In the August 2009 issue of Dressage Today, Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel’s article, “The Power of Positive Tension,” explains now to create the type of muscle activity a horse needs to work through his body and appear more beautiful. Here are some tips to make it happen.
Follow the Training Scale
The first four elements of the Training Scale–rhythm, suppleness, contact and impulsion–create the propulsive power we need for the horse to carry himself in a beautiful frame. The horse has to work in rhythm and tempo to be able to relax. It is important to understand that mental relaxation does not mean a horse without any positive tension through his body. He will need the engagement, which allows him to carry himself and find a frame and contact. This is needed to allow the rider to supple the horse through bending and transitions, for example.
With that achieved, we can create impulsion without the horse getting heavy or tense. The last two elements of the Training Scale–straightness and collection–develop carrying power in the horse.
Straightness will allow us to shift the weight of the horse back, so he will take more weight on the hind legs for collection. The wheel of the horse’s front legs has to turn in front of the wheel of the horse’s hind legs. It will allow us to ride half-halts that will keep the horses body supple and balanced so the aids can go through. Now you have the power to create positive tension. A horse that is heavy on the forehand, or is laterally out of balance, will not be able to shift his weight back and therefore will not be able to let the aids go through the body. Trying to create more engagement will end with negative tension since the horse will not be able to carry himself.
Safe in the Circle of Aids
The circle of aids is the coordination of the rider’s aids influencing the horse. It requires a balanced position, so he or she can sit independently from the hands with a loose leg. Only then can the rider coordinate the aids of the seat and leg that are primarily driving forward and the hand that helps to recycle the forward energy. There is a lot of multi-tasking required, so one part of the body has to be able to move independently from the other.
The circle of aids frames the horse longitudinally as well as laterally and requires feel from the rider so the aids are balanced. Every step of the horse will feel like it turns through the rider’s core, so the horse is under the rider’s seat. Too much leg might drive the horse forward onto the hands; too much inside leg might make the horse step out with the outside hind leg; too much hand will not give the horse a chance to balance himself, etc. Only this way can we use or create the horse’s energy and harness it in self-carriage, which means the horse rounds his topline and starts to hold his body up in positive tension.
How does the horse feel safe in the circle of aids? In natural horsemanship, the horse that is scared will never be trapped on the spot but always given room to move. As a flight animal, his basic instinct to flee cannot be changed. The horse will be sent forward until he relaxes and is able to deal with the scary object. If you are able to collect your horse within the circle of aids–that means the horse takes a half-halt–you take the forward energy and transfer it back. With the outcome of a lighter connection, he will not feel trapped. Since the half halt is ridden from back to front, the horse will have the feeling of going forward but the tempo does not have to increase and the softness of the connection allows him forward momentum. The rider has to know how much he can go forward and still keep the horse soft. That means you would approach the scary object not in extended canter but maybe with walk-trot transitions to test your half halts.
The horse that is ready to spook will take your hand right before he takes off or spins, so you have a split second to half halt him again and make him light and chew on the bit. If he is already pulling, you will have no warning. This way, you can ride a horse in half steps by a scary object and the forward energy will keep him light. You also will know when he falls behind your forward-driving aids, another signal for a possible spook. If there is tension based on too much energy or general nervousness, it is important to work the horse forward so he can let some of the energy out but with enough half halts that he stays with the rider. Keeping the horse in the circle of aids will have a calming effect.
The Horse’s Motivation
Watching animal training over the years has opened my eyes to motivation. Whales and wild cats will not be trained through force. Introduced to dog training, I learned a lot about different drives in the animal that can be used for motivation, such as food, prey, play and sometimes just the desire to please the handler. Motivation creates a great amount of focus and intensity in the animal without negative tension and the ability to take a correction that will perfect the performance.
But, what could motivate the horse and is accessible for us while we are riding? As you watch the horse playing in a field on a crisp morning and you see his joy in moving, prancing with an arched neck and suspended movement (maybe without a relaxed back) you can observe the spirit and possibility of movement. So, in general, the horse, as a flight animal, enjoys the outlet of his energy through movement. Particularly with a horse of high rideability, you can find the willingness to please the rider and the responsiveness to praise through voice, a pat or a quick walk break.
Chewing and relaxing of his neck are big training indicators that a horse is mentally ready to communicate. As we can observe in the horse’s nature, chewing is a sign of relaxing and a positive response. For example, when the horse reacts to body work, he will relax and chew. Another good time to watch for the chewing is when a horse is worked loose in a round pen.
How to Use the Whip
Most of the time our problem is to create the impulsion we need for positive tension. The leg aid seems sometimes not enough, and clever use of the whip can be helpful. The whip should be introduced as a support for engagement not just as a forward-driving aid, which will teach the horse to close his frame from back to front.
Every horse has a different sensitivity level to the whip. It should be applied as light as possible but not without an effect. Most horses just need a touch or a gentle tap to the skin. It can be helpful to start in a halt, laying the whip on the horse and supporting it with the rider’s subtle attitude to want to walk off, while the hand gently keeps the horse from moving forward. So, the goal is not forward motion but the horse’s chewing on the bit. It helps him understand that a forward impulse gives results in a chewing comfortable feeling in the mouth, and so the bit becomes positive. The horse should learn that the forward-driving aids go through a soft poll and jaw, whether we are collecting or extending.
The next step could be to lay the whip on the horse in a transition from walk to halt, keeping the forward impulsion until the horse chews, softens and therefore is able to step from back to front into the halt. That principle should stay alive through all downward transitions. The whip becomes a motivator to engage the hind leg and soften in the jaw regardless of forward impulsion or collecting. If that is achieved, the whip can motivate the horse to dance without negative tension.
Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel is head trainer at Gene Freeze’s First Choice Farm in Woodbine, Md. A former examiner for the U.S. Dressage Federation Instructor Certification Program, she is a German native who earned her Reitlehrer (federally certified instructor) certification with the highest score attained by anyone at that time.