In the sport of dressage, the horse should be in some degree of self-carriage during every stage of training. Self-carriage is a state in which the horse can maintain his own rhythm and frame without you, the rider, using your aids to create every single stride. In order to get your horse to reach self-carriage, you must be passive with the aids and let the horse move on his own. Once you are passive for about two or three strides, you can use your aids to improve the horse’s strides. But what exactly does it mean for a rider to be passive? Here are a few techniques to help you get your horse into self-carriage:
The Arms and Reins
You must ride the horse with a passive contact by making your arms elastic. First, let’s focus on your hands. You need to hold the reins between your thumb and top finger, allowing your other finger to move the reins as need. Do not hold the reins with tight fits, as that tightness is likely to translate to your arms. Make sure your wrists are mobile to that you can use them to move the reins. There should be no tension in your lower arms. The muscles of the lower arms are there to keep gravity from taking over. Your back and your upper arms should have positive muscle tension in order to stay tall but soft. The goal is to walk, trot, canter and do your transitions with a quiet contact. You should simply be a part of your horse, following the horse’s mouth with light pressure. After achieving this, you can ask the horse to change his way of going.
The Legs and Seat
You will also need to make your legs passive. This means that your legs allow gravity to pull them down. Your knees should be low, your heels should be down, and you should be able to ride at any gait without utilizing your legs. You’ll want the seat and the back to be passive as well. Let your seat sink down in the the saddle and make sure it stays there no matter what is happening. Your upper body should remain stable but should move with the horse rather than against him. The only time your legs should get tight to the horse’s side is if the horse gets lazy. After briefly using your legs to get your horse out of his lazy state, you should go back to the passive leg position.
Practicing Passive Aids
You need to make sure your aids are passive as well. At the walk, the horse will move his head up and down. You will need to make sure your hands move forward and back to go along with his head. At the trot, the horse’s head stays still, while the rider goes up and down. To be a part of him, you need to make sure your hands stay in one spot by opening and closing your elbows. Your elbows should open a little as you go up and close a little as you go down. In the canter, each stride involves the horse rocking up horizontal and then down every stride, and the rider rocking forward and back. The lower the level of the horse, the more the horse will rock. If you keep your elbows rigid, you will catch the rhose in the mouth when he rocks down. To avoid this, your hands must move forward and back and the elbows must open and close.
Getting your horse in self-carriage is more challenging than it looks. But if you follow these techniques and continue to practice, you will ultimately be able to get the horse in self-carriage.
When we talk about dressage, we discuss the arms and the aids at length. But what about the upper leg? Typically when we address the legs we are referring to the lower legs, but what you do with your upper leg is another important part of perfecting your technique as a rider.
A long, flat thigh is a key part of a classical dressage position. When the thigh is in this potion, the seat bones are pulled down into the saddle, adding stability to the rider’s position. The rider’s seat is made up of the lower back, the lower abdominal muscles, the pelvis, the seat bones, and the thighs. The thigh begins at the hip flexor and runs down toward your knee. Your thigh should be lying flat against the saddle, and the femur should be slightly rotated inward. This should open up your seat bones, let you sit deeply into the horse and cover a large area of the saddle. If you view a correctly positioned rider form the side, the rider’s entire leg lies flat against the horse in a relaxed way, and the knees and toes will point forward.
To achieve this position, you need to develop the ability to stretch the inner adductor muscles in your thighs. If you don’t stretch, you will be tight in the adductor muscle. As a result, the seat bones won’t be able to drop down into the horse, and the hip flexors will stay too tight. At this point you may be wondering about the exact effects that the thighs have on the horse’s movement. Here are a few ways that your thighs influence the horse:
Your thighs will typically influence the horse’s shoulders. The upper leg combined with the weight aid influences the direction that the horse’s shoulders are moving. To gain the ability to guide your horse’s shoulders, you need to lengthen your upper leg in a relaxed way while maintaining positive muscle tone. Using both seat bones will allow you to channel the horse’s shoulders in the direction that you want the horse to go. If you use one seat bone and thigh on the same side, you will turn or straighten the horse by way of the shoulder that is falling out.
