Friday, March 26, 2010
How to create a frame
I see this question a lot: how do I get my horse to round it's back, lower its head, and work from behind? Actually, a great deal of the time people forget to ask the latter ("and work from behind"), not realising that it is not about the head but rather about the hind - that the head will follow the hind naturally and that the head really does not have to be 'played' with.
To start off, I highly recommend the following for your own further research into collection - how it is achieved, why it is achieved, and the involved biomechanics of the horse:
Sustainable Dressage - this blog contains a wealth of information I have yet to fully tap into thanks to the absolute overwhelming multitude of information presented!
Tug of War: Classical Versus "Modern" Dressage by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann - it is extremely enlightening and reveals a great deal of knowledge of collection via understanding the biomechanics of the horse. This is a vital part of any horseman's library.
Progressive School Exercises for Dressage & Jumping by Islay Auty BA, FBHS - this is just another of those simple books that contains a great deal of progressive exercises, but it is encompassed of exactly the types of exercises and patters that I use and recommend when teaching the horse collection.
In my opinion, I believe the comprehension of 'correct' collection (developing one's eye), the biomechanics of the horse, and how to achieve 'natural' collection are of the utmost importance to any rider/trainer/horse owner, regardless of the discipline. Regardless of discipline, it pays to teach our horses to use themselves efficiently. Firstly, such benefits a horse in relation to their soundness. Horses are not made to carry the weight of a rider and teaching them to carry themselves in an efficient and correct manner ensures they may carry the weight of a rider with little or no detriment to them physically. Second, teaching a horse to use itself in a correct and efficient manner better enables them to succeed in their chosen discipline. The cow horse, cutter, or reiner, benefit from collection in that they are balanced. With their weight shifted off of their front and onto the haunches, they may better be able to - with a freer front end - thrust forward into a gallop and slide into a stop or change direction rapidly. The jumper with its weight shifted onto its hind will have better propulsion over jumps, better scope, and better form.
The method(s) many riders are taught neglects taking into account the whole horse, the bigger picture, and instead focuses on individual physical aspects. Particularly, riders will almost obsessively focus on the head and on teaching it to drop, often via use of a martingale or draw reins or by bumping or see-sawing on the horse's mouth. There are many variations to this but ultimately a false frame is created whereby the horse is not fully engaged from behind. In lieu of the aforementioned, the rider needs to focus on the HAUNCHES. As the haunches are developed and the horse increasingly engages, the back rounds and lifts, the front end lightens, the horse raises its neck from its base, and the head drops into place according to the horse's level of training and strength.
The focus in developing true and correct collection in the horse should be on encouraging the horse to carry himself efficiently, by his own means - classically. This means patterns and exercises where the hands are light and guiding and the legs are quiet, that essentially 'enlighten' the horse as to what to do, but do not directly tell or force the horse into a particular frame. In this fashion, they only 'frame-up' as per their current training level and strength and their frame is one that includes relaxation. Furthermore, their frame is 'correct' and efficient. In such a way, the horse will simply 'come together' naturally, with guidance and refinement from the rider: the horse will start tracking up and loading bent hocks, tipping his pelvis. He will commence lifting his back, and his head will come down and he will reach forward to actively seek the bit. The rider's seat should be balanced and independent with no pushing so hard that the rider is leaned way back (as is often seen) and there should be no pulling back or holding of the horse's mouth. The hand closes as appropriate, and opens as appropriate, without moving. In such a way, the energy may be channeled and recycled through the horse - without actually creating or damming the flow through aids; the flow is already established by the horse and is simply guided through their body.
This is also where the Dressage Training Scale is vital, regardless of your discipline. Dressage is a foundation and regardless of your discipline, a strong foundation is a strong foundation - dressage offers that possibility for a strong foundation that will enable success in any direction later. The Training Scale is as follows:
It is a progressive 'ladder' that is designed to be applied in that specific order, albeit each step will feed into and build off other steps. Place those six building blocks into a pyramid with collection at the top and rhythm at the bottom, you can begin to see how it is progressive and how each 'block' builds upon another. Keep in mind too that to have rhythm and suppleness, one requires relaxation. Thus one of the first goals in developing the horse should be to develop relaxation.
