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Preparing for Dressage the Right Way
The Correct Training Methods for Success
By Katja von Rönne, JB Tierfoto, Claire Williams
Cadmos Publishing LimitedCopyright © 2011 Cadmos Publishing Limited, Richmond, UK
All rights reserved.
The easiest but most important first of all: the schooling of any horse starts with the basics. They are crucial for the effective suppling of the horse and its training throughout the horse's entire life. Once the basic foundations have been well established for both horse and rider , then it is relatively easy to start to build the "house" on it, in other words, to start to develop the more difficult movements on this foundation. A correctly built foundation is never wasted, and lasts a lifetime – even after breaks or time out for illness or injury. The more well established a horse is, in responding to the basic aids and the more positive his training has been, then the faster and easier it is to advance its schooling. No time spent on the basics is ever wasted, in fact, quite the opposite, as it creates the best possible psychological and physical state in a horse for its future. It is the foundation on which we can build.
Time and again I see horses that are brought to me after a long break and which are causing their riders real problems, since they aren't working like they did before. These difficulties are usually quite understandable, since often the horse's entire musculature has to be retrained. I worked with an eight- year-old chestnut that, following month-long lameness, had difficulty stretching down into the hand. The only pace that he could go in even a half-way relaxed manner was canter, which he was well suited to. In canter he could find his own rhythm and scored well because of his uphill movement. Considering its natural balance at this pace and its regular rhythm he found it easy to let his neck drop forwards and down from his withers. Building on this and within a fairly short period of time he was able to work better over his back, which was noticeably strengthened by the right muscles being worked. The strong connection resulting from this between his back and hind quarters made the progression into collected work possible without the loss of any more time. To reach this stage with a horse following a lengthy illness I would normally require four weeks.
In the case of every horse you need to climb the training ladder rung by rung. If you miss out even one, you are likely to encounter greater problems later on that are connected to the work that has come before. In other words, errors occurring in the basic work that are not put right, but instead are just taken on into advanced work, don't just disappear. They will resurface later to create real problems when it comes to the more difficult movements. If, for example, a horse finds it particularly difficult to execute a volte or flying changes on one rein, then it is more than likely that he wasn't ridden to be straight and even on both sides in his basic work. Finding the reasons for these emerging problems isn't usually easy and is only really successful when the rider has understood what connects the elements of dressage training, in other words, the common thread linking them all together.
All of the exercises that are shown here can be done both in a manege or when out hacking. Young horses especially will find their own balance faster if they are worked on uneven ground. Schooling when out hacking is very effective but is rarely done by "purist" dressage riders due to reasons of time, a lack of hacking or even out of fear of the challenges that they may face when riding away from the safe confines of the school. The benefits far outweigh the disadvantages, however. The positive effect that riding out has on both horse and rider can considerably reduce communication problems that can waste both time and energy. At the start the experience of being ridden in an unknown environment can cause youngsters to be nervous or excited – a situation that makes it often easier for the rider to take charge and get the horse to pay more attention to him. The horse is more likely to listen so that the rider can work with lighter aids and achieve much more. In this way the horse learns to trust his rider in a more relaxed setting. In addition, uneven ground will cause the horse to have greater control of its body and to become sure-footed, as it will need to pay more attention to where it is putting its feet. By building a few of the dressage exercises into your ride, it will intensify the learning experience, increase the horse's motivation to learn and reinforce what has been learnt.
The work carried out when hacking is by no means a reduction in the level of the work, but on the contrary will cause a real jump in both learning and motivation on the part of the horse. Mutual trust, strengthened by riding out, is the prerequisite for the successful training of any partnership. The experience of doing something different and hacking out takes the rider away from the concept of "riding dressage" and of dominating the horse. However, dressage means educating plus gymnastics whilst building mutual trust!
