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Saturday, 27 August 2011

Soft in the Back or the Head?

If your back is stiff how do you loosen up? Do you stretch, swing your body from side to side or just get moving? Any of those things will work but there’s one thing that’s guaranteed not to have any effect whatsoever. Swinging your head from side to side!

You may see top riders at shows or on TV flexing their horse’s head side to side. What you’re not looking at is the rest of the horse which will be bending over the top of its back and through its sides. It does this because they’re flexing it from their leg not their hand.

It’s easy to focus on your horse’s head and forget the back end but pull him in the mouth and he’ll tighten his back every time. In a test this won’t only affect the collective marks at the bottom of the sheet. It affects everything else too.

Softness in the back is a hard thing to pick up – until you’ve felt it. When you have you’ll never worry about your horse’s head position again. (Typically as soon as you stop worrying about it he’ll come onto the bit anyway!)

When your horse is soft in his back it’s like riding on a piece of rubber. You can bend him, stretch him and turn him anywhere you want without a hint of resistance. ANY horse can do it! He doesn’t have to be an Olympic athlete. He just needs to relax.

Think how rigid your muscles are when you’re cold or uptight. Get moving, warm them up and they soften. This is what you have to do with your horse’s back muscles.

There are hundreds of ways to do this but the simplest is to canter. Canter is a wonderful pace. Every muscle in your horse’s back is pulled forwards, backwards and from side to side because of its sequence of legs.

At a show most riders trot round the arena whilst they’re waiting for the bell but there’s nothing to say you can’t canter. It’s really beneficial to canter just before you enter as it not only gets your horse’s back moving it gets rid of some pent up nerves.

As you trot your position is important. It’s easy to tense your shoulders against the anticipated bounce of the trot. This goes straight down your arms to your hands. Your horse will fix against the stiffness in your hands and tighten his back. Stay relaxed and so will he. His trot will stay soft and be 100 times more comfortable to sit on.

Forget about pulling in your horse’s front end and focus on pushing his hocks further under his body. The nearer his hocks get to his shoulders the rounder his back must become. Try it. To get your hips nearer your shoulders do you round your back and fold forward or hollow and lean backwards?

Check out the page of links called Hocks and Engagement - Any one of these posts will help you get your horse’s hocks and back muscles working. Try this too -

Turns about the forehand are rarely used for schooling. Most riders see them as a trivial bit of lateral work they might use to open a gate. Think again. The area of your horse’s back that’s tense is his loins. Just behind the saddle. The turn about the forehand gets his loins moving. You’ll learn to love it!

Ride up the centre line to X. Don’t halt. This is all about keeping your horse’s back muscles moving. You want to keep his shoulders on the centre line and move his hindquarters round using the biggest steps possible. This is what frees his back.

Your hands must stay together. Move them in any direction and your horse will move a shoulder out of line. His forehand should be one unit. He can’t turn about it if it’s heading in two different directions!

Your contact should be even in both hands. Tighten your fingers around your reins so he knows not to walk forward but don’t pull back. If he tightens his back he’ll take short shuffling steps. His back will get tighter not looser.

With your horse’s shoulders in position your inside heel pushes hard by the girth to tell him he has to move away from it and across. Use your leg as you would use your hand on the ground. Don’t just push and lean against him – he’ll just lean back. A series of short, firm nudges will get the steps you’re after.

To avoid confusion use one leg at a time. When he steps away from your inside heel take it off and ‘catch’ him with your outside leg. Then use your inside heel again and keep your outside leg still. If he’s slow to react or shuffles round tap him up with your whip as you use your inside heel so he responds quicker and steps further across.

Initially two steps over are sufficient and should put you onto the long diagonal. Ride forward out of the turn by relaxing your fingers around your reins and using both legs together. Turn down the centre line again and do the same.

As your horse improves you can put your inside heel on for longer to create a bigger step across. This is when it starts to stretch his back muscles. Most horses should be able to complete a 90’ turn to E or B in three steps.

