Archive for March, 2011
In our previous lessons, we started making our horses a little more supple and responsive by bending, steering and turning. Believe it or not, by doing these exercises, we have been preparing ourselves for half-halts. But before we go any further, let’s look into what the half-halt actually is.
A Half-Halt is an attention grabber, the small adjustment that says “h e l l o” to your horse. Not only is it a powerful tool that improves whatever your horse is currently doing, but more importantly alerts him to a change that will be coming up. It is also an energizing action that gets your horse to use his hind end and step under his body with more power and sharpness. It is NEVER an isolated, out-of-the-blue yank of your horse’s mouth. Simply put, a half-halt is an outside rein aid, made by squeezing your outside shoulder back to create a slightly stronger pressure or feel on the bit. Not only does this pressure raise your horse’s outside shoulder, but it also makes his outside fore p a u s e a moment in his forward movement. It is this pause, in combination with a squeeze and push of your seat and leg, that encourages your horse’s inside hind to step farther, more powerfully underneath him to engage. A half-halt will help your horse move the best he possibly can with much more suspension.
We constantly hear our instructors say that we need to drive our horse’s hind end up to his front end and never, ever ride your horse front to back. While this is true, but if your horse is on the forehand and if you don’t do anything to elevate his shoulders enough to make room for his hind legs to step underneath himself, you can kick him until the cows come home, you’ll just make him more on his forehand and strung out!
Your horse must always answer your aids. The time has come to get that directive across to him once and for all…when you push or put your leg on, something has to happen and it has to happen NOW…not one, two or three strides from now, but now! You want to be able to close your leg and have your horse immediately respond forward all the time.
So, the half-halt is a wake up call to the horse that something different is coming up. But, what exactly does the half-halt need…it needs inside flexion! In the previous exercise, it was described how the inside flexion balances your horse a little more onto his outside shoulder. This balance also lets you half-halt against that flexion allowing for this aid to move up over his poll and neck to his shoulder. This is important…if the horse isn’t flexed, the half-halt is just another jerk on your horse’s mouth, not going anywhere dying a quick, ineffective death. Timing the half-halt simply means giving this aid when it is going to have the most positive impact. The most impact of the half-halt comes when your horse’s feet are coming up off the ground and beginning their forward movement and the least effective time is when the feet are heading towards the ground. So, it is important to practice the timing: the when, where and how you give the half-halt.
To learn the how of the half-halt, take up an energetic walk, tracking right. Sit tall in the saddle, making sure your weight is evenly distributed over both your seat bones, allowing your elbows to drop down relaxed by your sides. First flex your horse’s jaw to the inside by rotating your right knuckles towards your left hip, then squeeze your outside left shoulder back and a little down. Do not stiffen or arch your lower back, but simply squeeze your outside shoulder back and down. That’s all the required motion of the half-halt…but feel how it pulls your elbow and had back to increase more pressure on your horse’s mouth. Feel how that shoulder movement makes you sink into the saddle deeper pushing your inside seat bone forward and down for a definite inside leg to outside rein feel. Within the half-halt, your seat and legs say go and your hands say stop. An important thing to remember is that you can never push or pull at the same time with equal pressure, so for an upward transition, the force in your seat and leg (push) is stronger than the half-halt in your shoulder (pull). A downward transition, the half-halt is stronger in your shoulder (pull) than your seat and leg (push).
Also remember that there is no single strength for the half-halt. So as you perform the “how” of the half-halt at the correctly timed execution, the when and your horse does not respond, you will have to turn up the volume higher on the next execution. Remember in our previous exercise, we explained volume. If increasing this volume doesn’t work, you’ll need to be very loud in your next half-halt execution to a three quarter’s halt by bringing him down to almost a complete halt, but not quite, until he understands exactly what you want. When he does respond, remember to turn down the volume of your next half-halt only raising the volume when it is needed.
