The dressage horse who retains his relaxation at the highest levels of collection is the ideal. He is dynamic and elastic, swinging, steady and beautiful to watch. The rider doesn’t have to push or work too hard. He just sits quietly because his horse is well balanced. Relaxation is not only physically beneficial for the horse’s muscles, tendons and bones, but it is also beneficial for his interior—for his heart. Relaxation is the first goal that we strive for from the beginning of the horse’s training. However, a lot can go wrong when the rider tries to collect his horse and make him more active and expressive. Tension creeps in because the collected work is much more difficult than the warm-up, in which the horse is a little bit on the forehand.
For me, the key to having relaxation at the highest level is being absolutely sure that you have it in the warm-up—that you develop looseness and suppleness before you start any collected work. If your horse hasn’t achieved these qualities in the easy work, achieving them in the more difficult work is impossible. When you look at some of the Grand Prix horses in the warm-up area of a horse show, you can be fairly sure that some of them never really relaxed and stretched. As a result, the rider asks for collection, and the horse gets higher and shorter in the neck and tense in the back. He may show something that looks like cadence, but the horse is not lower behind with active hind legs and a swinging back. All Grand Prix riders—amateurs and professionals alike—have this challenge, which is why I work on it so conscientiously. I try to make my horse powerful, active and cadenced in the most difficult movements without losing his supple and swinging back.
Whether I’m riding a 4-year-old or a Grand Prix horse, the first 15 minutes of my warm-up is essentially the same:
1. I start with the posting trot. A spectator wouldn’t be too impressed with my initial trot work because it may be a little on the forehand and have no cadence. My horse may be flat because I’m not asking for activity. I’m just doing loosening exercises. Later, when I ask for collection, he won’t look like the same horse. He’ll get an 8 for his collected trot, but for now it is very normal looking.
2. I pay special attention that the horse is straight on straight lines and curved on bent lines—that his hind legs follow the bridle to the right and the left equally so that he doesn’t have a stiff side in which the haunches swing out.
3. My horse follows the bit to a solid contact. Warm-up is not only for loosening but also for developing this steady contact with the bit. From the beginning, when I pick up my reins in the walk and posting trot I expect my contact to be steady. I don’t like loose reins or keeping the horse behind the vertical. It’s very important that your horse be low in the neck and reaching forward toward the bit.
4. During this time, I ride him on a bent line to get him on the outside rein so when I give the inside rein in Uberstreichen he stays on the outside rein and maintains the inside bend.
5. In the warm-up, I want to be sure I can stretch my horse down to the bit with a long neck in any situation. Ideally, I only have to give a half halt, be a little lighter in the hand and push in front to ask the horse to follow the bit down and forward. The horse that you can stretch is really loose and good in the back. Later, I’ll want to be sure that he can stretch in collection—that I can make the neck higher or stretch him lower and longer in the neck even in the most collected movements.
6. I also do trot–canter and canter–trot transitions. I know my warm-up is over when I can do perfect transitions between a relaxed working trot and a relaxed working canter such that the horse’s neck is low, and he is either in front of or exactly on the vertical. If he comes behind for a moment, it’s not bad, but it’s important that the horse not become short in the neck or behind the vertical, in general.
I pay special attention to the downward transitions from working canter to working trot, making sure that he doesn’t get shorter in the neck or slower in the tempo. I don’t think of it as a transition backward but rather from gait to gait. Our upward transitions between working trot and working canter must stay totally to the bit, not higher or lower, shorter, slower or running into the canter. The horse must keep the same flexion and bend and the same forward momentum.
This sounds very simple, but if you ask a few Grand Prix riders about the difficulty of these “simple” transitions, you will find that no one thinks it’s easy. The transitions between working canter and working trot show a lot about the training. If I can do them well, I know I can start to prepare for the collection.
I’ll usually reach my warm-up goal with a Grand Prix horse in about 15 minutes. However, if my horse has had a few days or even weeks off, he may be a little hot—running and strong in the hand—and it may take a week or more before he is really through the back enough (relaxed, soft and easy) to ask for much collection. I could go back to working piaffe, passage and pirouette in only a few days, but the quality would not be good enough. Dressage training is not like training a dog. If I say “sit” 10 times, my dog learns to sit, but horses need to stretch and loosen their muscles and become strong.
To do a good piaffe with low hindquarters requires thoroughness, suppleness and power. After time off, it’s not possible for them to do it. With an older Grand Prix horse, it may take longer than 15 minutes of warm-up because the work of lowering the hindquarters is difficult. With a 5-year-old, I might need a half hour of warm-up and then do 15 to 20 minutes of collection. With a new horse that isn’t used to my system, the entire ride may be warm-up.
