Saturday, May 31, 2014

Saturdays with Suzanne: The Stretchy Circle

The stretchy circle

Before "stretchy circles" were added to the low level dressage tests, we used to do this in training. It was called "showing the way to the ground" (probably a translation from German) and later, "long and low."

The stretchy circle does not consist of letting the horse pull the reins out of your hands or allowing him to run on the forehand. It is instead a systematic lowering of the horse's head and neck while keeping the horse on the aids.

A rider should be able to place the horse's head and neck at whatever height and length he or she wants it to be, depending on the level of training the horse has achieved. Being able to do so demonstrates how "connected" and "through" the horse has become.

We want the horse to "look for" the rider's hand. It is one of the results of successful half-halts. What?!? In the half-halt article I said that the horse should demonstrate a moment of self-carriage after a successful half-halt. This is true, but after that moment, the ride can either regain contact with both reins and ride on in the same frame OR, in this case, ask the horse to lower its head and neck further, just as we do when the horse is above the aids at the withers.

Toward that end, we ride the horse at a steady working trot rising, as asked for in the tests (although this can and should be done at the walk and canter as well). The rider begins, as always, with applying the upper inside leg. This time, however, the rider uses a slightly elevated outside rein, then gives that rein, and "follows" the horse's head down with the inside rein. It might take a moment, or it might not happen at all at first. The rider can follow this up by half-halting on the inside rein (slightly upward) as well, releasing, and following down with the outside rein. This works on the corners of the horse's mouth, not the bars. Soon the horse begins to understand and seeks the contact and elastic feel on the reins with which it has become accustomed and comfortable.

In this way, the rider can keep "stepping" the horse's neck down to whatever level is desired. The horse's head should remain perpendicular to the ground--neither behind nor in front of the vertical (although slightly in front of the vertical is widely accepted). We want the horse to remain giving in the poll: that is, opening and closing the throat latch depending on the degree of elevation.

The horse should, obviously, lengthen in the frame and stretch over its back, but it should not get quicker or shorter in stride or fall on the forehand. Balance should be maintained as evidenced by the hind legs coming under the body and lightness being maintained in the rider's hands. This lightness should ensure the horse's cooperation in coming back together in a shorter, more elevated, frame at the end of the circle.

When "stretchy circles" are performed correctly, they provide remarkable insight (a "light bulb moment") into how to achieve what is to come next as a horse and rider move up the levels.

-- by Suzanne May

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Saturdays with Suzanne: The Half-Halt

The half-halt

Countless words have been written about half-halts, and yet they remain a mystery to most riders. In dressage, it is said that “’feel’ is everything and the only thing”, and this old saying may have originated with half-halts.

Half-halts are supposed to precede and follow all changes between and within gaits, between movements, and before and after corners, changes of direction, and changes of bend. Half-halts are absolutely necessary for successful transitions. They help create and maintain balance and bend, indicate throughness, and facilitate self-carriage. No half-halt is complete until the rider gives, and the horse demonstrates a few moments of self-carriage. Riding a proper half-halt pretty much defines good riding. It reminds me of a team training session I attended in 1976. Col. Bengt Ljungquist was coach of the U.S. team that year, and we won a surprise bronze medal at the Montreal Olympics. In observing the team hopefuls, he didn’t ask to see their piaffe, passage, and one-tempi changes. He asked to see them ride a proper half-halt. I wish all trainers, instructors, and judges would require as much. The definition of dressage is “training,” after all, and not “fancy movement."

How does one ride a proper half-halt? This is where it gets tricky. It’s difficult to explain a feeling and can be confusing.

Simply stated, a half-halt begins with the rider’s legs and seat, the resulting impulsion is “caught” with the hands, which shift the balance back to the hindquarters, and then the hand gives to demonstrate self-carriage. This is the point at which the rider can ask for the previously mentioned transitions.

