A dear friend of mine told me a very interesting story of her time in the UK when she was studying for for BHS exams. Their instructor made them line up, dismount, stand in front of their horses then describe the horses from age to conformation, including foot shape and type of shoes, muscle development, any skeletal and muscular asymmetries, the biomechanics of the horse, tack being used, and bearing that in mind, how they would work the horse in light of all of this. His premise is, if you don’t know your horse, how can you have a beneficial and productive training session where you are schooling the horse instead of exercising it?
So often as riders we lose sight of the horse as an individual and just work them. As a rider it’s your job to to assess your horse and train him accordingly, this means as a rider you need to be aware of the muscular structure and biomechanics of your horse, this will enable you, during your ride to optimise your training.
There are two quotes I adhere to diligently in my riding;
‘George Morris’ – “ Every second you’re either schooling or un-schooling your horse there is no in between”
Thomas Ritters’ – “Dressage movements should be regarded as diagnostic and therapeutic tools not as an ends in themselves”
Bearing these in mind I will help you accomplish your goals by making you aware in your riding and make you ask questions, like “Why does he find this difficult?”
The next step is understanding you and your horses biomechanics and conformation.
In understanding his and your conformation you will know from the outset where there will be strengths and weaknesses, Also by assessing the “conformation” regularly , you can see how you’re progressing, this will help develop your “eye”, as by knowing what an “Advanced” horse should look like, you will know where you need to improve, which will lead you to looking for exercises that will improve your horse, also it will lead you to “experts” whose advice and opinion you should adhere, (as an example; with my physio and I, she advises me what work I should stay away from before a show, or what muscles need to develop in order for the horse to become proficient in certain moments that are challenging for them conformationally)
One of the best articles I’ve read on assessing you horse and basic biomechanics is “What the Topline says about Horse and Rider” By Manolo Mendez
Understanding the biomechanics, will help develop your “feel” (feel being based on timing and the ability to make early adjustments and your awareness of your horse) So in understanding biomechanics you first need to understand how a horse moves, then understand how it uses it’s body in the movements you wish perform, by knowing this, you will know the correct timing to give your aids, then in knowing his faults you will know which movements will challenge him, and why, and also what movements will build the muscle he needs. The paces are listed below. The best book to read in terms of understanding the movements is the FEI Dressage Handbook, this gives a clear idea of what is expected in each movement.
The walk is a marching pace in a regular and well-marked four time beat with equal intervals between each beat. (left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore)This regularity combined with full relaxation must be maintained throughout all walk movements.
The trot is a two-beat pace of alternate diagonal legs (left fore and right hind leg and vice versa) separated by a moment of suspension.
The canter is a three-beat pace where, in canter to the right, for example, the footfall is as follows: (left hind, left diagonal( simultaneously left fore and right hind), right fore, followed by a moment of suspension with all four feet in the air before the next stride begins.
Once you understand the gaits and biomechanics the next step is to understand the Principals of Dressage and the Scales of Training
The Principals of Dressage
- The object of dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the rider.
These qualities are revealed by:
* The freedom and regularity of the paces.
*The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements.
*The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, originating from a lively impulsion.
*The acceptance of the bit, with submissiveness/throughness (Durchlässigkeit) without any tension or resistance.
- The horse thus gives the impression of doing, of its own accord, what is required. Confident and attentive, submitting generously to the control of the athlete, remaining absolutely straight in any movement on a straight line and bending accordingly when moving on curved lines.
- The walk is regular, free and unconstrained. The trot is free, supple, regular and active. The canter is united, light and balanced. The hindquarters are never inactive or sluggish. The horse responds to the slightest indication of the athlete and thereby gives life and spirit to all the rest of its body.
- By virtue of a lively impulsion and the suppleness of the joints, free from the paralysing effects of resistance, the horse obeys willingly and without hesitation and responds to the various aids calmly and with precision, displaying a natural and harmonious balance both physically and mentally.
- In all the work, even at the halt, the horse must be “on the bit”. A horse is said to be “on the bit” when the neck is more or less raised and arched according to the stage of training and the extension or collection of the pace, accepting the bridle with a light and consistent soft submissive contact. The head should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the vertical, with a supple poll as the highest point of the neck, and no resistance should be offered to the athlete.
- Cadence is shown in trot and canter and is the result of the proper harmony that a horse shows when it moves with well-marked regularity, impulsion and balance. Cadence must be maintained in all the different trot or canter exercises and in all the variations of these paces.
- The regularity of the paces is fundamental to dressage.
The Scales of Training
These are the six building blocks of the German Training Scale. They are interdependant and interwoven. Each stage should be achieved before moving on to the next. They are not, however, a checklist of success. The lower rungs should always be revisited to check that progress is genuine and that the horse is fulfilling all the preceding requirements.
Relaxation, Rhythm and Contact are part of the “familiarisation phase” (First Phase) when a horse is encouraged to rediscover his natural balance when carrying a rider. He is encouraged to relax, to find his natural rhythm and to seek an elastic connection to the rider via the rein
The Second Phase is the development of the thrust from the hindquarters and takes in impulsion and straightness.
The Third Phase develops the carrying power of the hind legs; Collection.
Because Balance and Flexion are inextricably linked in dressage some believe these should be included in the Training Scale. Balance is connected to Rhythm and Straightness and without straightness there is no Relaxation, the horse cannot come into self carriage through accepting the bit evenly -on a Contact- neither can there be any true Impulsion unless the horse moves in a relaxed, straight manner.