The further your horse steps under his body the more he’s stretching his back muscles. It will improve everything you do with him. Next time you start to flex him to the side think twice. Are you trying to loosen his back or his head?

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Don't Forget the Outside!

Crookedness is blamed on many things – backs, saddles and even the horse’s attitude but before you rush to the phone, cheque book in hand, do yourself a favour and make sure the cause of the problem isn’t you.

Your position could be the cause of your horse’s crookedness. Crooked riders create crooked horses. BUT. It isn’t always how you sit. It’s how you ride. There are two sides to your horse. Are you riding them both equally?

School fences are the cause of many a crooked horse. The fence takes the place of the rider’s outside leg and rein. The second you move away from it the problems begin. Get away from the track. Try using the ¾ line. Without the fence to guide your horse you’ll have to ride both sides of him.

(The ¼ and ¾ lines are one and the same thing. They’re both 5m from the track and the centre line. The ¼ is the one you reach first as you ride round the short side so depending on the rein you’re on and what you’re doing the name varies.)

Your turn onto the 3/4 line is important. It’s a corner not a ½ circle. Think how you’d honestly ride a standard corner. Inside rein for bend and inside leg to push him out? Very little outside anything. Do that turning onto the 3/4 line and your horse will fall out in spectacular fashion.  

The need for outside as well as inside leg and rein quickly becomes apparent. Both reins hold your horse’s shoulders together. Both legs push his body behind them. It sounds simple but the outside aids are often only remembered when things go wrong.

In walk, trot and canter ride large but only using ¾ of the school. The 3/4 line becomes your track. As you pass A/C look and turn your body towards the 3/4 line. Take your arms round with your body so your hands stay in front of you and together the whole time. Use both legs by the girth to push your horse’s hocks under him and to keep his quarters behind his shoulders.

Turning your body and hands in this way creates a sharp turn. Your horse moves his shoulders round as one unit. Think pirouette (even though it’s not) and push on.

Ride straight down the 3/4 line. It’s harder than it sounds. Never slow down in an attempt to straighten your horse. He needs energy to stay balanced. Ride forward into a steady contact. The slower you go the more chance you have of a wobble.

Try riding a 15m circle when you get level with X. This will take you onto the track at E/B. Don’t suddenly swing your horse into an inside bend. On a circle of this size he only needs to look where he’s going – not where he’s just been! Keep your hands together and push him forward. The circle is the easiest part of this exercise. Getting back onto the 3/4 line and riding straight is the tricky bit.

On the circle turn your body in line with the curve and focus on the fence at the end of the school. (It can be useful to mark these points with string.) You should have an equal weight in both reins at all times. You shouldn’t need to take more contact in your outside rein as you get back onto the 3/4 line to straighten your horse. Use your position to show him. Straighten your body, keep your hands together and push on.

Canter is the pace most likely to be crooked. Once in canter make sure your outside leg moves forward to its place by the girth. Leave it back and you’ll be asking your horse to put his quarters in. You’ll also sit with your inside hip further forward than your outside. If your horse does the same his quarters will swing to the inside.

To practice your transitions ask for canter on the 3/4 line. Then ride straight or ride the 15m circle. Concentrate on sitting straight and upright in the saddle. The straighter you sit the straighter your horse. It’s easier to bend a straight horse than it is to unbend a crooked one.

Even when you’re on a circle concentrate on keeping your horse straight. Too much focus on an inside bend could make you collapse to the inside, draw your inside leg up or tighten the inside of your body. All problems guaranteed to make him crooked.

10m circles are good for your horse’s balance and engagement. Ride down the 3/4 line and ride a 10m circle to the opposite one. The size of the circle is entirely down to you. Find a spot on the fence you can ride to and keep looking at it. There is no easier way to turn a horse than to look where you want to go.

Get inventive. Ride a figure of eight between 3/4 lines. Ride ½ 10m circles at each end and ride diagonally across from one line to the other. Why? Why not?

