See Groundwork: the How – Part I for the basics:
- correct aids from the ground
- positioning and body posture
- correct leading from the ground
- curves and bends, halts and rein-backs in hand
- help your horse pick up more weight in the hindquarters, step under, round its back and develop strength by pushing forward from behind
A word on gentleness
“But in so far as the perfection of an art lies in the knowledge of where to begin, I am very well advised in this regard, to teach the horse his first lessons, since he finds them the most difficult, in searching for a way in which to work his mind, rather than his thighs and shanks, while being careful not to annoy him, if possible, and not to rob him of his gentleness: since it is to the horse as the blossom is to the fruit, which, once withered, never returns. By the same token, if their gentleness is lost, one can restore it only with difficulty in light horses with fiery temperaments and not at all in German horses. It never fails that someone who does not work with consideration either destroys his horse’s gentleness or teaches him incorrigible vices.”
– Antoine de Pluvinel, “L’instruction du Roy”
“Perfection of an art” might not be the goal for you – that’s one for us dressage lovers, “work his mind … and not to rob him of his gentleness” SHOULD really be the goal for any horse owner though, regardless of your discipline or riding level.
Who on earth would knowingly and willingly rob a creature so fine, proud and intelligent of their gentleness?
And even riders who are so presumptuous in expecting their horses to function for the purpose they had purchased them for, would not want to create lifeless riding robots with no expression (would lose you points in competition) or teaching their horses “incorrigible vices” and thus make them potentially dangerous (and monetarily worthless).
Last time we discussed how groundwork can and should be fun for you and your horse. Your horse should do the equivalent of a grin when you come around the barn corner with your cavesson or neckrope for a change. “Yay, we’re gonna have some fun!”
Groundwork for me is often exercising by play, ideally for both of you.
So, there really is no need NOT to be gentle and considerate, not to “work his mind” and interest him in new stuff. And while playing together, almost perchance you are exercising your horse, making it more limber, stronger and better balanced.
Now, of course, you need to know what exercises to incorporate in your playtime, and how these exercises are done correctly for them to best benefit your horsey.
Once I’ve been through the basics with a new horse for a couple of days and all the leading, walking, halting, bending and backing up together works well, I like to suggest a shoulder-in to them. Most horses understand the exercise really fast and it can be taught in a fun and engaging way with a goodie for the bend or out on a county road walk, by using the grass strip on the side of the road to measure the tracks.
Back in riding school when I was little, the instructors would let you do leg yields for years before you even learnt that there was such a thing as “shoulder-in”, but I’ve noticed that horses get easily confused by the whole crossing-my-legs-while-walking-sideways thing – funnily geldings more so than mares, in my experience.
This is why I start out by teaching the shoulder-in. Not just because it ensures me almost instant gratification for the horse I work with as they just love getting new stuff right, I also consider it the single most useful exercise in dressage, universally useful and beneficial for any type or breed or age of horse.
This is a movement on two tracks, meaning forehand and quarters are traveling on two different tracks. The hind on the outside track and the front on a slightly more inside track (when looking at the movement in the arena).
The horses neck is bent slightly to the inside, the bend traveling all the way through the horse, or actually only up to about the lumbosacral area, as the hips stay square on the outer track and the hindlegs travel straight forward.
A short excursion into the horse’s anatomy on “bend”:
First of all: forget about ever hearing of “costal bend” – the horse cannot flex its costal vertebraes! This is a myth perpetuated in riding schools everywhere.
So what is “bend”?
The horse can bend its neck vertebraes very well – we know that.
It can also bend the last few costal vertebraes (floating ribs area) and the first few lumbal vertebraes, however they aren’t as flexible as the neck. And then, of course, its tail is very flexible.
This means that “bend” can only occur in the neck, flank and tail.
Most costal vertrebraes and the sacrum are immobile!
