Groundwork: the How – Part II

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.

The Shoulder-In

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:

 

positioning
Your positioning at the shoulder is vital here as you can correct the weight distribution to the outside fore by touching the shoulder, use the whip to continue a good forwards movement and maintain an easy neck bend with your outside hand on the cavesson.

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
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The camera angle isn’t ideal, but you can clearly see Wesley’s left hind tracking the right fore in the shoulder-in to the left. From the front you would see his four legs in three lines.

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:20170715_171335_00320170715_171335_004

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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:

  1. bending the neck inwards without compressing the poll
  2. moving her weight onto the outside shoulder (right shoulder)
  3. 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.

shoulder in 1
The cavesson bends her in, the neckring pushes her weight out and the whip engages the hind. By use of a “mini shoulder-in” on the circle I can work on her “stiff” side.

Please bear in mind that the shifting of weight backward by an upward motion of the hand, classical dressage speaks of the “arrêt” ordemi-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.

counter-bend balancing
Rebalancing the horse by use of counter-bend on the right-hand circle, her naturally hollow 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.

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Do you ride with your horse? Or against it?

It’s been quite a while I thought yesterday morning when the alarm rang a few hours too early on a bank holiday…

Too many cups of coffee later and in the car on my way to my student’s barn I realised, it had been 10 years!
10 years since I last sat foot on tournament grounds (not counting attendance as a mere spectator).

I must admit, accompanying my student to her first tournament made me quite a bit giddy, despite the early hour.
Her mare, Butterfly, had had her mane plated and tucked up and she was being groomed to a shine, her blows visible in the crisp morning air as she felt her owner’s anticipation.

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The polished-up contenders warming up together.

There’s something festive about tournaments: the uniformed riders in white breeches and dark jackets, shiny boots and slightly nervous smiles as they’re making their first rounds on the grounds, horses whinnying from their trailers and coaches and mums running about making sure their competitors have all their equipment and are on time for their tests.

I had spent a big part of my life in this setting, during the season we’d compete every weekend at some venue or another, so I was in quite a nostalgic mood.

The memory train came to an abrupt halt the minute I walked into the warm-up arena, and my dreamy smile was wiped away. There it was, the thing I missed least about my time as a competition rider:
Humans putting their desires to win, to look good, to be admired above their horses welfare. What I saw in this warm-up pen was young girls and grown women shouting insults at their horses, whipping noisily, spurring every step, and brutalising their mouths.
I pictured the scene in my mind with horses that could scream, it was very loud indeed!

See, this was one of these tournaments where competitive rider careers begin, an entry-level test only event. In this pen there where probably quite a few first-timers, not unlike my own student. The very first time they ride “for something” – and it’s already there, the ambition that often kills all cooperation and harmony between horse and human.

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This is not riding!

One lady stuck out to me immediately, she was riding a young, seemingly hot Haflinger gelding.

Let me rephrase – she wasn’t riding, she was straight-forward brutalising that poor horse.

 
Her hands would move 20 centimetres easily, pulling at an already completely rolled-up neck, while – as “good” Rollkur requires – leaning back heavily, pushing on his loins while spiking him with her spurs. For good measure he would get to feel her long whip every other stride or so.
And boy, did he still try to defend himself! Tail swishing, half-bucks, kicking. Whenever he did get his neck free, he’d toss it from side to side with wide, terrified eyes.
Surely in a few years, he’ll shut down and just give up and let her wreck his body.

Looking around in horror, trying to find a face with the same disgusted expression as mine at this sight, I realised just why it’s so hard to end this particular animal cruelty. There wasn’t any!
No, the worst part of this was that people would look on in admiration, commenting on how well he’s going and if she wouldn’t take part outside the competition today, she’d surely win. I don’t know the particular judge that day, but sadly, they might have been right. From entry level to FEI tests, this kind of “riding” gets rewarded repeatedly.

If those people obviously couldn’t see this horse screaming, couldn’t they at least see that he wasn’t “going well” at all? He was tight, his leg movements forced and jagged, his back didn’t swing at all, he carried all of his weight on his forehand, the list goes on and on… hadn’t they at least heard about the sacred rule of dressage never to ride a horse with its nose behind the vertical? Did they need a ruler to see?

wp-1475596972573.jpgSure, we’re still working on stepping under and gaining contact, but the left horse is happy and trusts her owner. What would the right one say about his?

