As a dressage rider, you will almost certainly have read comments on your dressage test score sheet that refer to engagement, impulsion, and uphill carriage. All these remarks apply to how your horse should use his hindquarters.
In this article, we take a look at the often confusing subject of the horse’s hindquarters and how he should use them to best effect.
Let’s begin by taking a look at how the horse’s conformation can influence his ability to use his hindquarters correctly for dressage.
The horse’s physiology and its influence
In a perfect world, your horse should have a pelvis that’s long enough to provide a large area for attachment of the large propulsive muscles.
Also, there should be a moderate slope to the pelvis. This allows the pelvis to tilt, bringing the horse’s haunches lower and bringing the horse’s hind legs more underneath his body as he propels himself forward.
So, if a horse has very upright hocks and a narrow pelvis that doesn’t noticeably slope, the chances are that he will struggle to engage his hocks, work in an uphill self-carriage, and develop the true collection that’s required for the more advanced work.
Horses are born to carry more weight on their forehand. Usually, a horse is wider behind than he is in front.
As a dressage rider, your goal is to make the horse’s hind legs move closer together, carrying more weight, and stepping more underneath his body. That will result in the horse’s forehand becoming lighter and will make his carriage more uphill.
To achieve that, your horse must have a strong back and hind legs.
To get a clear idea of how this works, imagine a powerboat. When the power of the boat’s engine (at the back) increases, the back of the boat sits lower in the water. Simultaneously, the engine drives the front of the boat up and out of the water.
The “right” kind of forwardness
Although you must think about riding your horse forward, you must be asking for the right kind of forwardness.
There are several different kinds of incorrect forwardness:
- Riding forward without a secure contact with the horse’s mouth, resulting in the front legs taking longer steps while the hind legs trail behind, making the horse long and hollow.
- Riding your horse too low in the front end. That allows the horse to fall onto the forehand, placing stress on the front legs and allowing the hind legs to trail out behind the horse.
- Riding forward, but in doing so, pushing the horse out of his correct rhythm and suitable tempo.
To ride forward correctly, you need to have your horse taking you forward by pushing with his hind legs well underneath his body.
The horse’s trajectory should be uphill, and you should feel that he is working through a swinging, supple back into an elastic, consistent contact and frame.
How the horse’s hind legs work
How your horse’s hind legs work can be categorized in three ways:
The term, thrust, refers to the horse’s ability to propel himself forward and off the ground.
The hind leg that creates thrust does so when it’s engaged and planted solidly on the ground. All three of the leg joints are equally bent and carry the horse’s weight.
The horse pushes off against the ground with a powerful thrust that either drives him forward, for example in the extended trot, or upward, as in passage or airs above the ground, such as capriole.
So, to influence the horse’s thrusting power, you would drive your horse forward when the desired hind leg is in contact with the ground.
For example, that means you would ask for a canter transition when the horse’s outside hind leg is on the ground. Or you would ask for medium trot when the inside hind leg is on the ground so that the horse can push himself forward.
When the horse has his weight on his outside hind leg, you can influence the inside hind leg to create greater closing of the joints and therefore greater reach.
In asking for greater reach, you influence the flight pattern of the hind leg when it is at its highest, most flexed point. At this moment, the horse has his opposite hind leg engaged and in contact with the ground in readiness for the moment of thrust.
Engagement or carrying power is created by the rider’s use of the half-halt.
In the half-halt, you ask your horse to slow down and take more weight onto his hind leg joints. That happens when the hindfoot hits the ground, and the joints of the hind legs are closed.
The development of collection
Once the horse’s hind legs are strengthened in the three ways described above, he will be ready to achieve true collection in all the paces.
Collection can be developed through the use of transitions and in your preparation for them.
True collection results from the culmination of carrying power, thrust, and reach all being equally developed.
The collection develops throughout the horse’s schooling right through from the very first training levels to the ultimate collection that’s demonstrated by an established Grand Prix horse.
Developing thrust, reach, and engagement in the dressage horse
You can work on developing your horse’s thrust, reach, and engagement through the use of schooling exercises.
As the horse’s hindquarters become stronger and more developed, he will be able to develop true collection and more power to his paces.
Try using the following exercises to develop pushing power:
Ride a 10-meter circle in the first corner of the long side of your arena,
From the point where the circle touches the long side, ask your horse to leg yield onto the diagonal line.
As the horse moves sideways, he will flex his outside hind leg under his weight, while engaging his inside hind leg more underneath his body.
On the quarter line, use your seat aid to ask the horse to push a little more for two strides.
In the canterwork, use a half-halt to ask your horse to step more underneath himself on the first beat of the canter stride. In the moment of suspension, ask the horse to jump more underneath himself.
The result of this schooling method will see a much more powerful and expressive trot and canter.
To achieve true collection, you need to school your horse to use his hindquarters correctly to create thrust, reach, and engagement.
The process of achieving collection is developmental and cannot be rushed. It’s not realistic to expect a young horse who is still working at the beginning of his dressage career to be able to achieve collection. And forcing the issue can result in injuries and setbacks.
Let us know what you think of this post and share your experience with us in the comments box below.
- How to Build Relaxed Power in the Dressage Horse
- How to Develop Your Horse’s Engagement in the Canter
- How to Develop Self-Carriage
- How to Create Energy in the Dressage Horse