How to begin the shoulder-in:
The rider achieves this by positioning the horses shoulders inside the arena, enough to create 3 instead of only 2 lines with his horses legs – so from the front you’ll see from outside to inside:
- line 1: outer hind leg on the outside
- line 2: outer front leg + inner hind leg following, still on the outside track
- line 3: inner front leg, on the second track
Always be careful not to bend the neck further than your horse can hold the bend, this will result in the outside shoulder “popping out”, you might want to start practicing along a fence to avoid this. It isn’t that a pronounced neck bend of 30° – 45° would be in any way harmful to the horse, it’s just that many horses need to find their way there gradually as they become more flexible to bend without losing balance or compensate.
The only thing that can be done wrong here and would not be beneficial is to shorten the neck and overflex the poll. I try to keep the poll up throughout my work, but if they need to stretch down and out a little in between that’s no biggie at all.
I watch out for a nicely shaped and relaxed neck, top muscles active and extending / telescoping the neck forward, lower parts nice and wobbly – the poll flexion isn’t important yet.
The benefits of this exercise:
- You will increase your horse’s mobility by asking it to maintain bend
- You will improve the way it carries its neck and head by asking to telescope (cavesson really helps here)
- You can improve straightness by doing this regularly on both sides, alternatively stretching one side while bending the other
- Your horse’s balance will improve as you keep asking it to shift weight to the outside fore
- You can strengthen the inside hind as it bears more load by asking it to step under
- Your horse will learn to become soft on the inside reign
- He/She will develop more reach and shoulder freedom as the inside fore is kept free with the weight off it
- Your horse and you will both feel motivated by this exercise as it is quickly understood and therefore can be used in any situation (a horses confidence is boosted by exercises it knows and can execute well), e.g. in a scary situation out on the trail
With the shoulder-in, riding or working from the ground becomes a vital part of your horse’s physiotherapy. Dressage, after all, is meant to be in service of the horse – it is not the horse that is in service to dressage.
The leg yield
This exercise isn’t part of classical dressage training, many even think it has no gymnastic value whatsoever – mostly argued based on the missing bend.
As said before, I also think it is one of these inventions of riding teachers to drive their beginners crazy with – the shoulder-in is much easier for horse and rider!
There’s however horses who easily cross their legs and even find joy in it, and when you carefully look at this sequence you can see how it requires:
- shifting of weight from side to side
- balance and overall weight distribution
- movement of adductors and abductors
- and it mobilises the spine (up, down, sideways)
Most horses this exercise also helps into a good long stretch:
You can also see Wesley cheating a bit by not crossing as much behind, bear in mind this old boy is 26 – but he hugely enjoys showing off how well he can go sideways!
Overbend and Falling-In
Anybody who has ever ridden a horse on the circle line knows this:
There’s a “hollow” and a “stiff” side – the “natural crookedness” of horses.
Basically rider code lingo for imbalance. Great example of how NOT to do it shown here:
Now that’s MUCH better, nicely balanced with light legs and correct bend:
To make the best use of gymnastic exercises, it is crucial you know which one is your horse’s hollow side. There’s about a 50/50 chance, so it’s not true that most horses are hollow to the left. Medicine isn’t sure yet what the ultimate reason for a foal to be crooked is, but common consensus currently lies with its position in the womb.
Over the years this natural tendency becomes more and more apparent, and if not correctly spotted and the horse not trained accordingly, the result will be a rather crooked horse.
Let’s take this lovely little lady as an example:
Felina is an Arabian Fullblood mare in her twenties (no point in using perfectly balanced high-school horses here), so a “real horse” that anyone may have in their barn.
She’s never had much training as she spent a long time carrying beginners around country trails, she was a working horse.
About 2 months ago, I’ve started working with her once a week in-hand and now occasionally from the saddle too.
Her lovely new owner takes her mainly on fun trail rides and occasionally works her from the ground.
Felina is quite crooked and hollow to the right.
This means she will offer to bend to the right very well, even over-bend on occasion and popping out the left shoulder.
On the circle to the left she cannot maintain the bend correctly, and after about half a round will fall onto the inside shoulder, bend her neck to the outside and there’s no coming back from that by pulling on the inside rein and kicking the barrel to the outside.
