Use Benign Antagonism to Solve Training Problems

Jane Savoie is riding an 8-year-old Friesian named Menno, whose nickname is Moshi. Like many Friesians, Moshi has an upright neck.

You read. You watch. You listen. And you wonder which is the best approach for training your horse. Should you ride him “deep” or “up”? With a strong leg or a light leg? With a firm contact or a light contact? There’s so much seemingly conflicted information out there, that it’s hard to always know what to do.

Sorting out all the different schools of thought can seem overwhelming. However, when dealing with training issues, you can usually come up with a good solution if you use the philosophy of “benign antagonism” as your guide. This approach is “benign” because your adjustments are done quietly and without force. It’s “antagonistic” because you simply do exactly the opposite of what your horse does on his own.

Let’s look at some common training problems so you can see exactly how this idea of benign antagonism can be put into practice.

To Use a Light or Strong Leg
I’m from the school of thought that says a horse should react promptly and eagerly to subtle leg aids: You use your leg lightly, and your horse responds immediately and enthusiastically. It’s exhausting and not very pretty to squeeze and grind with your legs every stride. Instead, train your horse to react to featherweight aids.

When you’re not giving a leg aid, rest your legs quietly on your horse’s sides. When you choose to give an aid, increase the pressure slightly and momentarily. Never adjust your aid by repeating it or making it stronger to allow for your horse’s dullness. Instead, insist that he become more reactive to a refined aid by putting him in front of your leg.

I became a big believer in this system when I had my first FEI schoolmaster, Sacramento. Sacramento was a very sweet but extremely lazy Holsteiner, who stood 17.3 hands and weighed 1,800 pounds. When I was first getting to know him, I would close my legs and get practically no response. So I’d use more leg, and he’d react a bit better. I drew the mistaken conclusion that I just had to have stronger legs. After a few weeks of using “more leg,” Sacramento stopped giving me an answer to that aid, and I had to use even stronger leg aids. It was as if he was laughing at this neophyte on his back saying, “Go ahead-squeeze. That’s right. Now squeeze harder. Pretty soon you’ll be so exhausted that we’ll get to take a break!”

To encourage Moshi to travel correctly, Jane uses the theory of benign antagonism: She does the opposite of what Moshi’s body wants to do naturally. She schools him by riding long and low. | ©Rhett Savoie

That’s when I decided to approach this training issue from a benignly antagonistic point of view. Sacramento wanted me to use a lot of leg, so I decided to teach him to be “hot off” a light leg as a survival technique for my weary body. This approach was totally effective, even though he was quite set in his ways at age 12.

To Ride “Deep” or “Up”
You’ve probably heard lots of discussion about whether to work your horse “deep.” There are a variety of opinions on the matter. Some riders warm up and cool down their horses “long and low” to stretch and loosen the muscles. Others always school in a balance and frame appropriate to the level at which they are working; they never stretch their horses. Many trainers school in a deep frame only during the movements when the horse habitually comes above the bit. Still others do all of their work “extremely deep” with the horse’s nose almost on his chest; they bring him up only when they are getting ready to compete.

I normally warm up and cool down long and low and do the majority of training in a balance that is appropriate to the level at which the horse is schooling. But I often modify this basic system with a new horse, or even with a familiar horse, on a specific day. How do I decide whether to change things? First, I just ride around and see what my horse chooses to do. Then I determine whether his choice helps him in terms of balance and connection. If it doesn’t, I gently invite him to do the opposite.

Let’s say you’re riding a “dirt sucker.” This horse leans so heavily on the forehand that you feel like you’re somersaulting around the arena. With a horse like this, it’s best to ride him more “up.” That’s because his version of long and low is not a good one. Yes, the head and neck stretch down and out. But my concern is with the hindquarters. If his hind legs are trailing out behind his body and he is pushing himself heavily onto his forehand, he’s not in good balance. By shortening the reins and riding him a little more up, you can clear the way for his hind legs to come more underneath his body so he can carry himself better.

On the other hand, you might have a “stargazer,” who goes around so inverted that you can almost look at him eyeball to eyeball. He travels with a short neck, a low back and his head and neck up in the air. To retrain and strengthen his topline muscles, put this horse in the opposite shape from the one he adopts on his own. Send his hind legs further underneath his body so that his back is up and his head and neck are low for most, if not all, of the schooling session. Use a connecting half halt to change his shape. Then, after giving the half halt, allow the reins to get a bit longer so he can seek the contact forward and down.

To Establish a Slow or Quick Tempo
Regularity of rhythm — the even spacing between each step in a stride of walk, trot or canter — is a priority for all work. Movements and exercises should never be done at the expense of rhythm. Tempo, however, is a different matter.

Tempo — which is the rate of repetition of the rhythm — can be adjusted, depending on what your horse needs.

Think of rhythm and tempo this way: A waltz is always done in 3/4 time. That is the rhythm of a waltz. But a waltz can be played faster or slower. In other words, the tempo can vary.

When do you decide to ride at a tempo that’s different from the one your horse chooses? Let’s take an overly fresh event horse as an example. You start your warm-up, and this horse is so fit and excited that he picks up a trot that is much too quick. The longer you let him go at this clip, the more his tension builds. Left alone, he probably isn’t going to slow down. He’s like an overtired child who is so wound up that he can’t quiet his mind or his body. He needs you to help him calm down by asking him to trot at a much slower tempo than that of his normal working trot.

Do this by asking for a transition to the walk, Then, just as he’s about to step into the walk, don’t finish the transition. Instead, allow him to jog forward very slowly. If he accelerates after a few strides, repeat the incomplete downward transition until he understands and is happy to stay in the slower trot.

Ride him in the lazy tempo — the opposite of what he wants to do — until his tension dissipates. Once you feel him relax, gradually allow the tempo to become more normal.

As another example, let’s say you have a horse that tends to get too slow and labored in his tempo in a movement such as half pass, pirouette or even piaffe. Ask this horse to do the movement in a tempo that is too fast. Quicken the tempo by speeding up the action of your seat. Train him to go “over” his chosen tempo during the movement until it becomes a habit. Eventually, you can allow him to settle into the right tempo.

Use this philosophy of benign antagonism, and you’ll find that you rarely get stuck solving training issues. Invite your horse to do the opposite of what he chooses until it becomes easy for him. Once that happens, settle back into a happy medium.

Jane Savoie is a popular dressage competitor, trainer, speaker and author. She is the coach for the Canadian Eventing team for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Her new book, It’s Not Just about the Ribbons, is out and is being translated and published in Germany.

This article originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Dressage Today magazine.

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