Creating Excellence in Dressage: Putting It into Practice with Sue Blinks

Part 2: Olympian Sue Blinks shows how her multifaceted approach works in teaching movements like shoulder-in and piaffe.

Extreme success in dressage is a direct result of certain very specific positive qualities of the rider. In Part 1, we discussed those qualities and how riders can improve their weak areas. (Click here to read it.) In summation, we talked about:

1. The skilled dressage rider, who is able to give clear, consistent aids in all situations because of an independent seat and position, elasticity, feel and timing.

2. The effective horse trainer, who is able to explain what she wants so her horse understands.

3. The rider who is educated in classical theory and has integrated it into her riding.

4. The rider who has a deep knowledge of horsemanship and takes exquisite care of her horses.

5. The rider who has people skills and attracts students and sponsors.

6. The rider who has a positive, resilient, patient, concentrated personality.
When one person “has it all” we’re likely to find her on the podium, and you can be sure that she has consciously worked on these qualities. 

In Part 2, we’re going to discuss how to practically apply some of these qualities to the teaching of two movements: shoulder-in and piaffe.

Clinton is a 12-year-old Dutch gelding by Tushinsky owned and ridden by Sue Blinks. He demonstrates self-carriage in this medium trot as Blinks releases the reins. This is one of Clinton’s many trots. Horses, in theory, have a limitless number of trots and piaffe evolves as one of them. (Photo by Beth Baumert.)


Why is shoulder-in important other than the fact that we have to ride it in dressage tests? It’s a tool—in its infancy all the way through to Grand Prix—for increasing suppleness, engagement, collection and throughness. The movement develops the horse’s understanding of stepping from the inside leg to the outside rein into a more round, shortened shape, which gives it a gymnasticizing quality, enabling the rider to add upward mobility and cadence to the gaits with her driving and recycling aids.

Definition of Shoulder-In.“Shoulder-in is performed in collected trot. The horse is ridden with a slight but uniform bend around the inside leg of the rider, maintaining cadence at a constant angle of approximately 30 degrees. The horse’s inside foreleg passes and crosses in front of the outside foreleg; the inside hind leg steps forward under the horse’s body weight following the same track of the outside foreleg with the lowering of the inside hip. The horse is bent away from the direction in which it is moving.” —USEF Rule Book 

Shoulder-in also helps the rider work through resistances (spooking, reluctance to stay round, through or going into the outside rein and so on). It helps break up those resistances by improving the rider’s ability to ride through difficulties from back to front with bend. It enables the rider to control the hind end so she can fine-tune the issues in front. Because of that, it enables the rider to classically gain access and control in a situation in which she might not feel she has the ability to maintain sophisticated aids.

How to do it. Your horse needs to understand all the “letters” and “words”—or the basic concepts and prerequisites. Explain these concepts so he understands:

The leg-yielding expectation: The classical development of shoulder-in starts with the horse’s understanding of how to go sideways, moving away from the rider’s leg and understanding the recycling of the energy by the outside rein so he goes sideways as well as forward from the leg.

The bending expectation: Bend throughout the body in shoulder-in adds a suppleness dimension that leg yield doesn’t have. He learns this by doing accurate circles, voltes and bent lines.

• The engagement expectation: The horse can’t displace his shoulders without engaging or adding weight to the hindquarters. He learns this with half halts and transitions.

Ask for consistency of the angle, the rhythm, the tempo and energy. Introduce shoulder-in with all these things in mind, understanding that in the beginning, you’ll want to be a little more lenient in your expectation.

When teaching your horse shoulder-in, explain all the basic prerequisites to him: the leg-yielding, the bending and engagement expectations. (Photo by Beth Baumert.)

Start the shoulder-in coming out of a corner or from a circle because you will be able to retain the bend more easily if it is already established. Increase your driving aids and recycle with the rein aids until the horse rises to the occasion and collects more in that recycling moment instead of finding an easier way. Why would he try to make his job easier? See sidebar below on  “From the Horse’s Point of View,” for an explanation.