Looking around the arena again, seeing very few pairs in harmony or at least attempting to achieve harmony together – again, an entry-level test niveau, I’m not expecting to see perfect transitions, flying changes and beautiful travers – I saw mostly young girls using their voices and whips harshly, kicking their disconnected, tied-down horses forward and pulling at reins, I realised that this lady and her poor Haflinger are local stars because she has developed enough seat, routine and biceps power to force a horse into frame.

Her riding had gone completely off track somewhere close to where these girls where with theirs today.  And once the side-reigns come off their horses, I can only pray that they accept their fate and go the hard way of actually learning how to ride. Accept the fact, that they won’t look great yet, that dressage is a long way to go and that they decide to go on this journey together with their horses, not against them.
What I wish these girls (and maybe also that lady) the most, is role models that show them what beautiful dressage looks like and what a relaxed, strong and happy horse feels like.
I hope on their way, they find real partnership with their horses and have lots of fun improving their seats, trying to get the contact right or learning more demanding movements together.

end-of-tournaments
That’s what they’re worth when you stop competing… a picture my mum send me a while ago, we used to compete together.

 
Because after having been there, shouting at my disobedient pony back in the day, and ten years as a competition rider – with the luck of having had fantastic role models and incredible partners under saddle, I have only fully realised what it means to ride “together” with your horse in the years after, when my riding life got quieter, muddier and more focused, far away from white breeches.

Now my partner is 25, still quite fit but not immortal – I sometimes wish I would have gotten there earlier.

This is why it makes me all the happier to see how my protegee student and her mare mastered the three tests at their first tournament together. Despite of nerves, they showed a very harmonious, if not perfect, dressage test in the morning.
They would have won the following style jumping competition with the highest mark, if it hadn’t been for one little misunderstanding, and ended up winning the last time jumping test together.

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No whipping, no spurring, no side reigns – just trying. Together.

I walked off the tournament grounds a bit taller than I had walked in, very proud of the two for showing what all riding, be it competing or not, is about: riding together to the best of your abilities!

“On the bit”

What does “on the bit” mean?
Well, here’s one of the major points that equestrians can argue hours about.

First, of all – there’s many different styles or disciplines, Western pleasure riders or Dressage riders, who follow Baucher’s theories, like their horses completely off the bit, the young horse gets taught to stay in a certain frame without any contact at all. This practice usually leads to horses that are heavy on the forehand and show little to no engagement of the hindquarters, trailing out behind them. They carry their heads behind the vertical and are practically “avoiding” the bit.
The other extreme would be the “drive and hold” wannabe Dressage riders who hold a ton of weight in their biceps because they think they need to pull their horses into a certain position, usually heavily leaning back and excessively driving their horses into contact.
Then there’s the jumpers, hunters and eventing horses which often tend to be “above the bit” when charging a jump or racing along the track…

So, now we’ve covered what it doesn’t mean to ride your horse “on the bit”.

deep stretch
What if there’s no bit at all? Can a horse be “on the bit”? It can definitely stretch into Contact – bit or no bit involved!

Let’s hear what Classical Dressage says about riding “on the bit”…

Master Nuno Oliviera defines this as follows: “Putting the horse on the bit means feeling that the poll flexes, the back rises, the haunches become active.”

“A perfect contact is possible only when the horse is in absolute balance, carries himself, and does not seek support from the reins. It may then be said that the horse is <on the bit>.”
Podhajsky, Alois. (1965). The Complete Training of Horse and Rider In the Principles of Classical Horsemanship

When teaching a new student for the first time, I’ve noticed I usually spend the first lesson adjusting their reign-handling and the way they carry their hands. In 90% of the cases the riders have gotten used to pulling their horses’ heads into the desired position on the inside reign and their first reflex to anything is to use that inside hand, especially when moving on bends or circles.
Noticing this, I was first dismayed. My mantras being “ride your horse from back to front”, “use your seat, leg and voice before touching the reigns”, “contact, engagement, throughness come from the hind-end, not the reigns” – and what do I do first? Talking about reign aids for 45 minutes!
But then I noticed that all subsequent lessons go more and more in the direction of my well-repeated mantras. So, I concluded that it pays to first remove the bad habits, mostly a too strong inside hand, before we can start working a horse back to front.