Try to incorporate the half-halt into absolutely everything you do with your horse in every gait. Every time you ask your horse to move forward, give him a downward half-halt transition. Do the half-halt often. Be patient. Learning to half-halt correctly and teaching your horse to respond to the half-halt does not happen quickly, it takes time. As your horse becomes more tuned-in to your aids, you will be able to make these aids by being very subtle and if there will be anyone watching you go through your movements, no one will see you execute the half-halt. Remember that half-halts are a very powerful effective aid that produces amazing results.
Good luck, Larissa.
By Larissa Cox
In my dressage training, I have had many conversations with people on what to look for in an ideal dressage prospect, and what the reality is for time and effort involved in training and reselling this prospect. The time and training for each horse is highly dependant on the owners, trainers, and riders involved. Each situation is different, and this article is merely meant as a suggestion of what to take into consideration when buying your dressage horse.
Although any horse can do dressage, to be highly competitive, I would suggest focusing on warmboods or warmblood-crosses for good prospects. Warmbloods are just build for the power, suspension, and animation needed in the sport. That being said, it is still important to keep in mind good conformation. Although some undesirable attributes, namely muscling, can be more or less “fixed” with proper work and physical therapies, certain conformational faults cannot. It will be more difficult for a horse that is slightly croup-high to appear to be travelling uphill in the ring. A horse with a small and weak hind-end cannot sustain the training needed for upper-level dressage, and a horse with a too obtuse angle in his shoulder cannot have the expressive trot as desired in competition. Buying a horse with good conformation, regardless of breed, should expedite the training process, and make the horse easier for resale. It is also extremely important when looking at dressage horse prospects, to keep in mind temperament. A horse must be willing to yield to rein contact when riding at all gaits, and appear submissive to the rider. This is not to say that the horse should appear dull. A great dressage horse should have a lively, energetic gait, yet still be respectful and responsive to their rider. In a green prospect, you would be looking for a willing and calm disposition in a horse.
In theory, a horse started at 3 or 4 could be competing at Grand Prix by 10 to 12 years of age. This is of course very highly dependent on the horse’s physical ability, his work ethic, and the riders and trainers involved. I do not believe a horse should be pushed up the levels strictly because “he is getting older”. This can be very damaging for a horse’s psyche, and could create severe problems for future training. That being said, a horse can be resold for a profit, even if it has not reached high levels of dressage. If past performance is any indicator of future performance, horses that have a very strong showing history, even if only in lower levels, will have a high resale value. Earning championships and reserve-championships at any recognized show will help raise the value of your horse. It is important to register horses in their respective breed clubs and dressage associations to achieve yearly awards. Considering the cost involved in keeping and training a horse, one might consider not putting in the effort to train a green horse to FEI levels before selling, but rather create a solid show record at lower levels to maintain a profit for resale.
Make use of a horse’s strengths instead of focusing on his weaknesses. It is important to remember that a dressage test encompasses all the horses gaits. If a horse has a strong trot, but a weak walk, do not stop trotting your horse! Perfect your horse’s naturally good gaits and do the best you can with the other movements. In terms of maximizing a horse’s strengths and minimizing weaknesses in the show ring, a well groomed and turned out horse and good rider always helps. A sloppy rider and a dirty horse is distracting for a judge. A clean and neat horse and rider shows the judge respect, and tells them they are there to win. A rider who is not balanced will also be a distraction. Instead of paying attention to the horses movement, they will be focusing on the bouncing rider. A rider with a good seat will be able to showcase the horse in all their gaits..Choosing the ideal prospect horse is an ambitious task, and requires the involvement of several people. Without good trainers and coaches, training of young prospect horses can be difficult and be mentally and physically damaging to the horse and the rider. However, when things go right, training can be enjoyable, and the value of the horse is increased.
This article was originally published in April 2009 for Deanna Castro’s Professional Horse Blogazine. Check it out here.
Image by Tigra1988 on Deviant Art.
