Better Dressage – Developing your horse’s trot.

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

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

The advice in this article is applicable to two scenarios:

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

The importance of balance in training the dressage horse.

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

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

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

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

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

    Hangbahntraining, Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner, pferdia tv

The link between tempo and good balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to develop cadence and range within the trot

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

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

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

Your aids and the trot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting it all together to make collected and extended trot.

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

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

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

Better Dressage – How to Plan for Success in Competition.

Competitive dressage is, to many people, the primary goal and purpose of their training. For others it is a less central but still significant part of their life as a rider. It can be a source of great fun and satisfaction but it can also cause negative emotions to surface in us. This can have a knock on effect in all of our relationships, with horses and humans alike. In the same way that I looked at Planning for Success in Training I now want to take a look at how  planning your competition season strategically can help you to be a happier and more successful competitor.

What are your personal goals?

My introduction to the concept of competitive dressage was very different to that of many riders I know. Whilst still in my teens I was based with two riders who had competed at Olympic level. The attitudes to competition which I saw around me were very focused. If there was no end goal, there was no need to compete. There was no going out for fun! Going along to compete with them was almost always great fun, but the fun was not a primary objective. I also know many riders who go out to competition purely for the fun of a day out with their horse. Riders at both ends of this spectrum seem to be fairly sure of what they are doing and why.

Then there are a large number of riders who exist in the less certain middle ground. They have the instinct to be ambitious but who have not found a clearly defined objective; they have what I call ‘free floating’ ambition. They are often easily disheartened and tend to be overly reactive to the perceptions of other people. I have reached the conclusion that defining exactly what you want and setting clear goals is very important. The first step is to ask yourself what your primary objective is. Three things that should never be a part of your motivation:

  • To compete because everyone else does.
  • To compete because people seem to expect you to.
  • To compete in order to validate yourself as a rider.

There are many perfectly healthy reasons to compete, such as pride in the training you have given your horse and to showcase your abilities as a rider. For me the unique buzzy atmosphere of competitions is a huge motivating factor. If you plan to breed from or sell your horse it is a sound idea to take it out and show it off in public. Your reasons, once you identify them, will help you arrive at a plan that is right for you.

Target focused planning and experience focused planning.

Your planning process will involve a range of decisions. If, for example, you are aiming to sell a valuable homebred horse, or embarking on a career as a professional rider, then your planning should be target focused. If you are going out because you enjoy the competition atmosphere and want to show how well you have trained your horse then you are more likely to be focused on the experience of competition itself; your planning will be oriented around this.

Target focused planning

This is where we start with the end result – your destination. It is about identifying the steps you must take to get from where you are to where you want to be. For example you might want to win a particular title or be selected for a team. This works equally if you seek to compete at club level or internationally. Here are some things to consider:

  • What are the qualifying rounds of competition you will need to take part in?
  • What is the timescale for qualification for each of them?
  • Which events are key ones for any selectors you need to be seen by?

If you need to go through a process of qualifying rounds it is wise to allow plenty of time to gain your qualifying scores. Begin earlier in the season rather than later. Become familiar with all of the rules and regulations which will apply. Ask riders who have been through the process; few will mind and most will be happy to give you the benefit of their own experiences. Getting the inside track in this way can help avoid mistakes. It is always a good idea to pick up the phone and talk to the regional coordinators or club officials who deal with team selections. If you want to be considered for selection then ask directly what they are going to want from you. Ambition and a direct approach is always impressive. It marks you out as serious and puts you on the radar of the right people from the outset. Even if the conclusion is that you are not ready yet, at least you know precisely what areas you need to work on. You will have a roadmap.

Work out exactly how much this process is going to cost from start to finish and make sure that you have the budget in place. Make sure that you will have the time and the support as well as the money to enable you to reach the goals you set.

Make absolutely certain that you are more than ready for the level and standard of competition that you will be part of when you get to the championship. This is where you have to be sure you are not aiming for a goal that lies toward the outer limits of you riding experience. Forget any notion of impressing people and never let vanity do the talking when you set goals. If in doubt book a lesson or two with someone who judges at that level and consider their feedback carefully.

