Step 1. Balance.
The difference between the average test, and the elite test, at least aesthetically (and in my humble opinion), is down to balance. Some horses find this concept easier; some humans find it easier; in the same way some people are clumsy by nature and others are elegant. This does not stop someone from being able to achieve balance on a horse, it can just make it a damn sight easier/harder depending on the natural predisposition of the horse and/or rider.
The conformation that has been passionately discussed in the last 2 blogs ( CONFORMATION-The good, the bad, the ugly and No Foot, No Horse... How? ), plays a key role in the moving function of the horse, and therefore in its balance with and without the rider. The biomechanics and art form that this creates is where the everlasting training and improvement that Dressage offers is formed… This hopefully begins to form the bridge, and connection between the Veterinary Physiotherapy and performance aspects, and the horse training considerations horsemen and women require.
First, a history lesson.
The German training scale was developed in the early 1900s, and is considered the fundamentals for training horses and what riders are judged on at competitions in the present day. The first 3-4 blocs are relatively interchangeable and inter-reliant, the latter 2-3 require the first blocks to be rock solid to be successfully achieved.
Balance is only the first step of the German training scale, and yet it is key to every stride, every movement, every training session, every competition, and to every other step in the training scale
A naturally well built, untrained 3-year-old is likely to have a 60:40 split of weight forehand:hindend, and is probably dominant on its left or right side (out of interest: this can often be spotted by the larger, flatter hoof, and is the hoof that is placed further forwards when grazing since a foal!). This horse also has no muscles or training to effectively carry a rider and is likely to motorbike around corners to compensate for this. In short, this horse struggles to balance.
Dressage principles train horses following the German training scale, with the ultimate goal/dream of mastering it, which is what the Grand Prix test entails. OBVIOUSLY, not all horses were created equal, and it would be borderline cruel to attempt this path with some horses. However; as hammered home in conformation blogs, the build of a horse can offer a helping hand towards achieving the balance and eventual collection required. Good conformation offers an even spread of pressure over joints, bones, muscles and tendons around the body. It also offers greater ease of balance and athletic ability. Balance has an effect in a horse standing still, as well as one in motion; an important concept to consider when relating conformation to movement…
Imagine you are being pushed by someone; they’re trying to knock you over. If you are steadfast on your feet, can maintain your balance and counter the force applied, you won’t be knocked over. However, if you don’t have the right posture or timing to counter their force, likelihood is you’ll kiss the dirt. This could be true if you are standing still, but it is also true when moving.
- Your horse will counter your demands and/or respond to them, as this example demonstrates. How fairly and effectively you ask your aids and how it effects them depends heavily on use of the half-halt and your position.
Recently I have been training and guiding Feather’s posture to be more uphill, with her nose more at the vertical and poll at the highest point. This is a pretty classic goal for us lot attempting to Dressage. Because of her lack of strength and fitness from lockdown 1.0, corners are actually an incredibly difficult lesson for us to master at the moment. This sounds ridiculous when she can train piaffe and passage, but there is no point in me pushing those movements if in every corner I feel her barrelling over her inside shoulder, burying her nose down and trying to shoulder punch her way down to Australia. No judge on the planet will be impressed with these moves sadly.
I cringe at this picture, but in efforts to educate, here we are. Problems: overflexion of the neck, and a neck thats too low. Falling over the inside shoulder as a result, instead of sitting back on the hindlegs and navigating around the corner in a balanced way.
BALANCE has been the key issue, as it usually is, and I realised quite how badly I was interfering with it yesterday. Through each corner, I have been doing my best to use my inside leg to get her in to my outside rein, and encouraging her to keep her head and neck UP, to keep the energy flow UP, through each corner, and not to dive inside, especially on the left rein. This meant my left hand was making a lot of small adjustments. I had one moment, I don’t know what brought it on other than I was thinking to myself:
“nothing is changing, and the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different response”
Something wasn’t adding up. Feather is smart and well-trained, I know how to ride a corner, she knows how to half-halt… WHY are we barrelling through each corner like a 3-year-old?!
I brought it all back to square one. We walked through a corner, I centered my weight over each seat bone and in to each elbow/hand pressure on the reins, and re-imagined the pillars that I like to think attach from her front hooves to my hands, and imagined these being upright, NOT leaning tower of Pisa. Low and behold, ,miraculously, instead of adjusting my left hand towards the middle of her neck as I had been, but keeping it in line with this pillar, taking my reins a bit shorter and making a straighter shape through her neck through these corners… we got better BODY bend (not just an over-flexed, over-bent neck), lift, balance, cadence and posture than I had achieved in the last 3 rides. I rode the damn corner and Feather could make it through it without toppling over herself.
a MUCH better example of the balance for a corner... nose at the vertical, upright posture in the rider's position AND the horse's, and no goofy over-bending nor over flexion. (Pic from 2019)
YAY for small wins. DOH for forgetting the basics.
I had forgotten to balance her. I had bend, I had forwards impulsion and I had her reactive from my aids, I just wasn’t setting her up in the right POSTURE and didn’t have the correct BALANCE.
Corners are so telling of training. “Tests are fought and won in corners” is another mantra I have learnt over my years of absorbing all horsey knowledge I can get my ears on, and this was a very telling moment of that.
Do not be disheartened, this mare is an international small tour horse and we STILL train corners. It counts a lot to be able to take a step back and consider why something isn’t improving though… chances are there’s a flaw in your basics and you need to reconsider your approach. YOU DO NOT NEED TO BEAT YOURSELF UP AS I WOULD HAVE DONE YEARS AGO. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, it doesn’t have to be difficult… But it can get you a heck of a lot further when you realise the issue!
1. If something isn’t changing, aka if your horse isn’t responding: Stop. Take a minute. Break down what you’re trying to fix, and how you are trying to fix it. You may not know how to ride a Grand Prix, but if you break your problem down, and consider the German training scale, or any Dressage basics, chances are logic could deliver you to your solution anyway… And if it doesn’t, find a good trainer who can!