This particular bad habit of an overly dominant inside reign seems to be not only common in students that haven’t had much training before coming to me, but also – shockingly – in students who’ve had riding lessons for years!
One of my newer students told me that her previous trainers taught her to shorten the reigns, ride with low, broad hands and keep flexing her mares head to the inside, then shorten the reigns some more. All to “get the head down” (this one’s becoming one of my favourite pet-peeves).
Now her particular horse is one of these “giraffe” types, little or no muscles in the neck and back and dealing with balancing out her rider by going frequently over the bit and hollowing out her back. If I try hard at putting myself into her previous trainers’ shoes, I can see the intended result of this approach: rounding the horse.

Well, and here we really get down to the discussion of Contact (on the German Training Scale:”Anlehnung”) or riding your horse “on the bit”.

What is most important to remember with any horse, green, old, rehab, “rollers” or “giraffes”, is that there’s no shortcuts! Pulling your horse into a frame does not mean that you have achieved Contact, because you cannot force real Contact, you can only offer it until one fine day, and this comes gradually, your horse stretches into it willingly and over time the two of you establish a fine but constant Contact.

In my experience, you can congratulate yourself on buying a “giraffe” as opposed to a “roller”, because it is so much easier to teach a horse that holds its head too high (mostly out of a lack of topline muscles) to stretch into contact than a horse that tends to roll itself up and avoids the bit by staying behind it (mostly caused by harsh hands and aprupt training).
Both types of horses can however be “rehabilitated” with the right training and a patient and thinking rider – over time they will learn to trust your hand and accept real Contact.

Don’t get fooled by the pictures we see every day, don’t accept a horse forced into Rollkur positioning as the norm or even an image to strive for. Better to ride your horse way in front of the vertical than only an inch behind it! At least, this way you aren’t harming your horse by overstretching the nuchal ligament (neck-back connector) over the third vertebrae, preventing blood circulation and ensuring nerve damage. Rollkur positioning also prevents a horse from breathing and swallowing correctly, the jaw presses onto the Atlas (first vertebrae) and the gland in charge of saliva production (right under the ear) gets squeezed which can lead to chronic inflammation.

NO Rollkur.jpgApart from all these health hazards, this way of riding also robs these beautiful creatures off all glamour and pride, forcing them into a demeaning position in which they can neither move freely nor see very well.

The best way of putting even veteran, established riders and their seemingly together horses to the test is taking away the bit. Put your horse in a Cavesson and see if it stretches into Contact and if it still looks like a well-rounded, together horse under saddle – with many riders who rely too heavily on the mighty bit and fall into the common trap of thinking if the head is down, they have achieved contact, their nice look will completely fall apart when the horse is not forced into a head position by the pain the bit poses.

Here I’d like to mention that a big problem with many riders is about “looks”, they accept shortcuts, make compromises and fall into bad and often harmful habits in order to “look good” – this becomes especially bad with training young horses. Many riders, even accomplished trainers, feel the pressure of onlookers, even if they think they don’t. With a youngster it is paramount to accept the fact: it won’t look pretty for a loooong time.
But luckily for most of us: we have time!

So many of my students have to go through some agonising adjustment time in which their horses wander around the arena with their heads in the air while we concentrate on engaging the hind-legs and only offering contact with a steady and gentle hand or helping to balance out the open circle-line with the outside reign only, but there’s no regulating, no pulling, no adjusting the head/neck frame – only offering contact.
To most students’ surprise it doesn’t take that long at all until our riding “from behind” yields results and the horse lets its neck fall as it relaxes and finds balance in its strides, starts to stretch into Contact – and often for the first time ever, they gain a feeling for what it really means to hold “contact”.
Most are surprised it’s so light, so easy – it just happens.

This is when they’ve understood the second most important thing in achieving true Contact: Contact talks about all aids. The horse must accept contact to your seat and leg aids just as much as to the reign aids. Contact to the mouth is just one aspect.

