In order for the horse to progress through the levels of dressage training, it is essential that he is ‘in front of the rider’s leg’ and working forwards into the bridle.
Many riders make the mistake of simply making their horse go faster.
But what’s the difference between speed and impulsion, and how can you encourage your horse to work more forwards, without picking up speed?
Working ‘forward’ into the contact
Very often we see horses in the dressage arena that have only one tempo (speed) of trot, canter or walk. This usually necessitates that the rider has to use ‘ugly’ and busy aids from the legs; more often than not, the heels.
The image is completed with the rider trying to muster more energy from busy leg aids, into hollow or ‘empty’, slack reins, because the horse is not reaching into the ends of both reins. This too is usually accompanied with incorrect flexion, or worse, incorrect bend.
This is wholly indicative of the horse that is not going forward into the contact.
No matter how much persuasion the rider uses, or how busy the aids are, the horse will always seem to need more energy.
These are the classic signs that the horse is not supple and therefore unable to go forwards.
Suppleness through the back is key to impulsion
If the horse has plenty of elasticity he will generate more energy but with bigger, rounder, higher strides, which will create more impulsion and elevation.
This can only happen when the horse is accepting the contact.
When riding to improve the way of going, and especially with a young horse, it is not possible to ride only to achieve one of these three scales; an experienced and correct rider will be constantly checking all three simultaneously, in the knowledge that these three scales build the higher three scales of impulsion, straightness, and collection.
The terminology used by the dressage judge, and what is written on the dressage sheets when the horses are not supple, is ‘tight’. More usually, ‘horse appears to be working in a tight frame’.
It is this tightness that prevents the rider from changing the speed or ‘tempo’ of the rhythm, thereby giving the impression that they can ride the horse in only one tempo of walk, trot, and canter.
Inevitably, the rider will want to change the tempo to be able to ride more forwards, but the locked or tight frame prevents this from happening.
Over time this tightness can manifest itself and combine to form a poor attitude, so as the intensity of the aids increase, the degree of co-operation from the horse decreases and so the cycle revolves.
Eventually, the horse may not want to go forward at all; this is how resistance builds, making for ugly scenes in the arena.
Conversely, when the horse is supple and elastic to ride, the ride feel will equate to a feeling of not having to use forward driving aids at all.
The horse will be at the end of the reins and into the contact, and the rider will only need to use ‘nudging’ aids through their core and seat to keep the horse at an appropriate tempo and in front of them.
The tempo can also be quickly modified, even on an inexperienced horse, through the seat and restraining rein aids.
Horses do not have to fit a specific stereotype to go like this; it is only the result of correct training.
Exercises to loosen a tight horse – one that feels as if he needs to go more forwards
There are a number of helpful exercises that can be used to encourage a horse to loosen through his back and work more forwards:
- walk-trot transitions
- trot-walk transitions
- large circles in working canter
- using trot-canter transitions
- large turns about the forehand, keeping short active walk steps
- leg yielding steps in a shorter, active walk
The phrase, ‘transitions fix everything’ can be applied to the ‘lazy’ horse that doesn’t work forwards.
You can also use transitions from halt to canter, and from collected to extended trot as a very effective way of waking up a sleepy horse.
A horse that is not working forwards correctly into the bridle will not earn high marks in the dressage arena.
If the horse is not loose and swinging through his back, the overall frame and impression will be false, and a good judge will spot this immediately.
Use these tests at home too to see whether your sleepy equine has genuinely begun to work forwards to the contact.
- What is “The Correct Way of Going” in Dressage?
- How to Get Your Horse In Front of the Leg
- How to Sharpen up a Lazy Horse
- Why ALL Dressage Riders Need to Know The Scales of Training