The USDF defines suppleness as a “combination of lateral (side-to-side) flexibility, and longitudinal (front-to-back) balance.” The USDF manual contains an excerpt from the British Horse Society Manual of Equitation that offers an excellent explanation of the concept of suppleness:
The aim is a suppleness which allows the relaxed co-ordination of every muscle and joint. Tension is the major restriction on such an aim…The most common area of tension is the back – for the horse naturally tends to stiffen and become rigid under the weight of the rider…
To supple him laterally he must learn to bend round the rider’s inside leg…He must not be allowed to increase the weight on the inside rein and must be encouraged to engage the inside hind leg…
To supple him longitudinally means that:
- He brings his hind legs more underneath his body,
- He learns to lift and swing his back.
- He makes his top line rounder by lengthening the muscles along his back and neck.
The German training system, this suppleness concept is called losgelassenheit. According to Harry Boldt, former German national dressage coach, “When a horse goes rhythmically, and the rider is able to push, the horse relaxes his neck and back muscles, obtaining a deeper neck flexion, thus enabling the quarters to be drawn under his body. This achieved, the horse is “losgelassen”. It is interesting to note that the stretchy circle, which was added to the Training and First Level dressage tests years ago, allows the horse to gradually take the reins out of the rider’s hands while stretching forward and down, as described by Boldt, is a good test of losgelassenheit.
BENDING THE NECK, OR SOFTENING THE JAW
This exercise not only stretches your horse’s topline but also increases lateral flexibility in his poll. I see a lot of overbending (too much bend in the neck) in dressage, and that is not good riding.
Come to a quiet, square halt in the arena from an engaged walk so that your horse stands in a working frame. Squeeze your fingers on your left hand, flexing your wrist very slightly inward as well as shifting your weight to your left seat bone. Ask your horse to release his neck and jaw to the left, bringing his head around so you can see his left eye. Your horse’s nose should be just over the point of his left shoulder, nothing more. Remember, you need to soften when your horse does as you ask. Soften the rein and even out your seat bones allowing your horse to straighten his neck. You should now have even contact on both reins.
Repeat this exercise at a halt a few times, and then do the same on the right side. Practice this until your horse is entirely responsive and his neck is soft and supple in front of you. When you are sitting on your right seat bones, and your horse is flexed right, he is very slightly balanced on his left shoulder. When you are sitting evenly on both seat bones, your horse is pretty much between his shoulders and when you are sitting on your left seat bone and your horse is flexed left, he is balanced on his right shoulder. This is your ultimate goal to achieve this kind of balance.
Do not ask for too much flexion. You do not want your horse to curl up, come behind the vertical, putting his chin on his chest and flex at the fifth vertebra instead of the poll. This is an evasion technique that once a horse learns it, it can be next to impossible to un-teach!
Good Luck, Larissa.
EXERCISE TWO – The loop line
Have you ever noticed how your horse loves to hug the rail? If you let go of the reins and let your horse go wherever he wants, more than likely it will be the rail. So, when you constantly ride the rail not only are you reinforcing his desire to hug the rail, but chances are that your horse is also not only not paying attention to you but also has a great likelihood of being crooked as well. Why would your horse be crooked on the rail…well it is because his hindquarters are wider than his forehand and when his outside fore and his outside hind are glued to the rail, his inside hind is farther into the arena than his inside fore, which means his spine is slightly curved in and yes, you guessed it…he’s not straight.
This leads us to my next exercise the loop line. Loop your horse back and forth in shallow serpentines around the arena asking your horse to bend evenly throughout his whole body. In order to perform the loop line effectively, you will need to use a little more weight on your inside seat bone and some pressure from your outside leg to perform this exercise. Just as you did in exercise 1, ride your horse in a loose rein at a walk so you can focus on what you are doing and coordinate your timing so that the switch from one inside seat bone and outside leg to the other is smooth and gentle. Also pay attention to your horse’s balance as he goes from one soft curve to the next.