If you are new to dressage as a sport it is worth going along as a spectator to get a measure of the atmosphere at championship shows. At major shows it is all good fun whilst your focus is on the shopping and spectating but go along with a different mindset and imagine that you are about to tack up and warm up for a test. Watch some tests and see how comfortable you feel with the idea of it being you riding down the centre line. Being able to ride the test is one thing, riding it under those circumstances is another thing altogether. That can be a big shock to the rider’s system. There are major shows with calm inviting atmospheres and others that have an atmosphere like a blast furnace. Know where you are likely to end up should your campaign be successful and factor that into your goal setting process. If you conclude that you can ride the toughest test at a particular level well and that you could ride it under suitably challenging circumstances then give yourself the green light and set the goal. Find out what steps you need to take to make it happen and go for it! If you feel more than a little doubtful of the outcomes then don’t give up on the idea but see if there are some steps you can take to alter the landscape. See if your coach, or a friend, can lend you a schoolmaster to ride in some higher profile shows. Work on your horse’s acceptance of crowds, tablecloths, loud-speakers, TV cameras etc. Time spent working on these things is time well spent.

Experience focused planning

This kind of planning revolves around making choices that optimise the positive outcomes for you and the horse. It is about going out and having a really good day. This may be because you are competing purely for fun or it may be because  you or your horse need to build confidence. In no way does this take less planning but the focus is experiential rather than on reaching a target. Key decisions will revolve around issues such as:

  • Where to go.
  • How to get there.
  • Who travels with you.
  • Your show day routine.

The number one consideration is the venue. Choose a venue that you like, one that will calm you and one that is well run. A well run competition is much easier on the nerves than one full of stressed out, complaining fellow competitors. Visit all of the venues within your region as a spectator and pick out the ones which seem inviting. This can be a very subjective choice, a matter of instinct. If you like the lay out of the facility it will help you relax and that will help your horse.

If either you or your horse is inexperienced then it is vital that the competition experience is optimal. Renting a box at the venue is helpful, even when you are not staying over. The horse will have somewhere to relax, to be closer to other horses, and you will be able to leave the horse for slightly longer periods than if it were on a lorry. Stress can be infectious. Some combinations calm down when around one another but often the reverse is true. What I have done for pupils in the past is offer to stay with the horse whilst someone else takes them as far from the horse as possible, for as long as possible. This is where a good groom, or willing friend, is invaluable. For me personally, I avoid human company as much as possible and virtually camp out in the stable with the horse. Work out what is best for you and go with that but having a stable to use gives you more options.

Planning your journey is important too. One thing to note is that driving your own horse to a competition can be a stressful thing in itself. I prefer to travel separately and get to the venue ahead of the horse. If that is true for you as well then consider using a transporter or getting a trustworthy person to drive the lorry for you.

Choose your companions with care and plan how you would ideally like the day to run. Ideally I would prefer to keep it to a core team of driver, groom and possibly one other person. In an ideal world I also have a million lists and a timetable. Turning up with a collection of enthusiastic supporters might seem like a good idea but it is fraught with potential for stress and problems. In my experience, having more helpers around often results in things being forgotten and tasks being overlooked. It also increases the chance of performance anxieties affecting you as a rider. Even supportive, well meaning people can put you under pressure without realising it.

Defining your individual goals and planning your competition season.

If you have clearly defined goals as a competitor then you will be planning your outings many months and sometimes even years in advance. If your goal is less clearly defined then your season can more spontaneous but the research and planning that goes into it is no less important. I would still advise anyone to plan ahead for as much of their season as they can. There are many good reasons for this; it helps to make sure that you have time off booked, that you avoid diary clashes with family occasions and that you have higher odds of being able to book transport and help if you don’t have a lorry and a full time groom.

Knowing how often to go out is a key thing for all riders. I have known of riders qualifying for championships and then not going out at all in the interim. For some horses this is fine but for others need to be out fairly regularly to remain calm in competition atmospheres. I have also seen riders who took their eye off the ball and let the horse lose it’s physical edge in between one competition and the next. Equally it can be easy to make a horse jaded and tired by over competing it. This is particularly true as tests become more demanding in terms of complexity and physical effort. Respecting the individuality of your horse is important and adjusting through trial and error will let you fine tune your strategy. If you need to avoid gaining too many points at a particular level, but want to go out anyway then you can always ride Hors Concours, or go along as a non competing horse. In both cases you must make the venue aware of what you are hoping to do and respect their wishes on the matter.

Whatever your reasons for getting involved in dressage as a competitive sport the most important thing is for it to become a positive part of your life. The key is in the preparation, your frame of mind and that of the horse. There is a lot that good preparation can do to help with these elements and that is going to be the subject of the next article in this series. In the meantime I hope that approaching your life as a competitive rider in a structured way will enable you to identify what you want to achieve and set you on the path to attaining your goals. Success is something you define for yourself in advance, whether that is winning a national title or getting through the test without impromptu airs above the ground.

