Every training activity we do can create improved performance through building a stronger, more flexible partner. These exercises are designed to do just that. But before undertaking some of the more complex exercises, you must be able to ride your horse forward and straight, and you must also be able to achieve true balance and counter-bend easily.
These exercises should be performed regularly. Performing them correctly will build strength as well as self-discipline, in both you and your horse. (The letters refer to those in a dressage arena.)
THE BOX. This is an exercise for the walk. It can be done using either turns on the forehand and/or turns on the haunches.
Start about 4 or 5 meters off the rail. Walk a straight line of 10 to 15 meters and execute a quarter turn (on either the forehand or haunches) to the right, so that you turn 90 degrees from the starting direction.
Walk ahead again in a straight line for another 10 to 15 meters and execute the same turn to the right. Execute two more straight lines and two more turns, until you?ve returned to where you started. If you can see them, your horse’s footfalls should draw a square.
You can keep turning to the right, or you can walk forward, do a simple change of direction, and do it again to the left. If you and your horse are adept at turns on the forehand or haunches, you can do a half-turn to change direction.
Pointers for perfection:
- Keep riding forward and straight between each turn. Although You’ll need to bend the horse slightly for the turns, make sure you ride out of each turn forward and straight.
- Although You’ll have to do several intro half-halts and collect the walk in to an ?almost-halt? prior to the turns, be sure to keep the forward energy during the turns.
- If the horse starts to go backward in the turns, or not move willingly out of them, ride forward immediately. If the horse gets truly stuck and steps backward at any point, stop the exercise and trot forward for a few steps or even for a lap around the arena before returning to the exercise.
TROT-HALT AND TROT-REINBACK. A great exercise for building the horse’s lumbar region and the muscles of the hind end is the judicious use of the halt and, eventually, the rein-back. Lots of trot-halt-trot transitions can get the horse really using his hind legs underneath him and pushing from them, up and out through the shoulders and withers. You should start with four halts in each lap of the arena (for instance, at A, B, C and E), building up to a halt every five or six steps.
As you progress in strength and proficiency, the next step is to halt, and then take one or two steps of rein-back, then immediately proceed in trot. This increases the loading of the hind legs, because of the power and push required for the horse to do the exercise. Just as with the trot-halts, start with a few around the ring and then increase the frequency. Both exercises can also be done as part of figures like serpentines and voltes.
Pointers for perfection:
- The horse must be able to walk or trot forward without hesitation or argument.
- Horse and rider must be able to execute the halts and rein-backs mainly from the seat and leg. Remember that even the halt and rein-back are forward exercises and to execute the upward transitions quickly and smoothly, the horse must perform the downward transitions on the aids and forward.
COUNTER-CANTER. When attempting to increase strength and throughness at the canter, you can’t do better than utilizing the counter-canter.
The best way to teach counter-canter is in pieces. Start on the true lead, and then change rein on a short diagonal. Trot before you enter the corner, so that your initial counter-canter is done just for only a straight stretch.? Once you trot, change rein again, and then repeat the exercise. Initially, don’t make a transition from the counter lead to the true lead in the corner or on the short side, because it will confuse the horse.
If you perform an immediate transition to the true lead, you’re inadvertently telling him that keeping the ?wrong? lead was NOT the correct answer. Rather, practice riding to the corner on one lead, perform the trot transition, followed by a change of rein across the diagonal at the trot. At the end of the diagonal, ride forward to the canter again, and then change the rein on the short diagonal to the counter lead again.
When you’re ready to ride through the short side in counter-canter, ride at least one full lap of the ring at trot between changes of direction. Once the counter-canter is more established, this level of care won?t be necessary.
When riding the counter-canter, keep your seat soft and following, and keep your leg placement the same as for the lead you wish to maintain. Most importantly, ride forward, as the most common mistake we see in counter-canter is trying to hold the horse on the counter lead with the reins, rather than pressing forward with leg and seat to hold the lead.
When the horse understands that changing direction doesn’t always mean changing leads, then you can counter-canter through the first corner of the short side.
Initially, keep the horse slightly counter-bent (bent in the direction of his leading leg) and ride every stride energetically forward. Change rein, and do it again.
With time, once the horse is more confident in the counter-canter, You’ll want to start asking the horse to hold a ?true? bend (bent in the direction of travel), even as he holds the counter lead.
Over time, You’ll be able to counter-canter through both corners, down the next long side, and around the next two corners. Ideally, you would then simply change rein to return to the true lead.
Additional exercises you can do include shallow serpentines on the long side and three-loop serpentines the width of the arena, with the first and third loops in true canter and the middle loop in counter-canter.
Pointers for perfection:
- Don?t attempt counter-canter until your canter transitions are strong and accurate.
- Ride forward, and keep your hips soft and following.
- Don?t lose your temper or composure when the horse loses the lead or makes a mistake. Just calmly regroup and pick up the lead again.
THE ICE CREAM CONE.? Just before entering a corner, make a half-circle to the centerline, then ride back on a short diagonal to the midpoint of the long side. If viewed from above, the footfalls would create the shape of an ice cream cone.
Initially, the focus should be on riding a smooth and flowing bend, and then straightening the horse from the centerline letter, to return to the track on a straight line reminiscent of a short diagonal. Try to use as much seat and leg to accomplish this shift as possible, using only minimal hand aids. Be sure to ride a forward stride, and don’t let the horse back off as he shifts his body from bending to straight.
Once the horse is flowing well through the turn, you can then increase the degree of difficulty by making a few variations. The first is to alternate between the straight-line return to the rail as described above, and, after straightening the horse for a step or two, changing to the opposite bend and return to the track in a leg-yield. If you’re going to do both variations, it’s best to alternate them, so the horse isn?t anticipating how He’s returning to the rail, but is, instead, really listening to your aids.
The final variation is good for increasing strength and flexibility, and for horses who have a tendency to dive or fall through their corners.
Begin by riding down the quarter-line for the length of the arena (or centerline, if you must). As you approach the end of the arena, turn in to the corner closest to you. So, if you turned down the quarter-line from the left rein, You’ll turn right. Ride the horse energetically forward with your legs and seat, on a tight half-circle, and then turn from the letter immediately out of the corner to return to the quarter-line (or centerline) on a short diagonal.
Again, focus on the horse moving laterally from the inside leg and stepping forward through the turn, although the fact that is that this short turn will create a more collected step from the horse.
Pointers for perfection:
- Keep your eyes up so that your geometry is perfect?the better your geometry, the more challenging these exercises.
- Don?t allow yourself or the horse to suck back in any of the changes in bend or direction.
- Use a minimal amount of hand, to ensure the horse is following your leg and seat.
BOTTOM LINE. Remember to remain focused. Take your time building your horse up to the perfected execution.? If at any point the horse becomes stuck, take a few steps back and solidify them before pushing forward.
Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger.