In lower-level dressage tests, you’ll be asked to show “a few lengthened strides” or “a few medium trot/canter strides.” That’s the exercise that precedes the requirement to show medium trot or medium canter for a whole diagonal or long side. But, the “on and back” exercise can also be used during your regular schooling sessions in both the trot and canter as a means of improving the horse’s general way of going.
In this article, we explain why riding “on and back” within the paces is a great exercise to include in your horse’s schooling and how to do it.
Why ride “on and back” within the paces?
The term “on and back” is used to describe the lengthening and then shortening of the horse’s stride within the trot and canter. You simply ride a few medium or lengthened steps, before bringing the horse back into a more collected pace.
When ridden correctly, this exercise has the following benefits:
- Improves the elasticity and quality of the paces
- Lightens the forehand
- Helps to get the horse infront of the leg
- Improves the horse attentiveness and reaction to the aids
- Increases engagement and balance
- Increases impulsion and keeps the horse thinking forwards
- Improves the horse’s longitudinal suppleness (over the topline)
- Improves the horse’s suppleness of the hind leg joints
Also, riding “on and back” prepares the horse for the more advanced medium and extended trot and canter exercises that are required in dressage tests at the higher levels.
Common problems with the “on and back” exercise
Some common problems can occur when riding the “on and back” exercise.
- the horse quickens and runs instead of lengthening the stride
- the horse breaks the trot and canters rather than lengthening the trot stride
- when asked to make the transition back, the horse comes against the hand and hollows through his back
- the horse loses balance and falls onto his forehand instead of taking more weight behind in both upward and downward transitions
- the rider leans back and pushes with the seat causing the horse to hollow his back away from the pressure
- the rider does not allow the horse to lengthen his frame and outline and blocks the forward movement
- the rider “fires” the horse into lengthening causing the horse to lose balance in the transition
You can avoid all of these problems by preparing the horse correctly and only asking for as much as the horse’s balance can cope with.
How to ride “on and back” transitions within the paces
Begin by establishing an active, rhythmical working trot with the horse working forward from your leg into an elastic contact.
Unless you have a very good sitting trot, it’s best to ride this exercise in rising trot to allow the horse to use his back fully. For the same reason, if you have a young horse, it’s best to go rising.
Ride down the long side of the arena.
Just before you get to the corner, ride a half-halt to engage the horse and balance him.
Put the horse into a slight shoulder-fore position as you ride through the corner after the short side. That will help to engage the horse’s inside hind leg.
As you get to the opposite long side, straighten the horse again, and allow your hands to go forward a little without throwing the contact away, whilst at the same time using both of your legs at the girth to ask the horse to lengthen his frame and strides.
Think of pushing the horse out in front of you whilst maintaining the same rhythm and tempo.
In the beginning, ask for the lengthened strides gradually and don’t ask for more than what the horse’s balance can cope with. Over time, as the horse’s balance and strength improve, you can then begin to ask for more direct transitions.
If the horse breaks into canter, don’t worry; at least he went forwards! Simply correct the horse by calmly bringing him back to trot, adjust your aids and ask again.
Now, you need to ride a transition back into a collected/working trot.
To do that, as you approach the corner, sit up tall, ride a half-halt, and close your hand to maintain the energy. Don’t pull back on the reins because that will cause the horse to shorten his neck, stiffen through his back, come against the contact, and disengage his hindquarters.
As you collect the pace, focus on keeping the rhythm and tempo of the pace the same whilst maintaining the horse’s impulsion and active stepping under of the hind legs.
Once you and your horse get the idea, you can ride multiple “on and back” transitions down the long side.
Don’t forget to repeat the exercise on the other rein.
You can ride the same basic exercise in trot or canter.
To make the exercise more challenging, instead of using the long side of the arena, try riding across the diagonal.
If you find that the horse loses his balance on a straight line, ride the “on and back” exercise on a 20-meter circle.
Riding your horse “on and back” within the paces is a great way of improving the elasticity of the paces and developing better engagement and impulsion as well as preparing the horse for the medium and extended trot and canter.
Focus on keeping the horse’s balance during the transitions and keeping the same rhythm and tempo throughout.