2) Speed control
In addition to using your seat bones and weight aids, you can make your horse stop by slowing the rhythm of your seat in addition to lengthening and firming the inner thigh. Your horse will either slow or stop, depending on the intensity of the aid.
The seat and thigh can also be used to balance the horse. Horses tend to drop their shoulders and withers. If this occurs, you can use the seat, upper legs and upper body to create a balancing half halt. This will engage the the horse’s core and hind legs while rebalancing the shoulders up.
Many young riders want to advance quickly without perfecting their seat and position. This is a mistake, because the seat and position have an enormous impact on your performance. Make sure you work on achieving a long, flat thigh. It is achievable for every body type, and if you dedicate five minutes of your ride each day to work on the your upper leg, you will notice improvement in a few days.
A laid-back horse is a great fit for people who want to share their horses with their families. There are also a number of disciplines for which a laid-back temperament is preferred. No matter what your reason is for getting a relaxed horse, an even-keel horse presents a number of challenges for training and competition success. But if you implement the right management techniques, a horse’s laid-back nature can be a fantastic asset.
Many cool-tempered horses are slow to the aids, taking a while to respond and requiring reminders to stay sensitive. There are other cool horses that are too sensitive to aids and need to reminded who is boss. It can also be difficult to keep a cold horse fit.
These horses may be sensitive to the aids, but this demeanor is learned rather than innate. If your horse is dull to the aids is it important that you raise the standards and insist that he respond immediately to the aid, even the tiniest aid. Here are a few exercises to set the bar higher and push your cool horse into gear:
Exercise 1 This exercise is a subtle and forward aid. Start by walking your horse on a long, loose rein. Then gather the rain to working length and come to a halt. For the halt, you’ll want to lift yourself forward and barely out of the saddle, engaging your core. Imagine someone has just put a thumbtack on your saddle that you don’t want to sit on. This aid should move your horse forward. If your horse doesn’t respond, give him a quick kick or a touch with the whip. It may take three, four, or even five attempts to get your horse to respond. Your horse will soon learn that if he responds to the lightening of his rider’s seat, he will be spared the kick or touch with the whip.
This is an exercise for refined walk-trottransitions. Start off at medium walk and sit lightly. If your horse doesn’t immediately trot off, use the sharper aid of the leg or touch of the whip, just as in Exercise 1. If even this doesn’t get your horse to trot, continue kicking until he does. If you stay consistent, he will ultimately figure it out. Your horse needs to understand that if he doesn’t respond to the light touch of your aid, there will be worse consequences every time.
Exercise 3 This exercise helps you refine the forward aids within the gaits. Start off in the canter by sitting normally through the short side of the arena. When you approach the long side, sit in the your light seat and softly ask your horse for medium canter. If your horse doesn’t respond immediately, use your aids in a clear and assertive way. Repeat this process until he takes you down the long side and associate the light seat with “Go! Now!” This will make your horse more sensitive to aids and also more self-motivated.
With the help of these exercises, your horse will become more responsive, more sensitive, and a pleasure to ride. Having a horse that is consistent and reliable in both his temperament and his training is a beautiful experience, and you’ll be thankful you did these exercises.
Body alignment is a key part of dressage. It’s imperative that your seat is in the correct position. This way, the energy can flow through your legs and travel to your hands in the proper way. The position of your seat and your hips makes a world of difference. But when you turn, this can be especially difficult to maintain. Here are a few tips for body alignment when you’re riding bending lines:
The Basics Let’s first discuss how to get properly aligned in general. Your seat should be perfectly even. If your horse is travelling in a straight line, you should feel the even weight in both stirrups. Both of your legs should stretch around the barrel of the horse. You should have one hand, one hip, and one shoulder symmetrically on each side. This is easy enough when walking in a straight line, but what about when you turn?
