Here are some of my training tips to help you in the day-to-day work with your horse. The ones asterisked have been published in the “Herald” newspaper.
Here are the headings:
AIDS are basically the body language we use in order to communicate with our horse and let him know what is required of him – they are the universal language of horsemanship and must be executed correctly in order to bring about the correct transitional response.
Although aids do convey an instruction to start, stop, turn or go faster resulting in a transition of sorts, the subject of aids and their outcome – cause and effect – is far more complex than that and can represent a lifetime of learning for both horse and rider. As well as creating forward movement, leg aids influence direction, length bend and activate the hindquarters. The seat is also instrumental as a directional aid as well as a restraining or allowing one, while the hands act as an extension of the seat and contain the energy that has been created by the seat and legs.
Not only are transitions a change of pace from one gait to another, they are also any change of stride within a pace. Walk to trot, trot to canter, canter to walk, walk to halt, are all examples of a transition from one pace to another but subtle application of restraining aids during a medium trot, for example, will result in a shorter, more elevated collected trot, or an even more elevated piaffe, while allowing aids will produce a longer, more ground-covering extension. A transition is also made when the horse moves from a straight line into a lateral movement and vice versa.
Obedience, balance, suppleness, collection and extension, lightness, impulsion and elevation are all achieved through correct aiding. As the horse becomes more and more athletic he becomes more balanced, transitions become more fluid and the corresponding aids become lighter and more and more fine tuned as training progresses, until ultimately, a mere thought by the rider can result in the horse executing the transition in question.
Applying the aids correctly means applying them in the right place and at the right time. A horse that is constantly ‘nagged’ with leg aids will stop listening and fail to respond when a reaction is needed. If, on the other hand, the rider keeps legs and hands quiet until the transition is required, asking for the change in a firm and clear manner, the horse is most likely going to respond positively, if he is physically and mentally fit enough to do so.
There might be a number of reasons why he does not. For example, a horse at the very early stages of his schooling, a horse that has been out of work for a period of time, or a horse that has become desensitised through incorrect schooling. If he doesn’t respond you will need to go back a step or two. From walk, assuming that your legs, hands and seat are soft, still and quiet, ask for the transition with a clear but tactful leg and seat aid. Reinforce your aid with a little tap of the whip just behind your leg and reward any sort of ‘try’ by a small scratch on the neck. Repeat the exercise several times. His reaction should become more rapid so the whip can be quickly discarded. The hands must allow for this transition, otherwise the message to the horse is ‘go but stop’.
Similar tact should be applied when asking for a downward transition. In a well-schooled, more advanced horse a mere toning of the upper body should be enough to get the desired response. However, If he is in the early stages of his education, or for reasons already mentioned, he ‘downhill’ or very forward going, avoid him leaning on you – break the contact, release the pressure on the reins, sit tall with a toned but not tense upper body, push the knees against the saddle and ask with a squeeze on the reins – and again, reward the smallest try.
The importance of riding transitions correctly cannot be stressed enough. Ultimately, when executing a downward transition, the rider should feel that the horse is sitting on his hindquarters while an upward transition should prompt a feeling similar to a plane taking off on a runway, where the horse uses the power in his quarters to push his shoulders upward and forward.
A responsive horse that has had the benefit of correct schooling in this way is going to be a great pleasure to ride.
BENDING and suppleness are key to the athleticism of the horse and are achieved through relaxation, rhythm and straightness. A horse that does not bend is less balanced, less manoeuvrable and less pleasurable to ride than a horse that bends softly around the rider’s leg.
In order to bend, a horse must stretch the muscles on one side of his body and simultaneously contract the muscles on the other side in order to maintain straightness through the bend. He must step underneath himself with his inside hind leg. If he doesn’t, he might lean into the bend like a motorbike or he may swing his quarters out, or fall in with his shoulders.
The rider must also position his or her body correctly to enable the horse to bend. From the waist, the upper body turns to the inside and the arms held close to the rib cage. Place slightly more weight on the inside seat bone and inside heel, pushing down with the inside knee. The outside leg should be moved slightly back, from the hip, to prevent the quarters swinging out and help them to follow the same track as the shoulders. By placing the upper body correctly, the hands are automatically placed in the correct position – outside hand against the neck and inside hand opened in the direction of movement.
Circles, loops, serpentines and spirals all help in improving bend. To ride an accurate circle, choose the start point and create just the right amount of bend to match the size of circle – the smaller the circle, the greater the bend in the horse, and finish the circle at the same point that it was started.
Loops are ridden along the long side of the arena, by leaving the track shortly after the corner and steering the horse smoothly away from the track with soft inside bend, straightening at the mid point of the long side and creating the new bend to take him smoothly back to the track, before creating the inside bend again for the corner. The depth of loop can be varied, i.e. going to the quarter line or centre line or making it even shallower.
