Today I want to discuss the subject of simplification—the process of making something easier to do or understand—as it relates to dressage training.
When I need to troubleshoot a problem, I like to break the problem down into its base components. We can use the dressage training scale as a guide for troubleshooting. You can bet that the problem lies in one (or more) pieces of the training scale. The training scale consists of rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness and collection. All of these components work in unison to create suppleness, throughness and balance. Use this as your go-to when diagnosing where the key problem is.
For example, when we teach shoulder-in to a young horse, the horse might come above the bit. Why? We see the problem occur in the connection but what creates a steady connection? An active and pushing hind leg.
A common problem that occurs when we teach lateral work for the first time is that the horse slows down, which leads to the horse coming above the bit as he is no longer pushing over the back and into the hand. So, the symptom was in the connection but the cause of the problem was actually in the impulsion. Or the horse could have come above the bit because he was crooked. Perhaps, instead of his nose staying directly in front of his chest, his neck overbent to the inside, causing the horse to stiffen and move off balance. In this case, the straightness was the issue.
When you trouble shoot on your own, take note of the problem. Then simplify!
Rhythm: Is the horse maintaining energy in whichever gait you are in? Is the rhythm pure? (Walk 4 beats, Trot 2 beats, Canter 3 beats)
Relaxation: Is the horse becoming tense?
Connection: Is the horse accepting the bit and flexing softly at the poll?
Impulsion: Is the horse losing the push from the hind leg to the hand? Is he remaining active?
Straightness: Is the horse becoming crooked? Is he falling out with his outside shoulder? Carrying the inside hind leg too far to the inside?
Collection: Is he getting down on his forehand? Is the croup coming up? Is he maintaining activity in the collection?
I would say most—but not all—of the problems that arise are related to impulsion and/or straightness. Start with those and then troubleshoot. Connection issues are almost always a symptom but not a cause. Oftentimes if the neck is braced or curled under, it is because the hind leg is not pushing or carrying in the correct way. Always ride from back to front. Address the hind leg and you will almost always correct the neck.
How many of us have a bad habit of looking down at the neck? I know I do! I had a trainer once who told me that I would be the first to know if my horse’s head fell off. Jeremy Steinberg, a clinician we have regularly at our barn, once said it’s like the horse is playing a Jedi mind trick on us. By getting us to focus on his neck, he says “these are not the hind legs you’re looking for,” meaning we tend to ignore the actual cause of the problem—the hind legs! Looking down can be downright counter-productive. It not only puts the focus on the neck and off of the hind leg, but it actually changes our balance as well. Sometimes I have riders who struggle with sitting the trot and it’s simply because they are looking down. As a rider, your whole body changes positively when you lift your chin, gaze toward the horizon, broaden your chest and roll your shoulders back and down. So, when you see a problem in the connection, check impulsion and alignment first!
This brings me to my next point when troubleshooting: Are you the problem? Well, yes you are, as you are the one responsible for the horse’s balance, activity and connection. But don’t be too hard on yourself! You are also the one capable of correcting the problem and you will learn and grow in the process. Here is a short checklist you can go through to make sure you are giving your horse the best opportunity to work his best:
Are you sitting correctly with the bend? You should be sitting with more weight on the inside seat bone when bending, regardless of what exercise you are doing. Shoulder-in left? Left seat bone heavier. Pirouette right? Right seat bone heavier. Look at the bend to discover which is the “inside.” Remember that "inside" does not necessarily refer to the inside of the arena—it refers to the inside as it is related to the horse's bend.
A rider who is sitting crookedly will create a crooked horse. Sit straight and even and your horse will be able to straighten as well. A rider's shoulders should always align with his or her horse’s shoulders!
Are you giving away your outside rein? When I teach, I see this one a lot! The inside rein tends to get shorter and the horse then over flexes the neck to the inside. This causes unbalance and can also change the tempo and certainly the connection. By simply straightening the horse from the outside rein, you can fix his balance, rhythm and connection! (And straightness, of course). Think of the outside rein as both your turning rein and connecting rein.
Are your legs in the right place? Make sure your legs are always stretched long, rather than shortened up, which will disrupt your seat. If you are sitting correctly with the bend of your horse, your inside leg should be forward compared to the outside leg when viewed from the side. If your inside leg is back it may mean that your weight is off and you are sitting on the outside seat bone.
To improve your seat, balance and the clarity of your aids, I would recommend working without stirrups, if you have a safe horse. Working without stirrups allows for a deepening of the seat, an opening of the hips and can improve your connection with the horse. If you can find a horse to do longe lessons on, I would highly recommend these as you can make your entire focus on your position.
As you troubleshoot your training challenges, always do your best! Your best may not be a Grand Prix rider’s best and that is okay! Make sure you look past the symptoms to find the deeper issues. Keep your aids consistent, aim for clarity and always look for the opportunities to praise your horse—and yourself!
Exercise of the Month: Square Turns in Canter
This month’s exercise is a great one for balancing the canter and teaching the horse about the outside rein. It is particularly useful on horses with a big canter that is difficult to control or young horses with a large stride and minimal balance. You can either ride this exercise as a true square or rectangle depending on the horse.
Step 1. Pick your line. It is important that you decide your line prior to beginning the exercise. You can either ride a 20-by-20 meter square line and use your corners as support or, if you would like to try something a little more difficult, you can choose an 18-by-18 meter square shape where you hold yourself a little more accountable to keep your horse from using the rail for support. For the more advanced horse, you can make the square as small as 10-by-10 meters and make the corners quarter pirouettes.
Step 2. Pick up the canter from the walk or the trot and use a circle or two to get the horse in a regular tempo.
Step 3. Begin to ride the square. As you approach the 90-degree turn, half halt and close your outside fist. The main priority with the square is to rebalance the horse. In the beginning, the turn is what rebalances the horse. Eventually we want our goal to be that the horse rebalances from the half halt so give him the cues for that prior to the turn to begin to give the horse the feel.
Step 4. Ride the turn. Sit deep and use your outside rein to guide the shoulders around the turn. You should feel the horse sit a little more on his hind legs and elevate his forehand. It may only last a stride or two. Soften the inside rein as you come around the turn to encourage the beginning stages of self-carriage.
Step 5. Prepare for the next turn. It’s always best to ride shoulder-fore between the turns to keep the canter straight and balanced. If you feel like the next turn is coming up too fast, it’s OK—go straight for a few strides more and take the time to set your horse up for success! If your horse falls in after the turn, you can add inside leg and yield out to the wall.
The goal here is to improve the horse’s balance and responsiveness to the aids, particularly the outside rein. This exercise has been vital in helping my horses develop balance and strength in the canter. Best of luck!
Keep your chin up, align your horse and ride forward! Until next time,
Jenna Arnold is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist and bronze, silver and gold Freestyle Bar recipient. She is a writer and founder of Mindful Riding, a website and program dedicated to helping riders develop a more meaningful relationship with their horse and with themselves by balancing mind, body and spirit. She is the mother of two young daughters and runs Concordia Dressage with her husband, Martin Arnold, near Austin, Texas.