Half-halts don't always work right away. The horse usually comes above the aids at first for all but the already skilled rider. That’s OK as long as the balance shifts back, although many riders give up or change tactics when the horse goes above the aids. Eventually, the rider must be able to keep the horse on the aids throughout the half-halt to prevent losing the all-important back. This is really no different than when any new movement is introduced. Remember that the horse can be above the aids not only at the poll, but also at the withers.

Ideally, the half-halt starts by using the upper inside leg into the outside rein, with an opening inside rein, which takes (to support the inside leg and bend) and then gives while the outside rein picks up any slack offered (to keep the balance shifted back). The outside leg stays slightly back to guard the haunches.

Tip: Remember NOT to follow your giving hand forward with your body. Sit back so you can use your seat, not your legs, heels, or spurs, for forward movement.

While I just described an ideal half-halt using diagonal aids, the rider might need a unilateral half-halt (e.g., on the stiff side), using leg and rein on the same side, when riding a greener, more one-sided horse.

Sometimes it takes an all-out, two legs, seat, and two hands half-halt (e.g., when a horse is leaning in the hand or running through the bridle). Still, the rider should try to use the outside rein straight back through the elbow and a more or less opening inside rein, because giving in the poll is a function of bend. A thinking rider should be riding in position right or left most of the time. Position right or left can be thought of as half a shoulder-fore, which likewise can be thought of as half a shoulder-in. This lines the horse’s shoulders up in front of the haunches, which are wider than the shoulders. If the shoulders and haunches are equi-distant from the rail, the horse is actually crooked. A crooked horse cannot attain the needed impulsion for extended and collected movements.

If done consistently, the horse will begin to respond to the upper inside leg and come on the aids before the hand even engages, and thus the rider will be riding from back to front instead of the other way around. It is the rider’s goal to push, not pull, the horse where he or she wants it to go.

At first half-halts need to be used more often than the rider believes possible to accomplish, but soon they can become less frequent and less intense until the smallest of movement of the upper inside leg into the steady outside rein and a tiny squeeze of the fingers on the inside rein (checking the softness of the lower jaw) will suffice. The rider will then enjoy the ride, and the horse will demonstrate softness and thoroughness and balance and self-carriage, resulting in the biggest movement possible for that particular horse. WOW!!!

-- by Suzanne May

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Saturdays with Suzanne: Gadgets


There are several pieces of equipment or devices or gadgets out there designed to help riders put their horses in a more or less proper frame. The various riding disciplines favor different types of equipment. Dressage training equipment generally ranges from simple side reins to groups of devices known as martingales (running, standing, German), draw reins (which include all "running" or "sliding" reins), or the more complicated de Gogues and chambons. If the trainer rides or lunges over ground poles or cavaletti while using these devices, the horse can be encouraged to "use itself" while in this more or less proper frame.

The simpler and more direct the effect of the device, the more skilled the rider or trainer should be. Otherwise, the net effect will probably be negative rather than positive. The draw-type reins especially fall in that category. Even side reins are relatively easy to abuse. Most martingales are easier to use, but they still need to be adjusted properly and may not help as much as the rider may want them to.

Chambons are the most difficult and dangerous for the inexperienced horse person to use. Also, they should always be used for lungeing--not riding. There is a danger of the horse flipping over backwards. Of all the devices previously mentioned, the de Gogue is the most benign. It is easy to use and adjust. In it the horse is free to go long and low or short and elevated--even jump. Its beauty lies in its subtle complexities. Even your lunge line itself is versatile and can be used in several different ways as a kind of device.

The Pessoa system was invented by Nelson Pessoa (a great Brazilian jumper rider back in the day, as is his son, Rodrigo, now). It is an awesome addition to lunging equipment. It encourages a horse to not only flex at the poll, but also bring its hind legs under its body, thereby using itself properly. It can be adjusted from long and low to elevated and collected. It is truly an ingenious piece of equipment.

The bottom line, however, is that none of these devices can ride or train the horse by themselves, and they are only as effective and useful as the experience and ability of the rider or trainer using them. In the final analysis, devices only help accomplish what a skilled and proficient rider can do with a plain snaffle bridle and his or her hands, seat, and legs.