Serpentines are a progression from loops. Starting from the mid point of the short side of the school with clear inside bend into the first loop, straighten the horse across the centre line (perpendicular to the long side) then pick up a new bend for the next loop.
The number of loops ridden can be varied according to how many the horse can cope with, and the size of the school. Riding loops is good way to prepare for steering through a twisty show jumping or cross-country track.
When spiralling, begin by riding a circle of approx 20m then gradually increase the bend, hence making the circle smaller. Maintain the smaller circle briefly, then apply a little more inside leg and seat-bone and leg-yield the horse back out to the bigger circle. Maintain the outside rein contact to prevent the outside shoulder from falling out.
All these exercises ridden accurately with correct rider’s position help the horse to become more supple, and more balanced, building up his athleticism for work in any discipline.
CLASSICAL riding is centuries old, writes Pam Millar. Its principles, based on balance and harmony, still hold good today in the training of horses and riders at all levels. Most people now ride for pleasure, though in past centuries, the relationship between horse and rider could make the difference between life and death on the battlefield; horses, of necessity had to be well schooled, agile and balanced in order to perform the manoeuvres necessary in war.
Classical horsemanship can be traced back to ancient Greece – the earliest known work on horse management and riding was written by Xenophon, an Athenian soldier, writer and historian. ‘The Art of Horsemanship’ was produced around 350 years BC and is still available today. Of the correct riding seat, Xenophon said: “I do not approve of a seat which is as though the man was on a chair, but rather as though he were standing upright with his legs apart.” Having consideration for the welfare of his mount, he wrote: “If you desire to handle a good war horse so as to make his action the more magnificent and striking, you must refrain from pulling at his mouth as well as from spurring and whipping him.”
Many of the most extravagant high school movements we know today, the ‘airs’ were developed when a man’s life could depend on the lightness, obedience and athleticism of his horse in battle. Levade, Mezair and Courbette, for example, are moves where the horse must be balanced on his hindlegs, the Levade remaining static while the Courbette and Mezair both include forward motion. The Capriole, the most awesome air, is where the horse leaps off the ground with all four feet and kicks out violently with his hind legs – intimidating for foot soldiers close by!
Throughout the Renaissance period, as now, there were different schools of thought, some of which were considered over-forceful. The masters of the time are predominantly considered to be the Duke of Newcastle and the Frenchman, de la Geuriniere who wrote another classic that has stood the test of time. The book ‘Ecole de Cavalrie’ was clearly and simply set out with a progressive schooling system designed to culminate in a light, obedient, calm horse that would give his rider a pleasurable ride. De la Gueriniere is said to have invented the ‘alpha and omega of all exercises’ – the shoulder-in, universally used to promote suppleness, as well as the counter-canter and flying change.
The Spanish Riding School of Vienna adopted the teachings of de la Gueriniere – and to this day, his book forms the basis of the school’s training system.
There are three recognised phases in the development of classical riding: In the first phase, the horse is ridden in a natural carriage, on a light, long contact, moving freely forward on straight lines and builds up a young horse’s strength. Phase two, the ‘Campaign School’ builds on phase one, developing self-carriage, paces, impulsion, suppleness and flexibility – improving his general way of going – something that most riders aspire to.
Phase three, the High School, increases collection, regularity and suppleness, strengthening the joints so that bend is increased, to enable the horse to perform the more extravagant airs performed by such establishments as Spanish Riding School of Vienna. Traditionally only the strongest, most athletic stallions are chosen to perform these movements which take at least eight or nine years of training to perfect.
A modern day exponent of classical riding was the late Portuguese Maestro, Nuno Oliveira who died in 1989. His book, “Reflections on Equestrian Art”, published in 1964, covers gymnastic training from the young horse right through to High School using the same principles. Oliviera’s love for his horses is well documented, as are his many sayings. He said: “The choice of horse must first be a love affair. When the rider feels and loves his horse, working to help his horse develop both physically and mentally, it is now that a rapport will develop that the horse will never forget”.
Classical riding purists typically favour the shorter coupled Iberian breeds, the ancient Andalusian, the Lippizan, adopted by the Spanish Riding School and the Lusitano, traditionally trained for the bullring.There are many followers of classical riding, both in its purest form and those that employ its principles in training their horses, or teaching others. It is principally about harmony between the horse and rider, achieved through progressive gymnastic training by first developing the horse’s strength, then his impulsion and suppleness to achieve lightness, balance and harmony, learning more advanced movements, and for the most ambitious, the airs above the ground.