Relaxation is required for rhythm - the tense horse will be constantly increasing and decreasing its rhythm and tempo. To achieve such rhythm and relaxation, the horse must be both mentally and emotionally relaxed, which will then automatically reflect in a physical sense (barring any physical issues).
Once rhythm is established, we also find suppleness - the looseness and flexibility of the horse. Suppleness is comprised of both lateral and longitudinal components: lateral being sideways and bend along a circle (such as in the ribs), and longitudinal being along the horse's length from jaw to tail.
With suppleness achieved, the horse begins to seek contact. Where before the horse is expected to accept contact (ie, not evade the rider's hands), the horse who increasingly engages from behind and is relaxed and supple will start to actually seek the bit and chew it from the rider's hands with further progression of the training scale. This also requires a very forward thinking horse, hence the importance of developing and encouraging forward in the horse from the very start.
With contact we can begin to refine what we have and establish further impulsion, where the horse steps under himself further (engages) and sends power through the hind end to the rider's hand and to his front end (which lifts). Impulsion appears as a forward moving horse who is loose and supple; the hocks are engaged and bent (loaded) as well as far-reaching beneath the horse's barrel. This is achieved through willingness on the horse's part and not through constant nagging on the part of the rider. Impulsion should be thought of as THRUST. With thrust, the horse will increasingly seek the rider's hand - contact.
With the requirements of 1-4, straightness is mostly achieved naturally and ultimately is when the hind hoof steps in the line of the fore hoof (in collection though the hind may step slightly to the inside, but not to the outside, which would indicate the horse is traveling with its hindquarters in on the circle = crookedness). Straightness is achieved when the horse is supple and conditioned equally laterally (both sides are equally loose and strong).
With all preceding five building blocks established, we naturally achieve our golden goal of collection - it is not made or forced, but rather is the ultimate and simple result of the building blocks of the pyramid. The horse reaches further under but by engaging the hocks actually takes shorter steps and compresses its frame. The pelvis tilts and the croup drops, and the forehand lightens so that the horse appears to be traveling 'uphill'. Since collection is not made, the rider should ultimately be able to, on a fully and 'correctly' collected horse, be able to drop all communication with the horse (legs and hands), and the horse still finish the movement. This test is the result of the horse initiating collection and carrying itself; the rider is not creating the collection nor are they carrying the horse themselves. In such a manner, the rider may then further encourage and guide the horse to the highest level of collection.
The following exercises and patterns may be used in the context of the training scale to help develop the horse toward collection:
To achieve rhythm we first of all want the horse forward-moving, relaxed, and loose in its movements. This is partially achieved through the rider maintaining rhythm themselves (ride to music, to a metronome, or simply relax your body and ensure you create an example of rhythm the horse can then follow), in their riding. This means that at the trot, the rider posts in a rhythmic manner and allows the horse to move forward; if you have trouble keeping out of the horse's mouth, ride on the buckle - if you do not feel safe riding on the buckle, you've got work to do! Initially, you can have an instructor/equine-savvy bystander also longe you and your horse if you have trouble riding your horse on a loose rein; as such the individual on the ground can have control yet you can allow your horse the opportunity to relax and develop rhythm. In my experiences rhythm is often best achieved working along straight lines as opposed to circles, yet circles tend to relax the horse because horses move in circular patterns when stressed (check out Temple Grandin's work); this is where figure-8's along the long side of the entire arena can help because they include both long straight lines and some circular lines (plus, it is a specific, distinct pattern, which is also comforting to the horse according to its instincts). Rhythm is established through mental and emotional relaxation in the horse, which will result in physical relaxation and thus rhythm. I develop mental and emotional relaxation in the horse on the ground first, developing respect and trust, and teaching the horse to be calmer, braver, smarter in general. Under-saddle, patterns and exercises in general are calming to the horse, as are patterns and exercises that are circular in nature (as previously mentioned). Relaxation and thus rhythm are established through a general mindset and method on part of the rider, which might require a professional to help. Above all, it is established with soft, light aids, and patience and good leadership on part of the rider. The rider must remember to have very elastic elbows and a following hand.
