Sponsored by Danica Yates ~ Developing Connected Communication and Enhancing Free Movement
In past articles, we have looked at axioms of Classical Dressage. Here is a very important one, ‘ride back to front.’ All too often, we see dressage horses who are pulled together with the hand. These horses may appear ‘round’ by looking at their neck. However, looking more closely you may notice tension in their neck and back and lack of activity in their hindquarters. Further, you may notice an agitated expression on the horse’s face and after a certain period of time, you may find that the horse is so bound up he can no longer physically or mentally handle the “pressures” of dressage. To avoid this tension and unnecessary strain on the horse’s body and mind, riders can learn to allow for free movement by riding with soft, non-restrictive hands.
Horses must be encouraged to move freely and enjoy movement with the rider. The point of dressage is to dance fluidly with your equine partner, not to shove your horse into a frame to look “pretty.” When a rider develops soft hands maintaining steady contact and rides the horse forward with the leg, the horse will naturally seek the connection and come through his topline. Unfortunately, it is rare to see hands this quiet. More often, dressage riders will pull with the hands and de-emphasize the leg : riding the horse ‘backwards.’ In this case, natural movement is stifled or disturbed by the riders restricting hand. Contact with the horse’s mouth is necessary in dressage, but tactfully softening the pressure is equally as necessary in moments where the horse is soft. Even for experienced riders, it takes constant reminders to ‘give rein’ or soften the hand to allow for movement.
For young horses especially, going forward into the contact must be made enjoyable. In the first year or two of a dressage horse’s training, patience is key. The horse’s muscles must be allowed to develop and his mind must be kept fresh. Instead of compressing the frame too much in the beginning and demanding collection, young horses should be encouraged to move forward freely, developing rhythm and responsiveness. Riding must be fun for them. Lessons of softness, responsiveness and harmony must be instilled first. Riding with a lighter seat with green horses is a good idea, getting off their back and letting them gallop. Trail rides and pasture hacks encourage free movement under saddle and boost the fun factor. Getting out of the strict training mode occasionally can improve your horse’s willingness and focus when you go back to the ring. Daily turn out too, is necessary for healthy development.
As dressage horses progress in their training, collection should increase- but restriction of movement should not. Collection is a method of shaping energy, not stifling it. The half halt is the vehicle for creating collection. The proper half halt involves not only closing the hands briefly, but immediately softening and applying the legs following. If riders were to only increase pressure on the horse’s mouth, the natural reaction of the horse is to pull down and get heavier on the forehand. If, however, the half halt is clear but brief and is used in conjunction with the legs, it becomes an extremely useful tool in helping the horse balance and collect. The timing of the sequence is everything and can be broken down into three parts: 1. Close your hand clearly and briefly and the horse must come back to you 2. Immediately lighten your hand and 3. Bump him with your leg and ride with your seat to create impulsion. Parts 2 and 3 occur very quickly, nearly simultaneously. The most common mistake with this timing is for riders to apply the leg before they have lightened the hand. This again, will only drive the horse down into the bridle. The lightening is necessary to create space for the horse to move into. The hand must allow for forward movement. A proper half halt can take years to master, but when learned properly it will balance and energize the horse as opposed to blocking movement.
Another common mistake in learning to ride back to front, is for riders and trainers to over-ride the neck of a dressage horse. Many trainers address the face and neck before addressing the ‘engine’ of the horse. Remember that the neck is part of the topline that extends all the way to the croup. Tension appears in the neck and back when the horse is resisting upward with his neck or when he is over flexed in his neck. When a horse is resisting flexion in the poll, instead of trying to force his head in, keep your hands even with the connection steady and ride the hind end instead. Do transitions, lengthening, circles, riding with your leg and keeping your hands steady and supportive. Work on bending the horse as you ride him forward. For the neck to come truly round and through, the back must round with the hindquarters engaged. On the other hand, many horses are ridden ‘behind the vertical’ with too much flexion in the poll. This puts high levels of strain on the horses back muscles and makes it impossible for the hind end to step under naturally. A forgiving hand that is trained to soften at the correct moments is the key for allowing free movement.
Training aids such as side reins, harsher bits and draw reins are often used with horses who resist flexion in their poll. Unfortunately, these training tools are far more often abused then proven helpful. They can make the horse flex far past the vertical and put tremendous strain on the horse’s back, again, while the hind end is neglected. If a horse genuinely disrespects the half halt, training tools can be used to reduce a fight with the hands. However, as with any artificial training tool, draw reins are only effective if used in the correct situation, with correct technique (softening and backing the increased pressure in the hand with leg!) and discontinued promptly when they have served their purpose.
Horses at any level in their training should be encouraged to move freely, ridden with soft hands. Horses who are effectively worked over their back, with their hind quarters engaged will stretch these muscles when given rein. Stretching should be incorporated at the beginning and end of every ride as well as stretching walk breaks mid-ride. To allow for healthy, natural movement, riders must ‘ride back to front’ by putting an emphasis on the leg aid, keeping the hand as steady and supportive as possible. Strive to retain freedom in your horse’s movement that will keep him physically and mentally healthy.
by Danica Yates
reprinted with permission
Danica Yates is a sporthorse trainer in the Portland, Oregon area. FEI and European experience, four years private training with Olympian Debbie McDonald. Training, lessons and board are available. Call (503)278-1112 or visit www.danicayates.com for more information.