Dressage is a sport that relies on the communication between two living beings…the rider and the horse. From the time the horse first becomes acquainted with carrying the weight of a rider, training is structured to progressively strengthen the equine physique and to develop a state of confidence and understanding that minimises resistance and fear, thus creating a positive and productive training relationship.
The elements of the Training Scale (Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness and Collection) monitor and measure the success of training strategies, and guide dressage judges in their assessment of the horse’s work, acting as the overarching reference point at every level and stage of training.
Longitudinal and lateral flexion are the basis for all training. Without unrestrained movement, loose joints and a soft swinging back the horse will be stiff and stilted, and a worst-case scenario sees the jarring movement caused by stiffness and a lack of flexion and bend leading to injuries. Correct dressage training helps the horse to become strong and sound, capable and confident, and therefore able to work for many years in a way that adheres to the most exacting ideals of animal welfare.
It can be rather humbling to take a step back from the awe and wonder of a beautifully executed Grand Prix dressage test and consider that soon after a foal has taken its first steps, it will demonstrate an instinctive ability to perform the movements seen at the highest level of the sport. It takes many years of hard work and a patient trainer who respects the intricacies of engaging the horse’s amazing energy to recreate the beauty and expression that comes with nature’s abundance.
The objective of correct training is the development of compliance and understanding that will allow the rider to achieve flexion and bend – qualities that are manifested in the horse’s ability to show lateral and longitudinal suppleness, without restraint or resistance. Each level of dressage gives cohesion and structure to the horse’s training program and also provides a valuable assessment criteria for judges.
The early training exercises focus on what the Germans call ‘Losgelassenheit’. In English we need a few more words to explain, so we describe this early requirement as ‘loose and unrestrained’. For the young or uneducated horse, this way of going is manifested in a soft, regular rhythm, with energetic forward reaching steps that are free of resistance and tension.
Lateral Flexion is what we identify as the horse’s willingness to show side to side bend in the neck to follow the prescribed line of travel, allowing the rider to make smooth and balanced changes of direction without falling in or becoming crooked or the horse showing resistance by way of tilting the head, crossing the jaw, mouth or tongue resistance, coming above the bit or dropping behind the vertical.
Longitudinal Flexion is the development of thrust emanating from engaged and energetic hind legs and this energy is then contained by ‘catching’ (not pulling) hands. The horse will continue to develop bend and elasticity in the joints, which will have the effect of lowering the croup and raising the forehand. This ‘collecting’ of energy allows the horse to move with a soft, springy back, carrying the rider’s weight in a balanced manner that is referred to as self-carriage and ‘gymnastically correct’ posture. A balanced horse in the latter stages of training will work with the poll the highest point of the neck and balance that does not rely on the reins for support. The horse shows freedom of movement with ease and harmony that is more akin to an artistic performance.
The next stage in the German Training Scale is referred to as ‘Durchlässigkeit’, which translates as ‘through and on the aids’, meaning that the horse accepts the rider’s driving legs, which create energy that is contained by the restraining/gathering hands. The horse will progressively show more engagement and acceptance of the containing aids, a state which is evidenced by a rounded swinging back, lively engagement of the hindquarters, and the horse stepping forward under the centre of gravity (a little in advance of where the rider sits) to create lift and energy that raises and lightens the horse’s forehand. As the horse becomes more balanced, there is greater freedom of the shoulders and this allows the forearm to reach up and out, enhancing the ground covering steps that define the quality of lengthened paces.
Unfortunately riders often ask for too much inside bend in the false belief that this is correct lateral flexion. Holding rigidly or pulling on the inside rein unbalances the horse, blocking the energy and engagement of the inside hind leg, which is the main weight bearing leg on circles and turns. Conceptualizing the horse’s body length on a given size circle and then consider the amount of bend/flexion that is required to maintain the shape of the movement is important. When the length of the horse – nose to tail – is marked out in the sand on a 20-metre circle and a line is drawn in the sand between the impressions of the two front legs and the hind legs, it is surprising how straight this line is.
In order to show softness to the inside, the amount of inside rein used to guide the horse around the circle line must be checked and monitored by the outside rein. This action is similar to a bike rider pulling the inside of the handlebar around, with no check from the outside hand to measure the turn of the handlebar causing the bike to overbalance or overturn. The same principals apply to the use of the outside rein as it applies to controlling the degree of a turn and the influence of the inside rein. Correct use of both reins will keep the horse on the track or line of travel appropriate to the bend, circle or turn. The outside rein also acts to deliver the half halts that aid the longitudinal flexion and roundness and also act as a balancing aid. Riders must always reference the line of travel, the corners and outer circumference of circles and turns, in order to keep the horse upright and straight, and to minimise the natural inclination for horses to lean and tilt their body and fall out through the shoulders.
A common error is seen if there is inadequate longitudinal flexion when the test calls for a few lengthened strides or a medium/extended
trot. In such cases, the horse’s balance moves on to the forehand when the rider drops the reins in a mistaken attempt to lengthen the frame. The horse becomes tight and straight in the shoulder and cannot show self carriage, this in turn puts weight on the forehand, resulting in shortened steps that lack quality and expression. The horse needs to maintain an uphill inclination, which will free the shoulders and allow longer more reaching steps.
The successful development of engagement, self-carriage and lightness and ease always comes back to the horse’s early training and a mastery of the combined aids for lateral and longitudinal flexion.
As the requirements of each level increases, the horse will be expected to move in balance, around smaller circles, turn in correct longitudinal and lateral flexion and correctly execute shapes and figures that require a uniform bend through the whole length of the horse’s body. Movements such as a volte (6 – 8 metre circle), corners at FEI level, half passes and canter pirouettes, rely on a uniform bend of the spine, which comes from the horse’s soft obedience to the influences of the inside driving leg into outside supporting rein, the softness and bend indicated by the inside rein, and an outside supporting leg which keeps the horse from falling out through the outside shoulder, or moving off the line of travel.
Around the 4th year of training the horse will be working at, or approaching Medium level dressage, where the lateral movements including half passes are established. The horse should now be capable of showing clear differences in and out of the collected and extended paces with enhanced self- carriage, suppleness, obedience and a confidence, which enables the rider to use lighter, more harmonious aids. At medium level the horse is considered to be competent and secure in the formative lessons and ready to go on to develop the refined understanding and accurate responses that enable progression to the FEI levels.
When the horse reaches Intermediate ll and Grand Prix, the development of the horse’s willing and compliant response to the lateral and longitudinal flexion, as indicated by the rider’s subtle and almost imperceptible aids. The horse works cooperatively, allowing the rider to access the suppleness and strength required to perform extended and collected paces, counter changes of hand at the canter and fluent flying changes in a prescribed sequence with the horse changing canter lead at the split second that all legs are off the ground. The majesty of the passage and piaffe sequences is recognised as the ultimate expression of refined communication and understanding between horse and rider and this drives a world-wide interest in the sport of dressage.
As we look at the interplay of engagement, containing the energy, suppleness and expression we must always look back to the role of lateral and longitudinal flexion, as these lessons develop softness and bend that gives the performance ease of movement and turns the horse and rider into a cooperative partnership. It is only a special partnership that allows dressage to become an expression of art. Happy riding.