IF you haven’t tried a dressage competition before, why not give it a go? Having a goal to work towards is a good incentive, and particularly so at the end of the winter. It is a way of measuring your horse’s progress – getting feedback about the quality of work against a set standard. It is good experience for you and your horse, meeting other riders working at your own level and being inspired by horses and riders at higher levels.
Check out the schedules for forthcoming competitions – they can often be found on riding club web sites. Study the tests and determine which movements your horse could perform comfortably – don’t put too much pressure on yourselves, particularly on your first outing. Most people benefit from riding two tests on the day.
Many livery yards are also competition venues – if possible, enter your first competition at your home yard, but if you are travelling away from home, pick a venue that is nearby.
Practise riding the tests at home – not always the full tests – mix the movements up so your horse doesn’t start to anticipate.If your horse is not used to travelling regularly then practice loading him and going on one or two short test runs.
You will be able to get your test times a couple of days in advance of the competition, usually from the venue or club website, or by phoning the organiser on the date and between the times specified in the schedule.
If you are competing away from home, you will need to build in time for loading, travelling and acquainting yourself with the venue – where the arenas are, and most important, where are the toilets! Leave plenty of time for tacking up and warming up, and a bit to spare in case something goes wrong.
Make a checklist of the equipment you need to take – tack, hay, water, rugs, mobile phone, your competition clothes, your tests, skipping out gear etc and make sure it is all in good order.
When you arrive, find out if there are stewards and if the classes are running on time so you can gauge when to start warming up. You don’t want to warm up too early if the class is running late as you and your horse will be tired by the time you ride your test.
Find where the results will be posted – this might be in a caravan, clubroom or office and this is usually where you can find out which arena your tests are in. It helps to find out what the start signal is for your arena – it might be a bell, whistle or car horn.
When it is time for your test, ride calmly into the arena ride around the outside, preferably each way, before the start signal. You have 45 seconds to make your entrance at A after the bell has rung.
Ride the test to the best of your ability and afterwards consider what went well and what didn’t. You can compare that with what the judge saw later, when you get your test sheet.
Decide whether to put your horse away before your second test and how much more warm-up you think he will need. This will probably be less than for the first test.
When you have ridden your tests, untacked and rugged up your horse, got your test papers and chatted with fellow competitors and perhaps the judge, you can load up and go home.
SOMEONE once described show jumping as a dressage test with obstacles and this is very true. To complete a round of show jumps or a dressage test, you need a supple, balanced, obedient, forward going horse that you can steer easily on the line or shape you choose and he must be able to lengthen or shorten his stride within the paces as required.
Suppleness is important for a horse to be able to make neat, balanced turns between jumps. This is achievable by practising variously sized but precise circles, serpentines and half circles returning to the track on the other rein (also known as ‘jug handles’). You can also spiral the horse into a smaller circle and then leg yield him out onto a bigger circle once again.
Once the horse is starting to bend quite easily, add in some lateral work to ensure he is listening and submissive to your inside leg, so you can follow your line into your fences with precision. When the spirals have been perfected, progress your leg-yielding by turning down the three-quarter line and moving back to the track. Other variations include leg-yielding along the track, away from the track and zig-zagging down the centre line.
Engagement of the hindquarters is important for the actual jump and also for the ability to lengthen or shorten the strides in the approach to a fence. Prepare for this by riding lots of transitions in your flatwork but you must ensure that your horse starts to bend his legs more (sit) in the downward transitions and push up and through from his hind legs in the upward transitions. As well as riding transitions between walk, trot and canter, ask for larger and smaller strides within each pace while keeping the same rhythm – longer and shorter strides, not faster and slower. If your horse throws his head or leans onto your hands on these transitions, encourage him to stay softer in his jaw and neck while riding the transitions to build up the strength behind.
Using poles on the ground can be valuable to help the horse develop a steady rhythm. Lengthen and shorten the strides by moving the poles closer or further apart and for basic steering. Make yourself turn and aim for the precise part of the pole you want to go over, whether that is the centre or towards one end. You can do this even with just one pole. Make sure you stay relaxed as you do it because any tension in this exercise will be exaggerated when you jump a fence and could result in a pole down, or a refusal.
Jumping may be exciting for you and your horse but focusing on basic dressage training can greatly improve your performance in the jumping arena hugely increasing your chance of success.
FLYING changes are advanced movements performed in dressage tests from advanced medium upwards where the horse changes leads in canter at the moment of suspension between two strides. The movement, which should be fluent, relaxed and straight, requires years of training and the horse to be strong, fit, balanced and in self-carriage.
In show jumping, horses are encouraged to anticipate the correct lead as they land from a fence or on a turn around the course and are often taught this at an early age, sometimes unbalancing the horse and causing him to alter his lead. In dressage, the horse must listen for the aids, which should be given at exactly the right moment in the stride when the horse finds it physically easiest to make the change.
