It’s hard to believe the year is nearly over, or how much we have covered in this series, from establishing trust, obedience and respect; to creating calmness and rhythm; and, most recently, developing suppleness, straightness and balance. These are the foundations that I believe you must have in order to go forward successfully with your horse.
Sadly, my experience is that many horses are started, or being trained, without these foundations. As a result, they often get labelled as ‘failures’ that ‘don’t have what it takes.’ That’s why, for this final article in the series, I have chosen to feature a 17-yearold Warmblood gelding that I have had in training for a week. He made it to medium-level dressage, but never beyond, simply because he was told that was all he could do. I will use him as an example to show you how putting all the pieces together really does establish a strong foundation to build on with your horse.
Thinking Time Tip
If a teacher tells you long enough that your abilities are limited, you may believe it yourself. As a result, that teacher is going to work with you according to what he or she believes you have to offer, not in a way that brings out your best or your full potential. Surround yourself with people – friends, coaches or trainers – who are supportive and give you the confidence to achieve your goals. Find a teacher who can take you and your horse as far as you are mentally and physically able to go, without taking you past your limits.
Suppleness, straightness and balance leads to impulsion
In order to increase his suppleness, I introduced circles and counter-bending (or reverse arc) circles. To execute a counter-bent circle, if I am doing a circle to the right, I will change the bend to the left while I continue going right on the circle. This encourages the horse to bring his hind legs under his belly a little bit more, which helps to increase suppleness and, therefore, impulsion.
I begin my counter-bend to the left by tipping the horse’s nose to the right with my right rein and supporting the continued circle to the left with my right leg at the girth. As I turn 180 degrees, my right leg will move slightly behind the girth to ask and initiate the right canter lead. I will reverse the rein and leg cues in the same sequence for a left canter lead.
I find this counter-bend exercise not only supples the horse, it helps straighten him by making him bend equally on both sides. Working on the counter-bend strengthens both hind legs, just as shoulder-in does, and requires the hind legs to step under the horse’s body a little more, which in turn requires more flexion of the joints of the hind legs. Counter-bent circles also demonstrate how uneven the horse is on one side because it will be more difficult for him to bend to one side than the other. The counter bend circle engages the horse’s legs under his body a little better than an ordinary circle, where it is not hard for the horse to always have one engaged leg (closer to his body and under) and one disengaged leg (out behind).
As I do this exercise, this so-called “lazy”, “no impulsion” and “dead to the leg” horse develops great propulsive power as I straighten him out of the counter bend for a perfect canter departure on the correct lead each time. He responds to my light leg aids and is forward of the leg as a result. Note that forward of the leg or “off the leg” as some call it, is simply a term to describe a) how a horse responds to the leg cue to move forward as soon as the leg cue is given to the horse; and b) how the horse does not react negatively to the leg cue and there is no delay or requirement for an additional leg cue to get the horse moving forward. I do not use a spur in order to get the horse to be forward of the leg because I want a light and responsive horse, not a nervous, reactive horse. The horse will never become light to the leg aid if we train him with heavy thumps!
When I ask him to maintain the canter and apply leg again, he reacts by pigrooting (kicking his legs out after a hump) and then gives a little rear straight after that, when his kicking out didn’t get a reaction from me. On the way down from his rear, I pull the reins downward, as if to say to the horse, ‘It was your choice to go up, but it is my choice now to bring you down to the ground.’ I stayed focused on going forward, and that little rear was nothing more than that, as I applied the leg aid again to let him know he should not be scared of it. When a horse rears, it is important to release your hands and reins forward so there is no pressure on them to pull the horse backwards. On the down phase, I will bring the rein downwards to speed his descent and to re-establish that I am in control and he follows my lead now. If you have had no experience with rearing horses, just leave the reins lose – you do not want to pull backwards instead, even though the horse is coming down from rearing. It’s all about timing.
This horse reared because he did not want to go forward. Because this horse had been labelled lazy and dead to the leg, his riders had stopped using leg aids, getting him forward only by the tap of the whip. This made him defensive, and meant the only way to keep him going was through the intimidation of a whip or spur.
If I had used the whip, the horse would continue forward, but I don’t use one, and I would rather that the horse understands my natural aids, not artificial ones. I do not want to intimidate him.
Rather, I want to school him and let him know he does not have to be defensive against a rider’s leg. This horse did not do anything wrong in my eyes, he was simply defending himself. It is my job to make sure he becomes responsive instead of reactive and defensive.
It is very hard to move forward in his training if a whip is necessary to get him to go forward. The whip had been a ‘quick fix’ to get him forward on the belief that he was dead to the leg and to prevent rearing, if it was applied quickly enough when he wanted to slow down and plant his feet. I certainly do not want to teach flying lead changes, tempo and tempi changes through the tap of a whip. To me, that is just a ‘trick.’ It deceives the horse and robs him from the chance to learn and succeed in his grades in order, as he deserves.
Thinking Time Tip
You can have impulsion without collection (or self-carriage), but you cannot have collection without impulsion. And impulsion requires both straightness and balance.
While not every horse will make it to the top of the sport, just like not every baseball player makes it to the major leagues, that doesn’t mean we can rob them of the opportunity to develop to their full potential. A good teacher is first and foremost a great student who can individually adjust the teaching method according to the speed at which the student can successfully learn.
Moving Toward Collection
This horse is also an excellent example of what happens when collection is the immediate goal instead of developing the calmness, rhythm, contact, straightness, balance and impulsion (forwardness), and the suppleness that comes with lateral work. He had been worked in a ‘frame’ or a forced ‘head set,’ without ever being given the chance to develop these critical elements of proper self-carriage. Self-carriage is the ability of the horse to carry himself, rather than the rider ‘holding’ the horse’s head because he does not understand how to use his body properly.
This sort of unrealistic expectation, which is based on achieving a ‘look’ or demonstrating an exercise (such as flying lead changes), shows a lack of understanding about the nature of the horse, as well as the foundations we have highlighted here. All too often, I see shortcuts, such as a harsher bit, rather than the use of schooling to help the horse understand proper contact – bit or no bit.
True collection is something horses give us when they have developed the strength and balance to carry themselves with calmness and rhythm. That requires the horse to have over 700 muscles working correctly, and the rider to have good balance and an independent seat. A horse that is forced into a “frame” is often heavy on the forehand with a hollow back and disengaged steps. In essence, the horse is working from front to back, rather than back to front into the hands.
In order to help this horse develop self-carriage after years of working in a forced “frame'”I must first “undo” a few things. For instance, working in a forced “frame” has caused the development of wrong muscles in his neck. This is a result of the horse breaking at the weakest part of the neck, instead of being poll high. I need to help him understand contact and get him to use his back properly and develop his topline, including the ligaments, muscles and tendons that bear the rider’s weight.
In just one short week, this horse proved that he was not lazy. Instead, he had gone through his training career lacking calmness, suppleness and straightness, which made it difficult for him to develop impulsion. You know, if our parents allowed us always to crawl and didn’t encourage us to get upright and walk straight, we would all be crawling today. I am glad that they, and those we met in our formative years, expected us to be upright and straight. I expect the horse to be supple and straight too. Then we can move forward to a promising future!
Take Home Message
Patience is far more than a virtue when it comes to training horses. It is absolutely critical to helping both horse and rider achieve their full potential. I often tell people, “Go slowly and you’ll get there more quickly.”