What are you after in schooling your horse for dressage? Self-carriage: He rebalances himself toward his hind legs so that he appears to work almost on his own. Whatever your level, these gymnastic exercises will help you work him more effectively by making him pliable and submissive to what you ask him to do. Here’s how:
- They enable you to train using fewer aids; the shape of the exercise does most of the work for you. Because you’re fussing with him less, your horse is less inhibited.
- They sharpen your focus: Each line of each gymnastic and every corner of the arena has a purpose, so every stride takes on added value and meaning.
- They give you a way to check (and improve) your horse’s responsiveness, straightness, and suppleness as the work gradually grows more demanding.
This program takes twenty to forty-five minutes, depending on whether you use some (for a horse in the early stages of training) or all of the gymnastics (if your horse is more advanced). Whatever his level, warm up with a few minutes of walk, a nice active trot on a straight line, then a circle, followed by a smaller circle and a couple of serpentines. (I like serpentines because every change of direction is an opportunity to half-halt, change the bend, and move forward again while keeping the rhythm, balancing and educating your horse.) Do some walk/trot/canter and some transitions within the gaits. And then we begin.
Is your horse willing to move away from your leg? To turn? To go? You need these qualities for even the simplest work, so check him out (and improve him) with a series of 90-degree turns. Begin with an active medium walk on the rail in a nice 1-2-3-4 rhythm. Now turn across the arena on the middle of the long side and walk straight toward the other side. Before you get there, halt; then do a quarter-turn on the forehand from your right leg. Walk straight ahead again for a few steps. Now make a right turn straight across the arena again; after a few steps, halt and execute a quarter-turn on the forehand from your left leg. Again walk straight ahead, then half-halt (but don’t make a total stop) and do a quarter-turn on the haunches off your right leg. Walk straight to the rail and make a quarter-turn on the haunches off your left leg. Now walk straight ahead, reverse direction, and repeat. You want your horse to feel active but loose and relaxed-not hurrying, shifting his weight onto his forehand and pushing out more behind; not leaning more and more on your aids.
Straightness and Forwardness: Leg-Yields
This exercise gets your horse supple enough that he can step across underneath himself as he moves laterally, away from your leg, but the emphasis is still on forwardness, straightness, and obedience. (We’ll work on straightness throughout these gymnastics because there is no way to make a collected horse from a crooked horse. The energy from the hindquarters must be able to go straight forward, toward the front.)
After trotting down the long side on the right rein, walk on the short side and, still at walk, leg-yield left to right from M across the diagonal to K. You want to feel him going forward and sideways, not just sideways. From K, walk across the short side; at F, cross the diagonal again. This time, leg-yield four strides to the left, then ride four strides straight, four strides to the right, four strides straight. Repeat this at walk in both directions; then do the same exercise in trot. (Be sure to keep the rhythm that’s natural for your horse; when he’s in it, he feels balanced and comfortable, needing only intermittent reminders to maintain a consistent pace.)
“Uphill” Balance: Shoulder-Fore
You’ve gotten your horse to move away from your leg while keeping his straightness. So what’s next? Shoulder-fore: an exercise that, as it continues to develop straightness, also trains him to carry you (and himself) on his inner hind leg while balancing his weight uphill-that is, shifting more of his balance to the rear. Walk straight down the long side; at B or E, make a 10-meter circle (half the width of the arena). His bend on the circle positions his shoulder slightly to the inside, as it needs to be for shoulder-fore. Maintain the bend as you complete the circle and walk the next few strides on the rail in shoulder-fore: his hind feet on the track and his front feet slightly displaced to the inside, using the outside rein only to balance him. (If you were standing in front of him, you’d see him bent to the inside just enough that his outside front foot is tracking between his two hind feet.) Now make another 10-meter circle; from that, walk on again in shoulder-fore.
Change rein on the diagonal; as you come across, ride a little shoulder-fore to the right, straighten him for a couple of strides, then a little shoulder-fore to the left, and straighten. (As I said, every line of every exercise has meaning: This work on the diagonal maintains his obedience so he doesn’t think, “Oh good, free time!”-and mentally say goodbye.) Back on the rail, repeat the exercise of circle to shoulder-fore on the new rein. When your horse is doing this gymnastic comfortably at walk, do it at the trot. [For more on shoulder-fore, see the March 2001 article “Lesson With Lendon: Hey! Straighten Up!” in Practical Horseman]
After a series of exercises creating some degree of collection in your horse, those muscles that have been working need to release. Trot a 20-meter circle and let him reach long and low. Then walk, give him a pat, and let him stretch his neck out and down to loosen all the muscles across his topline. Do this for a few minutes before shortening your reins again.
Flexibility: Haunches-In toHalf-Pass
The more often you ask your horse to change his angle and bend, the more flexible he becomes-but you don’t want him to feel you’re turning him into a pretzel! This gymnastic is a giving sort of exercise, in which you set him up with a simple circle for the movement you want, helping him think he can really go for it.
Begin at walk on the left rein, making a 10-meter circle at F; when your horse’s front feet return to the track, maintain the bend of the circle and continue down the long side in haunches-in for a few steps. Repeat, still at walk, in the other direction with a 10-meter circle at K followed by haunches-in. Back on the left rein, start across the diagonal at F, make a circle to the left on the diagonal line, and ride from the circle into a haunches-in going toward H-and that’s a half-pass! Think about driving your horse’s legs forward rather than sideways, because that’s what you’re doing; the bend from your circle is doing the rest. (Thinking forward, not sideways, also helps you avoid the common rider error of collapsing your upper body on the side of your driving leg.)
Straighten your horse at H and repeat on the other diagonal. When you and he are comfortable with the exercise at walk, try it at sitting trot.
Self-Carriage: Canter Work
In this exercise, you first use the canter to encourage your horse to collect so that he carries himself more. (You do this on a circle, which helps regulate his speed and prevents his running away; because you’re riding from your inside leg to your outside rein, you have better control. The curved line also helps you keep him more supple laterally.) Then you’ll use the slightly more collected gait you established on the circle to balance and straighten him with counter-canter.
Start with a 20-meter walk circle to the right at B; when you return to the track, pick up your canter on the right lead, and continue on the circle. Now do some transitions within the gait: a few strides of medium canter, then shorten the stride, then back to medium again. Hold the more collected canter a little longer than you think he can comfortably handle it (keep your reins quiet, say “steady,” and use a touch on his butt with your whip). In the medium canter, use frequent half-halts to encourage him to balance himself, instead of letting him use your hands for support, in the longer frame. When you return to the track at B, continue cantering on the right lead while you change direction through half of the arena and turn to the left. In the new direction, flex him toward the counter-lead; on the short side of the arena, turn left down the far quarter line (halfway between the center line and the rail). As you come down the quarter line in counter-canter, don’t so much think of the half-pass as let him think of it while you gradually go back to the rail on your right in counter-canter. (No need to push him sideways; the shape of the exercise and your leg aids will carry him. Just use a little less rein and you’ll go there.) When you get to the rail, walk, straighten him, pick up the left lead; then do the exercise in the other direction beginning with a big circle at E.
The many top US dressage riders who have worked with trainer and FEI I judge Lilo Fore include 1999 Pan Am Games gold medalist Debbie MacDonald as well as Beth Ball, Chris Hickey, and others. Lilo’s influence in the sport is broad-based; she has competed successfully at Grand Prix Level; and the sport horses she breeds at her Santa Rosa, California, farm have won championships both in dressage and in the hunter/jumper ring.
From the October 2001 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.