Yesterday I worked with Patrick and Solo, his Kladruber gelding. It was a lesson about developing the horse’s body awareness and connecting the horse’s feet to the ground and to the weight. Over the years I noticed that many horses don’t have good body awareness. They don’t seem to know exactly how many legs they have, or where they are. It always reminds me of quantum physics. If you know where a particle is, you don’t know where or how fast it is moving, and if you know where and how fast it is moving, you don’t know where it is. Horse’s legs are sometimes a little like that, too.
Where are we and what are we doing today?
We are visiting Noor Tanger and Patrick Molenaar in the Netherlands for a few days.
I worked with Noor Tanger and her PRE Stallion Oclajoma on developing power in the hindquarters, especially pushing power. We explained to him that he can put more energy into the walk, trot, or canter, without getting faster, and that he can slow down the tempo without going to sleep. These are not intuitively logical concepts for most horses, but they have to learn that a driving aid does not mean “go faster”, and a half halt doesn’t mean “take a break”. Tempo, stride length, and energy level are different parameters of the gait that can be adjusted separately.
The circle of aids is an important concept in the rider’s training. It refers to the flow of energy within the horse and to the way the rider’s aids stimulate and channel this flow.
The circle of aids typically begins with a driving calf aid that brings the horse’s hind legs closer to the center of gravity and into the sphere of influence of the seat. If the hind legs are too far out behind, they are out of reach for the seat and the horse’s back drops. Trying to apply any seat aid at that moment will make the situation worse. It will cause the back to drop - and hurt - even more, and the hind legs will then actually be prevented from stepping under by the weight aid.
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.
Horses were not designed to carry somebody on their back. The presence of the rider’s weight therefore compromises the horse’s balance, at least at first. It changes the center of gravity, and it may inhibit the freedom of motion of the spine and the legs. If the horse feels impeded and out of balance because of the rider’s presence on his back, he will contract certain muscles and brace against the rider’s weight and the ground, which leads to unhealthy movement patterns. Muscular contractions diminish the range of motion of the affected joints, and they lead to a hard, jarring impact of the legs on the ground, which is not only uncomfortable for the rider as well as the horse, it also creates unnecessary wear and tear on the horse’s joints and tendons.
If we want to keep the horse sound we therefore have to counteract the negative effects of our weight. We need to enable the horse to move with the same freedom of motion, the same ease, the same balance, the same suppleness under the weight of the rider with which he moves at liberty.
Looking at the development of equestrian art over longer periods of time, you will detect pendulum-like swings of opinions in many areas. There are fashion trends that are taken to a certain extreme. Then, opinions change, and the pendulum swings in the opposite direction until it reaches the other extreme. Although these developments are often based on correct observations in some areas, extremes are usually counter productive and often damage the horse’s soundness and overall health. It is always dangerous when an observation of one training aspect is made the only criterion for evaluating training progress and then taken to an extreme, following the motto: more is better.
One example of such extremes are two diametrically opposed opinions on riding long and low. On one end of the spectrum are those riders for whom stretching forward-downward is the highest goal of dressage training and the solution to all problems. Many of them believe that you are not allowed to do anything else in the training of your horse until the horse is able to stretch forward-downward. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who categorically reject any and all forward-downward stretching because they believe that it puts the horse onto the forehand and ruins the horse’s legs.
When a flying change fails, the reason is usually that the horse became crooked and/or fell on the forehand. This results in a loss of the connection between the inside hind leg, the ground, the rider’s weight, and the reins which prevents the half halts from going through. That’s why things generally don’t improve if you keep cantering and keep repeating the aids for the flying changes.
It saves much time, sweat, and aggravation for both horse and rider, if you interrupt what you’re doing, bring the horse back to the trot or walk, or even to the halt, straighten and balance the horse, check his body for stiff, braced areas, remove the muscle blockages, and re-explain the biomechanics of the flying change (i.e. shift the weight, change the bend, move the pelvis).
As the horse is developing his conscious competence, he will often need time to think and to plan his next move so that he can perform the task deliberately. As he moves from conscious competence to unconscious competence, he can do flying changes anywhere, any time, with less and less preparation.
I’m sure you are all familiar with the concept of Straightness as one of the elements of the German FN Training Scale. Those of you who are rooted in the French tradition know it as one of Alexis L’Hotte’s three main training principles (Calm, Forward, Straight). You have probably also run into its opposite - crookedness - as a tricky and quite pervasive issue. But has anybody explained to you what straightness is and why it is important? Why should you spend your entire equestrian life correcting the horse’s natural crookedness, as Jacques d’Auvergne wrote? Can’t we just go out and have fun on our horse?
Everything is connected in riding. Rhythm, balance, self carriage, straightness, suppleness/stiffness, back movement, rein contact, impulsion, collection (i.e. flexion of the haunches) are all interrelated and influence each other. Rider balance and horse balance, rider crookedness and horse crookedness, rider stiffness and horse stiffness affect each other in very direct ways. Any improvement in one area leads to improvements in all the other areas. Unfortunately, it works the other way around, too: a problem in one area will also have negative repercussions throughout the entire system.
But maybe we should ask ourselves what “through the back” actually means, how it feels, how it looks, and how you get there. Does the horse really automatically go “through the back” just because the head is down? What is the relationship between form and function? What do I do when I release the reins and the head stays where it is, i.e. the horse doesn’t stretch forward and down? What do people mean when they talk about “the back” anyway? Who knows?! Sometimes everyone means something else, depending on their level of understanding and experience, and you have to translate their words into an objective, systematic, structural framework.
What? How? and Why? are the three big questions that every rider asks herself constantly and thatoften seem to be very difficult to answer. What should I do? How should I do it? And why should I do it? The reason why this information seems so elusive is on the one hand that many good riders make these decisions on a purely intuitive level without being able to render the decision making process transparent or to explain it. - That was not really part of the traditional teaching paradigm, because it relied very much on the schoolmaster horses. In the old riding schools the trained schoolmaster horses were the true teachers. On the other hand, these decisions are often not that easy to make. Since we usually don’t have well trained Grand Prix horses as lesson horses nowadays, we have to find other solutions.
Biomechanics is the field that provides the scientific framework to describe these interactions. The more thoroughly we study and understand the principles that govern the relationships between the different body parts, the easier it becomes to trace surface level symptoms back to their root causes. This makes it easier to find solutions to problems, or to build a ladder of small learning steps for the horse when you are teaching him a new movement. This knowledge helps you in choosing or designing the right exercises for your horse. Many of these correlations and mutual interdepencies are not written down in one convenient location, but there are hints scattered throughout the literature. Many older, experienced horse people know them from years or decades of experience with hundreds of horses, but won’t write them down for a variety of reasons. So I thought I would make a list of correlations that I have observed over the years.
You can make the training easier and better understandable for the horse if you try to look at it from the horse’s point of view. Ask yourself what it is you are asking the horse to do in physical, biomechanical terms. Find out which elementary skills your horse needs to possess and which elementary types of movements he has to be able to do in order to perform a certain movement. Then try to build him a ladder of small learning steps that teach him those elementary skills that he is still lacking. Try to utilize the principle of the economy of motion whenever possible, i.e. lead the horse down a path where the movement or transition you want to ride appears to be the most energy conserving thing the horse could do under the circumstances.
To the rider it may sometimes seem that the horse can come up with an unlimited number of evasions that enable him to protect his hind legs. But from a systematic point of view there are only FIVE different ways in which the horse can avoid flexing his haunches and supporting the weight with his hind legs: