There are two groups of parameters that can describe the horse’s movements, and through which the rider is able to determine and influence the horse’s gait and posture. If you change one or several of these parameters, the horse’s appearance and feel changes. The first group refers to the positioning of the hips and shoulders, as well as the posture of the spine. The second group describes the details of the gait, i.e. the movement of the horse’s legs.
Postural Parameters (Pelvis, Shoulder, Spine)
- Arena pattern (circle, volte, rectangle, square, triangle, oval, etc.)
- Angle between the horse’s spine and the line of travel (single track vs. lateral movements): pelvis yields by itself, shoulder yields by itself, both yield together
- Lateral bend (left/right)
- Balance/degree of collection (flexion of the haunches, weight distribution over the four legs)
Movement Parameters (limbs)
- Gait (walk, trot, canter)
- Tempo (strides per minute)
- Stride length (collected gait, working gait, medium gait, extended gait, piaffe, passage, measured in feet and inches or in meters and centimeters)
- Energy level (not easily measurable)
- Speed (mph or km/h)
- Inside/outside legs cross
These parameters form the basis of riding, since their observation contains the entire training scale. They are the prerequisite as well as the consequence of the elements of the training scale. If the rider is able to control them, they lead to balance, straightness, even, steady, light rein contact, permeability, impulsion, collection, and obedience. If the rider is unable – or insufficiently able - to determine these parameters, it is because certain parts of the training scale are not sufficiently confirmed.
The parameters are set and monitored closely by the rider’s seat and aids. If the horse changes one or several of these parameters without authorization, the permeability is diminished, and consequently balance, straightness, rein contact, impulsion and collection are compromised. That is why the rider has to take corrective action immediately to restore the status quo ante.
Most horses have trouble to change just one single parameter, such as changing the bend from shoulder-in to renvers, or lengthening the stride in the trot. Most horses follow the path of the least resistance and change simultaneously, without prompting and without authorization, other parameters as well, in order to make work easier for themselves. Unfortunately, this also reduces the gymnastic effectiveness of the exercise considerably. Many riders don’t notice this, since traditional riding lessons don’t teach attentiveness to these details. However, the success of an exercise and of the entire training as a whole depends not on WHAT you ride, but HOW you ride it. Even the best gymnastic exercise is useless, if it is ridden incorrectly, or poorly and sloppily.
Throughout the training, it is therefore necessary to teach the horse through new exercises and combinations of arena patterns to change only those parameters which the rider has selected through his aids. This makes the horse mentally and physically flexible, he becomes better acquainted with his own body, he learns to control it more efficiently, his balancing ability increases, and his permeability, i.e. his rideability and obedience, are constantly improving. The ever increasing suppleness also keeps the horse sound through this kind of work, since the movements become softer, preserving muscles, tendons, and joints.
The rider becomes more intentional, more aware, and more specific in their thinking and riding.
- If the rider is asking for more activity of the hindquarters, many horses get faster at first.
- If the rider wants to slow down the tempo, many horses automatically slack off in the activity of their haunches. They have to learn through dressage that they can apply themselves more in the same tempo, so that the hind legs step more lively, without changing the tempo or the stride length.
- Conversely, it is necessary to be able to reduce the stride length while maintaining the same activity of the haunches.
- If the rider instructs the horse to change the bend from shoulder-in to renvers, many horses will also change the angle between their spine and the arena wall: in the shoulder-in the angle is usually shallower, and in the renvers it is steeper, since they evade the bending rein with the opposite shoulder.
- During lengthenings from collected trot to working, medium or extended trot, many horses change the number of strides per minute as well, i.e. they speed up the tempo.
- During transitions from a single track to a lateral movement, many horses get slower, i.e. they not only change the angle between their spine and the wall, but they also change the stride frequency.
- During a transition from a straight line to a curved line and vice versa, many horses change the tempo as well. You can observe frequently that horses slow down in corners and accelerate coming out of the corner.
- Many horses speed up when changing direction because they fall onto the new inside shoulder.
- If you ride a transition from a shoulder-in to a diagonal, the angle between the horse’s spine and the wall often gets steeper. The same thing applies when riding a transition from a diagonal to a shoulder-in on a parallel line to the wall. Many horses get steeper here as well. In addition, some horses slow down in the shoulder-in and speed up on the diagonal.
- In half passes, many horses drift laterally away from the line of travel, and perhaps slow down in addition.
The ability to move the hips and shoulders independently of each other belongs here as well. So, the rider has to be able to keep the horse’s shoulders going straight on the line of travel, while letting only the pelvis yield laterally (haunches-in, counter shoulder-in), or to let the haunches make a circle around the forehand (turn on the forehand in motion, pirouette renversée).
Conversely, the horse should be able to remain on the line of travel with his haunches, while yielding laterally with his shoulders (shoulder-in), or to make a circle with his shoulders around his haunches (turn on the haunches, pirouette, passade).
As a third option, the rider has to be able to move the forehand and hindquarters laterally together (half pass, leg yield on the diagonal). In real life, this is quite challenging for many horses. If you want to move one end of the horse laterally, the opposite end either comes along in the same direction, or it yields in the opposite direction. This always relieves the hindquarters, the horse gets crooked and falls onto the forehand, rendering the lateral movement gymnastically useless.
There are exercises, in which two parameters are changed simultaneously. For instance, if you stop at the entrance to a corner, and ride a transition into the trot, the horse has to turn from a straight line onto a curved line while simultaneously transitioning from the halt into the trot.
If you change rein out of the circle and ask for a counter shoulder-in in the new direction, you maintain the old bend, but you change direction and ask the croup to yield.
In the transition from shoulder-in to half pass, the line of travel changes, and now the outside pair of legs has to cross. The weight may also have to be shifted from the outside hind leg to the inside hind leg.
As “homework” design exercises in which one or two parameters have to be changed, while all the others stay the same and observe what happens.