So let’s pick up an energetic walk remembering that no matter what gait your are in the quality of the gait is the most important element of any exercise you perform. Always check your position. Are you sitting tall in the saddle with your shoulders and hips perpendicular across the track you are on and is your weight evenly distributed on both your seat bones. Remember your classic straight line posture from your elbow to your hand to your bit.
The early stages of this exercise will be performed at the quarter line to rail. At the quarter line, ask your horse to start a serpentine by making a shallow loop to the right. Keep your shoulders square and level as you gently shift and sit a bit deeper on the inside right. Drop your weight all the way down through your seat bone through your thigh and lower leg into your heel. Remember that this is a very gentle shift in weight and it should not be obvious at all to anyone who is watching you ride this exercise. Your horse should respond by looking and bending evenly around to the right. Have you ever gone roller skating and wanted to move to the right? What did you do? To change direction slightly, you shifted your balance slightly to move in that direction, nothing more than a slight shift in balance otherwise you probably would hit the floor. This is exactly what you want to do riding the loop line, a gentle shift in weight…remember the fly.
As you shift your weight and balance, bring your outside leg slightly back from the hip to where it is just a little bit behind the girth. Ask your horse to follow your shift and curve around to the right by pressing and softening your left leg in time with his walk rhythm. Your horse should respond by looking and bending evenly around to the right, from his head to his tail. If he keeps walking straight, help him understand what you want with your inside rein. Hold a slight inside rein contact until he starts to turn and bend to the right then immediately soften your hand and return once again to your loose rein. What I mean by slight inside rein contact is just that… squeeze your fingers on the rein and rotate your wrist just enough to point your knuckles toward your outside hip. Do not cross over the wither or pull your horse’s nose in the direction you want him to go. The goal of this exercise is to do this serpentine with as little rein as possible. You want your horse to learn that when you change your balance through your seat bone, he needs to change the bend in his body. Eventually, you will be able to do this exercise without any rein at all just a shift in seat pressure will be the message to your horse.
Do not start your next loop without asking your horse to get straight for several strides. Asking your horse to go from one bend to the other without going straight will not only upset and confuse him but will be a very easy way to unbalance him as well. Once you are sitting evenly in your saddle and your horse feels straight ask him to bend and turn to the left. Shift your weight to the left seat bone, bring your right leg back from your hip and start pressing him around rhythmically to his walk. Continue with the serpentine…right – straight – left – straight – right – straight – left.
A bit about leg pressure, don’t clamp your leg on your horse’s side and keep it there as constant pressure. Very quickly your horse will ignore the leg pressure because it’s always there. Instead, you need to use your leg as intermittent pressure and always in rhythm. Your leg is a communication tool. I remember watching a movie about a Mores Code operator and her ability to communicate through a series of dots and dashes and always within a rhythm. Just think of your leg as that a series of dots and dashes communicating with your horse and sometimes your leg contact will be longer than other times providing messages to your horse that he will understand.
By doing this exercise, you will learn to quietly change position and reapply pressure. This exercise is a very useful one that will provide future rewards when you want to go into smooth transitions from a shoulder-in to haunches-in, and eventually to flying changes.
Good luck with this exercise, Larissa.
Part 1: Forward and not so forward.
As an instructor, I have been frequently asked what exercises students can do to create a better equine athlete. Your horse may never go to the Olympics but he’s doing a sport and he should have the best possible chance of using all of his body correctly and well. This month, I will be featuring weekly exercises that you can do at home to improve performance which has also been shown to reduce unnecessary sports injuries. None of these exercises will interfere with whatever you are doing with your horse currently and all horse can benefit from these gymnastic exercises whether he’s a dressage horse, hunter or a backyard pony.