While walk and trot are symmetric paces that make the same pattern of footfalls on either rein, canter is asymmetric. The sequence of footfalls in right lead canter is left (outside) hind, right hind and left fore together followed by the right fore and finally the moment of suspension. On the left lead the sequence becomes right (outside) hind, left hind and right fore, left fore and the moment of suspension. This is true canter but as part of the build up to flying changes, the horse must also learn counter canter. This is when the horse strikes off on the opposite (inside) hind leg.
In dressage, a few steps of counter canter are required at Novice level with the introduction of simple changes Elementary. A simple change is changing from true canter to counter canter, or vice versa, through walk or trot. From Advanced Medium upwards, flying changes are introduced. This is when, rather than changing the canter lead through a change of pace, the horse changes the sequence of legs during the moment of suspension.
Preparation starts early on in training, building on the horse’s gymnastic ability, especially the quality of the canter, with active, forward and obedient transitions without being explosive or on the forehand.
Practise riding canter to trot to canter or canter to walk to canter transitions to help engage the horse’s hind legs and improve his responsiveness to the aids. Ride canter transitions on straight lines – both true and counter canter – ensuring that the horse is listening well to the aids. Make sure you are applying the aids clearly and correctly, then gradually reduce the amount of walk or trot between each canter. The hind legs must be actively stepping underneath the horse’s body and lifting the forehand, not dragging behind and pulled by the front. .
Leg yielding towards the track is a good exercise for activating the inside hind leg as well as a gentle shoulder-fore – a lesser angle than shoulder-in.
Riding the canter out into longer, but not faster strides then back to smaller, active strides also helps to develop the carrying power of the hind legs.
There are many variations about how precisely to get the best flying changes and I believe this depends on each individual horse, but a clear, well positioned outside leg and an open inside leg are key elements in the aiding.
There is no set rule about how old a horse should be when learning flying changes, it is more down to aptitude and the quality of the canter. If the canter feels active, powerful and uphill, then have a play with changes, but be aware that for a while your horse might anticipate and you may get flying changes when you haven’t asked. This is all part of the learning process.
When people are first learning to ride they are mainly taught to pull on the left rein to turn left and on the right rein to turn right. This is fine in the early stages, but we then need to refine this as we progress and move on to more precise schooling, when the outside rein becomes a key part in the equation. On a well trained horse, if you pull on the inside rein only, it will bend its neck and keep going straight ahead! You should allow your hands to be positioned by the correct positioning of your upper body and hence through the shoulders and elbows. With your upper arm against your rib-cage, and your upper body turned to the direction to wish to go, your inside hand is automatically opened (encouraging inside bend) and the outside hand is closed towards the withers (preventing the horse going out through the outside shoulder). If your horse is not bending correctly, you may be pulling back with your inside hand and therefore blocking the inside hind leg and preventing him from bending. If your horse is bending too much through the neck, you may be giving away too much outside hand. The outside rein needs to provide a reference point for the outline of the horse and guide it regarding direction. It should feel more like pushing a wheelbarrow than using a steering wheel or leaning round the corner on a motorbike!
JUDGES’ comments, both positive and negative, commonly appear on dressage score sheets. Positive comments may include ‘good rhythm’, ‘accurate’, ‘obedient’ and ‘straight’ while negative comments might be ‘loss of balance’, ‘hurried’, ‘lacking bend’, ‘loss of activity’, ‘drifting’, among others.
Both positive and negative comments should be fed into your training routine in order to get better marks next time you compete. Negative comments highlight areas to be improved and positive ones highlight areas to be kept up to standard and progressed ready for the move up to the next level.
Here are some movements that are included in many tests along with common faults, and some suggestions on how to improve them
Centre lines and halts should be straight and balanced. Common errors include the horse drifting right or left, lacking straightness, or tilting his head. The horse can only be truly straight when he is supple on both sides so include bending exercises, circles, loops and serpentines to help towards this. Leg-yielding also helps to get the horse more responsive to the lateral leg aids.
Circles and corners should demonstrate a good degree of bending as well as rhythm and balance. Common faults include lacking bend and falling in or out. Good turns are created from bending the horse around your inside leg, not from steering by the hand. Include any amount of bending exercises in your training but try to create a bend from your inside leg before you reach the start of the circle or corner, so the horse will naturally follow the movement you want to perform. Create the bend with your inside leg and complete the shape with your outside leg and ensure his hind legs follow the same line as the fore legs.
Free walk on a long rein should show free, relaxed, forward steps in a purposeful rhythm. Faults include not covering enough ground and snatching. In training, ask your horse to lengthen his frame by stretching forward into the contact when you offer your hands forward then pick him up again by smoothly shortening the reins. Do not just drop the rein contact and hope he will stretch down, as you then have no control over his head and will find it harder to re-build the contact to shorten him up again. Practise stretching him down and picking up for a few strides at a time, not always just across a long diagonal. This is well worth working on as it attracts double marks on your score sheet.