From the Horse’s Point of View
Horses don’t have a reason to care if they are engaged and they don’t see a reason for increasing the bend. They don’t try to be bad, but it’s natural for them to take the easiest path and try to remove the difficulty by leaning one way or the other.

Even the best-trained horse in the world doesn’t do a quality shoulder-in automatically. The best-trained horse answers the aids sensitively and with suppleness, but he doesn’t do it by himself. Even if you have independent aids, swinging hips, elasticity and all the other things that make you an exceptionally skilled dressage rider, you’ll still have a horse that wants to take the path of least resistance, such as getting shorter and quicker, running through the hand or falling left or right. The horse will take the easier path until the rider is able to direct the energy the way she wants it.

My analogy is this: Water is always going to flow around a rock in a stream unless there’s a little dam to make the water go over the rock. I think of the water as your horse’s energy and the rock as your horse’s withers. The energy will always fall to the left or the right of your horse’s withers—more on one shoulder or the other—instead of going straight over and through the topline. Your aids need to create the little dam that sends the energy straight through your horse’s topline.

Even with an experienced horse, I warm-up by doing shoulder-in in walk and in rising trot because I always try to set the horse up for success by re-explaining the basic concepts. Every time you start shoulder-in, your horse will know and understand more and more. Soon he will answer the question easily, and over time your aids can be administered with fine-tuning.

As your standard becomes more sophisticated, your horse understands not only letters and words, but also “sentences” and then “paragraphs.” That is, the shoulder-in is superimposed on more difficult exercises. For example, in piaffe and passage, it’s a tool to gymnasticize your horse and make corrections to rhythm problems as well as control engagement in the transitions between piaffe and passage. It helps the rider explain to the horse how to maintain the rhythm, collection and throughness when they might be difficult to maintain otherwise. The rider with a classical background sees the horizon in front of her with regard to the usefulness of shoulder-in. She understands how to utilize it within other exercises to solve problems and increase quality throughout the entire training program through to Grand Prix.

Let’s look at all the positive qualities we discussed last month and how they can influence and help your horse learn to excel at shoulder-in.

The Theoretical Rider

When your horse is first learning shoulder-in, you need to help him understand the pieces by using your aids correctly.

Know the aids. You, the rider, want to mobilize the horse’s shoulders by placing them forward onto a second track in front of you. It feels like you’re starting a 10-meter circle over and over and over again as you ride forward into the position, recycling in the right moment to prevent the horse from traveling off the line of travel. From back to front, you add the shoulder to the inside between both reins and both legs, each doing its own job:

The seat. The rider sits on the inside seat bone.

The inside leg is on the girth. It acts as a bending pole and the weight from the inside seat goes down through the inside thigh and knee. The connected and coordinated influence of the weighted inside seat and leg activates the horse’s inside hind.

The outside leg is behind the girth helping to continue the activity and direction that are behind the rider and maintaining the curvature throughout the body. It takes coordination to learn the feeling that the outside leg is just as important as the inside leg.

The outside rein is for recycling energy, which is necessary or you lose the usefulness of the exercise. If you have difficulty feeling the recycling, try the exercise outlined in “Try this” below.

The inside rein makes conversation about bend in a way that receives the energy.

Rider Pitfalls

The most common problems involve maintaining each hand and each leg and seat aid in the face of whatever the horse does. Commonly, the rider:

• brings one hand across the neck, crossing the inside to the outside or vice versa, depending on which way the horse leans

• pushes the haunches out by bringing the inside leg back to make a leg yield 

• doesn’t have the coordination to add the shoulders to the inside and ends up subtracting energy

• can’t feel the recycling moment.

Try this: If you have trouble with the coordination needed to recycle the energy, ride trot–walk–trot transitions while retaining the shoulder-in. This exercise can be extremely useful because it helps the rider feel the coordination of recycling. The downward transition prevents the horse from running through the rein and instead sends the energy back to the hind leg. The upward transition helps keep the energy going forward. This transition exercise is a magnified version of the recycling aids.

The Horsemanship Piece

Horses are more interested in working with you some days than other days. Maybe your horse trailered seven hours for his riding lesson or maybe there’s a bulldozer working next door. Don’t choose a day when he’s tense to start any difficult lesson.

