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!

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