This light, willing Contact gives us the means to communicate mere thoughts to our horses without having to give strong aids or “fighting” the horse as it often happens.
It gives us the means to ride with our seats and to feel where the horse needs some help, it prevents us from blocking the Schwung to get stuck as a result of a hard inside-hand. This Schwung that our horses offer from behind can now travel through the whole horse, starting from hind-legs stepping under and carrying weight, over an elastic, rounded back, towards a stable and telescoped neck into the contact we feel in our hands. At the same time it allows us to regulate this power coming from behind with the tiniest reign aids, setting in motion the circle of aids.
You will notice how your horse learns to carry itself more, balancing itself out much better, how the shoulder lifts naturally and the croup starts lowering.

This is where riding becomes utter bliss and harmony.

However, I cannot repeat it often enough: There’s no shortcuts to this!

The German Scale of Training might not be perfect, but it goes as follows:

  • Rhythm
  • Relaxation
  • Contact
  • Schwung (or impulsion)
  • Straightness
  • Collection

…leads to: Throughness

Many Classical Dressage (opposed to competitive) trainers maintain that “the Scale” is missing the point of “Balance”, which should be the base of the pyramid or scale. Klaus Balkenhol even says, and I agree with him enthusiastically, that at the base and starting point of any training, there needs to be “Trust” – because a horse without trust in human, surroundings and equipment cannot learn and improve. So, I suppose the scale I like to work with goes as such:

  • Trust
  • Balance
  • Rhythm
  • Relaxation
  • Contact
  • Schwung (or impulsion)
  • Straightness
  • Collection

…leads to: Lightness & Harmony

Whatever scale you train by, it is paramount to climb it step by step and remember both, the interconnections between each of these points as well as the years it takes to master it.

It takes time and patience and a lot of self-control, as well as throwing your ego over board and accepting not looking great yet, maybe also taking a step back in your training every now and then when you run into resistance. But it pays off in the long run!

Not only will you have a true and fine communication in the saddle, your horse will learn to assume a healthy position, grow the right muscles and balance itself out correctly.
This is what gymnasticising, and finally the Art of Dressage, is really about and what will keep your buddy healthy and happy for a long time as the wear and tear of incorrect postures and tense muscles is removed.

And always remember to train your horse in harmony!

Release your poll first, human!

You probably all know this situation: You are riding in the arena, practising something or other and it’s just not working quite right today. Then someone steps in and you stop for a brief conversation. A few minutes later, you pick up the reins and, all of a sudden, everything works smoothly. You experience one of these glorious moments when you and your horse become one, almost like a centaur (a picture I like to use when trying to convey this feeling to my students).
I borrowed this analogy from Klaus Balkenhohl, a German veteran dressage rider and star instructor. He uses this situation to explain how the horse regenerates its muscles in this break and how important it is to drop the reins every now and then and grant it a break.

I’d like to look at this situation from the viewpoint of the rider: What happens to your body when you are interrupted by a friendly conversation?
That’s right, you relax! And when we are relaxed, our horses are happy.

Look at this happy horse stretching forward-downward, marching relaxed and motivated round the arena with my friend Clarissa (who, not expecting too much from her first ride in a dressage saddle, is nice and relaxed herself):

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Five minutes later, I sat on the same horse in the same arena and then something happened to me that many riders struggle with: I fell into performance mode!
Even though I try and not do it, it still happens sometimes, this silly idea of having to show a perfect performance. The result: nothing worked!
My perfectly relaxed, happy and warmed-up horse tensed up and wasn’t cooperating with anything, not even his favourites: extended trot and half-passes.
Why? Because I mounted and immediately started giving aids, probably way to intense and I didn’t give him or myself time to loosen up and find a connection.

This is why it’s always better to warm-up your horses yourself!

Quite recently one of my riding students made me aware of something called “The Alexander Technique”. She told me about this course she had attended and the instructor helped her understand some fundamental issues in her posture, particularly when sitting or riding and how these issues interfered with her seat and aids. I was intrigued.

So I started reading and watching youtube videos, the way I usually research anything that might help me in my own riding and especially with my teaching others.

What I learned is that many postural problems come from the fact that we unknowingly refuse to let go of our own tensions, which leads to sore muscles and all sorts of pains.