Even if hacking out is preferable to training in a manege, school or arena (indoor or outdoor), all of these offer a multitude of possibilities for working your horse effectively. Leading the way are the individual dressage movements and schooling patterns and figures which make up a rider's toolbox. Due to their form and the sequence in which they are ridden, they literally help form the base on which the horse's training is built. At the start, relatively simple patterns on straight lines are used, such as going large, riding across the school to change the rein or riding down the centre line. They allow both horse and rider time and space to concentrate on such fundamental things as balance, seat and the aids. Then curved lines, such as serpentines and circles of varying sizes, are added to the mix that demand the dressage basics to already be established. With the help of these tools the horse's gymnastic programme can be endlessly varied. Throughout a horse's entire dressage training career, the exercises and figures that are used should be varied in difficulty from easy to hard. The schooling figures that are re-peated again and again become old friends. They give both horse and rider a certain degree of security since they are well known and accompany both, from the start, on their combined ways.
The balanced horse
A horse moving freely in the field has a certain natural balance that changes completely once it has a saddle and a rider's weight on its back. Through its dressage training, the horse has to find a new sense of balance between its forehand and hind quarters. For this reason, one of the basic lessons is working on the balance of horse and rider. The rider must learn to stay in balance on the horse's back in every situation, without tensing up. Once rider and horse have found their centre of gravity then they will both be able to move together without hindering each other. The horse should hardly be able to notice its rider, since he won't interfere with his horse's balance. He, the rider, should be almost undetectable and in total harmony with every movement of his horse. With a well-balanced rider the horse can concentrate on new movements and on finding his own balance. Anyone who has ridden a three-year-old horse will confirm this experience. I can quite clearly recall a particularly good three-year-old novice that even after months of work on straight lines still swayed like a ship at sea. Since the gelding was so very obedient it was only something small that happened in the stable that sadly made me aware of its special quality – he was almost totally blind. The owner's only option was to find him a field where he could be safely kept and let him retire there to live out his life.
The work in the following chapters concentrates on allowing the horse to establish its rhythm, balance and suppleness on straight lines. The horse should be ridden flexed, but only gently bent through the turns. The most important pace when starting to train is the trot, since the rider is able to move in a regular two-beat rhythm without interfering with the horse's rhythm. Once the exercises can be successfully completed at a trot then you can move on to working in canter and walk. The walk, a pace of four beats, deserves our special attention. It is important to remain regular, with no breaks in rhythm, so be careful and never ride the walk, which is described as a pace without impulsion, with reins that are too short or with too much leg.
Riding diagonal lines across the school is one of the basic exercises involving horse and rider moving from one point on the school diagonally across to the other. These may either be long diagonals (corner markers F to H or M to K) or short diagonals (the corner markers to the centre markers E or B as appropriate). Even more advanced riders can use these exercises as a warm- up at the start of a training session but always starting with long diagonals. After warm-up, you can move onto the shorter diagonals, going from one of the corner markers to the centre markers or starting from E/B out to the corner marker across half of the school. Both serve to check whether the horse is on the rider's aids, in other words, whether the rider can close up and steer the horse using his leg, seat and reins.
We begin this lesson once we have completed the phase of familiarisation of either the young horse or in case of an older one returning back to work but not much trained in dressage before. It is just as important that the horse understands the basic aids, such as leg pressure and the reins, and the rider can control its speed and direction.
Description of the exercise
Riding a diagonal is not just a matter of riding along a predetermined straight line, but instead it comprises a complicated sequence of events:
1. Riding through a corner before turning onto the diagonal, refer to page 34 as well,
2. turning onto the straight line,
3. riding an absolutely straight line,
4. arriving at the correct point on the track, just before the corner, and finally,
5. riding through the second corner.
To turn onto the diagonal the rider needs to sit up, look in the new direction and prepare for the turn with the inside leg gently pushing the horse forwards (known as a forwards-driving leg). Immediately after this, the rider should make the horse aware of the upcoming change in direction by lightly taking up and giving through the inside rein (more a squeeze and release of the hand). In the turn the inside rein is widened slightly and then brought back to the correct position. It is important that the horse's shoulder is turned in mainly through the rider's seat, with the rider turning his seat to show the direction. This supports the horse's forehand turning off the outside track into the new direction of travel.
