When I sit on my horse, elasticity and suppleness are the key qualities that make all things possible. Suppleness comes from good riding and elasticity is the development of even more flexibility in the horse’s body that allows him to show his quality. When the horse is stiff and strong, it’s not easy for the rider or the horse and it’s not nice-looking either! But when the horse is flexible and elastic, he can do his job well.
USDF Definition of Elasticity: The ability or tendency to stretch and contract the musculature smoothly, giving the impression of stretchiness or springiness.
First Things First
Rhythm and a good connection. The seat and the hands of the rider must be independent of each other. That is, a rider must be able to sit the rhythm of the horse without moving her legs or hands. The movement of the whole horse goes directly into the hands of the rider, so when the hands are not independent, the rein aids disturb the mouth and interrupt the rhythm, making fine-tuning impossible. In order to achieve a good contact, it is necessary to ride the horse from behind to the front with a quiet hand.
Flexion and Bend for Positive Connection
Whenever I enter an arena as a teacher, I always say, “Come on! Inside leg to outside rein!” and everyone laughs because it’s always the same story from me. But this is really the key. In whatever you’re doing, you must have the feeling that the movement goes through the horse from behind in a fluent way, not in a stiff, running-against-the-bit way. No matter what you’re doing, whether in collection or stretching or something in between, you must find a way to put the horse in flexion, which determines the inside and the outside of the horse. Then you can ride from the inside leg to the outside rein and bend your horse. Without this ability to flex, bend and supple, the horse is inclined to run straight against the bit, and he will be stiff. Of course, you need a straight horse, but he must be straight in a supple, flexible, bendable way, going fluently through a swinging back to the bit, and he has to stay in front of you.
When you have this positive connection from behind to the rein with flexion and bend, you’re not stopping the horse with your hands. With the connection between the inside leg and the outside rein, you can keep your horse on your seat and whatever he does in front, he has also already done behind. Then you can improve the collection and the extension. Remember: In whatever frame you want, whether a lower one or one that is more “up” in collection, pay attention that you have the positive connection to the mouth from back to front because then your horse will improve his muscles in the right way and his attitude also. Of course, you can’t always have the ideal, but make this your goal.
Transitions Improve the Gaits
When the rider has an independent seat and hands and the horse has flexion and bend, easy transitions develop elasticity and improve the gaits. Little things can bring about very big changes: trot, canter, trot, canter, trot, canter. Soon you will see how these transitions improve the trot, the canter and the connection.
It is sometimes surprising that these transitions help everything. For example, to do flying changes, the canter must have jump. The rider can bring the quality of the canter from a 6 to a 7 or from a 7 to an 8 with these transitions. And the trot will improve, too. This is improving the basics—the basic quality and the movement—by improving suppleness and elasticity.
Remember in these transitions to keep the independent seat and hands, keep a good rhythm and a connection with flexion and bend. Then the energy comes from behind and goes forward to a positive rein contact. When you have this, your horse can be elastic and do all the exercises—beginning with shoulder-in, which is the most basic and important of all the collected exercises.
Shoulder-in and Half Pass
Shoulder-in is the mother of all lateral movements. For a young horse, the most important things as you know by now, are to have a clear, fluent rhythm and the correct flexion and bending. It’s impossible for a young horse to have this perfectly all the time, but that’s the goal. From this basis, you can ride a good shoulder-in with the perfect connection between the inside leg and outside rein. With control of the flexion, the inside leg brings the horse to this outside rein and it keeps the connection from behind to the mouth. The honesty of this connection keeps the horse in front of you and keeps the shoulder in front of you.
With the shoulder-in, you develop this free shoulder, which is necessary for a good half pass. If you start with a good shoulder-in, you can do a half pass before long. It’s impossible to always have the connection perfect but when it is, this is how it feels:
When It’s Perfect
Your horse should have the confidence to look for the positive contact without coming against the rein or the opposite—becoming too light, giving you an empty, untouchable feeling in front. It’s ideal when you feel the horse is carrying himself. Then you can keep all the power and the possibilities of the quality of the horse under your seat, and your horse offers a constant positive contact. He’s balanced in the movement, so you can control the collection and the extension—and you can especially control the transitions: piaffe, passage, forward, back, turning right or left, whatever you want. The horse is really under your seat.
When he is elastic and on your seat with this constant positive contact, you feel like he’s on a glider or on skis that are perfectly aligned with each other. It’s easy, and in the long term it makes your horse healthy, both mentally and physically.
Keep your horse honest. Sometimes I see new trainers who are trying to improve their horses but are making a common mistake. For example, they are doing four-tempis. After the second one, the horse starts to become crooked, he loses the canter or he’s running away or whatever, and the rider keeps going. Riders must learn to make a correction. Before doing the next change, you have to make your horse straight and balanced and help him with whatever is needed. Change the line, walk and go again. The rider has to react directly. Correct the mistake and then keep going. It’s not a punishment; it’s simply a necessary correction. You’ll see, after a while, that your horse will improve more than if you continue doing four-tempis in the wrong way. This is a question of experience and having the right trainer on the ground who can say, “Come on, circle and start again.”
Change keeps your horse happy and interested. Keeping your horse awake and interested will make him flexible and elastic, so change it up. In your trot–canter–trot–canter transitions, choose specific lines, but different lines. Make big figures and then smaller ones. Change it up longitudinally, too. Ride him in a competition frame, but stretch him sometimes and ride in-between frames. It is necessary to always be able to influence the neck position.
Don’t keep moving in one rhythm and tempo for long. I think it’s quite boring for the horses if they are always on the track or always on a 20-meter circle, and I hate watching horses do the same routine again and again: shoulder-in, circle, half pass, straight. This is boring for both horse and rider.
When you wake up in the morning and you feel stiff, you stretch your body gymnastically to make yourself more flexible and then you feel better. It’s the same with the horse. Move him in different ways.
Finally, horse and rider should work in the most positive way possible. Of course, there are situations when you have to take control or say “Hey, listen!” but that only lasts for a moment. The most important thing is to be sure your horse is really enjoying what he’s doing. Horses like to move, and when they are elastic, it is easy for them to be playful and have fun. It’s easy and fun for the rider, too!
Isabell Werth was born in Germany and grew up riding showjumpers and event horses on her parents’ farm. When she was 17 she began riding with Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer—a neighbor and renowned dressage expert. She rode with him for 14 years before establishing her own training facility in Rheinberg. Today, with the help of friend and sponsor Madeleine Winter-Schulze, Werth is the world’s most successful dressage rider with 10 Olympic medals, eight World Championship titles and numerous medals at European and German Championships. Her most recent win was at this year’s World Cup Finals in Paris, France, on the Oldenburg mare, Weihegold OLD.