Asking for Collection
After the warm-up, I prepare for collection by doing transitions forward and backward that skip a gait, such as from canter to walk and walk to canter. Then, step-by-step, I use half halts and dressage movements in trot and canter to ask for more collection, cadence and swinging. If the horse is really through and using his back, my request for more collection works perfectly:
• I shorten the reins a bit and stay still with my hands;
• I push the horse forward a bit with my leg against my hand and sit a little heavier;
• If the horse is through, he can’t move forward, so he moves uphill, starts swinging through his back, becomes more active behind and shows more cadence.
When the stride is lengthened and shortened, the heavy point—or the center of gravity—changes, and the horse needs to be able to stay in balance. The balanced horse in collection will carry himself when you give the reins in Uberstreichen; he won’t change his frame or his speed. Then we stretch again. As I increase the power and collection, I monitor my horse’s relaxation so I maintain the looseness and the suppleness.
When I push the horse to add cadence and power to get his haunches more active and lower, he may get stronger and hotter. If that happens, I once again get him relaxed by making him a little lower and more reaching. I go more freely forward for a few steps and then ask for the higher collection again. I do the piaffe, passage or pirouette only when the trot and canter are good enough. Eventually, he will accept the higher collection without losing his relaxation.
When you lose the back…
When things go wrong, the problem is often with the bridge of muscle from the hindquarters to the bit. The horse is not really in front of the leg. The rider loses the quality of the contact and is unable to collect his horse on the outside rein.
You will realize you have lost the quality when your horse is not forward or swinging and he becomes uncomfortable to sit. Instead of becoming more active, his stride becomes smaller.
Most horses stiffen against the hand and get too high in the neck, and then the rider has to hold the collection with his hands.
However, some horses get too low and behind the vertical. These are both symptoms of a problem with the bridge of muscle from the hind legs to the bit.
As soon as this line is disturbed, one way or the other (too high or too low), you’ll want to go back to getting your horse lower in the neck, in front of the leg and reaching forward to the bit with his nose in front again so you can collect him on the outside rein. Here’s how I control this situation:
1. I bend my horse on circles to the left and to the right. My legs influence him on this bent line so that he accepts the outside rein. The German books say to give a half halt on the outside rein, which sounds simple, but achieving this is a big problem for most riders. Horses don’t always accept that outside rein, especially in difficult situations such as in the half pass left when the horse really is more often steady on the inside left rein instead of the outside right one. It is easier said than done, but it’s definitely easiest to achieve acceptance of the outside rein while on a bent line rather than a straight line.
2. Next, I ask the horse to lower his neck and reach forward. The neck must be low before I can get him forward and reaching with his nose in front again. If the horse is collected, he will carry himself and stay the same for two or three steps, but after that, he should follow the hand down and forward to restore the bridge of muscle. If he doesn’t want to reach down and forward (and that often happens at the beginning) then I continue to half halt and push him rounder and lower in the neck.
Ideally, if you start with young horses, you never have to be in a situation where the horse is short in the neck or behind the vertical, but it happens. For example, after an extended trot on the diagonal, I ask my horse for collection. The transition doesn’t work because his neck gets high and short, he comes behind the vertical and his hind legs are out behind him. I feel I have to make the neck low as soon as possible. I push him together in a half halt that may make him even shorter in the neck and behind the vertical. Then I push him with both legs through to the outside rein in the bend of the corner with a few steps that are passagey and try to lower his neck and get him in front of the vertical again.
My goal is that I am always able to make my horse lower and more forward-reaching without him losing his balance. This ability is especially important in the movements with the highest collection—piaffe, passage and pirouette. Ninety percent of riders are not able to lower the horse’s neck in piaffe or passage.
When my student is having this problem in piaffe, for example, I ask him to bend to the right while staying in piaffe, bend to the left in piaffe and then lower the neck.
The important point is that the bend helps the horse accept the outside rein and once again go in front of the leg. Once he is in front of the leg, the high level movements will be loose and swinging. They will look easy.
Living near Paderborn, Germany, Hubertus Schmidt started riding with his father and a local instructor in 1976. He also rode in clinics with dressage masters such as Harry Boldt, Reiner Klimke and Johann Hinnemann and won the German Professional Championship four years in a row (1997 to 2000). He and his mare, Wansuela Suerte, represented Germany in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, earning a team gold medal. He has also trained numerous horses to Grand Prix. Special thanks to Schmidt’s student, Oded Shimoni, for his assistance in interpreting Schmidt’s precise meanings in the English language.