The dressage horse’s frame changes depending on what stage of training he is at and what movement he is being asked to perform.
Likewise, the dressage judge expects to see a slightly different frame according to the level of competition and the movement she is judging.
Changing the horse’s frame or outline is a very useful schooling tool that helps to encourage the horse to work through his topline, to become more engaged, and to improve his suppleness. It is also necessary to change the frame in order to ride some dressage movements correctly.
In this article, we discuss how to change your horse’s frame and look at why you would want to do that.
What is the correct frame?
The term “frame” also refers to the horse’s outline.
In a general sense, a horse working in a correct frame should be round over the back, working in an uphill manner with well-engaged hindquarters, stretching through his topline to seek the bit, and with his nose either on or slightly in front of the vertical.
The horse’s frame should be able to lengthen and shorten like an accordion whilst still maintaining all of the above qualities.
Why does the horse’s frame change?
The horse’s frame changes depending on the movement he is being asked to perform. For example, collected movements will create a shorter frame and extended movements will require a lengthened frame.
Also, over time, the frame should change naturally as the horse’s training progresses and he learns to lower his hindquarters and take more weight behind. For this to happen, you must work methodically through the dressage Scale of Training, allowing your horse to develop physically and mentally without rushing things.
Why do we want to change the horse’s frame?
Frequently changing the frame in your daily schooling sessions is a very useful training tool, as long as it is done correctly.
Working the horse in a shorter and taller frame for short periods followed by work in a longer and lower frame will improve the horse’s thoroughness, connection, engagement, strength, and overall body suppleness.
Changing the frame frequently can also help prevent tiring muscles, ligaments, and joints, which can come from asking your horse to work in the same frame for an extended amount of time.
These frequent frame changes will also add a bit of variety into your horse’s work.
Lengthening the frame
When lengthening correctly, the horse’s body should appear longer from nose to tail and the energy should continue to flow over the horse’s back as he stretches for the bit.
Lengthening the frame is an excellent way to develop connection and elasticity, to help the horse lengthen his stride, and to become more expressive in the way that he moves.
Dressage tests include exercises that demand lengthening the frame. For example, the free walk on a long rein, the extended walk, and allowing the horse to stretch in working trot and working canter are all exercises that require a long frame.
In dressage tests, the lengthened frame exercises show the judge that the horse is genuinely working through his back from behind to seek the contact, so the training is progressing along the right lines, and the way of going is correct.
If the horse has been pulled into an outline, he either won’t stretch at all or will simply stick his head up in the air and hollow his back!
How to lengthen the frame
To lengthen the horse’s frame correctly, you must ride your horse from the back to the front, because without any meaningful engagement there will be little (or zero) lengthening.
So, before you ask your horse to lengthen his frame, ensure that he is first working through the back and seeking your contact.
When the horse is working correctly, lengthening the frame is simply a matter of allowing with your hands so the horse can stretch forward towards the bit and fill the rein.
How to lengthening the frame for extended strides
Asking the horse to produce extended strides and not allowing him to lengthen his frame is like stepping on the gas pedal without taking the handbrake off.
The frame must be lengthened enough to allow the horse to perform the movement, but not too much that the horse becomes strung out and all the previous engagement is lost.
Next, ask for bigger steps by aiding with both legs together and ease your hands slightly forward through your elbow joints to allow the horse’s frame to lengthen.
Don’t fire the horse into lengthening the stride and don’t throw away the contact. That will push him out of balance and rhythm, and he will probably fall onto his forehand and start running. Instead, gradually ask the horse to lengthen his stride, allowing the contact forward as you do so, whilst keeping the tempo and rhythm the same.
It is of the utmost importance that the balance is maintained. As your horse progresses in his training, then the transitions into and out of the lengthening can be more direct.
When teaching your horse to lengthen his stride and frame in trot, always ride the exercise rising. Sitting on the horse’s back will probably cause him to tighten up and become hollow.
Lengthening the frame for stretching
Allowing the horse to stretch into a longer and lower frame can be an enjoyable exercise for the horse and can, therefore, be used as a reward in between more challenging work.
The aim of lengthening the frame in this way encourages the horse to stretch through his entire topline, freeing the shoulder and loosening any tension in the back.
Keeping the horse working forward with plenty of activity and in a good rhythm, allow the horse to gradually take the rein forward whilst following the bit. To do this, you’re going to allow the reins to slowing slip through your fingers.
You must maintain the contact, though; don’t give the rein away.
Once the horse gets the idea and starts to stretch down the reins, you can allow him more freedom and ask for even more stretching.
As long as you keep a light rein contact, maintain the rhythm, activity, and connection, that’s mission accomplished!
Shortening the frame
Shortening the horse’s frame should come automatically and naturally as you progress through the training.
The horse learns to step further underneath himself to take more weight onto his hindquarters, lightening the forehand, and compressing the whole frame. This enables you to ride the higher level movements such as canter pirouettes, piaffe, and passage.
A shorter frame is the result of a higher degree of collection and engagement, and not the other way around.
Shortening the frame artificially with stronger rein aids will only result and stiffness and loss of activity.
How to shorten the frame
Once you have those components in place, you can then work on movements such as 10-meter circles, counter canter, direct transitions, and lateral exercises. Those, combined with the use of half-halts, will help to strengthen your horse and bring his balance more onto his hind legs, therefore, naturally compressing the frame.
It’s helpful to think of shortening the frame as a gathering of energy, since the more collection we require, the more impulsion is needed. It is not merely a case of shortening the stride, but a transfer of weight from the shoulders onto the hindquarters.
Lastly, it’s important to note that the process of shortening the horse’s frame should never be rushed. It is a gradual process and the horse must be given the time to develop the necessary strength and balance.
As your horse progresses in his training his frame and the way he carries himself should change. The long, low novice outline will be replaced by a more uphill, compressed frame that enables the horse to cope with the demands of collected work.
However, frequently changing the frame in your daily schooling sessions is very good practice. So, ride a 10-meter circle in a shortened frame, followed by medium trot in a slightly longer frame, and then a 20-meter circle allowing your horse to to lengthen the frame further by stretching on a long rein.
When combined together, they help develop the horse’s strength, suppleness, and throughness.