"Needs more uphill balance and more freedom in the shoulder."
Sound familiar? Those are comments we often see on our dressage tests. I was disappointed when a professional recently told a student of mine that the only way to get these elusive qualities is to buy them.
Sure, armed with a budget equivalent to the gross national product of a small country you could go out and buy Totilas’s little brother. Even then, there are problems. A horse naturally carries approximately two-thirds of his body weight on his forehand. Add a person and he will fall on his forehand. So, buying something that already has the conformation and natural ability is a step in the right direction. But let’s face it: Many of us have flatter moving, downhill-built horses. But there is hope for us.
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One of the goals of dressage is to show the horse the way to alter his already downhill carriage in order to carry the additional weight a rider puts on him in a balance that helps him regain the freedom we see as he moves around a field. At the very least in dressage, we want to restore the horse’s natural balance of carrying two-thirds of his weight on his forehand, even while carrying a rider. At most we strive to shift weight even more onto the hind legs, lightening the forehand more and allowing us to perform the higher-level movements. The problem is we tend to do exactly the opposite.
As dressage riders we focus on getting the hind end active and getting the horse “round.” But even if we are trying our very best to ride from back to front, what tends to happen is that we get the hindquarters active, work on roundness by lowering the head and neck, and the result is a horse that is trotting up and down behind, if the rider is strong enough to create energy back there, and has a shorter stride than he could have.
What’s missing here? The shoulders! If you push from behind and hold in front, given that the hind end naturally pushes the horse forward on the forehand, the harder you push, the more down on the front end he goes. The blockage happens at the shoulders. Without the shoulders moving up and out of the way, allowing the hind end to step forward and under, the stride shortens and the horse goes around like a wheelbarrow.
Think of a wave. If you watch a wave form, there is energy pushing from behind, causing the water to come up and around. That is how I think of a horse when he is “coming over the back”—the push from behind up over his back and down his neck. My seat feels the upward push of his hind legs, and my hands feel the connection as the energy comes through, and my horse drops down onto the bit. If I were to lower the horse’s head and neck at that time, my effort to make him “round” would cause the energy to stop at my seat and drop down into the shoulders, actually pushing my horse onto his forehand; much as that wave crashes down and stops when it hits a sea wall. If you prefer a more kinesthetic example, head down your driveway in a nice energetic walk; keep your shoulders up, look forward, swing your arms and allow your hips to take nice long, free strides. Now walk with your back arched (stick out your butt) drop your head and round your shoulders. What happens? Your strides shorten and your arms stop swinging. Granted, you’re vertical and your horse is horizontal but the same mechanics apply. So how do we change a horse’s balance to allow him more freedom in the shoulder? We can’t just pull his head and neck up—though allowing a slightly higher neck carriage than you are perhaps used to may be a good start.
To begin moving those earthbound shoulders, trot down the long side and take a few steps of leg yield in off the track and a few steps back to the track. Just a few steps and take your time. You are making those shoulders move. Be sure you are using your inside leg at the girth (remember, the inside leg is the leg from which you are yielding) into a steady and receiving outside rein. Think of moving the shoulders up into the outside rein. Not only are you suppling the shoulders laterally, but you are showing the horse how to reach out in front and step under behind. Challenge him a bit more by taking a couple of steps of leg yield in off the track, and ride forward out of the leg yield taking advantage of the reaching to ask him to step further out in front of himself. Just a few strides as you are changing your horse’s way of going and you don’t want him to lose his balance and negate the benefit of the exercise.
Next is the leg yield on the circle or a large turn around the forehand. To start, ride a circle at the walk. Once again, your inside leg is at the girth. Have a steady outside rein, and push his shoulder into your outside rein with your inside leg. Think up and out. While your horse will end up on two tracks with his haunches traveling on a larger circle than the one his front legs are traveling on, you are not trying to push your horse’s haunches to the outside. His inside hind leg steps in and under and helps lift his shoulder up into the outside rein. The outside rein balances and straightens his shoulder so that his haunches can move forward, up and under. Start by using a larger circle. Then, as your horse becomes more responsive and you can half halt a bit more on the outside rein, your circle will become smaller and smaller until you are actually turning your horse around his forehand. Your horse should soften at the poll. His neck may go up a bit but that is just him looking for his natural carriage as he learns to move up in his shoulders, so that his poll is the highest point. You can also do this at the trot and, once comfortable with the exercise, at the canter. Once your horse develops the correct response to these aids, your use of your inside leg into the outside rein will result in the upward movement of his shoulders without literally going sideways.
Make sure your horse is sharp to the aids; this should not be a labored effort. If your horse tolerates it, you can tap him on the inside shoulder with your whip to remind him. As always, transitions are a valuable tool in our pursuit of lightness. But only if done correctly: If your horse tends to dive down, correct that with your inside leg or that tap on the shoulder and ride him up into your transitions. As his hindquarters strengthen and he becomes comfortable reaching out in front of himself, his balance will change. He’ll become soft in the poll. You will notice the poll as the highest point and his stride will lengthen.
Candy Allen is a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level. Growing up in Europe, she had the opportunity to work with Dutch FEI “O” judge Jaap Pot and British 3-day gold medalist Mary Gordon-Watson. Today she trains with FEI “O” judge Linda Zang.