How Dressage Work Can Keep Your Horse Sound
If you’re into dressage, the great news for you is that the sport you love can help to keep your horse sound for longer!
Well, in this inspiring and interesting article, we explain how dressage can keep your horse sound, no matter what level you ride at.
Strength + balance = a sound horse!
The best way to keep your horse sound and healthy for the longest time is to school him using sympathetic methods that strengthen him without stressing his body.
To do that, you’ll need to ride in balance. That’s because a lack of balance inevitably causes stress and tension.
A balanced horse works freely forward in a good rhythm, supple through his back, seeking the bit, and all without any tension.
Every horse lacks balance to a certain degree, and that’s before you add a rider’s weight to the mix.
Good dressage riders are always working to manage and correct balance problems.
A horse can lack balance longitudinally (back to front) and laterally (side to side).
Lets’ look at both individually.
- How to Improve Your Horse’s Balance
- How to Improve Rider Balance
- How to Develop Balance and Symmetry in Both Horse and Rider
- 3 Exercises to Help Improve Your Dressage Horse’s Suppleness and Balance
1. Longitudinal balance issues
Horses are naturally inclined to make transitions using their forehand rather than their hindquarters. That means that the front and the back of the horse usually lack coordination.
When you ride an upward transition, what happens? Is the horse’s reaction to use his whole body to make the transition, or does he initiate the transition with only his forehand?
Most horses tend to move off using their front end, dragging their hind end behind them.
However, when the horse’s hindquarters do the work, they instantly elevate the forehand.
When the horse is on the forehand, he will cover more ground with his front end through the transition. That will leave the horse strung out in his outline and hollow over his back, and usually heavy in the contact.
In contrast, when the horse’s back end is his driving force, the horse covers more ground with his hindquarters and the forehand becomes lighter.
The same principle applies to the downward transitions.
When riding a downward transition, what happens? It’s usually the horse’s hindquarters that stop while the forehand continues onward.
The outcome is the same; the horse is tense and hollow through his back, on his forehand, and heavy in the rider’s hand.
A horse is naturally unbalanced in that he is built on his forehand thanks to his heavy head and large neck, which protrude from what is effectively a table-like body.
So, every horse has the same fundamental problems.
But how do you correct those annoying balance issues?
How to improve longitudinal balance
When trying to improve the horse’s balance, transitions and half-halts are your most important tools.
Using both these tools, persistently and consistently, you will eventually teach the horse to use his back and hindquarters in response to the aids from your seat and leg.
Ideally, you want the horse to respond by relaxing his forehand and waiting a moment while the hindlegs become engaged and step underneath his body to balance the transition.
How the horse’s hindquarters work
Here’s what the horse’s hindleg does:
- The hindleg thrusts the horse off the ground, transmitting energy through the back and neck to the contact.
- The hindleg then reaches, ideally directly beneath your center of gravity.
- Finally, the hindleg carries weight, depending on the horse’s stage of training and physical development.
So, you need to consider how you want the horse’s quarters to work.
If you want the horse to give you more power, you need to increase the amount of thrust. If that power is making the horse stiffen through his back, you must reduce the amount of thrust.
If the horse’s hindquarters hop up or he becomes crooked, he’s evading the engagement. If the horse is crooked, then you need to address the reach. You may not necessarily need more of it, but you want the horse to reach for a specific place, i.e., underneath you, rather than to the side.
So, how do half-halts help to improve the coordination of the horse?
Half-halts work by balancing the horse and helping him to wait with the forehand, working more specifically with his hindquarters.
The half-halt can have different meanings:
- Balance under the rider before a lateral exercise
- Balance under the rider before an extended trot
- Balance under the rider around a 10-meter circle
- Balance under the rider before turning
- Balance under the rider before jumping a fence
So, you can see that a half-halt can mean countless things. However, the one common denominator is that the half-halt always means “step more underneath the rider” by placing the quarters in a weight-bearing position.
The horse and rider will be most in balance when and the horse steps directly under the rider’s center of gravity with his inside hind leg.
Like half-halts, transitions can be used to ask the horse to step underneath the weight of his rider. However, riding lots of transitions will only help him if you know why you’re riding them and what result you hope to achieve.
A good downward transition will achieve the “wait” element of the half-halt, in that the transition closes the horse’s frame through his back from behind into the contact.
Riding upward transitions teaches the horse reach with his inside hindleg under the rider’s center of gravity and to thrust himself forward.
Transitions can also be used to transfer the horse’s weight from the forehand to the hindquarters.
2. Lateral balance
The horse’s balance is also challenged laterally. That’s because horses are naturally left or right-handed, just like people are.
Also, horses are naturally built wider behind than they are in front. So, the horse’s wider hindquarters naturally push his weight onto the forehand.
The wide hindquarters also make it very difficult for the horse to move completely straight. When your horse moves along a straight line, his inside hindleg will automatically travel along its own track, slightly to the inside.
Take, for example, a horse that is moving on a straight line on the right rein.
Thanks to the horse’s natural right or left-sided favoritism, the horse’s right hind is carrying more weight than the left. This causes the right hindleg thrust to push his shoulders away left, with the result that the horse feels heavier in the left rein. Also, the horse’s wide thrust from the hindquarters will push his weight onto his forehand.
Under saddle, an experienced rider can encourage the horse to step underneath his center of gravity through using shoulder-fore positioning to narrow the track of the hindlegs.