Firstly, it is important to establish your position. Sit with the classic straight line from your shoulder to your hip to your heel and with your shoulder tall but relaxed. Keep the seam on the side of your breeches vertical from your waist to your seat and you’ll be able to eliminate many common position problems such as perching, falling behind the motion, hollowing your back or collapsing in your middle and rolling onto your back pockets. As your upper body influences your horse’s shoulders and forehand, it is important to keep your shoulder perpendicular to the track and your chest looking where you want to go. (I remember my first riding instructor telling me to point my belly button where I wanted the horse to go.) Allow your upper arm to hang softly vertical by your side and have your forearm be an extension of the rein, in other words form part of the straight line from elbow to hand to bit. Close your fingers softly but firmly on the reins and hold your hands with your thumbs up. If the backs of your hands have the same angle as your horse’s shoulder, they will have an effective position and the best distance apart.
Exercise 1: Going forward and not so forward (Forward and Back)
Use your seat to start teaching your horse to communicate and respond through his back which is the first process toward lengthening; this also applies to collection and extension. By using your seat which is actually your butt, seat bones and thighs, you’ll be able to create an accordion like response in your horse, developing this longitudinal flexibility which is his ability to lengthen and shorten his stride instantly to your pushes. Longer pushes mean longer strides, shorter pushes mean shorter strides.
Ride the walk on a straight line, with either a long or loose contact as this will encourage you to make your seat aids more effective. In this exercise, go from a medium walk to a freer walk, where your horse stretches taking up more ground and takes up longer strides, the longer the better. Then smoothly return to a medium walk. Lengthen the walk using your seat and leg, then shorten the push in your seat to shorten the steps in the walk.
Feel the movement of your horse’s rib cage. When the rib cage swings left, you’ll feel it push your left leg out a bit and this is when your horse’s right hind is stepping forward. Perhaps have a friend call out to you, “right, left, right, left” in time with your horse’s movement until you get the feel of this movement. Each time your horse lifts a hind leg off the ground, smoothly and rhythmically use your seat aid to give him a push forward asking him to take a longer step. You should be able to feel him get longer, looser and generate a nice swing under you. What’s a push? I describe the push as that movement you used to make on your swing when you were a kid to get the swing to go higher, it’s like a scoop. I have heard some trainers refer to the “push” as polishing the saddle with your seat. Whichever image works for you, just remember to keep relaxed as you push and don’t tighten your body. Remember an effective seat comes from sitting into your horse, not sitting on top of your horse.
Not all pushes are equal. I compare a push to that of a radio volume. When I’m first teaching my horse to listen to my seat or push, I may need to turn up the volume to 9 or 10 out of 10 so that he clearly understands what I want. Once he responds, I reduce the volume to maybe 3 or 4. If he makes a mistake, up goes the volume. I always try, however, to make my seat aids as quiet as possible even though the volume is high. Remember, if a horse can feel a fly on his side, he can feel the lightest of your aids. As soon as you horse responds to this soft push, you’ll never want to use a heavier, louder aid again. The true achievement of dressage, I think, is giving the impression to a passer-by that you’re just sitting on the horse enjoying the ride and your horse is doing what’s required of his own free will.
Ask for shorter strides by stretching up your upper body, growing tall in the saddle reaching for the sky and shortening the push. If after a stride or two your horse still continues at the same stride, take up the reins slightly telling him to come back because your seat was telling him to shorten that stride. Maintain the contact until he takes a shorter step, then reward him by softening your hands forward and return into a loose/long contact. After 4 or 5 steps of a shorter walk, again use longer pushes to move your horse forward with longer strides. Continuing altering between longer and shorter pushes until he immediately responds to your seat with longer and shorter strides.
Good Luck, Larissa
By: Larissa Cox
Although we think we are doing a service to our horses safely tucking them in a stall at night, this artificial environment may actually be a detriment to the horse’s welfare. This power point presentation uses the Five Freedoms (FAWC 1992) to evaluate the welfare of stabled horses in today’s society as well as how we can enrich this environment to offer greater happiness to the horse.
Click on the link below to view my Power Point Presentation. Once the file loads in Microsoft PowerPoint, you can choose the slide show option and then click the right arrow key to advance to the next screen.