“Clearly defined goals lead to a clearly defined sense of achievement.”

Better Dressage -How to Plan for success.

The importance of planning for successful dressage.

Start planning for success and it will be far easier to achieve the things you want. Highly effective riders tend to have clear goals and use a defined process to reach those goals. Planning for optimal health and fitness (human and equine) is essential, as is deciding on a strategic competitive campaign, but the element I am going to focus on here is the training plan. Selecting the right help and varying the intensity to suit your specific needs are the keys to smart planning.

First define why you want to be in training.

The frequency, intensity and duration of the training will depend a lot on the goals a rider sets. The resources you need will be different for each scenario. These are just a few of the ways in which I have defined my own and some of my clients training needs over the years. There are probably other and better ways in which you would define your specific needs; the idea is not for you to use my framework but to think about defining your own. Hopefully this kind of analysis will give you an idea of who you need to see, when, how often and why.

  1. General steady progress – for example a rider who wants to be as good as they can be but is not necessarily very ambitious. This is ideal if you are a rider who enjoys improvement for it’s own sake and likes learning. This need is best met by regular but not necessarily frequent tuition, with occasional clinics to for extra inspiration and a fresh perspective.
  2. Continual accelerated progress – for the ambitious rider who wants to reach a very high level of competence during their lifetime. If lifetime learning at a high level is an idea that appeals then this approach is probably for you. This means basing yourself with a coach, ideally in a high performance training environment where you are one of several riders in training. Training several times per week on as many horses as possible is the ideal scenario. If that is not affordable it still makes sense to be in that environment, train when you can and the rest of the time watch all of the lessons and daily training that you are able to.
  3. Goal Specific (with a short term focus) – this is for times when there is a competition or event imminent. For this the best plan is to base your horse with a coach but not necessarily long term. Make sure the focus is on preparation for the specific event in question, it is no time to start making radical changes. Combine work with your horse and work on schoolmaster horses if you can because this will give you the opportunity to practice whatever you need to work on frequently without driving your horse to distraction.
  4. Goal Specific (with a medium term focus) – when a competition or event is planned within a time frame of several months. Generally speaking you will need to step up the frequency of coaching as you get closer to the event. If you need to make structural changes to your riding or your horse’s way of going then carefully consider whether the time frame is realistic; if you decide that it is, then begin with an intense burst of training and schedule another for the last month leading up to the event. In between times try to see a coach twice each week at least.
  5. Trouble shooting – when you have a problem with a specific horse, a movement, an issue of confidence or anything else that blocks progress in clearly defined way. These situations need customised solutions. What is common to them all is finding someone supportive to help you. Problems make us vulnerable and that means the person we need is not only an expert but an emotionally intelligent one. The best advice I can give is do your research and choose wisely, especially if it is a problem with a horse. Trailing a horse that has issues around several different experts usually deepens the problem. Find someone you trust and then give them enough time to really make a difference.

Decide on the type of help that you will need to access.

This is a very important step because few of us can just throw unlimited time and money at our riding. Even when there are very few constraints it is still valuable to plan; when your resources are very limited then you really need a strategy in order to make the best of them.

Coaches and clinicians are often specialists in a particular aspect of dressage. As I have mentioned before I have ‘go to’ people for meeting specific needs. You may find one coach who can help you with everything but I like to identify specialists in a few key areas

  • Training young horses
  • A seat and balance specialist
  • A test riding specialist (a judge is often a wise choice for this)
  • Jumping coaches for cross training the horses

This is in addition to working with a regular coach and riding in clinics. Finding the right coach or coaches to work with is vitally important to make progress. Personality fit is at least as important as expertise. It is important to appreciate the difference in teaching style that exists between coaching and giving a clinic. When I start to coach a rider I will often take their riding apart and put it back together; this is an in depth process which can effect radical change and unlock the doors to higher levels and better quality work. As a clinician I simply cannot do that. In clinics I tend not to make much in the way of significant changes to the rider. My focus is firmly on the horse. This is because I cannot be sure that there is enough time for me to put things back together again and let them go home feeling that it was a positive experience. Making big changes to how you ride is definitely the job of a coach rather than a clinician. This is one reason why it is a major mistake to substitute riding in clinics regularly for regular coaching. Worst of all is the idea that competing often and working on the feedback of a judges sheet is a viable alternative to coaching. This would hardly work if you saw the same judge every time; as you are likely to see different judges it will never give you a reliable idea of your progress. Seeing your percentages rise is indicative of progress, as a general trend, but it is a rather hit and miss way to train.