Flexion is entwined with Straightness as you can’t straighten a horse if you can’t bend him. If, during your ride you think to work on the elements of rhythm, balance and straightness, you should find yourself achieving relaxation, impulsion and collection as a matter of course.
Looking in more detail at the elements; the following is taken from “The Principles of Riding”, which is part of the “Official Instruction Handbook of the German National Equestrian Federation”.
Looseness is a prerequisite for all further training and, along with rhythm, is an essential aim of the preliminary training phase. Even if the rhythm is maintained, the movement cannot be considered correct unless the horse is working through its back, and the muscles are free from tension. Only if the horse is physically and mentally free from tension or constraint can it work with looseness and can it use itself to the full. The horse’s joints should bend and straighten equally on each side of its body and with each step or stride, and the horse should convey the impression that it is putting its whole mind and body into it’s work. Indications of looseness are a swinging back, snorting, and a closed but not immobile mouth. Looseness has been achieved when the horse will stretch its head and neck forwards and downwards in all three gaits.
The term “rhythm” refers to the regularity of the steps or strides in each gait: They should cover equal distances and also be of equal duration. The rhythm should be maintained through transitions and turns as well as on straight lines. No exercise or movement can be good if the rhythm falters; and the training is incorrect if it results in loss of rhythm.
Contact is the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. The horse should go forward rhythmically from the rider’s driving aids and “seek” a contact with the rider’s hand, thus “going into” the contact. A correct, steady contact allows the horse to find its balance under the rider and find a rhythm in each of the gaits. The poll should always be the highest point of the neck, except when the horse is being ridden forwards and downwards. The contact should never be achieved through a backward action of the hands; it should result from the correctly delivered forward thrust of the hind legs. The horse should go forward confidently into the contact in response to the rider’s driving aids.
A horse is said to have impulsion when the energy created by the hind legs is being transmitted into the gait and into every aspect of the forward movement. A horse can be said to be working with impulsion when it pushes off energetically from the ground and swings its feet well forward. Impulsion is created by training. The rider makes use of the horse’s natural paces, but “adds” to them looseness, forward thrust (originating in the hindquarters) and suppleness
A horse is said to be straight when its forehand is in line with its hindquarters, that is, when its longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track it is following. Straightness is necessary in order for the weight to be evenly distributed over the two halves of the body. It is developed through systematically training and suppling both sides of the body equally. Most horses are crooked. Like right and left-handed people, this crookedness has its origins in the brain and is something the horse is born with. If the horse is straight, the hind legs will push exactly in the direction of the centre of gravity. The restraining aids will then also pass through the horse correctly, via the moth, poll, neck and back to the hindquarters, and they will act on both hind legs equally.
The aim of all gymnastic training is to create a horse which is useful and ready and willing to perform. For the horse to meet these conditions, its weight, plus that of its rider, must be distributed as evenly as possible over all four legs. This means reducing the amount of weight on the forelegs, which naturally carry more of the load than the hind legs, and increasing by the same amount the weight on the hind legs, which were originally intended mainly to create the forward movement. By training and developing the relevant muscles, it is possible to increase the carrying capacity of the hindquarters. On the other hand, the forelegs, which support rather than push, can only be strengthened to a very limited degree through training. It is therefore more sensible, and indeed necessary, to transfer some of the weight to the hindquarters. The increased flexion of the hind legs results in the neck being raised. The horse is then in a position, if the carrying capacity of the hindquarters is sufficiently developed, to move in balance and self-carriage in all paces
So once you have all the theoretical information in place it’s time to implement it. For me ,ideally, each horse and rider should have a work routine, that will not only develop them physically but mentally as well.
For the rider this involves keeping up your end of the deal, being not only supple but fit, in terms of muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance. For the mental aspect this involves finding a “mental coach” who you can approach for help with certain challenges, it also requires you to be prepared and focused for each ride as well as competition.
Each horse will require a different routine to optimise their training, in so much as possible this should include strength, gymnastic, suppleness and fitness training. This can include, track work, schooling sessions, lunging/long lining, Cavalletti and Jumping Training, as well as hacking. I personally try not to school my horses more than 3 days a week, and not more than two days in succession.
Each week I endeavour to plan the horses training along the above lines,I find planning lends to more productive training, though this planning needs to have some level of flexibility,as there are often unforeseen circumstances.
Each schooling session should also have some planning so as to be productive, again this can’t be set in stone, as you never know what you’ll encounter on any given day.
For example; I on each of my horses, have a “warm up” plan for each of them, I like to start most of them off in the walk, doing leg yields, then working in deep in either the trot or the canter, with some there is more of an influence on rhythm, while on others it’s mostly about suppleness. The best thing to do is be aware of each horses “faults” and work with those in mind, as well as the training scale, with an emphasis on rhythm, suppleness and contact, for me it’s also important to ensure the horse is in front of the leg. One should always, in a warm up – start as you mean to go on. Once the warm up is concluded I like to progress straight into training, for each session, I have an idea of what I would like to achieve, and the exercises I’m going to use to achieve my goal. Goals can range from improving the trot, to transitions, to shoulder in, each one is not exclusive from the next however you should have a clear goal, I often also include whatever “challenge” the horse faces, such as rein backs, until the issue is resolved, I also in each session train the following; the centre line and halts, walk pirouettes and corners. In terms of the corners these are possibly the most useful and neglected aspects of training, when a horse learns to wait and engage in each corner, it will give you invaluable time during a test to “reset and refocus”.
Once you have a routine in place it will help identify which days your horse will be “optimal” on, this will allow you to then plan which day in the training will be the best “competition” day, therefore allowing you to plan your competition routine.