When I first got Rassing’s Lonoir (aka Lono), a 9-year-old Danish Warmblood, one of his strong points was his natural brilliance, but it wasn’t always under my control. My problem was that Lono’s consistent answer to every one of my questions was to make the movement bigger. For example, anytime I wanted to add compression or power or if I wanted to diffuse a situation, he would be inclined to give me more and more, but it wasn’t under my control! He was using his brilliance as an evasion. I wasn’t directing where he put his energy; he was. I had to learn how to ask him to reduce that power when it wasn’t under control and then put it back in—but in doses that he and I could both manage.
Learning this on Lono has been interesting. Any horse with excess power like Lono can be hard to teach to be underpowered, but that’s the all-important skill that allows the rider to direct all the power. To begin, I want the rider to be able to balance the horse by matching the power of the front end with that of the hindquarters.
Matching the Power of the Forehand and the Hindquarters
Overeager horses like Lono typically want to express themselves by putting all their power in the front end. Then the power gets bunched up in the first third of the horse’s body, from the shoulder to the bridle. In response to an aid, this horse will be inclined to shorten in the reins and climb in the forehand without offering power from behind. He will “slip off”—or become disconnected—in the middle of the back. If you made a cartoon out of this situation, the horse’s front end would be in a runaway trot while the hind end would be way out behind with the stifles dragging, and you, the rider, would be sitting in a hammock. When the horse is in this situation, half halts don’t work to compress his body because there’s nothing to compress him back onto. Instead of having his hindquarters under him, they’re out behind him.
This situation isn’t good for horses’ bodies. When we don’t have the whole musculature of a brilliant horse working together, then we stress certain joints more than others. Horses are bio-mechanically designed to carry 60 or 70 percent of their weight on the forehand, and in dressage we’re all about asking them to bear the load behind. The rider wants his horse to be balanced toward the hindquarters. The rider who is able to shift the horse’s weight back in a way so that the whole muscle structure is involved—with each muscle doing its own part—doesn’t overload one structure, such as the hocks. You want the power equally distributed so the muscle tone from nose to tail is the same. When my horse is equally reaching and equally stretched through his body, he compresses and collects easily because my aids can sit him into the correct part of his body. The overall feeling is very fluid—as if everything is evenly distributed and all four legs feel the same.
That’s what I think of in my warm-up—that I want everything equally stretched out so I can keep the power distributed correctly.
In my warm-up, I do exercises that enable me to turn my horse’s energy off—or dial it down—and then redirect it exactly where I want it to go. I depend on the following transition exercise to obtain the balance between the front and the back ends and to make my horse’s energy controllable. You’ll see that this exercise, when it becomes very refined, also plays a big role in the gradual development of piaffe.
Transition Exercises: Walk–Trot
In the beginning, your eager horse’s upward transition to trot is likely to be too abrupt, and he is apt to run through your aids in his downward transition to walk. If that’s the case, it will help to do this exercise on a 20-meter circle. Begin by tracking left in trot.
Prepare for a downward transition to walk: Because the horse may be running through the aids, some riders are inclined to slam him promptly into walk with the rein aids, but that invariably shuts him down behind. Instead, leg-yield into the transition: Your horse will already be flexed to the inside (left), so with your left leg, leg-yield to the right as you ask for walk. This will engage your horse’s inside leg, help him use his back and put him into the outside rein so you can then do the downward transition fluidly.
Prepare for the upward transition to trot: Be aware that your horse may be inclined to push too much and go too fast in a transition that is disengaged. Although you want the transition to be prompt, you don’t want him to shoot off or blast into a big, runaway trot with his hind legs out behind him. Imagine, instead, that it should be like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube into a smallish or even a tiny trot. I call this the “pony trot.”
Prepare for the next downward transition to walk: Do this transition slowly; that is, maximize the time you spend in the transition. Get the feeling that you could stay in a tiny, itty-bitty trot as long as you want or you could walk at any second.
Doing your transitions on the 20-meter circle is intended to put you in a position so that you can use your leg in a way in which your horse can’t easily run away from it. However, if your horse is inclined to pop his outside shoulder and lose straightness, do these simple leg-yielding transitions on a straight line.