This is obviously develope-able only when relaxation and rhythm are achieved. The next step then is to develop suppleness Travers, shoulder-in, side-pass, half-pass, leg yield, bends along a straight line (ie. come down the long centre-line and have your horse bend without leaving said line, using the least possible amount of leg and especially hands), circles, figure-8's, serpentines, spiraling in and out on a circle at the w/t/c - all great exercises to encourage and increase bi-lateral suppleness. The exercises should be done with light riding and should be refined to the point of little interference and guidance by the rider, where the horse is soft, accepting, and supple. The exercise book I mentioned at the start of this blog has some fabulous exercises to create suppleness, and an instructor usually has a number of exercises and patterns up their sleeve! Jane Savoie has a plus/minus poll-suppling exercise I will iterate at a later date: I highly suggest reading her books and purchasing some of her educational material and using the suppling exercises she describes.
The horse must be soft and supple and accepting of contact - meaning they are responsive to the rider's hands and are light, soft, and relaxed. With development and progression through the training scale, the horse will start to seek contact - he will push into your hands with a soft mouth and chew the reins into a lengthened frame if you allow him the lengthened rein. It is not up to the rider to establish 'on the bit', but rather the horse, when they are ready; if the rider progressively schools through the Training Scale, they will find the horse will not only grow to accept contact, but it will also actively pick up the bit in its mouth.
The primary exercise I use to develop forward and to start to introduce impulsion is the point-to-point exercise; I find it works brilliant with horses who are inclined to shorten and elevate rather than lengthen and move forward, as well as for those horses who would normally be classified as 'lazy'. This exercise was taught to me by Jonathan Field, who is a fantastic horseman. Another method of specifically developing a desire in the horse to move forward is to just move the horse out long and forward - drop contact and allow the horse to move forward in an extended trot (slight push with your legs, but [important!] do not nag the horse, or by posting higher in the trot) and/or gallop. You may also use jumps or hacking out to encourage forward. Giving a horse a job to do whereby he is naturally inclined to be forward can be greatly beneficial. Establish that forward thinking. To be clear, forward is different from impulsion, but one requires forward so as to develop impulsion. Forward is the horse moving out forward willingly and freely, in front of the rider's leg. The horse should stride out with momentum and energy. Impulsion requires the horse to THRUST from behind. To land with a bent hock and push forward with its haunches engaged as opposed to strung out behind him. A specific exercise that may be used to develop impulsion is one I learned from Mette Rosencrantz while watching her conduct a clinic last year: start out on a 20m circle, set up with 4 pairs of cones dispersed evenly along the circle. Start out by trotting half the circle and walking the other half the circle, sharpening the transitions, then progress the exercise to trotting through one set of cones (the horse has to go through the pairs of cones, no going around them!), and walking through the next, and so forth. Lastly, Rosencrantz had the riders trot the 20m circle, slowing through each second set of cones, then, once rider and horse had a good grasp of that, slowing through each set of cones. The horse was already forward-moving and the rider did not pull back to achieve downward transitions and a slowing in pace. They simply relaxed into their seat, tensed their abs, and closed their hands. When asking for an upwards transition or to increase the pace, they were asked not to use leg but to open their hands and to pick up their energy. The rider should not have to use leg because the horse should already be forward thinking. With the latter part of the exercise, the horse was asked to slow to a near-walk, without actually walking, then to pick up an upbeat trot. In such a way, the horse was naturally balanced onto its hindquarters and would gather and compress itself, without losing forward momentum. Once the exercise was completed successfully on the 20m circle, it was then completed on a 10m circle, which you will find much more difficult! The key in developing thrust from behind is developing strength in the haunches (ground poles, jumps, hills, trot work all especially target this) and transitions transitions transitions.
Is achieved through achievement and development of the prior building blocks of the training scale and can also be further refined through exercises such as the shoulder-in. An instructor can provide one with additional exercises to work on that will further develop straightness in the horse and to be a person's eyes on the ground (particularly as you develop the feel for when your horse is straight versus crooked)!
The goal and ultimate result of achieving the first 5 components of the Dressage Training Scale. Once the prior components, and thus collection, is/are achieved, all that is left is to refine and further shape what you have, to continue along a continuum of increased collection.