Consider the resources available to you.

We all work with different constraints. Location, finances, time, health and other commitments in our lives impose limitations. The ideal scenario for making progress with your horse may be impossible for any number of reasons but sit down and work out how to make the best of the resources you do have.

Know your budget and how it can fluctuate from month to month. Set aside a realistic portion for your training and work out how much that represents per year. The bulk of this will be spent on working with your regular coach but it does not have to be evenly distributed throughout the year. I take December, January and August out of the equation because I rarely get enough peace through those months to train consistently. Consider the actual value of any big ticket items like high profile clinics or training breaks abroad; they may be expensive but they may also be highly beneficial, inspirational experiences. However if you think they are not going to represent real value for money then cut them out.

Consider the possibility of competing less frequently and using the money you save to access more training. In my experience the better the rider the more strategic and sparing they are with their competitive outings. Get out frequently enough to keep you and your horse at ease with the competition environment but beyond that set distinct goals and make a competition plan for the year that enables you to reach them. Sinking more of your resources into coaching means that when you do go out next there will be a visible difference in the quality or even the level of your performance.

If time, rather than money, is the thing you are short of then consider focusing your training into intensive short courses. This is particularly helpful if childcare or eldercare is needed in order to let you relax and focus on your horse. Block out a day or two when you can and get training on several horses instead of having two lessons a week through the month. I find this approach is sometimes easier than fitting in regular training sessions. If work is really not letting you spend the time you want to on training then taking a coaching holiday might be a good idea. Book some holiday time and head off to a training yard, with or without your horse for an intensive and hopefully also a fun break.

Look for creative solutions to help meet your training needs.

My ideal is to be based with a coach and to participate in clinics several times a year. I have worked out that my optimal schedule is to have three or four training days each week and ride as many horses under instruction as I can afford to. This is expensive and frankly it isn’t always possible. When there have been times that I could not sustain this level of training I found it really difficult to stay motivated.

  • I found the best way round this was to engage the help of a another rider, a training buddy, who could give me accurate feedback. Sharing space with good riders helps you to keep your edge and your motivation. If you find someone you get along with well then support one another in training by being each others ‘eyes on the ground’. I have learned a lot from being in this role for some of my coaches in the past. For me it starts to recreate the collegiate environment of a professional training yard, which is where I am happiest.
  •  Having regular video footage taken of your work is a great help too. This is particularly useful if the people around you are not riders who know enough to give you constructive help. Keep the footage for at least a year because it is great to look back over and see how much you have changed. When you watch it don’t be harsh on yourself, as we all tend to be; instead look at it as though the person on the screen were your pupil rather than yourself. Self awareness is the key to learning but self criticism can be destructive if it is excessively harsh. One of the best bits of advice I was ever given was to be proud of the rider I am today as well as to be aware of the rider I want to become in future.
  • Offer to write for judges. This is useful in itself but it often leads to being invited along to sit in, which means you are free to look up and watch for a change! So long as you save any questions for the end and are totally discreet about any conversations you have with the judge it is a learning opportunity not to miss. If you don’t know anyone who judges the best thing is to get in touch with a regional or national federation and volunteer.
  • Audit at as many clinics as you can and go along to seminars when possible. Federations and clubs often have training events available at subsidised rates. There is a wealth of information out there for little or no money at all; some of the best books about dressage can be bought as older editions for pennies. Online resources have become increasingly abundant and it is even possible to have your work assessed remotely by expert teachers. Whilst this doesn’t give you the instant feedback that a coach on the spot would be able to, it is a useful training tool nonetheless.

Dressage can be a seriously expensive pursuit but, whatever your budget may be, training really is a core priority. Getting the best out of the resources you have at your disposal is one of the keys to successful and happy training. With good training experiences comes confidence  and that is the most vital ingredient in success.

Better Dressage – 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 Dressage – 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.

Brilliance versus consistency – a dressage dilemma!

Which would you choose if you had to? If I said you can have a brilliant horse or a horse which will perform reliably well, which one would you take? Of course in the ideal world we wouldn’t have to choose, our horse would be brilliant and consistent. In reality most horses are not at either end of this spectrum but somewhere closer to the middle and we have to ride the horse we have on the day. There are horses, and indeed humans, though who definitely tend towards one extreme or another and all too frequently the human half of a combination selects a horse who is similar in disposition rather than one who complements his or her personality.