The Alexander Technique follows three major principles: Observe, Inhibit, Direct.
So I tried to apply it to my sitting at a desk, lugging moving boxes (oh yes, we moved to the country side last week!) and, of course, to riding. Here’s the results of my self-experiment:

  1. Observing habits I displayed when mounting, sitting, driving and giving aids. And boy, there’s a lot of unwanted stuff there! A forward rolling right shoulder, a tensed up left shoulder, a shortened and backward-drawn neck, a crooked right waist – as a result a stretched-out left hip, …
  2. Inhibiting these unwanted tensions was harder. So I tried to stretch out my neck, up up and forward to loosen the muscles at the base of my scull – my “poll” if you will. I squared out my shoulders and balanced my hips and waist. And generally made sure every step of the ride not to curl or tense up in any way. Easy said…
  3. Directing I interpreted as a prolonged idea of what I was trying to fix in step two – basically a general sense of up, building an image in my mind that I was much taller than I though, but also much more relaxed than I am.

It’ll be a long way to really creating a new posture and body image altogether, but I will continue to work on myself, having added a mirror to my office and maybe asking some folks I go trail-riding with to tell me when I forget to be tall and relaxed.

For any of you interested in learning more about the Alexander Technique (that isn’t my personal interpretation), here’s a link to plenty of resources: http://www.alexandertechnique.com/

“The Alexander Technique is a way to feel better, and move in a more relaxed and comfortable way… the way nature intended.”

Even though I know – and teach – that you need a clear mind and a fit body for riding, I still struggle with it sometimes.
I tell students to meditate in the car after a stressful day in the office before even walking to the stable and to do breathing exercises in the saddle before starting warm-up. All this to quieten the mind and be in the “now”, that’s where you horse is all the time: in the present!

But then, there’s also the physical aspect of tension.
Horses have this immediate calming effect on me, they work like Valium to me. I arrive, put my boots on, walk over, get breathed on by one of the horses and I have forgotten about the aggravating call earlier, the overdue project deadline and time itself. I can make the switch to “now” in an instant when with horses… but my body can’t let go of it all that fast. The aforementioned call still sits in tight shoulders, the project deadline in a tense back – and since my mind has forgotten about it all, I need reminding to ease up my body.

And this is important, to actually look at yourself and notice what’s hurting. It’s important for your well-being, as much as your horse’s. You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon that a horse you ride regularly will start mirroring your physical problems: a sore right shoulder won’t take long to transfer to your horse – and then your training needs adjustment because the horse is crooked! I wonder how often this happens…

A much better way would be to try and avoid this altogether, by taking better care of yourself – get that shoulder checked out! You might require a visit to an Osteopath or some physical therapy – if you are overall tense and sore (like after moving house), maybe treat yourself to a massage, a hot bath or a sauna to loosen up before thinking about riding again.

There’s plenty of fun to be had outside the saddle. Here’s Wesley inspecting a scary loop, having a hard think if the goodie is worth walking through it or not…

It’s time for the 2016 Olympics in Rio and I am looking forward to watching the Dressage Gran Prix tonight.
But when I am watching tonight, I will not only watch for the perfect seats of the riders, the amazing moves of the horses (and my ever-present criticism of noses behind the vertical – this needs changing in this beautiful sport!), but I will also watch out for tall and relaxed postures, for how the riders carry their heads, shoulders, arms and hands – and hopefully take something away for my own arena work.

So, dear riders – whatever way you ride and whatever goal you might pursue with your riding – remember to relax your own poll first! Your horses will thank you.

How to lunge your horse correctly

Lunging horses is an art and many things go wrong in riding arenas and round pens with this training method. This article explains how to correctly train your horse on the lunge, in harmony.

I see it all the time: An uptight horse, tied down with side reigns falling in while almost falling asleep walking or pulling out of the circle rushing to get away from this torture.
This variety often comes with wannabe dressage people who have never read a book on dressage training.

The other example: A “natural horsemanship” trainer chasing a wild-eyed horse around a round pen, the horse leaning heavily into the circle like a motorcycle and carrying all of its weight on the front legs with no balance or training effect whatsoever.

Both of the above are what’s wrong with lunging!

