Scales of Training (Part 2)
The term rhythm refers to the regularity of the steps and strides in each gait/pace. They should be of an equal distance and of equal duration regardless of whether the horse is on a straight line, on a bend or undertaking lateral work. for example in the trot, each diagonal pair of legs should cover the same ground.
No exercise or movement can be considered good if the rhythm falters and it will signify to the rider that either the training is incorrect or the horse is not yet ready to do such movements through lack of suppleness or strength.
In addition the dressage horse is expected, through the correct training to develop cadence in the rhythm, that is to say lift and lightness in each step producing a more defined moment of suspension. This can only be achieved through a steady and progressive system of training to enhance the purity of the paces and should never be forced as this will lead to the steps hovering which is a sign of stiffness and tension in the back.
It is important that the rider understands the correct footfalls of each pace (which we will look at in a later
Improving your test riding- Understanding the Movement Directives
In many countries the words for travers and half pass are the same so the rider should be thinking of them as the same movement, although the travers is generally ridden along the wall and the half pass ridden across the arena. The benefit of the travers is the increased engagement of the inside leg which has to bend more and carry more weight which is more important than the crossing over of the outside hind leg.
In the travers the horse’s quarters are brought in off the track by the rider’s outside leg and rein so that the inside hind leg moves a little inside the tracks of the inside foreleg. The horse moves in the direction of the flexion and bend with the outside legs crossing over in front of the inside ones. In addition the hind legs move closely together towards the centre of gravity with the inside hind leg carrying more weight and has more bend in the joints because the horse’s weight is moved sideways across it.
In order to ride the travers it is helpful if the horse and rider understands the aids for the shoulder in as the rider needs to ensure that they can have the horse bent with even suppleness around the inside leg as the inside leg will need to be the way to activate the all-important inside hind leg. The inside rein works with the inside leg to create and maintain lateral bend , whilst the outside rein controlling the degree of bend (to ensure that the base of the neck does not overbend) and supports the outside leg. The outside leg is positioned slightly back behind the girth to encourage the sideways movement. There is often confusion from the horse, if the rider uses the outside driving aid behind the girth to create the canter as the leg aids are similar. However the rider should maintain the position of the seat and weight slightly down and forwards to the inside in the travers aid rather than up and forwards from the inside seat bone as in the canter transition. It is the rider’s inside leg that develops the lateral bend and collection which is why it is important to develop a clear understanding of this inside leg acceptance in the shoulder in before starting the travers.
It is useful to start the travers work in walk so that the rider gains a clear understanding of the aids and the co-ordination required, the travers in the trot is designed to increase the suppleness. The travers is not ridden in canter as many horse want to become crooked with the quarters to the inside in the canter due to loss of balance and the movement of the hind legs in the canter mean that the horse is not able to cross the outside hind leg in front of the inside hind leg so we will consider the use of quarters in whilst in canter in the next article on half pass. In classical training, the travers is finished by bringing the forehand into the inner track to bring it into alignment with the quarters and then the inside leg takes the horse sideways in a leg yield to return to the track. For this reason it is often beneficial to train the horse to do this movement on a large circle rather than on the long side as the rider can then continue the movement for a larger number of steps rather than having to keep making the adjustment to negotiate the corners of the school. In a test situation it is more usual to allow the horse to take the quarters back to the track for the last step before going through the corner.
By riding from shoulder in to travers and back again, the horse becomes more” through “, improves the lateral suppleness and the obedience to the aids. For this reason it is very important to make sure that the movement is ridden correctly without excessive bend in either the neck or by moving the quarters in too much as this will make the inside hind leg step too much away from the centre of gravity (and to the outside) so that the collection is not developed. It is also important that the trot or walk remains in a clear rhythm and any such fault should be corrected by straightening the horse and riding forwards with energy,
Aids v communications (1)
From the very start of learning to ride we are told about the aids we must use for the horse to respond to us. However I feel that by changing the language then we can change our attitude towards what we are doing. When you are using your hands, legs, seat or body weight you are not aiding the horse-the idea is that the horse does it of his own accord- your job is to communicate with the horse so that he understands what you want him to do. Once you start thinking in those terms and consider what your body is communicating to the horse then that is the start of improving your communication system.
The emergence of clicker training and similar systems has shown how simple communication can work well but the concern in some of these systems is that this encourages a “circus-like” approach. Personally I do not use clicker training but appreciate how it can be of benefit in certain circumstances particularly in early training. However, as it is not permissible in dressage tests (as it is an artificial aid), it can cause confusion if different riders are riding a particular horse or the horse needs to be sold (it is like teaching a horse a the horse only a foreign language where the majority only speak English) and I do not feel it is suitable for teaching movements such as lateral work then I prefer to train with more conventional communications.
The next phase is to consider what you are communicating to your horse when you are riding. The most basic area relates to the natural horsemanship areas- are you communicating with confidence, belief and relaxation? If you are tense or lacking confidence then any sensitive horse will pick up on that and being a flight animal (one whose main response is ot sun away from any danger rather than stand and fight) it will make him more on edge and less able to relax his body and therefore develop the schwung and thoroughness that is required in dressage. In addition, by being physically tight in your seat and thigh area you can be asking the horse not to go forwards even though you believe you are asking the horse to go forwards.
So your primary step is to ensure that you are relaxed in your back, groin, hips, shoulders and in your mind-that is why you need to ensure that you keep good strength in your core to maintain your own balance without negative tensions elsewhere.
Goal of the Month: Going Back to Basics
It is important for a rider to check regularly that in pressing forwards with new movements that you do not lose sight of the basics. At the start of every session you should ensure that the horse is in front of your leg so that he responds to the aids swiftly and without resistance and that the horse is accepting the contact evenly and without resistance. The training session cannot truly begin until those elements are in place.
At least once a week the rider should use their training session to focus on the basics, rhythm, suppleness, contact and impulsion. Exercises such as transitions between the paces, 8-10 trot strides followed by 3-4 walk strides back to trot repeating 2-3 times on every circle repeating this on figures of eight, serpentines and shallow loops and then repeating the exercise again but between trot and canter and then canter and walk.
Another important exercise is to ask for canter and counter canter on straight line, such as the inner track and centre line to ensure that the horse is straight and truly on the aids. Then ask the horse to take a few medium steps and use the corner or a small circle to bring the steps shorter (rather than relying on the hands) to encourage longitudinal suppleness and increased activity of the hindlegs these exercises can be undertaken firstly in trot then in canter.
If the horse struggles with any of these exercises or loses the supple connection through their back then this should send the rider a warning that the basics need additional focus, Once these aspects are consistent and easy then the rider can be confident that their foundations are strong and progress can continue.