Personally I am drawn to brilliance over consistency. I value consistency and work at achieving it because I recognise it’s importance. In competition I often feel it to be an injustice when consistency triumphs over talent. I am well aware that this is personality driven and that I am not necessarily right to feel that way. A dressage test was, prior to 1921, a test for military riders and their horses. Now brilliance isn’t what you need on campaign, let alone in battle. Go back a few centuries and nobody ever said “shame, he was killed but did you see that floaty uphill trot the horse was doing?”Even now I strongly suspect army units on parade duty really wouldn’t want many of our top level dressage horses in their ranks. If the dressage test is a test of obedience, control and correct athletic development then the consistent horse deserves to win hands down.

But we have wandered a long way from where we started in 1921 (not that I personally remember) and civilian riders, amateur and professional alike, have gradually transformed the sport into something utterly different. A second thread has been woven into the fabric of what we do. It is as ancient and important as the need for a reliable horse in war. This second thread is the expressive power of the horse in display. Whenever a human climbs up onto the back of a horse that human will feel inclined to show off just a little! Some of us feel inclined to show off quite a lot. Re conjuring under saddle the display behaviours of the horse at liberty is a big part of dressage. It may not have been at the forefront of the mind when dressage tests were initially developed for officers chargers and cavalry mounts but it had been around forever in a broader social context. There has always been an elite prancing around on the backs of beautiful, valuable horses. When we re conjure those display behaviours in half ton creatures we play with fire. I think that is a subtle part of the appeal. When I hear people say dressage is for wusses I just grin and think of some horses I have ridden. I wonder just how long my hunting friends would remain onboard! As a rider I have never been particularly brave but I am adventurous. My desire to experience the sharper, hotter, more challenging horse has often won out over the fear I have felt curling in the pit of my stomach. The need to be a better rider for these horses has driven me to think, to read, to listen and try, when I might otherwise might not have bothered.

When I judge, as I was doing a few days ago, I have to be very very careful not to let my love of brilliance create a higher tolerance for mistakes than would otherwise be there if the horse were less impressive. I cannot have the mindset I would have as a rider or spectator. I cannot say a mistake did not matter in the broader context of potential future greatness. Sometimes I am the judge who allows consistency to triumph over talent and whereas that can seem galling it is also only right. The less brilliant horse is usually a trusting, willing partner to its rider. It tries its heart out and it might not make your jaw drop but it very often deserves its victory. I am always very aware of the two contrasting elements, the context of a test versus the forum for display, and it is a truly wonderful thing when a horse is the personification of both expression and control. That is when the role of a judge is easy. The rest of the time there is always an inner disagreement taking place, which has to be resolved each time in the space of a few seconds.

It is a good thing that there is such diversity of opinion and personality within the ranks of riders, coaches and judges. If we all had the same priorities it would be terrible. I was once told that only by tolerating imperfections in horses would I ever get close to perfection. It was seemingly contradictory advice but it began to make sense over the years. Now I wonder if some of the less brilliant horses might have been more so if they had not been burdened with inhibitions by riders who value control at all costs. I cannot recall the exact quote but Nuno Olivera wrote of there being, in his opinion, subdued horses and educated horses. I have experienced the difference and I know what I prefer. When we take a young colt or filly out of the herd and train it I think we have a duty to respect its personality and offer it an education which is customised for that personality. Hopefully we can allow the brilliance to grow in even the quietest of horses and equally cultivate some self control in the most unruly of horses. This has to be the ultimate test of the rider, to shape the horse’s personality without crushing it. Hopefully then, if we choose to, we will be able to bring it down the centre line towards a judge who will envy us every second of the ride.

Better Dressage – Suppling Exercises.

Suppleness is vital to the performance of a dressage horse but is it possible to have too much of a good thing? I’ve sat on a lot of horses in my time; I’m very old and I have a long memory. Each horse, 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.

“The degree of collection is not determined, as many believe, by the degree of ‘bridling’, but by the degree of flexion of the hind joints. The resilience of these joints has to be developed by training.”

“A lengthy Period of gymnastic training is always needed before the more difficult movements can be executed correctly. How lengthy must depend partly on the physical and mental aptitudes of the horse and partly on the the extent of the rider’s knowledge and skill. Aptitudes are so variable that the length of the period of gymnastic preparation in each case cannot be defined, but the rider must understand the nature of the difficulties that make rapid progress difficult. The hasty rider will always be made to regret his impatience.”