With a horse that is hollow to the right, we will see the following effects to varying degrees:
- shortened, tense and potentially sore muscles on the right side of the neck
- an overloaded left shoulder and foreleg
- the withers sink to the left
- a weaker right hind-leg, often falling in
A horse that is hollow to the left will have the same issues on the opposite sides.
Whenever training a horse, this knowledge is what will make your training useful and beneficial to your horse’s health.
So what can we do?
You can start out each day by doing carrot stretches as described in one of my previous posts.
Start on the “stiff side”, move to the hollow side, repeat on the stiff side. Do this before your ride, after mounting from the saddle and afterwards. See how long you can hold the stretches and gradually prolong them.
Before you start working together, you can give your horse a good neck rub – use your bare fingers instead of a brush and get the blood flowing. Brush your fingers gently from the base of the neck upward towards the poll. You can also try to gently lift the skin and roll it up and down. A horse that is hollow to the right will require more loosening and warming of the right side of the neck.
Continue the rubbing session on the left-hand shoulder, then move the horse’s weight onto the right shoulder by pushing on the withers in order to release the muscles you are massaging.
Circle work for straightness
When teaching something new, always start out on the easier / the hollow side.
When your horse is used to the exercise, start out any bending work on the stiff side first – this way a repetition of three will ensure you bend the stiff side more than the hollow side.
We work Felina on a wide 20m circle in hand on the left-hand side.
Here I need to watch out for many things simultaneously:
- bending the neck inwards without compressing the poll
- moving her weight onto the outside shoulder (right shoulder)
- engaging her hind to step under to avoid the haunches turning outwards
Number 1 is easily accomplished by the use of the cavesson, it gives correct Stellung without compressing the poll and shortening the neck.
Number 2 is the trickiest but also the most important part. With some it’ll be enough to use the inside hand on the shoulder blade to avoid the inside shoulder from falling in, with Felina the neck rope, used the same way as a neck rein is used in all working equitation disciplines, works very well as she will naturally lean away from the touch on her neck.
Number 3 is a combination of two different aids: with the whip pointed backwards I will already encourage her to use her hind in a more forwards fashion.
Once she gets used to point 1 and 2, I can also use the aids on her nose (or with a bit on the mouth) with a distinct upwards attitude as well as my upper body mirroring the upwards “growth” to relief her shoulders, allow her to “grow in the withers” and distribute more weight on her quarters.
This will in turn stabilise the quarters as they now bear more weight.
Please bear in mind that the shifting of weight backward by an upward motion of the hand, classical dressage speaks of the “arrêt” or “demi-arrêt“, also known as the infamous “half halt”, will only work with horses that have already learned to telescope their neck and use their top-line muscles.
And secondly, that every “arrêt” must be followed by a “descent de mains“, the subsequent lowering of the hands once the horse shows the first inkling of cooperation.
Another way of helping horses that throw themselves on the forehand is to use a “wrap”, literally a polo wrap around their body – touching chest and lower neck as well as wrapping around the hind just below the Tuber ischiadicum, aka seatbone.
The slight rub when they move will help to adjust their posture, similar to physio taping.
Of course, correctly executed reinbacks are also a great way of distributing weight.
If you think all of this sounds “French” to you, then by all means – work on correcting lateral balance – and leave weight distribution from front to back to a later chapter. Never ask too much at once and make sure you have understood what you are trying to achieve before teaching your horse, whatever it might be.
Now we have discussed how to work the horse on the circle line on the stiff side, in this case the left. Lets continue our work on the hollow side, the right-hand side.
Since your horse already offers ample neck bend to the right, we will not ask it to train contracting the muscles of the right even more. Instead we’ll ask it to bend to the outside of the circle, on a counter-bend. This way you will also insure that the haunches don’t fall in, a common occurrence. And you keep the weight on the lesser-used right shoulder.
Once both of these exercises work well and are fully understood by the horse, you can combine them on a big figure of eight, by moving from circle to circle.
And remember to have fun together! May the two of you always train in harmony.