Anything you do which is different will keep your horse’s interest. If he’s interested in what you’re doing he’ll always be easier to ride. When you do go back onto the track remember to use as much outside leg and rein as you had to when you didn’t have the fence to help you. It could save you a phone call.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

It's Only Medium!

Ask any rider what they practice most for a dressage test and they’ll probably tell you medium trot. Ask the same number of judges what they consistently give the lowest scores to and they’ll probably say the same! Why?

You’re probably trying too hard. Think about what you actually want your horse to do. You want him to relax his topline and take longer steps. Take a look at some common methods of asking for medium trot and you’ll see why they have the opposite effect.

The ‘pull and kick’. It’s basically a tight contact to ‘hold’ your horse and lots of leg to ‘kick him through’. Imagine what he must feel. If you suddenly got a pull in the mouth and a kick in the sides would you relax your back? The problem with this one is as he tightens his back against the pressure his strides may seem longer. You may see his toes flicking out in front of him but his back has shortened his strides haven’t lengthened. To a judge it’s a 4.

The ‘aim and fire’. This involves getting your horse round the corner and straightening him up before you kick once with both legs and throw your hand forward. He throws himself dutifully (not beautifully!) forward and within two strides he’s down on his shoulders and daisy cutting across the arena. His strides are longer because he’s running. Another 4.

The ‘scrubber’. After months of schooling without your seat you start scrubbing your hips forward and back because you think it will encourage your horse to lengthen. All it really does is make him hollow away from the uncomfortable feeling he suddenly has on his back. Can you blame him? When he hollows his back his hocks can’t step under his body. He couldn’t lengthen if his life depended on it. A 4.

Finally the ‘shorten and release’. This involves shortening your horse in the corner before the medium like a coiled spring. You turn onto the diagonal and release the pressure. He powers forward, looking for the contact, can’t find it and hits the ground running. Again it’s a 4. What’s worse about this one is you’ve just ruined the box beforehand by screwing him into a ball. You’ve probably got a 4 for tension in that box too!

So what should you do? You need to think of medium as a pace and a movement. A pace should be used for more strides than a quick flash across the school. A movement requires more energy than a working pace and so you need to use your legs every stride not just the first two. Try this -

Ride a 10m circle at M in working trot. At M go large in medium trot and ride one circle at B. Get back to B and go large (still in medium trot). At F bring him back to working trot and circle 10m.

Did you raise your eyebrows at the thought of so much medium trot or because you had to ride a circle too? Many riders avoid circling in medium because it doesn’t come up in a test and also because it means you have to ride every stride and move your body. If you don’t your horse flattens.

Get your trot balanced on the 10m circle. Keep your hands up and together to keep your horse’s shoulders up and together. Use your leg every stride to create energy.  Keep your fingers closed around your reins to contain that energy and create impulsion. Look up and sit back to keep his weight on his hocks. Whatever you do don’t pull back!

To ask your horse for medium use your heels every stride. Every time you do he’ll push his hocks further under his body, rounding and stretching his topline. If you don’t ride every stride he won’t make that extra effort. You’ll have a working pace.

To allow your horse to go into medium keep the reins between your thumb and first finger but relax the other three. You’ll feel him push against your hand. Keep the weight even in both reins. Think of an L shape. Lift your hands up an inch and forward a few inches. He’ll follow your hand and lengthen his back and his strides. 

When you circle turn your body round in line with the curve. Freezing because you think you’ll spoil things will have the opposite effect. Ride forwards and relax. That is, after all, what you’re expecting him to do!

When you bring your horse back close your fingers around your rein and hold your contact. Squeeze your thigh and knee against his sides (see The Other Way of Stopping) and start to use your calf muscle not your heel. This reduces the energy you’re asking for but keeps him going forward. His hocks won’t stretch as far forward and he’ll come back to a working pace without tightening his back.

The 10m circle at the end is to stop you collapsing in a heap at the end of your medium. Transitions are as important as the paces.