Whether you do them on a circle or a straight line, the walk–trot transitions will help your horse stay with you. When you’re successful, your horse will be “on your seat.”
Here’s how you will know:
Your horse keeps the energy consistently. He doesn’t drop behind your seat and he doesn’t run away from it. If feels as if you’re bouncing a basketball.
You don’t need much rein aid to keep your horse in the pony trot because he’s not running through your rein. Your downward transitions have helped to balance him back.
You don’t need to push to keep him in the small trot. The upward transitions are engaged and controlled by you. Your horse listens to you.
In the process of teaching my horse about balance, I have learned to be very vertical in my position. That’s the place where I can bring my horse into balance. The point is that it’s very easy to get drawn into your horse’s balance. Instead, you want to be in your own balance and bring your horse to your place. For me, it feels like I have the energy in my back, and I’m in a place in which the horse can be up and in front of me.
Why the Pony Trot?
The development of this ability to do a small trot isn’t very interesting for observers to watch. Many people prefer to see flamboyant movement. But the benefits of learning to do this pony trot are significant:
When your horse is able to do a small trot, his hind legs get closer to the front legs. As you can imagine, this plays an important role in developing piaffe in the future because once you can make the trot very small, it’s only another step to get piaffe that is on the spot.
Your horse learns to articulate within himself. That is, his motion utilizes his entire musculature, and he uses his body with integrity, which will keep him sounder.
Your horse learns that adding power doesn’t necessarily mean that he covers more ground. He understands this mentally as well as physically.
Controlling the canter wasn’t one of Lono’s problems. Although he has a big canter, it’s very well-balanced. However, to further develop balance, do the same transitions between trot and canter on a 20-meter circle or on a straight line. You’ll probably find that there will be plenty of cadence in the trot after your canter, but be sure it is under your control. Then try these canter exercises to develop collection:
Try a little haunches-in in canter because it shows your horse how to articulate his inside hind leg and carry weight. Rather than force him back onto his hind legs when he is straight, haunches-in gives the horse a comfortable place to rock back onto. It shows the horse what he can do his with his body. Ask yourself if you can wrap your horse around your inside leg and half halt with your outside rein. When you can, you can collect him very correctly.
When your horse is advanced enough, you can develop straightness with counter flexion on a 20-meter circle and correct counter canter.
Not only do these exercises develop straightness, they also encourage the rider to close up the outside of the horse’s body—which will give the horse more engagement of the inside hind leg. These exercises will develop your horse into an uphill posture with confidence.
The Mental, Physical, Neurological and Emotional Pieces
In your exercises, do short correct sets. There are four reasons for this: Mentally, your horse needs to know when he’s right. If you were to do any exercise for prolonged periods of time, you would end up getting it and then losing it. As a result, your horse wouldn’t know when he was right. That’s the mental piece. Neurologically, it requires 10,000 correct repetitions before you start creating muscle memory, and you want to be aware that you’re reinforcing patterns that have been established. Then physically, the muscles simply can’t hold weight for too long. Building muscle takes time.
Those walk–trot transitions have tremendous benefits, but the emotional piece is perhaps the most important. The hot horse becomes emotionally settled when he learns to do these transitions and he learns how to take pressure. If you start adding energy and power when your horse is not in a place where he can manage them and understand them, he can get mentally fried all too easily.
When your horse understands how to manage power physically, it emotionally puts him in a good place. The trot–walk–trot transitions, in particular, should be an everyday part of your program. They will become better and better, but it may take a while. The feeling will get more advanced and sophisticated over time. Once your horse feels comfortable balancing in the small trot and he can do the transitions smoothly you can start to play with his energy.
If, like Lono, your horse naturally has big movement, you can start to allow him to go to the powerful place again but in a manageable way. You can rebuild the gaits in a way that is balanced and controllable.
Olivia LaGoy-Weltz is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist and an FEI competitor. She has trained in Europe and is now based seasonally in Middleburg, Virginia, and Wellington, Florida, where she trains young horses to Grand Prix while running a training program dedicated to rider development (LivDressage.com).