As soon as the turn has begun and the forehand has been turned through the seat, the rider needs to activate the horse's outside hind leg and steer the horse from a balanced seat straight along the diagonal. Here it is important to make sure that the line is precisely ridden. Before reaching the track and, thus, the new turn, you will need to ensure that what now becomes your outside leg can help to prevent the horse from falling out. At the same time, the new inside leg encourages the inside hind to step forwards and underneath the horse. To turn back onto the track the rider sits into the saddle and again uses his seat as previously described. Finally, the corner should be ridden with an even contact on both reins.
Now we concentrate more on riding the diagonal line: the essential part when riding through the corner is that the rider sits securely in his centre of gravity, resulting in the same degree of suppleness and looseness in both horse and rider. The horse and its legs stay vertical, maintaining its balance and rhythm. Through the turn the same amount of weight is carried on each of the horse's four legs and the horse should find it easy to be ridden through the bend. The rider maintains his central position in the saddle. The rider's hips, though, should be aligned with the horse's, slightly swinging inside forward and the shoulders should be parallel to the horse's shoulders. The rider's inside shoulder is moved slightly back to mirror the slightly turned-in seat, but always maintaining balance through the seat. As a result of moving the inside shoulder slightly back whilst sitting up, more weight will be put on the inside seat bone for a moment and the weight, although invisible to the observer, will be moved slightly to the inside. It is important, though, to remain sitting up straight! Stick your tummy out. The rider should always sit deep into the saddle and spread his weight evenly across both seat bones and the pubic bone (known as the three-point seat).
As soon as this series of movements has become a matter of routine for horse and rider, and the technical aspects of the movement have been mastered, then this exercise should be easy to do and require little energy. The rider will just need to give the signal for the horse to respond. Particular emphasis should be placed on rhythm and tempo, as well as using a three-point seat to carefully turn the horse. The rider should always sit on this triangular seat.
How do you tell if your training is effective?
The horse will put more weight on the inside hind leg briefly in the turns and will step under the rider's centre of gravity. This will release its shoulder and allow it to turn more easily with an established rhythm. The contact to the rider's hand will become more secure. By repeating the turns onto the diagonal and ensuring a steady rhythm and regular tempo, the rider is able to improve a horse's looseness, balance and straightness.
Even with this relatively easy exercise you are still working on cementing, building and checking the mutual language of rider and horse: the aids. Since riding diagonals is not placing any great demands on the rider, this simple exercise offers the rider the opportunity to work on and improve the way that his seat, legs and hands work together. He is able to work on his balance, practice turning his seat into the turns and to pay particular attention to the independence of his hands which during the course of the turns should become stiller. The frequent repetition of riding diagonals in their many variations also demands the horse's concentration.
Problems and solutions
The horse is rushing: sit quieter, control the rhythm, change the rein more often and ride in walk on a long rein.
The horse is wobbling, i.e. not going straight: ride more forwards, rebalance your seat, keep your head up. Watch out that you don't collapse through your hips.
The turn into the diagonal is too tight: give the inside rein quicker, position your inside hip more forward, use more inside leg and ride more forwards without rushing.
The turn is too wide: engage the inside hind first, but contain more with the outside aids to contain the horse more between the aids.
The quarters are falling out: outside leg more on the horse and contain the horse more with the seat and leg, ask for a slight lateral bend and sit quietly.
All of the diagonals are used to change the rein in a huge variety of possibilities. The horse can be ridden in a combination of the three basic paces.
Repeatedly change the rein across the diagonal without actually going large. Ride the short side every time but always immediately change the rein. The rider has enough time on the diagonal to balance his seat and prepare for the next turn. The short side can also be ridden as a half circle without riding into the corners.
Demand more by changing the rein on a short diagonal: after clearly turning the shoulder into the new direction of travel, the rider has less time due to the shorter distance to prepare for the next turn and also prepare his seat for the turn. It is important to really concentrate, even if this exercise seems to be easy!
Change the rein on the short diagonal but ride from E or B to the corner marker: whilst the first turn can be prepared in plenty of time the next turn looms quickly with a corner to quickly follow. The rider has a lot to do and needs to really concentrate.
Excerpted from Preparing for Dressage the Right Way by Katja von Rönne, JB Tierfoto, Claire Williams. Copyright © 2011 Cadmos Publishing Limited, Richmond, UK. Excerpted by permission of Cadmos Publishing Limited.
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