The famous Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo is credited with having said: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” This implies “setting the statue free” by chiseling away all the rock that is not part of it. It is similar when developing the gaits of the dressage horse. Every horse has his own, unique walk, trot, and canter, as well as his own, unique piaffe and passage, which the trainer has to find and bring out, by eliminating everything that prevents the horse from moving optimally in his own, unique manner.
The seat is always important in our riding. It plays an important role in everything we do, but in the canter, it is even more important than in the walk and trot. Due to the bigger movement in the canter, the rider’s seat gets challenged more than in the walk and trot, and the horse often needs more support from the rider’s seat in the canter in order to keep their balance.
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.
As riders and teachers our particular approach, our techniques and methodology, our focus is very much a result of our own personal journey. It is shaped by the difficulties that we had to overcome, our own weaknesses, our discoveries, our teachers, the horses we have ridden, the books we have read, the other riders we have interacted with, and also by the students we have taught.
Occasionally, our personal journey leads us to discoveries that are real game changers for us. To others, they may be insignificant, but to us the world will never be the same afterwards. We can almost divide our riding career in pre-discovery and post-discovery. That’s how much these discoveries helped us improve our own riding. These game-changing discoveries will be different for everyone. In this blog post, I want to share some of my lightbulb moments that have helped me move to a higher level of understanding and practical skill. Perhaps they will be helpful for you as well, and maybe you can think of your own momentous discoveries and share them with us.
The old masters considered the horse’s natural crookedness to be a major obstacle in developing balance, suppleness, collection, impulsion, and “obedience” (i.e. positive responsiveness to the aids). Put positively, functional straightness is the foundation of balance, suppleness, collection, impulsion, and “obedience”. Without straightness, the horse won’t get very far in his training. Unfortunately, overcoming crookedness is not a trivial matter. It requires constant attention, and if the rider doesn’t work on straightening her horse every day, his innate crookedness will gradually increase again.
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.
There is a general tendency in all living beings to conserve energy, to avoid conflict if possible, and to travel the path of the least resistance. When they move, they try to do so in the most comfortable manner and with the least possible expenditure of strength and energy (they are only human, too).
Water seeks the lowest energy level by flowing downhill, through openings, and around obstacles. Electricity always seeks the path of the least resistance. It’s a natural law that you can observe every day in countless manifestations.
A student in our Video Coaching Program has observed that her horse found the exercises more strenuous than she had anticipated. He seemed to be a little tired the next day and perhaps a little muscle sore. So she asked me how she should structure her training from now on in order not to overface the horse while at the same time giving him enough physical exercise during a time of year when the weather conditions limit her turnout and trailriding options. This is a problem that many riders and horses face. That’s why I want to share a few thoughts on this subject here.
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?