Brigadier General Kurt Albrecht was Director of the Spanish Riding School 1974 – 1985. He was in charge of Judges Affairs for the Austrian Equestrian Federation from 1973 – 1987 and it is from his work entitled “A Dressage Judge’s Handbook” that the quotation above is taken.

This book is a great favourite of mine, as is “Principles of Dressage” by the same author. It is not only a useful book for aspiring judges but for all riders who decide to take part in dressage competitions.

Albrecht, K. “A Dressage Judges Handbook”. Translated by Nicole Bartle. J A Allen & Co, London 1988

Some of the great blogs I discovered in January

Throughout January I discovered some amazing blogs. I found myself caring about the lives of people I had never met. It may be because I am new to blogging but this seems like a magical discovery. Whilst I rarely write about my own horses I do love reading about how other peoples horses are getting on. Personally I don’t care if your horse just gained a gold medal or if it is a retired pony; I love all equines. It seems to me that this is one of the things which connects us with each other; a shared love of horses as creatures, regardless of why we own them and what we train them to do. The worries and pressures we all feel are similar and sharing them with a supportive network is a great thing. When I moved Dressage Perspectives over to a self hosted WordPress site I was disappointed to lose the blogroll which had been sitting on my sidebar all through January. I searched among the available widgets and realised that this feature did not exist for my new site.

What I miss about the blogroll most is the visual reminder to check in on each of my favourite blogs to see what is new. It is also a way to help promote the blogs of other people and that is really important to me. The interest, comments and feedback from other bloggers made me feel a lot more confident through the first few weeks of writing. I have noticed that this has diminished considerably since I moved over to a self hosted site. Now, it could be that I suddenly got dull of course but I don’t think so. I think it is to do with connectivity and the lack of that being built in to a self hosted site. Now the onus is on me to promote the site though different channels. Today I am going to try to create a series of links on my site’s sidebar to the blogs which I follow. It is as close as I can get to the blogroll feature apparently, although I don’t think I will be able to replicate the lovely grid of site icons.

The blogger who inspired me to start writing in the first place is the lovely Sarah Warne of warneyswhip.com I love reading about her incredible adventure in Portugal. She writes with such openness and honesty, not only about her own horses but puts forward very informed opinions about dressage training, without ever criticising other riders. For me this is an incredibly likeable quality. Her latest post “Training the Dressage Eye” is another great one. I also love reading A Horse For Elinor – Dressage on a Dime at ahorseforelinor.com . The idea of dressage on a dime is very relatable and the thoughtful posts about the progress she is making with her lovely horses’ training are really interesting.

One writer who I appreciate greatly for her valuable insights and depth of knowledge is Sara Annon at saraannon.wordpress.com. This blog has taught me even more about things I thought I knew a lot about already! The Adventures of Shady the Great at theadventuresofshadythegreat.wordpress.com is another favourite. Keeping up with Andrea’s posts on the progress of Shady’s foal Indy, who recently had OCD surgery, has become important to me. As I plan to breed from my precious mare this year it is lovely to read about the progress of somebody who has just done the same thing. As my mare is a big warmblood I find the issue of OCD scary; seeing the incredible post Andrea put up of the surgery itself helped me understand it much better and be a little less scared!

Reading about the training progress of Madison and Charley on caeventing.wordpress.com is always lovely. “Snowmageddon” was another great post from shelbyrallen.wordpress.com and reading about how she and the horses coped with a monster blizzard in Virginia made me feel quite ashamed of my weather related grumbles! One of the more challenging blogs for me to follow is effectieftrainen.wordpress.com but that is only down my very limited understanding of Dutch! I have to ask my father, who lived in the Netherlands for some time, to translate for me. There is a post about the VHL Symposium in Ermelo which looks very interesting. I will have to sit him down to read and relay that to me!

horsenomics.net is the blog of Rachel Reunis who, like me, combines a love of horses with a business background. Her way of looking at the world strikes a real chord with me and the blog is always thought provoking. Two blogs which have wonderful visual appeal are Tom von Kapp-Herr’s backhomeinbromont.com which has the loveliest equestrian photography and The Stylish Equestrian, also created by Rachel Reunis, which brings together wonderful outfits designed to take us from the stable yard to the town or city with a great deal more style and grace than I usually manage! Definitely check out thestylishequestrian.com and follow on FaceBook & Instagram.

I am constantly discovering new blogs to follow and sitting with down to read them is one of my luxuries. As I add to my list of blogs I follow I think I’m going to devote a whole afternoon to this, which is a lovely thought:)