I have long promised a post on how to lunge a horse correctly, so here it comes… let’s start with clarifying your tools:

Lunging Tack

The best, and only correct way of lunging, is to use a Cavesson.
A cavesson does not hinder the horse in its forward movement, encourages a long stretched neck and gives you the possibility to ask for head positioning (“Stellung”) with very little pressure. It is also priceless with horses that are spooky or tend to pull you after them around the arena, as a little Stellung towards you hinders it from storming off.

Make sure to use a soft leather cavesson with D-rings set into the leather noseband and a strap around the fleshy part of the cheeks, ideally set right under the horse’s eyes. This cheek strap avoids rubbing and getting into your buddy’s eye.

soft leather cavesson - Wesley.jpg

Here’s where you can order this beautiful cavesson: http://www.elcaballo.de/kappzaeume

 
I’ve seen some quite useful nylon cavessons, too – and those aren’t very expensive. Just make sure that they sit tight and don’t rub around the head.

Should you have neither, then see if you can tighten your stable halter (not ideal as it acts backwards on the nose) so it doesn’t slide around on the head or just use the lunge tied in a loop around your horse’s neck – this way you cannot hurt your horse at all, but it also doesn’t allow you to control it very well either.

You will also need a lunge and a whip. To start yourself and the horse with this new training method you might prefer using a 5 m rope instead of a long lunge, this way you’ll have less to handle in your hands, but you’ll need to walk more.
I like to use a long dressage whip for everything, also lunging – or a nice touchier whip is also very useful. If you don’t have either, a long lunging whip will do the job.

Before each exercise session, show the whip to your horse and softly stroke it along its shoulder, then the back and hind legs, its belly, its chest and finally its neck on both sides to make sure it isn’t suspicious or downright terrified of this very useful training aid.

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Attach the lunge at the middle D-ring for easy “Stellung”.

Lastly, I can only recommend putting gaiters or wraps on the front legs as injuries can happen easily while lunging. You might want to use gloves to avoid burns, too.

What NOT to use: side reins, bridles with bits, rope halters or any other gadgetry as those are completely counter-productive to training on the lunge.

 

Now we’ve clarified what to use, lets start with the start:

Preparing for lunging

To make sure your communication will work 20 m apart from your horse, make sure that your voice cues and body language work well while leading in the partner position alongside your buddy’s neck – practise walking, halting, changing speed and gaits (well, if you don’t train a pony you’ll be stuck with walk and trot while leading) and make sure to practice all of this leading from both sides.
Then practice the same again from a different leading position: see if all of the above works effortlessly when you are positioned in the middle of the horse, where the girth would be when saddled.

When that works, you can start increasing distance between the two of you while walking together. Do this by gently pushing your horse away with the handle of your whip – pointed at the middle of the horse, imitating your leg aid while riding and your squared chest turned towards your horse’s body.
Try not to step backwards, as this will probably cause your horse to turn in and follow you. This might take a while with young horses who still like to sit on your lap or less confident horses – be patient and just repeat your asking it to move away a little, praise any effort immediately.

A word of warning here: Do not try to lunge a horse that is overly agitated, scared or stressed-out by something. You can only teach a calm and concentrated horse!
If you can’t get your horse to calm down by leading it slowly through the arena a few times, then you two aren’t ready for lunging yet.
In your case I’d recommend turning it loose (if arena is empty and enclosed) and let it buck it out for a few minutes, when it has calmed down a little you can engage it in some liberty work which is very useful in building trust, improving communication between you and giving your horse confidence.

First lunging exercises

If you two have mastered the above exercises while leading and your horse is calm and attentive, you can now start with the first lunging exercises.

If your horse is completely new to lunging it might be beneficial to have a helping hand for the first few times. Your aid leads the horse by the side of the cavesson around the circle while you remain in the middle of the circle holding the lunge with a soft contact to the nose and the whip pointed at its hindquarters. This way the horse can get used to the idea of walking around you, without any unnecessary stress or pressure.

Make sure to pick a very wide circle to begin with, 20 m is ideal with three sides of the circle at the walls or fence. The fence helps the horse to balance itself, it sort of “leans” on it. It is very normal that your horse will “fall out” of the circle on the open side in the beginning, gently nudge him back by very fine “tack, tack, tack” movements with the lunge.

Whenever interacting with your aids, remember a horse can feel a tiny fly – so no need to pull with all your might, a finger movement might be enough.