How To Correctly Ride a Bending Line Most of the time, when a horse is turning, one of the rider’s shoulders moves forward and upward. You’ll want to prevent this by ensuring that you are sitting on both seat bones in the saddle equally. Imagine there is a rod along your spine. Keep your shoulders level and pivot them to the left or right around this imaginary rod in order to prevent yourself from dropping one shoulder or collapsing one side. Stay perpendicular to the imaginary rod. Your hips should pivot slightly in the same direction.
“What Do I Do With My Hands?” To explain the proper hand position, USDF Certified Trainer Melissa Allen likes to use a concept called “home base.” Imagine a square from the front of the saddle to the front of the withers. This square should be even with your hips both height-wise and width-wise. Make sure to keep your hands in that square. This will keep your hands in front of the saddle with a similar feeling to pushing a shopping cart forward instead of pulling it back. Make sure your hands stay in that box no matter what you do. Yes, even when you’re riding a bending line.
How To Keep Your Hands In The Right Position While Riding Bending Lines As you use the imaginary rod to pivot, the direction of your hips will lead the imaginary square to slightly change. When you ask the horse to turn, your hands should move very slightly but stay in the “home base” box as your body moves into position. If you bend the horse without remembering home base, you may lose the connection to the outside rein because one of your hands goes up or out.
Now that you’ve mastered the seat position, add some more technique to your turns. Ride a leg yield on the circle. To do this, you’ll need to begin on an 18-meter circle left. Your seat must be in the correct turning position. Leg-yield out to a circle of about 20-meters using your inside leg. Using the inside leg allows you to connect your horse to the outside rein. After you practice this, you will feel both reins on the bending line as the horse truly goes between both legs. It can be difficult to stay in position when your horse turns, but with practice, you can form the bond with your horse that allows you to execute this move perfectly.
In the January 2010 issue of Dressage Today magazine, Dr. Cesar Parra was featured in an article titled the “3 Stages of the Training Pyramid” where he explained how Piaffe Performance uses the Training Pyramid in daily work.
In the below video, Dr. Cesar Parra demonstrates an abbreviated training session with Grandioso moving through progression toward collection.
During Phase 1, Dr. Parra guides Grandioso as they begin stretching through the topline in walk, trot, and canter. During Phase 2, they begin building impulsion, working on transitions both between the gaits and within the gaits. The session ends with the horse stretching into the contact, swinging forward into the hand and showing relaxation.
This type of training is very similar to how the average person would work out in a gym or on a track. It’s a progressive process that requires time and repetition in order for the horse to build strength and mastery of each movement and transition. As with the mastery of any physical task, warming up, cooling down, correcting mistakes along the way, adding in more difficult movements as one adapts, and recovery are all important to building up the best quality and healthiest movements of the horse over time.
It’s important to keep an eye out for new mistakes as higher levels of coordination and control are required. As you can see in this video, with greater collection the neck of the horse can begin to get too short. This is neither uncommon nor unfixable. It simply requires awareness of the tendency and continued reinforcement of proper form over time. As the horse gets stronger behind, this will happen less and less.
As Dr. Parra rides, he always keeps an eye on the ground to identify and correct mistakes as quickly as possible. The more immediate the feedback, the swifter the process will be to fixing the issue.
Mistakes should never be seen as a reason to avoid a piece of work with a horse, but rather an opportunity to work with their specific shortcomings and weaknesses to build them up. With consistent, quality training, Grandioso will become a stronger athlete and be able to perform these tasks with less and less effort.
Dr. Cesar Parra has decades of experience competing and training for dressage. He competed for his native Colombia at the 2004 Olympic Games, the 2002 and 2006 World Equestrian Games, and the 2005 FEI World Cup Final. In 2003, he placed fourth individually at the Pan American Games and, in 1999, he won a Pan American team silver medal.
Now a U.S. citizen since 2008, he continues to both compete in dressage while also running a premier dressage training facility based in both Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, and Jupiter, Florida called Piaffe Performance.