-- by Suzanne May

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Saturdays with Suzanne: Consistency


What is the best way to go about learning dressage? I've seen many approaches in the last 40+ years. Obviously, some ways are more successful than others.

Ideally, you can buy a schoolmaster, take lessons, and periodically have the horse tuned up. At the other extreme, you can be a working student for a trainer and not own a horse at all. I was lucky enough to be a working student for 13 years AND have access to FEI horses. There are lots of variations in between. It all depends on how much money and/or time you have, or want, to put into it. Money helps, but you cannot buy knowledge and the expertise to apply it.

The one thing that successful ways of learning all have in common is consistency. By consistency I don't mean taking the same lesson once a week every week for two years. Progress must be consistent, too. Toward that end, it helps to supplement your lessons by studying. Books and videos help you understand what you're trying to accomplish if you know how to use them. Not everyone does. Watch a lot and listen a lot. Develop your eye. Ask a lot of questions.

Be as consistent as possible with your source of instruction. If you switch instructors too frequently, you never master any method at all. On the other hand, if you can demonstrate a degree of expertise in one method, it is easier to correct or adjust a small detail than it is to start over. That is why one-shot clinics don't work for any but the already accomplished rider. Clinics should be thought of and planned as a series to derive the most benefit. Of course, the instructor or clinician should have classical goals and methods.

If you really want to learn something, a lot of thought should be given to selecting the individual from whom you consistently take instruction. Unfortunately, it's not easy. Often those with the weakest credentials are also the most opinionated, arrogant, and glib. The talk should translate into results, and the results should be tested in some way (such as competition, but not limited to competition) after a minimum degree of competence has been reached.

Discussion of theory is great; however, don't confuse parroting words with true understanding. In this sport "feel" is everything and the only thing. Ya can't just talk the talk--ya gotta walk the walk.

-- by Suzanne May

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saturdays with Suzanne: The Horse's Physical Development

The horse's physical development

All of us have heard the statement that proper dressage makes a horse more beautiful. If you're not sure if your training and/or lessons are successful, look at your horse. True, it takes time. Not forever, though! Your horse's physical development is a good check of whether or not your horse is really "on the bit" or "on the aids" (the preferred term).

Neck changes are often the most obvious. The neck should gradually become more arched and develop a crest, but the degree depends somewhat on whether you have a stallion, mare, or gelding. This can be noticeable even at rest. Over-developed under-neck muscles must be eliminated. Also, the neck should develop width from the base (in front of the withers) up and not from the ears down. The former indicates that the neck is stabilized between the shoulders. The latter indicates resistance in the poll. These horses also often "break" in the third vertebra instead of the poll.

Incorrect attempts at collection can result in a shortened, cramped neck, and the horse is then above the aids at the withers. In that case, the half-halts cannot go past that point, over the back, to the hind fetlock. The back becomes hollow, and this prevents "connection" and "throughness". If the horse's back is properly "up", the backbone should become less prominent as muscles develop along either side of it. Your saddle may fit better, too.

If the hind legs are active, they not only track up under the body, but also close the angles of the joints, resulting in a lowering of the hindquarters. The muscles that develop in the upper hind leg just above the gaskin are known as "breeches" because they look, from the rear, like the old-fashioned breeches with a "peg."

The muscles over the top of the croup should be smooth and long, not bunchy and overdeveloped. Likewise, there should be no "hunter bump" or peak. These unwanted changes mean the angles of the hind leg are not closing. If there is no lowering of the haunches, there is no relative elevation of the forehand. A straightened hind leg can pop you out of the saddle, too, and indicate that the hind legs are "out" or being "left behind". You want to develop a "body mover" as opposed to a "leg mover."

There should be an even and harmonious development of the horse's body which results in transforming some of the "pushing power" into "carrying power". This can be heard as well as seen. The horse no longer pounds the ground. A horse that is using itself properly is sounder, more comfortable (not at the expense of big movement), and more beautiful, too!

-- by Suzanne May