As always, be sure he has no unreasonable physical issues and be sure there’s no problem with the fit and comfort of his tack.

Appreciate the physicality of any new exercise. If your horse thinks that each time you get on him you’re going to ask him “to mow the entire golf course with a hand mower,” he won’t be motivated. Be mindful of that and be able to hear your horse’s body talking to you when the work becomes difficult. When you introduce a skill that involves strength, don’t do it every day but rather off and on in the program so you help him with the physicality of it.

If you had to do 50 sit-ups at once, the quality of your sits-ups would become increasingly sloppy and uneven and you would be sore the next day. If you did five sit-ups and then rested, and you did that 10 times, you’d do them in good form and you probably wouldn’t be sore the next day.

When you administer challenges in this way, your horse will develop trust in you throughout the training. As you delve into new things, you want the horse to trust that you will mindfully make smart decisions. With that trust, horses won’t feel they need to protect themselves. They’ll just do what you want and you damn well better be right about what you’re asking. That’s how event horses learn to gallop without question over any obstacle. The training is such that the trust has been developed and the horse knows he isn’t going to be overfaced.

The Effective Horse Trainer

The rider who speaks “horse” can help her horse understand the exercise and she is aware of the feedback her horse is giving in that regard. Does he understand all the letters required to form the words and sentences and then paragraphs? Sometimes you have to go back and re-explain a letter or a word that you thought he understood and now you know he doesn’t fully. You need to bring that letter back to the surface before you go back to the harder question. This analysis goes into the training process even for a seemingly basic exercise.

If he doesn’t fully understand, you can introduce the shoulder-in in an easier way by not making the angle as great or by developing it from a circle. It’s incredibly difficult, by the way, to ride a 10-meter circle correctly—to keep the horse’s frame, the rhythm and the shape of the circle.

Try this: If your horse knows how to do haunches-in, you might be able to bridge the gap just by keeping that crescent shape and turning it into shoulder-in. Keep your legs where they were in the haunches-in because shoulder-in and haunches-in are basically done in the same position. It’s a way to segue from one exercise to the other by simplifying the challenge of the bending element of the exercise so the horse—or the rider—has an “Aha!” moment.

If your horse knows how to do haunches-in, you can just keep the crescent shape and turn it into shoulder-in. (Photo by Beth Baumert.)

The effective horse trainer uses repetition and reward to help the horse understand what she wants. Horses learn through repetition. Most horses love it because they feel, “Oh this is what we’re doing today! I get it!” 

If you don’t repeat an exercise often enough, a horse never comes to the place where he figures it out. Then the horse starts to anticipate positively, which can also be helpful. Too much repetition can be mentally hard for some horses who get bored, but it’s mostly a physical concern.

In the most basic sense, the best reward for the horse is a rider who is skilled. The moment when the horse gives the right answer, the rider’s body gives a tiny release that says “Yes!” That comes only from good riding, which requires experience. If you’re a good rider you become sensitive to when your aids are saying, “Aha!”

There’s also the philosophy that when something is good you give a break. Danish trainer Morten Thomsen pats, walks or releases the aids the moment his horse does, for example, two good steps of canter pirouette. Stretching is also a way of marking the moment.

In my life I did some clicker training in which the click meant “Yes!” However, you can use any signal. For me, with Robin Hood (one of the competitive Grand Prix horses I trained, who is owned by Louise and Doug Leatherdale), I cleared my throat as a reward, which is something you can do in the ring. It’s a vocal cue that means “Good!” which is recognized more quickly than patting, walking or releasing the aids.

Finding the moment to reward gets your horse thinking and working for you. That moment might be a stride, a feeling in the hand, an improvement in the rhythm because the horse engaged his tummy and lifted his back or maybe he truly accepted the shoulder-in balance for a moment. However you reward your horse, he will know you appreciate his effort.

Piaffe: My theory regarding the teaching of piaffe has come largely from Isabell Werth and her trainer of the time, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer. Piaffe starts in your mind at the very beginning of your horse’s training when teaching the trot–walk transitions. In this downward transition, the horse steps from behind, he steps to the rein and his steps become shorter without losing the rhythm, throughness or activity (see first below). He never falls in a heap into the walk. 