Lengthened strides in trot and canter are introduced at Novice level and should be powerful, uphill and rhythmic. Hurrying rather than lengthening is a frequently seen fault, and sometimes the horse doesn’t really change his stride at all. In training, ride frequent changes within the pace anywhere in the school, using circles and the short side, not just one change on the long side or diagonal. Make sure you sit tall so you don’t put him on the forehand – this encourages running and produces a downhill picture.
Transitions between paces should be smooth, obedient and balanced – losing balance and resistance are common faults. Take time in your training to ensure that your horse is obedient to light aids for upward and downward transitions. Always warn your horse that a transition is about to happen. You can do this by using half-halts, which improve his balance.
Having prepared yourself at home through a careful selection of exercises, make sure you prepare your horse in a similar way during the test, for each up-coming movement.
After the test has been ridden, the judge will complete the score sheet with a series of marks for paces, impulsion, submission and rider’s position as well as some overall comments. These marks are doubled so you can greatly improve them here. Show your score sheets to your trainer, who will help you work towards improved marks, and meantime, remember to ride those transitions and prepare, prepare, prepare. Good luck!
RIDING to music is fun – for horses and for riders. Many horses really enjoy music – they have a ‘musical ear’ and actually pick up the beat as they work.
There are many benefits from riding to music. You can use quiet, soothing tunes to help create relaxation as you ride, or you can generate more energy and activity using lively music with a strong beat. By listening to and feeling the beat of the music you can work towards a better, more consistent rhythm from your horse. If your schooling has become a little dull, then riding to some inspiring, invigorating music can help pep up your training. If you enjoy riding to music, and your horse does too, you can take it a step further and enter dressage to music competitions, which are held at all, levels.
To prepare for competitions you need to find a general style of music that suits your horse, and specific pieces of music that fit your horse’s tempo at walk, trot and canter and at higher levels, the more advanced movements. Each level has specific criteria – you must perform your test in a specified time and it must contain all the movements required at that level but may not include movements found only in tests at higher levels. Bearing in mind the constraints of your test, you begin by designing a floor plan containing the required movements – and practise – you can make small adjustments to the timing at this stage and once you are happy with it, you can ask someone to video you riding your test.
Having gathered a variety of music that you like, that suits the personality of your horse and you think the judge will like, it is time to put it all together. Watch your video while playing selections of music to each pace and match the tempo of the music to that of your horse. If you haven’t managed to get it videoed, ask a friend to watch you working while playing the various pieces of music and shortlist suitable pieces for each of the paces, or use a metronome to measure the beats per minute as you ride and the beats per minute of your music.
Ride to the music again, whittling down the choice until you have one piece for walk, one for trot and one for canter.
Recap on the requirements of your test and revisit your floor plan. Some of the movements will be compulsory, and some will be optional. Make sure the pattern is fairly symmetrical so that it is obvious to the judge that you are executing the moves on each rein – and be creative – use the arena and choose movements and sequences that show your horse off to his best. You are allowed to use compulsory movements more than once so, for example, if you think you might not get good medium strides, perhaps allow an extra attempt. Marks can be gained for ‘degree of difficulty’, but if your horse is not so good at a certain movement and it is not compulsory, think very carefully before including it at all!
Once completely happy with your floor plan, ride it several times and time it again. Make a note of where the paces change in your test then record suitable bits of music from your selections to fit to the changes in pace in the test. Try to plan for a bit of flexibility in your transitions as timings can vary a little from day-to-day and particularly in the atmosphere of a competition. Using music editing software, you can blend the pieces together, phasing out of one and into another.
Using music for dressage is subject to PPL (Public Performance Licence) and this is easily complied with. Once your test and music are finalised, you will need to get a kit from British Dressage, in order to legally use the music in the competition. You must inform them of the music you are using, the timings and the relevant reference numbers, which are listed on the original CDs – not complicated when you see the forms!
Whether you decide to ride to music for your own pleasure, and that of your horse, or whether you decide to enter competitions, bringing pleasure to others as well, riding to music adds a new harmonious, fun dimension to working together with your horse.
For further information, visit British Dressage at www.britishdressage.co.uk.
INCORPORATING ground poles into your flatwork helps you progress in several different ways. It helps your horse to become more gymnastic, balanced and coordinated as well as introducing interest and variety into his work. Specific exercises can encourage stretching over the top line, lengthening of the back, opening of the shoulders, collection, elevation and concentration.