Once your horse is used to the idea, you can begin by shortening the lunge to about 5 m distance, position yourself at the horse’s belly, facing him. Between your horse’s body, the lunge line in your right hand (horse is walking on the right hand) and the whip in your left hand (pointed at the tail, same height as lunge) there should always be a triangle.

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Note how nicely Claudia is keeping a triangle between her “Knuddel”, the lunge and the whip.

Try not to get behind the horse or in front of it by accident as these are driving and slowing aids respectively if used intentionally.

NOTE: If you horse is whip-shy or suspicious of the long stick, quite common in youngsters, make double sure to show it and do the stroking routine. With these horses you might want to avoid pointing he whip at their hindquarters until they are completely fine around it as this might provoke them to kick at it.

Then let your horse walk at a steady pace around the arena, it’s easier for the young or poorly-trained horse to walk on straight lines first as this doesn’t require bend and you can avoid false bends, balance issues, falling out or in by practising around the arena fence first. Now you have time to get used to handling your equipment and using driving aids correctly.
Once this works you can go back on a wide circle.

Tipps:

If your horse falls into the circle, leaning in like the aforementioned motorcycle, you can use the horizontal whip more towards its middle, again mimicking your leg aid, to drive him out while simultaneously using the very soft “tack, tack, tack” on the lunge to ask for Stellung.

If your horse falls or even pulls out of the circle, probably its neck bend excessively inwards, but its body dragging outward over the shoulder, you are probably to strong with your lunge aids or the circle is too tight for it to manage the bend yet. Slow down, widen the circle or go straight for a bit, then ask for a little Stellung and bend again, while also gently driving it forwards with the whip.

Lunging

Congrats! Now you guys can start to work together on the lunge proper!

While in the middle of the circle, don’t stand rigid turning around your stationary inside leg. This is what it should look like some day, but we’re not in a rush and your horse still needs you to help it moving around the circle smoothly. So keep your feet moving! Ideally you would describe a small circle of about 5 metres while your horse keeps to the outside of the arena on as big a circle as possible, still benefiting from three cornered sides.
Anything to make the task easier!

The big circle we start out on has several reasons:

  1. It’s easier for your horse to move along the fenced outer line which helps it balance itself correctly.
  2. It goes easy on the joints as the forces aren’t as intense as on smaller bends.
  3. It helps both of you achieving correct bend little by little. Your horse is not used to walking in a bend, it’s still somewhat stiff and needs to build the right muscle structure for this kind of exercise first.

Next, you start practising transitions on the lunge. Again, with a young or lesser trained horse you can’t expect perfect transitioning yet, so we work with longer periods in one gait to start with. First it might be a full round in the walk, before we go to trot, then two rounds trotting before we go back to walk. Once that works well on both sides, we can decrease the periods in a specific gait.
Also with these horses the transitions, especially the downwards ones, will not be immediate. With patient practice they will come quicker and more promptly.

Always make sure to change hand often and practice the same exercises and time periods in each direction.

With a young horse we will practice walk-trot / trot-walk transitions and then changes of speed at the trot for several weeks, before starting work at the gallop. It will be much easier for you and your buddy if you give him some time to find his balance and rhythm before galloping.

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With a horse well-used to lunging you can exercise anywhere!

Only after all three gaits are performed steadily in all speeds asked and transitions work effortlessly, can you start decreasing the size of the circle and start increasing bend.

Throughout all of your lunging work, you want to encourage your horse to not only move balanced and rhythmic, but also encourage calm but energetic forward movement which improves the swinging of the back and the action of his hindquarters.
You’ll notice he’ll step under and over and reach further with each practice as he learns to carry weight as well as propel forward using his hind legs.
Most importantly we want a relaxed and engaged horse stretching forward-downward frequently.

Here’s what the ideal trot looks like:

Wellenbewegung-pferd

After all this explaining on how to do it and what to use for lunging, I still owe you the reasons for actually doing it at all…

Benefits of lunging

Why do we actually lunge horses?

What lunging is definitely NOT for is to cool off a hot horse before a ride. You won’t have an enjoyable ride on a tired-out horse that’s been chased around a circle for half an hour. Please see my “word of warning” and recommended exercises above for this purpose.