It’s a fine balancing act between leg and hand to achieve transitions between working and medium paces. That is something to practice. The only way to improve is to do more of it. Short, tense bursts are not the answer. Think less about the flicky toes and more about the softness and stretch of your horse’s back. Go large, ride circles and use your medium paces. Think about what you want him to do and make sure you’re doing everything you can to help him. That’s got to be worth more than a 4.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Free walk ON a long rein not off it!

The transition from medium walk to free walk on a long rein has a remarkable effect on most riders. For any other transition they’ll sit up, hold the contact and ride forward but when it comes to free walk they adopt the ‘don’t touch the sides’ position and fix their hands. Sound familiar?

This unique way of riding is to ensure the horse doesn’t jog or get tense. But think about it. What’s your horse’s reaction when you sit completely rigid in the saddle? He tenses his back. If you fix your hand? He tenses his back. You stop riding forward? He tens … You get the picture.

Despite their best intentions riders create the problems they face in the free walk. It’s something that needs practicing. When was the last time you warmed up and then got stuck into some serious walking?! You may think it’s boring but it’s one of the hardest things to do well. Try this –

Warm your horse up and then make a conscious effort to spend the next twenty minutes in walk. In medium walk go large, ride 20m circles or serpentines but concentrate on using more leg than you’ve ever used before. Ride forward.

Your horse won’t jog if you keep your contact consistent. If you pull back to stop him you’ll just create more tension in his back. You have to follow his mouth with your hands. They should move forward and back to allow him to use his head and neck BUT if he hollows, as tense horses often do, then stop moving and concentrate on keeping the contact. Follow his mouth, hold your contact and keep your legs pushing him forward. Lose the contact and you lose his attention.

You push your horse to the contact by pushing him from your leg to a ‘holding’ hand. He may hollow and tip his head for a circuit (or ten!) but be patient. If it isn’t an unpleasant feeling he will accept it. You’ll always win in the end.

There’s a big difference between holding and pulling. Holding your contact is like holding a toddlers hand. You’re there to reassure and guide but not restrict. Your fingers close round the rein but they never tighten. Pulling is like gripping your toddlers hand so hard you make them scream!

So by pushing on into a relaxed, consistent contact you’ll have created a purposeful walk. You should be able to feel your horse on both reins at all times. Surprising as it may be when he accepts your contact you can push on as hard as you like. You may even find you struggle to get him to trot.

From this walk it’s easy to create a good free walk. Because he’s actually in your hand, accepting the contact, you can lengthen his neck as much as you want. All you have to do is push.

Free walk is a pace. You’ll need to teach your horse the transitional aids for it. You’ll have been using the top of your lower leg to push him into your hands. Now is the time to use both heels. A short nudge and then off again is all that’s required.

(A quick mention here of your hand position. You don’t need to lower your hand to get your horse to lower his head and stretch. Do that and you’ll tip him onto his shoulders. If he’s unbalanced he’ll tighten his back and hollow. Carry your hands, keep them level and push him down your rein, don’t drop him)

The surge forward your horse does as he feels your heels will put him into your hand a bit harder. As you feel him go onto your hand open your fingers and allow him to take the rein forward and down. Allow him to take five inches before you close your fingers again. Now use your heels again. This encourages him to step under with his hocks again and the walk stays balanced. All this happens within two strides.

The only way to teach him to stretch down is by teaching him to accept your hand. How can you ride on a long rein if he was never on the short one? If he comes up push with your leg to put him back in your hand. If he still hollows shorten your reins up until you have a contact and ride him into it. Stay calm and keep trying.

When you come to take up the reins make sure you do it in one swift movement. Put your leg on, lean forward, take your outside rein then your inside rein and walk on. Shuffling your fingers up the reins is guaranteed to create tension.

Walk and free walk sometimes take hours of practice but before you think “forget it” think how long you spend over medium trot or canter transitions. All of these things only affect the marks in one or two boxes but if you can teach your horse to accept your contact in walk it improves everything. And it’s a lot less tiring to work in!

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.