If your horse has not been worked over poles before, walk him over single poles a few times each way to give him confidence, then do the same in trot. To develop focus, discipline and steering, particularly for a younger horse, try scattering the poles around your schooling area and choose different routes over the poles, while trying to maintain the stretch and elasticity between them.
Progress to three poles placed evenly in a straight line and spaced approximately four foot apart. If working in an arena, place them inside the track around the middle of the long side, so that a straight line can be ridden before and after the poles. Take your horse over them in a good, steady trot, aiming for the middle and looking straight ahead of you. He should keep a good rhythm, step neatly over the poles, looking down and stretching over his back. You should maintain a light seat and hand contact and support him through them with your lower legs, riding in a steady, forward but not hurried rhythm.
Once he is confident with this basic exercise, you can start making variations that help him to develop appropriately. If you want to work towards lengthening his paces, then gradually widen the distance between the poles so he has to stretch a little with each step. If you are working towards collecting him, then move the poles closer together and maintain the activity through the line. If you are trying to develop more elevation, then you can raise the ends of the poles so he must lift his feet higher. You can do this by using either pole ‘pods’ or adaptable blocks, either on alternate ends or both ends of the poles. You can add one or two more poles but don’t go overboard!
You can also use ground poles for canter work, typically starting with the poles about ten feet apart.
It is easiest to work with someone on the ground for these exercises as they can replace the poles if any get knocked out of place and move them out or in as required. Once you have checked the measurements with a tape measure, you can convert the measured distance into your own foot size, so you can measure the distance with your feet in future.
If you are working on your own, you can place the poles in a fan shape so you can encourage longer or shorter strides by riding nearer the middle or the edge of the fan without having to move them. Poles set out in a fan shape are also useful when lunging your horse – you can really watch how your horse is moving.
So pole work can help add variety to your horse’s schooling and help him develop both physically and mentally as well as being a stepping-stone towards advancing him in any desired discipline.
Do you ever get off your horse after a schooling session and feel like you have worked harder than him? Do you feel like you are pushing him forward every step of the way and struggle to get good transitions? This is not good for either you or your horse and needs to be sorted. Think about how you feel if someone nags at you constantly or whines in your ear: “I want a cup of tea – can I have a cup of tea? – I’d love a cup of tea – will you make me a cup of tea?…..”. After while you just switch off and ignore them, don’t you? Whereas if someone has been quiet, catches your attention and positively makes a request, then that is different. Horse and riders are just the same. If you constantly nag your horse with your legs, he will just switch off to them and then when you really want something to happen, he is no longer listening. If you keep your legs quiet when you don’t need them, then ask firmly and clearly when you want a reaction – you should get it. If not, it is much kinder to escalate the request and reward a response than to keep nagging. Here is an example; you ask for a transition from walk to trot and get no reaction. Ensure your legs are still and quiet in the walk, and make a clear aid for trot. If you get no reaction, the next time you ask for trot, back it up with a tap with the stick behind your leg (to emphasise the aid) until you get a response – then reward him and repeat the exercise. This time the reaction should be quicker. After a few repetitions, you should not need to back up the aid with your stick. One key part to this exercise is that your hands MUST be soft and allowing as you aid for the upward transition – don’t use the accelerator and brake at the same time. As well as it being much nicer for horse and rider for aids to be relatively small, it is also a key building block when you move on to more complex moves and aiding.
AFTER a long winter of either riding indoors, or only riding when weather permits, it’s great to get out and take advantage of the summer weather and the light nights, not to mention a change of scenery. But going out on hacks rather than working in the school doesn’t mean a complete end to your schooling. There are many exercises you can do to ensure your horse’s training is continued while enjoying some good hacking.
Horses need to be warmed up for hacking just as much as they do in the school so start out with a steady walk including some stretching if possible, and follow this with some brisk and loose trot work. Once your horse is warmed up you can gather him into a steady, forward but not hurried trot. You may have more impulsion outside in the open – use this to your advantage and use smooth uphill stretches for some longer strides, which helps build the power in your horse’s hind legs.
Where it’s safe, on tracks for example, away from traffic, you can move your horse smoothly from one side of the track to the other by leg-yielding. You can make use of puddles or stones – navigate around them to increase the precision of his steps.
Tracks or the edge of a field are excellent places to practise shoulder-in or shoulder-fore – it can also be useful if your horse has a tendency to spook at things around him.
Opening and closing gates or negotiating through small spaces or around obstacles is a good way of practising turn around the forehand and rein back. It’s a good incentive for you and your horse to build on responsiveness and accuracy.
Opening up your horse for a good forward canter or gallop around a field can be a good thing but you can also vary the pace by introducing some transitions. For example canter to trot, trot to canter but also collecting the pace then opening it up again. Riding a lot of transitions really helps to build up the horse’s strength.
