Dressage As Physiotherapy, Part 2

In the last blog post I looked at some factors that have a negative influence on the horse’s soundness. In this issue, I will look at the flip side of the coin and discuss factors that have a positive influence on the horse’s soundness, along with some practical tips on how to implement them in your daily riding.

Factors that preserve Soundness

Balance, Straightness, and Suppleness.

These three concepts are very closely connected, as I described in the first part of this two part series. Balance consists of the two aspects of longitudinal balance and lateral balance. Longitudinal balance (i.e. an even weight distribution between front legs and hind legs) develops out of a regular tempo that is neither too fast nor too slow.

Lateral balance is the ability to distribute the weight evenly between the left pair of legs and the right pair of legs, or to transfer it more to one lateral pair or the other.

Balance is not rigid or static, as in a statue. It’s dynamic. This means that the horse is able to shift his weight from one lateral pair of legs to the other, from the front legs to the hind legs, or from one diagonal pair of legs to the other.

This is where balance intersects with straightness. One of the consequences of crookedness is that the horse habitually supports the majority of his weight with the legs on the so-called stiff/convex side, especially with the front leg of this side. The legs of the so-called hollow/concave side therefore participate much less in the work. The hind leg of the concave side supports the smallest share of the weight.

As the horse becomes straighter in the course of his training, he becomes more balanced and learns to control the weight distribution over the support base.

Without straightness, there is no balance.

Without balance there is no suppleness.

The reason is that an unbalanced horse braces his muscles against the rider and against the ground to avoid falling down.

So you can conclude that there is no suppleness without straightness, either.

Keeping Your Horse Healthy By Riding Correct Arena Patterns

Lateral balance develops from riding correct arena patterns. Round figures must be round and straight lines must be straight. Circles and voltes not only have to be round, but they also have to be the same size in both directions. As a result of crookedness the horse will make circles a little smaller in one direction and larger in the other direction. When that happens he is not laterally balanced anymore. Drifting to the outside of the line means that he is overloading his outside shoulder. Drifting to the inside of the line means that he is overloading his inside shoulder.

If the horse is unbalanced, he will not be able to relax, but he will brace with some muscle groups. This prevents the energy from traveling through the body, and it causes wear and tear which may cause unsoundness in the long run.

To straighten a crooked horse, it may be necessary to shift the weight to one side or the other, depending on whether he is drifting in or out. In lateral movements you can work one pair of legs more than the other for a few strides by transferring the weight into it.

How Can I Ride Rounder Circles?

To ensure that your circles and voltes are round you can count the number of strides in each quarter or each half of the circle. We count the touchdowns of the inside hind leg. If the circle is round, each quarter should contain the same number of strides. If one quarter of a circle has more strides than the others, it means the horse drifted out and made the circle bigger in that area. If one quarter of a circle has fewer strides than the others, it means the horse drifted in and made the circle smaller in that area.

In either case he lost his balance. When he drifts out of the circle he overloads the outside shoulder, and when he drifts into the circle he overloads the inside shoulder. In the hollow/concave direction you’ll find that the horse typically tends to drift out and in the stiff/convex direction he tends to drift in. These tendencies are caused by the horse’s natural crookedness.

So, we could say that healthy training starts with riding correct arena patterns in a regular tempo, neither too fast nor too slow, with the right amount of energy, not too much not too little. It’s not even that important whether you ride circles, rectangles, squares, diamonds, or triangles. You just have to make sure that the horse is aligned on the line you’ve chosen: the left pair of legs needs to be on the left side of the line and the right pair of legs on the right side of the line, and the horse’s spine forms a segment of the line. When these requirements are met, the horse will start to find his balance. When he finds his balance, he will relax.

There is a certain parallel here with the training scale. Rhythm and tempo are at the bottom, followed by relaxation and rein contact. If you put the horse’s feet on your line of travel, and you establish a regular tempo, the horse relaxes and starts to establish a steady and even contact with the reins. It’s a rein contact you can work with. On this foundation you can develop even better balance, suppleness, permeability, as well as impulsion and collection.

Developing Suppleness Through Bending In Motion

You can improve and develop the lateral suppleness of the spine, the lateral balance, straightness, permeability, impulsion, and collection through bending in motion.

There are 3 phases of this work:

  1. Bending and turning on a single track (riding curved lines such as corners, circles, voltes). This improves the lateral mobility of the spine and the shoulders. Changes of direction and changes of bend (figure eights, serpentines) are great tools to develop the suppleness of the spine and rib cage area, as they stretch the muscles on the outside of the bend. In addition, you can also supple the cervical spine and the poll with flexions in motion and at the halt. The lateral suppleness of the spine is often a prerequisite for the longitudinal suppleness. In other words, some horses will only start to come on the bit after their entire spine has been suppled laterally through riding curved lines.

  2. Sidestepping and bending against the direction of travel (enlarging the circle, turn on the forehand in motion, leg yield, shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in). This improves the lateral mobility of the spine and the hindquarters. Lateral suppleness of the hindquarters and spine is the prerequisite for the vertical flexibility of the hind legs, i.e. collection.

  3. Sidestepping and bending in the direction of travel (haunches-in, renvers, half pass, pirouette renversée). This improves the lateral mobility of the spine and the hindquarters, and it adds the vertical flexibility of the hind legs.

In addition to the movements of the third phase of bending in motion, you can improve the vertical mobility of the hind legs through transitions between gaits and within gaits, as well as with reinback.

These exercises allow you to address all areas of the body, especially the shoulders, spine, and hind legs. You can design exercises that focus on one area in particular, or you can ride exercises that address all areas of the body by including bending, turning, sidestepping, and transitions.

All exercises have a diagnostic side, i.e. they show deficits in balance, body awareness, understanding, suppleness, and strength. And they all have a therapeutic side, i.e. they improve the very deficits that they make visible. When you have identified certain deficits, you can design additional exercises that specifically address these deficits.


You can keep your horse healthy by following these simple guidelines:

  1. Ride correct arena patterns

  2. Ride a steady tempo that is neither too fast nor too slow.

  3. Scan the horse’s body for muscle blockages and remove them with gymnastic exercises.

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