Every horse has a limitless number of trots: There’s the working balance, there’s collection and then greater degrees of collection. The horse can’t sustain correct diagonal pairs after a certain level of collection because of lack of energy, lack of strength, lack of bridge through the back or lack of understanding. But over years, he is gradually able to increase the degree of trot collection in that downward transition toward walk, and piaffe just evolves naturally into a sophisticated trot on the spot—with transitions between piaffe and passage built in.

The training of piaffe is merely a continuum of trot education. You come back, go forward, come back, go forward in rhythm. The horse doesn’t know he’s doing piaffe and he doesn’t think it’s difficult. It’s the seamless, nonconfrontational evolution of a transition from a trot that moves toward walk in more and more engagement, shorter steps, always diagonal pairs. When done well, the horse is always able to go in and come out. Developing piaffe and passage seamlessly over years helps the physicality of them as well as the mentality of it. There’s never a situation in which the horse, all of a sudden, has to load the hind legs incredibly or he becomes mentally worried. 

Piaffe is about diagonal pairs. It is sometimes trained from the walk as it is required in the Grand Prix Special, but that means the training of transitions between piaffe and passage is not built in. I feel the idea of the transitions needs to be taught from the beginning, therefore eliminating their difficulty and the negative emotions sometimes associated with them. When one buys a Grand Prix prospect because he’ll do piaffe out of walk, one should realize that the horse may be a long way from being able to do it with transitions in the ring. 

When the horse is trained through trot–walk transitions, there’s no day when you finally say, “We’re going to do piaffe and passage today.” The horse’s education is physically and mentally seamless and the horse builds confidence along with competence.

FEI Definition of Piaffe
The piaffe is a highly collected, cadenced, elevated diagonal movement, giving the impression of being on the spot. The horse’s back is supple and elastic. The quarters are slightly lowered, the haunches with active hocks are well engaged, giving great freedom, lightness and mobility to the shoulders and forehand. Each diagonal pair of feet is raised and returned to the ground alternately with an even cadence.

The training of piaffe is the seamless non-confrontational evolution of the horse’s education in trot. (Photo by Beth Baumert.)

The Concentrated Rider

Concentration isn’t just about shoulder-in—it’s about everything. Instead of feeling unfocused, you need to stay in the zone. When you lose concentration, you can’t be consistent. He won’t understand if it’s sometimes important to do a quality shoulder-in and sometimes not. You’re wasting his time if you’re not totally concentrating. Concentrate on finding positive problem-solving solutions to frustration and other negative emotions. 

Frustrated? Maybe he doesn’t understand. Be enterprising to find a way to approach your exercise so you get a different result. Re-explain a letter to him. Or is the problem pain? Lack of strength? Is it the bulldozer working next door? Maybe horses get headaches like we do—we certainly know that horses are often better one day than another. It’s best to remember that tomorrow’s another day.

Feeling negative? Your horse can’t see his way through negativity. He must experience a joyous influence when he is with you.

Olympian Kyra Kyrklund says that those who truly excel simply don’t give up. I would add that they consciously utilize tools that will help the horse understand and enjoy the work. They are aware of and attentive to the horse’s physical and mental needs. They are theoretically knowledgable, experienced and able to concentrate on the positive job at hand. They’re kind and fair. The fortunate horses in that position feel proud to work for the rider and are physically able to do the best job possible.  

Click here to read more articles from Sue Blinks.

(Photo by Beth Baumert.)

Sue Blinks started her dressage education while growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, with trainer Marianne Ludwig. She then spent two years working with Walter Christensen in Germany. She was a member of the U.S. dressage team in the 1998 Rome World Equestrian Games (WEG). She was also a member of the bronze-medal U.S. team at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and the silver-medal team at the 2002 Jerez WEG, riding Flim Flam, owned by Fritz Kundrun. During that time, Blinks trained with Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer and Isabell Werth. She also rode with U.S. coach Klaus Balkenhol leading up to the Games in Jerez. Blinks lives in Wellington, Florida, and Columbia, Connecticut.






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