Lunging has many benefits to training your horse:

  • It’s a great way to build relationship and improve your horse’s confidence.
  • It improves your communication, body language and overall harmony.
  • Lunging gives you the opportunity to observe your horse from afar, assessing its training progress, making sure it shows clean gaits and moves freely.
  • By use of this training method you can prepare a young or rehab horse for riding as it builds muscles and greatly improves balance.
  • Lunging is very useful in making your horse more flexible by asking for correct Stellung and with it the correct bend: a perfect line from poll to tail

Finally, I’d like to remind you that also with lunging a proper warm-up is required by walking your horse at least 10 – 15 minutes and then letting it trot easily for another 5 – 10 before asking it for “work”.
And most importantly with all training you do, do not tire your horse out!
That cowboy wisdom “a tired horse is a happy horse” is complete BS.
Think about it: In nature, a flight animal like the horse that is too tired to run away from the tiger is a dead horse.
After all, horses don’t play on the meadow until they are completely exhausted either.

So, make sure to always train your horse in harmony!

My greatest teacher

I’ve been influenced by the principles of how Monty Roberts changed the way cowboys start horses (vs. breaking them in by force) and fascinated by the body language of horses ever since I was little.
I greatly enjoy Caroline Rider’s and Heather Nelson’s youtube videos to see how others work with horses at liberty or under saddle in a horse-friendly way. I am in awe with the old masters of baroque dressage, Master Nuno Oliviera is someone I’d travel back in time to have a cup of tea with.
I cheer own famous show jumpers that choose to compete bitless and I cannot take my eyes off of Charlotte Dujardin and her evidently harmonious communication with Valegro.

I had the great fortune of learning from fantastic trainers in my youth, such as Tobias Bachl and Hans-Peter Konle (show jumping) or Hermann de Reuver (as he used to call it “dressage for show jumpers”), but the greatest teacher of them all remains my old boy: Wesley.

I encourage my students and fellow horse-lovers to do the same: listen to your horses and learn from them! They are the best teachers for horsemanship and horseback riding.

Walkies-8 (3)
Credit for this amazing picture goes to my friend David, see his work at www.DavidPricco.com

About Wesley and our journey together

One of my old tournament companions, my mum’s price-winning Hannoveranian had just spend two years on a pensioner’s meadow, enjoying life with his herd buddies. He was skinny, with bad hooves and arthritic – not the muscular athlete I used to know.

We decided to move him once last time anyway, closer to me, so I would have a horse to go trail-riding with for another year or so.

Well, it’s been two years now and boy, has that horse made a comeback since taking him out of retirement! He still wins every race on the corn fields, on good days we ride challenging dressage manoeuvres (slightly adapted to an old horse’s agility) and our walkies together always bring me peace and joy.

More recently, we’ve been doing liberty work together, which the old boy greatly enjoys, and practising some tricks to keep him fit. Well, to be honest, with a giant like Wesley – liberty training keeps me pretty fit, too!

The teachings of an “old” horse

Working with an old and wise horse whose age and physical constitution I often have to take into consideration when training together has fundamentally changed my view of how to work with horses.

I no longer believe that a horse has to “function” like you are taught when training for classic equestrian sports. It’s much more a matter of being a true, fair and reliable partner to your horse – and when a horse then decides to be with you at liberty or go with your request of doing a difficult dressage move of its own free will, it’s the most gratifying experience you can wish for.

I promised my old boy he’d never have to wear a bit again after reading up about the nerve system in a horse’s head and understanding how brutal and unnecessary a metal bit in his mouth really is. Yes, he does take off when racing another horse on a field, but then the Pellham bit he used to have didn’t avoid that either.
And when not in racing mode he has the softest mouth and reacts to a feather’s touch.

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So, we got rid of the bit and I learned that a well-trained horse with whom you have a real bond with will accept whatever you decide to ride them with. Our transition phase to a Dr. Cook bitless bridle was about 20 minutes. Some goes for riding him with a neck rope only.

Gratitude

I am very grateful to share this part of a horse’s life when time goes a bit slower, nothing “has to work” anymore in dressage training, when walking together is just as good a trail riding when it’s muddy and slippery and when you’ve known each other for so long that communication seems effortless. After each lesson with a young horse, it’s just a relief to spend time with him. He’s my quiet place, a great therapist and a patient teacher!