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How to Get Your Horse into an Outline

how to get your horse in an outline dressage

If you’ve ever seen the following comments, “above the bit,” “needs rounder outline,” “head too high,” or similar, on your dressage score sheets, you need to learn how to ride your horse correctly “on the bit.”

Many novice riders assume that pulling their horse’s head in with the reins is all there is to creating an outline, but that’s not the case at all! 

Read this guide to learn how to get your horse to work in a correct outline.

What is a correct outline?

In a general sense, a horse working in a correct outline 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 should be able to lengthen and shorten his outline like an accordion whilst still maintaining all of the above qualities.

As your horse progresses in his training, his outline and the way he carries himself should change. A long, low outline that will be demonstrated by a novice horse will be replaced by a more uphill, compressed outline that enables a more advanced horse to cope with the demands of collected work.

How NOT to get your horse in an outline!

Before we get into how to ride your horse correctly in an outline, let’s discuss how NOT to do it.

Creating an “outline” with the reins

Riders often think that their horse will work in a round outline if they have the right ‘contact’ on the reins. All too often, this approach leads to the rider using too much hand in order to pull the horse into an outline.

Your horse may drop his head due to the uncomfortable pressure being placed on his mouth, but he will probably also hollow his back and trail his hind legs too.

The end result is an unbalanced horse that will either lean on your hand for balance (rather than taking the weight back onto his hind legs) or a horse that will drop behind the vertical in an attempt to avoid working into an unpleasant ‘hard’ contact.

Dressage judges are trained to look for faults such as these and will penalize them heavily.

A quick note about gadgets

There are numerous gadgets on the market that can be used to persuade the horse to drop his head into an “outline”. However, items such as draw reins, bungees and the like simply pull the horse’s head down and hold it there rather than encouraging the horse to work forward through his back to seek the contact. 

These gadgets work by applying pressure to the horse’s poll, nose, mouth, and/or jaw, and there are plenty of bits on the market that do the same thing. However, simply getting the horse to lower his head or bring his nose closer to his chest is not a correct outline for dressage.

In order to create a correct outline, the horse should stretch forward into the contact. The backwards pressure caused by these gadgets encourages the horse to instead duck behind the contact, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve.

How to correctly get your horse into an outline

The outline comes from the horse’s impulsion and willingness to work forward and over his back to seek the bit.

Here’s how to do it.

STEP 1 – Understand The Scales of Training

There are six training scales in total, but before you can expect your horse to work correctly in an outline, you need to have the first three of them securely in place, which are:

  1. Rhythm
  2. Suppleness
  3. Contact

So, the horse must work in the correct sequence and rhythm(1) for each of the three paces and in a suitable tempo, i.e., not too fast or too slow. The horse must work willingly and freely forward through a swinging, supple(2) back into a consistent, elastic contact(3).

We have produced various posts on the scales of training, so if you need any extra help with this, please use the search feature or the links supplied above.

STEP 2 – Understand the Energy Circle

As well as getting to grips with the Scales of Training, you need to understand the Energy Circle. 

When you’re schooling your horse, there should be a constant circle of energy flowing from:

circle of energy dressage
  1. Active hind legs
  2. Over a swinging back
  3. Arriving in the horse’s mouth
  4. Traveling down the reins to the rider’s hands
  5. Through the rider’s body and secure, independent seat to the driving aids (rider’s legs)
  6. Into the activity of the hind legs

And so on, round and round in a never-ending circle.

The energy circle always starts from your horse’s hindquarters, before traveling through the horse’s supple and swinging back into the contact. (You can see how this ties in with the first three training scales we discussed above.)

Therefore, the contact should never exceed the amount of energy being generated by the horse’s hind legs. Your hands should only receive what your leg puts into it and should never pull back or fiddle in an attempt to force a “contact” on the horse.

Once this connection has been established correctly, as per the Energy Circle and Scales of Training above, your horse will be in an outline. In the beginning, this will probably be a long novice outline, but as the training progresses and your horse develops, he should naturally start to adopt a more uphill, compressed, and taller outline.

In conclusion

Riding your horse in an outline involves much more than simply pulling your horse’s head in or using a gadget to do it for you! Shortcuts might enable you to get your horse’s head down and in, but the result is an incorrect outline and an unhappy horse.

The most important thing to remember when trying to establish an outline is to ride forward without rushing. Try not to focus on the position of your horse’s head and instead concentrate on having your horse working forward over his back and swinging along without tension or resistance. Keep your hands steady, light and supple and your horse will gradually become sufficiently confident to seek the contact and create an outline.

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  1. Would a standing martingale, running martingale and Irish martingale be considered gadgets? in relation to this article. I see people riding in dressage saddles using these tack on their horses. Me… no way Hoze

    1. All three of the martingales you have mentioned work slightly differently for different purposes and, yes, you could call them gadgets. They certainly should not be used to PUT the horse into an “outline” (and if they are used for that purpose, then the outline would be incorrect), but something like a running martingale would not interfere with a horse that is working correctly.

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