Videos: Keep Your Horse's Back Loose, Swinging

Watch FEI trainer JJ Tate demonstrate five exercises to keep the horse's back loose and swinging.
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Watch FEI trainer JJ Tate demonstrate five exercises to keep the horse's back loose and swinging.

Editor's note: In the September 2009 issue of Dressage Today, JJ Tate provides exercises to keep the horse's back loose and swinging. In the following videos, Tate trains Sacramento, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding owned by Katie Foster.

As you watch these videos, keep in mind the following: These exercises are helpful to get the horse between your legs, so be careful not to forget about your outside supporting leg. When you try them yourself, play with changing the tempo, as it is also so gymnasticizing. I like to use the collected trot for these exercises, unless I'm straightening my horse, checking the progress and finding his international trot*. Then, I send him forward again. These exercises are not about speed; they are about activity, control and weight loading.

Exercise 1: Square Pattern
This exercise should be done at the walk. Start by creating a 20-meter square in which you stay about 2 meters off the wall to give the horse's haunches room to move out. As you approach the corner, half halt the horse and then make a quarter of a turn on the forehand. Take care to be slightly heavier on the inside seat bone, stronger with your inside calf, supportive with your outside knee and creative with your outside rein. When I say be creative with the outside rein, I mean that it needs to be helping with the half halt and control of the shoulder but not so strong that it blocks the horse. Pay attention to the correct timing. When the inside hind leg is coming off the ground, that is the time to press with the leg.

Look for the horse's inside hind leg moving towards the outside hoof, forward and under his center of gravity. This exercise is about teaching the horse to yield away from your leg, which will give you control of his entire body. As he reacts to your calf pressure, he will rotate his ribcage, thus allowing the neck to lower and the hind leg to cross and open his opposite hip, as well as free up his outside shoulder.

Also be careful that the horse does not fall in after the quarter turn. I like to go straight so the horse feels free in his mind, as well as to refresh the strides. Try to keep the feeling that he stills yields in his body, even though he is not actually moving sideways.


Exercise 1: Square Pattern

Exercise 2: Trot Circle with Turn on the Forehand on the Centerline
This exercise is for checking the reaction to your leg, as well as suppling the ribcage and body. Horses have the tendency to get a little "stuck" on the leg and slowly start to go back to their natural crookedness, so we need to check in periodically to make sure the horse is available to stay in a good balance.

In this exercise, ride a 20-meter circle at trot. As you approach the centerline, ask for walk, and proceed to make a full turn on the forehand. Once complete, depart back into the trot and continue on the circle. For this exercise, take care that you first ride a very well balanced downward transition. Keeping the horse's hind legs engaged into the walk already starts the exercise in a good way. (I sometimes tell my students to ride the downward transitions with an upward intention. As a result, they don't allow the horse to fall on the forehand.) After you are in the walk, make a full turn on the forehand, away from your inside leg. Once you have completed the turn, make a crisp transition to trot, keeping the body suppleness you just achieved from the turn. Keep that inside leg under as you ask for the trot.

Take care in this exercise that the horse does not get slow off your leg, and focus that he crosses his inside hind leg over the outside leg. He should also keep a forward intention, so he doesn't get "stuck."


Exercise 2: Trot Circle with Turn on the Forehand on the Centerline

Exercise 3: Shoulder-in and Shoulder-out on a Circle
This exercise needs to be ridden on a 20-meter circle. Making the circle smaller than 20 meters makes the demand much too difficult. This exercise takes the age-old shoulder-in and increases the difficulty and skill for both horse and rider. It can be helpful to teach the horse to lower into his hind joints and carry your weight each side at a time. (Right seat bone and calf control the right haunch. Left seat bone and left calf control the left haunch.) Then, when you apply both seat bones, he will engage both hind legs,"sit" and carry in the collection.

When you ride the shoulder-in to start with, think about keeping the haunches out on the 20-meter circle and bringing the shoulders in to the 18-meter circle. This will give you the correct feeling of bringing the shoulder and withers in and not pushing the hind legs out. Be sure to keep your outside aids or corridor present on the horse's side so he gets wrapped around your inside leg and seat. This is of great gymnastic value, not only in riding the 20-meter circle but also in the traditional shoulder-in.

I like to ride each bend for at least one and a half times around the circle in order to give the horse's topline time to release. When you go to switch it to shoulder out, think to ride the shoulders on the 20-meter circle and the haunches on the 18-meter circle. I find with some horses, I can get better control of the hind leg when I am in the shoulder out. It seems like the horse is less defensive about loading it, because he doesn't realize that is what he is doing.


Exercise 3: Shoulder-in and Shoulder-out on a Circle

Exercise 4: Haunches-in and -out on a Circle
This exercise is very similar to the last one, but it done with haunches-in and -out, rather than shoulder-in and -out. This is very beneficial for the stifles and lumbar area of the back. This is one of my personal favorites, as I like the feel of the horse wrapped around my inside leg and bending all his hind joints. It is also important to do these exercises in a moderate tempo in trot and visit the slower school trot, as well. Impulsion comes from the haunches taking weight and then springing the horse forward and upward, not just running quicker. I also like to adjust the neck height, as well. The preferred neck is a half-long, falling-down neck (as Conrad Schumacher would say).

Think about the same idea as the shoulder-in. Keep the forehand on the 20-meter circle and the hind end on the 18-meter arc, and vice versa. I always start with the haunches-in, as that is easier than the haunches-out (renvers).

Be on the lookout that the horse may canter by accident when you go to begin this haunches-in exercise. My horse George actually did exactly that, and it is an honest mistake. Think about keeping your inside rein against the horse's neck and a distinct trot rhythm in your seat to prevent that from happening. Also, control on the outside rein helps keep the horse in trot.

This is a very challenging exercise. Allow it to do the work for you. The horse should get better and better as it goes on. It is also important to sometimes take the horse straight and forward to check and see what these exercises are doing for your horse. Remember, the purpose of lateral work is to make your horse move more beautifully and carry himself more correctly and efficiently.


Exercise 4: Haunches-in and -out on a Circle

Exercise 5: Half Pass to Renvers
This exercise will make any half pass in the test seem like a piece of cake. It builds a lot of strength and endurance for carrying power in the haunches. It builds expression in the trot so that you can find your horse's "international trot."

I always start by turning down the centerline and half passing to the rail, around the mid-letter point. As I approach the rail, I hold the shoulders off the rail with my inside knee, weight and calf, and I drive the haunches past the shoulders (haunches leading) onto the rail with my outside calf. I continue in this renvers through the whole short side to about half way down long side. Then, I straighten the horse and see what improvement the exercise has made. This is an impulsion builder, and it is really fun to feel how the exercise can improve the horse.


Exercise 5: Half Pass to Renvers

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