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:
- Shoulder Movement
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:
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.
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:
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.
Every rider, no matter what level of expertise, can benefit from a professional lesson, especially with the right preparation and attitude. These tips will help make sure your sessions are as productive and enjoyable as possible.
1. Ask what the lesson will entail
It’s always advantageous to know what the lesson will entail ahead of time. Don’t be shy to ask the instructor what will be covered, how much time will be spent on certain exercises, and what fitness level is expected of both you and your horse. You should especially do this if you’re working with an instructor you’ve never taken a lesson from before.
If after hearing more about the lesson you worry that the level of exertion and expertise required are either too much or not challenging enough for you and your horse at your current state, you can communicate this to your instructor and he/she will be able to adapt the lesson plan to your needs ahead of time.
Make a checklist of everything you need to bring with you, and gather it all together ahead of time. Make sure to inspect everything as you pack to make sure all is in good working order.
A few hours before you go, check the local weather and traffic conditions. The last thing you want to do is ruin your lesson because you were too cold or hot to focus on the tasks at hand.
3. Arrive early
Dressage requires a certain level of relaxation and poise. You aren’t going to start the lesson off in the right state of mind if you’re rushing to get everything ready at the last second. Plan ahead so that by the time you arrive at the facility you have plenty of time to spare.
This will also give your horse more time to adapt to new surroundings if you’ve travelled with your horse to the lesson. At a minimum, give your horse 15 minutes of between getting ready and starting the lesson. This will ensure that you and your horse are ready to go right at the start time, saving you from wasting the first bit of time getting ready. Remember, your instructor will not compensate by allowing the lesson to run late; this would disrupt the rest of the days lessons.
4. Warm up
Arriving early has another perk: it allows you time to warm up. Warming up before your lesson will help you and your horse get focused, as well as give you time to evaluate any immediate issues you notice that you might want addressed during your lesson.
5. Don’t set unrealistic expectations
While you may feel eager to conquer new challenges with each lesson, if you haven’t mastered the basic steps and transitions that came before, you’re not ready to move on. Your instructor will progress the lesson at a pace that matches your ability to learn, perform, and master. A good instructor will never rush through steps just because you want to try something new or more difficult. Each move in dressage builds off of the foundations of what came before it. You’ll need patience and perseverance to succeed.
6. Ask questions
Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification on anything you don’t understand. You’re not going to perfect anything if you don’t understand the mechanics of what you’re doing. While some of us shy away from questions out of fear of sounding silly or being judged, you’re going to get the most out of your lesson if you take full advantage of your instructors expertise. Towards the end of the lesson, check in to see what you should continue to work on alone before your next lesson.
7. Practice on your own
Practice shouldn’t be limited to lessons. If you don’t apply the things you learn on your own between lessons, you’ll likely forget them by the time you get back on your horse next. Commit to a regular practice schedule and stick to it.
Practice makes perfect, but making sure you’re capitalizing on your practice time to the best of your ability is what’s going to push you to that next level in dressage.
It’s important to maintain an engaged cantor and trot, but engagement takes practice. Polework can help encourage your horse to want to work, even outside the arena. Keep your training regime fresh with these exercises.
First, set up 4 trotting poles approximately 4-5 toe to heel steps apart, depending on your horse.
Always start with a warm up to get your horse’s blood pumping and muscles feeling loose. Once you’re both sufficiently warmed up, begin a trot in a 20 meter circle over each pole keeping the speed even and your horse off your leg coming out of each pole, maintaining consistent rhythm. You will find that if your horse is either behind the leg or rushing, the poles will knock. By establishing the right rhythm, your horse should stretch over the back and neck to the contact in both reins.
Next, stay in trot over the poles, but this time, pick up canter immediately after the poles, and complete your circle in a canter. As you approach the poles again on your next circle, go back to trot. Once over the poles in trot, go back to canter. Repeat the exercise a few times to allow your horse to commit the movements to muscle memory.
By learning to maintain relaxation over the back and gaining more engagement, this exercise will help to correct a horse that is tense or runs into a canter, and the downward transitions will reinforce proper form as the horse starts to sit back in preparation of the trot poles.
Simple exercises like these should be a regular part of your training regime. Creating suppleness will ultimately lead to a more engaged canter and trot.