If you have access to fields with bales lying after harvesting, then riding patterns around the scattered bales can help with bending, balance and general control in all paces.
Towards the end of a hack, remember to warm down in the same way as you would at the end of a schooling session. A free, loose walk is a good way for you both to relax and cool down.
So use your hacks to progress your schooling away from the confines of an arena, but do allow yourself time to relax and enjoy the hack too.
Do you have problems with your horse not bending well to one side or drifting against your leg, perhaps into a circle? These problems, and many more, can be caused by the rider not sitting straight and even in the saddle. This can be caused by simple things such as your stirrups being different lengths or your saddle having slipped to one side. Alternatively they can be caused by you being crooked in how you sit. None of us are absolutely straight or even on both sides – and neither are our horses. However, we need to identify how crooked we are, and which way and look at ways to make ourselves straighter. You need someone with a good eye to watch you carefully – including from in front and behind – to check for you leaning or collapsing one way or the other. Having a video taken of you while riding can also help. You then need to work out a “feel” which makes you sit straighter; examples of this include – stretch one side, lengthen your waist on one side, push one seat bone more into the saddle, lift your rib-cage on one side, lift one ear, put more weight into one stirrup, make the distance between your head and feet as long as you can, etc etc. Initially you will need to be reminded to refresh this “feel” frequently and the un-nerving thing is that once you are straightened you will probably feel squint! This feeling will gradually disappear as your body learns to hold itself straighter. Lunge lessons are also a good way of working on your position. Straightness is something that we all need to be aware of and get help in sorting, as it can make a huge difference to how your horse goes and how it feels to you.
A common complaint I get when meeting a new horse and rider is that “he won’t go forward” or “he is sluggish”. While for some, this requires sharpening up the responses to leg aids (See Training Tip on Responsiveness), for many more, it is related to the horse being stiff and crooked. If you try lifting and tensing one shoulder and then try to run forward in a straight line, then relax your shoulder and try the same exercise again, I am sure you will find that you can run much easier when your shoulder (and the rest of your body) is relaxed and symmetrical. Combine this with the feeling that one leg is stiffer than the other and you can then imagine how many horses feel when you ask them to trot forward in a nice swinging rhythm. The simple route to solving this problem is through suppling exercises. By riding lots of circles, spirals, serpentines and leg yielding while concentrating on the quality of the bend and the change of bend you will be surprised how much easier your horse moves freely forwards. You should find this over the course of one training session, but it will obviously keep getting better over time if you keep using the correct exercises and focus on the quality of the bending. By enabling your horse to bend, he will become straighter and by being straighter, he will move forward much more easily and freely.
WE all ride transitions between the paces without thinking e.g. walk to trot, trot to canter, canter to trot etc but how often do you think about riding changes within the walk, trot or canter? If you ride dressage tests at novice level or above, you will have been asked for it in a test, i.e. “show some lengthened strides”. At the early stages we are pleased to get a steady, regular, rhythmic walk, trot or canter, but as we progress the athletic development of our horse, we enable him to have lots of paces. In theory, we have collected, medium, free and extended walk, collected, working, medium and extended trots and canters plus gallop, but in practise, the horse has hundreds of slightly different paces.
Riding transitions within the paces helps develop the gymnastic movement of our horse. By increasing and decreasing the power and length of each pace, we are working the horse’s body like a concertina. Each downward transition should make the hind legs bend and come under the horse, so he sits more and in each upward transition the hind legs should push the horse’s weight uphill and forward.
In the medium walk, the horse should be marching along into a medium strength, elastic contact. To move to free walk on a long rein, he should take the bit out and down when offered a longer rein, still staying connected to the hands and walking with purpose but with a longer frame and steps. He should also smoothly, without resistance, accept the aids to come back into a shorter outline, i.e. by the rider’s legs and seat asking the hind legs to step under more and the back to become rounder again, then accepting the resulting shorter rein.
The usual start point for trot is working trot – an active, forward, connected trot. To ask for a bigger trot swing your seat more and ask with a little more leg for a bigger, longer, but NOT faster stride. It is important that the horse stays in rhythm and round through the back, so be careful to ask for the bigger strides smoothly, without causing hollowing and running. To develop the horse’s muscles, ask repeatedly for a few steps of each pace in succession, both on straight lines and on circles. When the horse has become stronger, you can then work towards collected trot when more of the weight is transferred to the hind legs of the horse, he shows greater elevation in the trot with slightly shorter strides.
The same approach applies for the canter as for the trot. The horse will not be able to maintain the bigger strides in trot or canter for long at first, so you must build up the number of steps you ask for gradually, monitoring how he manages to maintain the balance, roundness and energy.
Changes within all the paces are a great way of developing your horse’s back and hind leg muscles as well as providing variety in his training and a good discipline for both horse and rider.
