Sunday, June 12, 2011


Your horse was not designed to carry the weight of a rider, so it is absolutely crucial to therefore teach your horse to move in an efficient fashion to ensure long-term soundness and health, even if you never take that collection to its highest levels or have intentions of competing at the FEI level. So, how is it developed at its foundation, in the beginning stages??

This question is asked over and over again - people asking as they bring a new or old or re-habbed or young horse (back) into work, so I felt a post further addressing and elaborating this oft seemingly intangible subject, was in order. I myself am still learning and evolving so I will address what I can and continue to add as my knowledge increases.

So where do you start?

Keeping in mind the training scale, your first goal with a horse commencing dressage work or flatwork is - relaxation. This starts with developing the horse in an emotional sense - developing him to be calmer (ie, relaxed), braver (ie, more confident), and smarter (ie, less reactive). When the horse is developed in an emotional sense, it reflects in his body. With a mentally relaxed horse, you have a physically relaxed horse (barring physical pain of course!). With this, rhythm in gait is established and developed, as is suppleness. At this point, the horse starts reaching for contact, impulsion is developed, and with that straightness occurs. The last step is refining what the horse is offering - refining and further developing that collection. Asking the horse to engage and lift its shoulders, to load the hind end and increasingly work from behind.

In respect to relaxation - the foundation of the training scale, take a look at the following article:

Let Your Nervous Horse Realize It's Tired

Expanding upon this, it is important to incorporate relaxation into your session with any horse, whether naturally prone to nervousness or not. Don't underestimate the importance of rest breaks and neck rubs! All too often (and I am probably the worst offender!), we riders get into 'work mode' and forget the importance of the simplest of things. Incorporate as many rest breaks into your session with your horse, as possible - it is just another tool, another (crucial) task. The more encouragement toward relaxation you incorporate, the further relaxed your horse can become throughout the session. Each session will feed into the next and with time, you create a habit of relaxation.

Keep in mind throughout this it may be necessary to balance trust vs. respect, draw vs. drive, and go vs. woah, to name a few qualities. Each horse will have certain tendencies toward these qualities, based on their innate personality (or, horsenality). The laid back, confident, 'lazy' horse will require a person to earn more respect (which will transfer to respect toward your aids), more draw (ie, desire of the horse to want to be with you), and more forward. The spooky, fearful horse will require the rider to earn more trust (in them and also in their ability to lead that horse), to ensure an appropriate balance of draw and drive (ie, neither an insecure horse who bolts over top of you for security nor a horse unwilling to follow your lead and have sufficient draw), and to ensure sufficient 'woah'. All these qualities can easily and simply be balanced out via exercises and patterns that engage and teach the horse. Each horse will have certain tendencies based on certain traits and characteristics, so it is vital to understand your horse and thus how to tailor your program to your horse, so as to have the ability to progress the horse through the training scale (you need a 'balanced' horse ready for work, to start!).

The very first step in developing collection in the horse, as it pertains to the physical aspect, is to develop 'pushing power'. Pushing power eludes to the development of the hindquarters. Without correct development of the hind leg, it cannot be expected of the horse to later load its haunches. Sufficient strength must first be developed in the hind leg so as to generate sufficient power - the horse's engine. As strength is developed, power may be generated - this power, this energy, is then permitted to flow over a loose back, and into the hand of the rider, where it may be recycled via a 'circle of aids'. This circle of aids is comprised of the hand and seat and leg, which merely guide throughout. Pushing power can be developed via hills, groundpoles, lateral work, spiraling circles, small jumps, transitions, changes in pace within gaits, etc. Start with very large, loopy circular exercises - 20m circles at most (smallest) to start. This can all be done on very little to no contact (ie, on a loose rein); the exercises themselves prevent the horse from plowing around on the forehand - they naturally require some level of engagement when the horse is ridden correctly, yet they do not ask of the horse a higher level of collection and engagement than the horse is capable. Developing pushing power can take months to up to a year or more.

It is important to note that all levels of the training scale are initiated by the horse and not the rider. The rider - and the rider's aids - are merely (softly) guiding. The rider can no more force contact than they can relaxation or rhythm. This means the rider sets the horse up - with certain parameters - via patterns and exercises, to naturally progress through the training scale on their own. My two favourite exercise books to recommend are: Progressive Schooling Exercises for Dressage & Jumping by Islay Auty, and 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider. The rider may then use their aids to guide, then refine, what their horse offers.

The next step is to develop 'carrying power'. This requires the horse to further develop its topline (including its neck, which is very crucial to self-carriage!) and abdominal muscles, among others. Carrying power and self-carriage is further developed with natural progression of the above such exercises and ultimately involves encouraging the horse to gradually and progressively lift its shoulders and load its haunches. This is where the well-timed half-halt (soft closing of the hands - ie, squeezing of a sponge) may be used! The shoulders lift and become freer, the poll lifts with the progression of balance and strength, and the haunches increasingly load as weight is shifted from the forehand to the hind.

If your goal is (re)conditioning your horse and developing at least a moderate level of collection, start with developing your horse's pushing power. From there - and even during this process - it is important to seek the correct instruction so as to continuously guide and encourage your horse into offering energy and correct movement you can then refine and further develop. Everything should be a natural, harmonious progression and if you are experiencing resistance in your horse, you should consider you might be asking the wrong question(s) or asking the question(s) wrong.

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