In lessons I often see that riders start a movement or a transition without any noticeable preparation for the horse (or themselves). As a result, the movement or transition doesn’t turn out as well as it could. Since this seems to be rather widespread, I thought I would turn this subject into a newsletter article. It’s an important topic that doesn’t seem to be addressed in a systematic way very often. There are some simple strategies, however, that will help you to improve your and your horse’s performance quite significantly.
Every movement has a preparation phase, a beginning, a middle, and an ending.
In the old cavalry days when large groups of riders had to move in unison, each gait change was prepared by a so-called announcement command, which was followed by the execution command. That way, all riders were able to prepare themselves and their horses for the upcoming transition, and chaos was avoided. Along the same lines, your horse will be able to do a much smoother transition into another gait or into a dressage movement if you let him know in advance what is coming.
Furthermore, for each transition, turn, or movement, there is a specific posture and balance that is most conducive. The closer you and your horse are to this balance, the higher your chances of a successful performance. The farther away you are from the ideal balance, the lower your chances of success.
The logical consequence of this train of thought is that you need to know the optimal balance for each transition, turn, or movement, and that you should bring your horse into this posture BEFORE you ask for the transition or movement.
The quality of your preparation determines the quality of the transition into the new gait, turn or movement. The quality of the transition determines the quality of the gait, turn, or movement, which in turn often determines the ending, the transition out of it. So you could say that the quality of the preparation determines the quality of the beginning, the quality of the beginning influences the quality of the middle, and the quality of the middle influences the quality of the end.
Let’s take the example of a half pass as an illustration.
The quality of the half pass is determined to a large extent by how much the inside hind leg steps under the body because the lateral bend and the crossing of the outside legs depend on it. This prerequisite now helps you in designing a preparatory exercise for the half pass. It has to be something that brings the inside hind leg more underneath the body, such as a volte or a shoulder-in.
Once you are satisfied that the inside hind is sufficiently engaged underneath you, you can begin the half pass. Take care to craft the beginning as well as you can. Find the diagonal line of the half pass that you want to ride. Bring the forehand onto the diagonal. Then ask the haunches to yield once they enter the diagonal as well.
Alternatively, you can bring the horse into a shoulder-in position and enter the half pass as soon as the horse reaches the diagonal. The more the outside hind leg flexes right before the beginning of the half pass, the more energetic it will be.
If the beginning of the half pass is poorly executed it is best to abort the half pass and repeat it with better preparation.
Once the half pass is initiated, the middle part begins. Here it is important to keep the inside hind leg engaged underneath the body so that the horse bends laterally and the outside legs cross. Maintain the tempo, the energy level, the line of travel, and the angle of the horse’s body with the diagonal. If any of these parameters of the gait change, try to restore them within the half pass first. If that doesn’t succeed within 3 strides, interrupt the half pass and bring the inside hind leg more under the body again. Then resume the half pass.
Interrupt the half pass every time the quality deteriorates below a certain level, rather than gloss over the problems. Otherwise these problems will expand.
As you are reaching the end of the diagonal, increase the weight on the inside hind leg, make the horse’s body parallel with the long side of the arena, and change the bend during the last two strides. This is the conclusion of the half pass and sets you and the horse up for the next movement. A typical mistake at the end of the half pass is that the horse’s body becomes more and more parallel with the diagonal instead of the long side, so that the outside hind leg no longer crosses.
Think and ride like a composer. Compose your lines and your movements through thoughtful preparation, introduction, execution, and conclusion.
Begin the movement only when you feel that the horse is in the right balance and posture for it. Craft the beginning carefully. If you are not happy with the flow of the movement, interrupt it and return to the beginning. Prepare the horse again and start over. When the beginning of the movement was acceptable, monitor the middle part and immediately make the necessary adjustments if the horse loses the tempo, the bend, the balance, the line of travel, the angle between his body and the diagonal, or any other basic parameter of the gait. If you can’t repair the mistake within a few strides, interrupt the half pass, restore the necessary balance and posture, and resume the half pass.
Towards the end of the diagonal, craft the transition from the half pass onto the next line and into the next movement carefully, so that the horse maintains his balance, impulsion, and throughness.
Prepare yourself, prepare your horse. Ride intentionally, thoughtfully. Plan a ahead, and pay the necessary attention to each part of the movement.