TEACHING your horse to turn on or around the forehand is a useful way of developing his athleticism as well as increasing his manoeuvrability.
Turning around the forehand is when the horse responds to a sideways aid that asks the horse to move his hind legs around the forelegs so the fore legs make a small circle while the hind legs make a larger circle around them. There is a technical difference between turning ‘around’ the forehand and turning ‘on’ the forehand – this is when the horse pivots around one front leg only. Turn on the forehand can be useful for moving your horse around in small space or for opening gates, but turn around the forehand is more beneficial for training.
The turn around the forehand helps to develop the bend of the horse, introduces the lateral movements and helps to flex the inside hind leg. It also loosens the lower back, as the pelvis must tip from side to side to allow the inside hind to step across.
Before you introduce your horse to these movements, make sure that he responds correctly to the ‘over’ command from the ground combined with your hand pressure on his side so that he moves smoothly away in the direction required. The next step is to ask someone to help you by using these aids while you are in the saddle. Once accomplished, you take over the voice aid and gradually the leg aid replaces the hand. Safety is paramount, so make sure your assistant stands in a safe place to avoid the chance of being kicked.
For a turn from the left leg, turn your body slightly to the left, put your left leg very slightly behind the girth and push the horse’s quarters away from your leg. The front legs should move around a small circle – about the size of a dinner plate – while the inside hind steps in front and across the outside hind. The steps should be even, regular and rhythmical.
Be careful to stabilise your horse’s shoulders with the hands. If you pull too much with the inside hand, the horse will fall in on the inside shoulder rather than stepping away from the inside leg.
If your horse moves forward too much after each step, then ride along the side of a wall or fence and ask for the turn from your inside leg. You will end up facing the opposite way along the wall, having moved the quarters round while the wall prevented forward movement.
Initially only ask your horse for one or two steps of the turn and when he accomplishes this correctly, you can gradually ask for more. A good exercise is to ride a square with a quarter turn around the forehand for each corner. This is particularly good as you must use your outside aids to get the horse straight on the side of the square. Once you have mastered this, then you can try a triangle, then a half turn then a full turn of 360 degrees.
The turn around the forehand can be a very useful stepping stone for introducing the horse to leg yielding as it teaches the horse to move away from a unilateral leg aid and can be used in setting up the movement. Later in the horse’s training, turn around the forehand can be combined with shoulder in to create a combined exercise to further promote the development of the hind leg.
The turn around the forehand is a useful movement when you’re out hacking, where you need to move your horse in a small space, or navigate your way around a gate, but it also has huge value as a gymnastic exercise. While it is sometimes used in riding tests, this movement never appears in British Dressage dressage tests.
REGARDLESS of discipline, whether riding on the flat or jumping, it is vital to begin every exercise session with a good warm up routine that enables your horse to stretch his muscles and allows him to use himself more efficiently, and this, in turn, helps reduce the chance of injury or soreness. Ideally, your warm up should last between ten and twenty minutes, depending on the time available, and the individual needs of your horse.
No two horses are the same. For example, one horse might need 30 minutes of preparation, another might settle into work better after a canter during warm up, while yet another might need more mental preparation – work to get him listening to the aids. Older or stiff horses typically need longer than younger ones, so adapt the warm up to his specific needs.
The old saying, ‘walk the first mile’ is equally relevant to hacking as it is to working in the school. Start with a loose walk, marching forward into a light contact in a stretching outline so that his ears are below the level of the withers. This enables him to stretch the muscles of his back, along his neck and topline. Gradually, while keeping the same, easy, though purposeful rhythm, introduce a change in stride, for example, use the short end of the school to shorten the stride, and then lengthen again on the long sides – do it on a straight line if you’re on a hack. Using the same outline, come down the ¾ line and leg yield back out to the track. Now ride some large circles to encourage your horse to bend. He should be responsive to your leg and move with a round, swinging back. Moving on to a ground covering, working trot, stay in the same outline and repeat the exercises – and if you wish, and if your horse is going calmly, you might want to include a canter. Even in the warm-up, while you have a light contact, you should maintain an even feel with his mouth. Picking up the contact, use transitions – walk to trot, trot to walk, and transitions within the pace to set him up for his work proper, and ride some smaller circles. Remember to make frequent changes of rein so that he works all his muscles evenly.
Follow a similar process at the end of each session with a warm-down, stretching down first in trot, and then in walk. It is a good sign if your horse stretches his neck down and out when relaxing – it indicates that he has been working correctly through his back. Correct warm up prior to exercise, and correct warm down afterwards affect the horse mentally as well as physically, so it is important to always finish on a good note – something you can praise him for, so he goes back to his stable feeling happy and relaxed.