A horse will never move completely straight when left to his own devices, simply because of how he’s made. Your influence as a rider is the only way to make your horse truly straight and in balance.
Making the horse straight
To make the horse straight, you’ll need make the track of his inside hindleg narrower so that it comes directly behind his inside foreleg, and then narrow it further so that it steps into the area between the front feet. That brings the hindleg immediately underneath the horse and aligns his center of gravity with yours.
So, in the case of the right-handed horse, as he tracks his inside hind to the left towards the center of gravity, he will tend to move his outside hind to the left too in order to accommodate. But you want the left hindleg to track behind the outside foreleg to assist in carrying more of the horse’s weight on his outside.
That positioning is called “shoulder-fore.” Shoulder-fore is not an exercise in itself; it’s the way that you should always ride the horse to help him carry himself. (Not to be confused with shoulder-in.)
You will use your inside leg to the outside rein with your outside leg guarding to prevent the quarters from stepping out.
Riding your horse in shoulder-fore, simply means that you are riding straight, and is something that you should do all the time.
If you can teach your horse to become more coordinated, you’ll be rewarded with a healthy, happy, sound horse.
Here’s a very useful exercise that you can use to help straighten your horse to improve his lateral balance.
You can use a mirror for this exercise, or you can ask a friend or your instructor to video you from a head-on position that shows your horse walking in a straight line.
- On the right rein, start by flexing your horse very slightly to the inside (right) and make sure that you have a good connection between your inside leg and outside rein.
- Now, ask the horse to step between the tracks of his two front feet with his inside right hindfoot.
- You should not be able to see the outside (left) hindfoot because it will step into the same track as the left forefoot.
At first, your horse will find this exercise very challenging, and it does take a while to perfect your coordination too. Don’t give up!
Once the penny has dropped and you’ve both worked out how to do the exercise, try it on the other rein, and then move on to ride shoulder-fore in trot and canter.
How to ride a half-halt
There are three phases in the half-halt:
Ideally, the three elements of the half-halt should be synchronized with the horse’s movement in each stride.
The “go” phase of the half-halt relates to the instant of thrust when the horse steps through with his inside hindleg.
For the half-halt to be effective, you must be able to feel the result of the thrust into your hand as the horse steps forward and in front of your leg to seek the bit.
If the horse doesn’t work into the bridle, the half-halt won’t be effective in connecting the horse.
The half-halt should not stop the horse from seeking the bridle. The horse shouldn’t just draw on your hands. He should draw on your back and seat with the effect that he deepens your whole vertical self.
The “whoa” phase of the half-halt relates to engagement. That is when one of the horse’s hindlegs is bent, and his foot is flat on the ground, taking his weight.
This moment is the only time that you can improve your horse’s balance by transferring more weight behind.
Your rein aid connects to the horse’s hindquarters and shifts his weight from his forehand to the hindleg that is in contact with the ground.
During the whoa phase, your hands should briefly stop following the horse’s mouth as he moves forward. Simultaneously, close your leg and seat to ask your horse to step underneath behind. That causes the weight from the horse’s forehand to transfer to the hindleg that’s on the ground, and which is ideally stepping underneath the rider’s seat.
Horses at the lower levels and those at an early stage in their training may only make the connection between the bit and the horse’s hindquarters. Later in the training process, your aim will be to shift more weight onto the hindquarters, which will collect the horse.
When ridden correctly, the half-halt doesn’t cause the horse’s neck to shorten. Instead, the aids close the horse’s frame by compressing his back behind the saddle.
The final phase of the half-halt is the “soften” phase.
The softening aid means that you ease your hand to allow the horse room to breathe. You should keep your toned position, as the softening of the hand invites the horse to thrust into the next stride.
Using half-halts and transitions
Now that you and your horse have mastered working in the shoulder-fore position and you can ride an effective half-halt, you can introduce some transitions to the mix.
When riding these exercises, you’re going to ride the transitions in the same spots. The idea is to encourage the horse to anticipate the transitions happening. Also, the horse will begin to anticipate how he performs the transitions.
- Start riding around the arena in working trot, and begin your half-halts three to five steps before you want the downward transition to walk.
- Stop following the movement with your hands and push from your seat and legs into the contact. Ride this half-halt a few times before you want the horse to make the transition. Keep the horse’s forward thought until you reach your chosen letter.
- When you reach the letter, make the transition to walk.
After the exercise, analyze what happened:
- Did the horse’s hindlegs remain active and keep the energy through the half-halts?
- Did you maintain the connection through the horse’s back and neck, or did he fall onto his forehand?
Maintain the shoulder-fore positioning and repeat the exercise. Eventually, you’ll get the result you want.
- Now, ask for an upward transition to trot. Remember that the horse will want to begin with his front legs. So, ask him to start with his hindlegs, which should elevate his shoulders.
Again, analyze the exercise.
- Did the horse move off using his whole body, or did he use his forehand to pull himself into trot?
A balanced horse that works in an uphill balance and is laterally supple and straight will not only get better marks in dressage tests, but he will also stay sound for much longer than a horse that habitually works with all his weight on his forehand.
Working in a good balance can protect the horse’s joints from stresses and strains, as well as guarding against the concussion injuries that can result from habitually landing in a heap during downward transitions.
If you have any questions, or any other exercises and tips to share with us, please do so in the comments below.
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