a diagonal and then to turn onto the centre line and make half pass back to the wall there are three main elements to consider.

Let us suppose that the diagonal was set up well and the horse began the extension in good form. It was attentive, engaged and supple throughout. But many a diagonal in extension begins well and ends not quite so well.

  1. I could lose balance (mine and/or the horse’s) towards the end of the diagonal. My horse could be wide behind, disengaged and relatively tense through the back. Therefore if I want to make the best of the overall test performance  I must not ask for greater length of stride than my horse can comfortably handle in good balance. If I err on the side of caution I will keep the horse soft through the back and light in the hand. I might have slightly understated the scope of the extension but the balance will be good and we will flow softly into the corner. Instead of going all out to maximise marks on one movement I have ridden more conservatively in order to maximise marks over several movements. This can prove the superior strategy.
  2. As I ride into the corner I must ensure that I don’t allow the bend to lose its uniformity. Those of you who have read my earlier articles will know that I am a stickler for controlled bending, you might say the straightness within the bending. If the horse breaks at the wither it will fall onto the outside shoulder to some degree. If it does that you will compromise your turn onto the centre line. This goes for every centre line, at every level.
  3. As I ride onto the centre line I have the shoulder mass exactly where I want it and I can focus on placing the shoulders ahead of the quarters. I was taught to begin every half pass with a step or two of shoulder in. Because the turn was well set up and well executed I know that both hind legs are softly engaging, the back is relaxed and the bend is uniform through the body of the horse. No half pass could have a better set up than that.

With every test I look at the link between the first movement and the second, the second and the third, and so on in this way. I recognise the potential pitfalls and I think about how I can strategically avoid them. That is one aspect of the process. The second is to look at the composition of the test in more general terms.

In early levels there is more use of a mirror image format. Something is done on one rein in one gait, then often you return to a lower gait for a while, and then on returning to the higher gait you repeat the earlier movement to the other side. This provides respite for the horse’s cardio system and the transitions allow you to rebalance. In more demanding tests there is less and less respite as you go up the levels. The canter work is often more of a block and it requires a higher level of cardio fitness if the movements nearer the end of the test are going to be executed well. You need to be realistic about the level of fitness your horse has relative to the test and build that up if necessary. Your own fitness needs to be far greater too, if you want to get the very best performance from your horse. In Rider Fitness I wrote about how your performance as a dressage rider can be greatly improved through physical fitness.

The final, and the most important, thing I want to talk about is the horse’s way of going, relative to the test. It is no coincidence that many good riders compete a level or two below the training level of the horse. They have not fallen into the vanity trap of competing outside of their comfort zone in order to say that they are at this level or that. It is far better for your confidence and that of the horse to know you are competing well within your training limits. It is a huge advantage to work with a coach, one who will be kind but honest with you! It also helps to go watch a range of horses at your chosen level; it is wise to pay most attention to elite combinations. See how well the movements are performed but also pay attention to the way of going, the level of fitness and most of all the muscular development of the horse. To succeed at competitive dressage it really is a case of ‘its not what you do, its the way that you do it’.

Pre Competition Checklist

  1. You need to analyse how well you execute the test elements, then how the performance level stands up to your linking those elements together in a test format. Finally work through the test in it’s entirety and see how it feels.
  2. You need to know if your horse is fit enough for the level. The best horses at every level are cardio fit and correctly muscled.
  3. Lastly you should watch a range of combinations at your level and honestly compare video of your horse with what you have seen. If your horse is as relaxed through it’s body, as steady in the contact and as light in the forehand as the better combinations then you will feel confident in the results you are likely to get. Most important of all find a good coach and listen to their advice.

When the way of going is right for the level, when the horse is fit and strong and when you learn to strip down the test, look at it’s components and then put it back together you will be well equipped for success. Most importantly of all you will feel confident and enjoy the experience of competing!

It is you versus the test, not you versus the other competitors!

If you would like to find out more about riding better lateral work have a look at these earlier articles –

Better Dressage – Key Skills for Lateral Work

Better Dressage – Shoulder In

Better Dressage – Exercises for Improving Lateral Work

Key Skills for Lateral Work

Key Skills for the dressage rider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flexion.

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

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

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

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

Weight.

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

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

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

Leg.

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

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

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

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

Putting these skills into practice.

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

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

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

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

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

Better Shoulder In

Straightening your Horse

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

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

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

Positioning your Horse Correctly.

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

Teaching the Shoulder In

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

Exercise 1

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

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

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

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

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

Angle Versus Bend

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

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

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

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

Exercise 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise 3

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

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

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

Suppleness for the Dressage Horse

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

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

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

Avoiding Extremes

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

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

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

Finding the middle ground and creating strong, stable suppleness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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