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.