As the hunter rider worked around the 20-meter circle, designated by four cones at the quarters, dressage clinician Bruno Greber asked her to explain the goals for her and her horse’s riding at that very moment. “Do you like the way the horse is now?” he asked. “Is the gait good? Is there enough activity? Is it slow, is it quick?” These simple questions started the discussion about communication and feedback between horse and rider and rider and instructor.
Bruno repeated this pattern with each rider in the one-day clinic in Farmville, Virginia, organized by Longwood University riding coach KC Meadows last spring. She had ridden with Bruno previously and found his methods an asset to her riding and instructing so she arranged the clinic for five of the school’s Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association team members as well as local riders and more than a dozen auditors.
From the first rider of the day to the last, Bruno, a Swiss Riding Master/Instructor, international clinician and U.S. Dressage Federation gold-medal rider, worked to help build stronger communication lines and feedback loops—the question/response cycle between horse and rider. In a feedback loop, for example, the rider asks the horse to change in some way, waits for a response, then responds again to the horse. Or the horse begins the feedback loop by indicating he needs clearer instruction; the rider then provides it and waits for the horse to respond.
Bruno, now based just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, wanted clinic riders to become more aware of how stronger lines of communication, built on clear aids and structured riding, improved their horses’ performances. For example, as riders paid more attention to the rhythm, the horses improved the regularity and power of their movements. This made riders’ aids quieter and clearer so the horses became even more responsive to the leg aids. Similarly, as riders developed a steadier contact in the rein, the horses used their backs more to carry themselves. The end result was horses showing freedom and suppleness with a minimum of aiding by the riders.
Structure Helps Communication
The cones on the 20-meter circle helped to create structure and required the riders and horses to focus on staying on a regular track. As they did so, the horses were able to more easily travel in balance and ease around the circle. When a horse and rider had difficulty, Bruno isolated the aid that was not clear enough and improved the rider’s use of it until the horse showed understanding and reaction to that aid.
Changing direction through the circle also became a structured activity, feeding into the notion of clear communication. Bruno explained that riders started at the inside of one cone and rode two equal loops to finish at the inside of the cone opposite on the circle. Having the cones at the quarters of the 20-meter circle helped the riders find this pattern. They came off the big circle at one cone, made a 10-meter half-circle toward the center of the circle, took one or two straight steps to change the aids, then made a 10-meter half-circle in the other direction, returning to the larger circle at the cone opposite from where they had started. By following this pattern, the riders had to be aware of their aids and deliberately change them at the midpoint.
Riders were surprised by the skills needed to ride this precisely. When their aids were clear, the horses were easy to keep on the pattern. If the aids changed too slowly or without finesse, however, the horses struggled to change direction with an even rhythm and evenly made half-circles.
This exercise showed that structured riding points out whether riders’ aids are clear and it provides feedback from the horses, including lack of suppleness, loss of rhythm, loss of balance to the inside, stiffness in the change of bend from one side to the other and loss of balance onto the forehand.
Inside and Outside Reins
In addition to encouraging the horse to start bending to conform to the circle’s shape while keeping a steady rhythm, the circle allowed the riders to focus on answering questions Bruno and their horses posed to them. Some horses, for example, were a little slow in the walk, so Bruno had their riders create activity using an alternating soft left–right closing of the leg. This encouraged the horses to reach more and establish a better rhythm, resulting in increased activity of the gaits. If riders began pushing too hard or holding the leg aid too long, Bruno would remind them that a horse learns very quickly to ignore an aid that is too hard, making it feel as if “you are riding with the brakes on.” As these riders resumed a soft left–right leg aid, the activity of the walks improved. This new feedback loop opened and carried through to the trot and canter work.
While traveling around the circle, many of the horses had straight bodies and heaviness on the inside shoulders. As Bruno taught their riders to differentiate between the inside and the outside reins, these issues began to dissipate. He asked the riders to bend, even overbend, the horses to the inside using a steady, soft inside rein while encouraging them to accept the pressure of the inside leg and give in the rib cage. Then without giving up that inside connection, riders asked the horses to straighten the neck with the outside rein, making the outside rein responsible for keeping the horse on the circle—as opposed to the inside rein pulling the horse around.
The effect of this was to open discussion between the horse and rider about bend and suppleness and balance on turns. When the communication on the outside rein was clear, the riders found they no longer relied on the inside rein for turning. As Bruno said to Cailin Asip, riding 19-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred Henry: “If your inner rein is still feeling like it is taking your horse around the circle, then the outer rein is not directing the riding yet. When the horse bends enough, the outside rein can take the horse around the circle.” As Cailin practiced bending and straightening, Henry’s body started to show an arc commensurate with the circle. With this exercise, the riders also realized the weight had been taken off the inside foreleg and put much more on the outside hind leg. As Bruno was quick to point out, “If you have to turn for a jump and the horse is balanced to the hind leg and not on the foreleg, the approach and the jumps are going to be much nicer, more elegant” because the shoulders are not carrying extra weight. Elizabeth Grubbs, riding her Thoroughbred Finn, noted that she felt a “night-and-day” difference as he started to bring up his back and become rounder when she used the rein aids clearly. She commented, “I was skeptical about the clinic because of prior experience with dressage, but [Bruno] showed how it relates to hunter/jumpers. [He was] not trying to change the riding type, but using techniques from dressage to improve the horse’s performance.” Still other horses struggled to keep a clear rhythm as they moved from walk to trot around the circle. When this happened, Bruno asked the riders to use their legs in a clear rhythm. Several times he directed a rider to stop; then he would carefully reach under the horse so he could hold both of the rider’s legs. By gently using the riders’ legs—alternating for walk, together in rhythm for trot and inside (quickly)–outside (holding slightly longer) for canter)—he let them feel the way the leg could close softly but rhythmically to influence the gaits. Soon this soft use of aids showed real benefits for both horses and riders: Riders demonstrated more suppleness in their legs and horses offered clearer rhythm and activity in their gaits. They developed what Bruno called: “Rhythm in your boots.”
Once these clear signals were having positive effects, transitions became the next area where communication was strengthened. Since the riders were now focused on the proper use and rhythm of the aids and the information their horses were giving from their responses, effecting clear, soft and active transitions was easy. If an upward transition was sticky or sloppy, Bruno reminded the rider that the aids need to be used in the right sequence and at the right moment. To reinforce this idea he noted: “When the walk is good, trot. When the trot is good, canter. You have to earn the canter.” To help the riders stay organized and communicating with their horses in the downward transitions, he had them think: “I’m not ending the trot, I’m beginning the walk.” This allowed the riders to take a moment to change the leg aids before the transition was complete—just as the change of direction through the circle had given a moment to change the aids. The information was flowing clearly from horse to rider and rider to horse.
These simple reminders of aid use and timing coupled with a structured plan of the session allowed a greater feedback loop. While using the aids well and listening to what the horses were giving back, the riders seemed to come to a better understanding with their horses with each rotation of the circle. The horses improved their way of travel and transitions from gait to gait as well as their focus on the job at hand. As Cailin, who rode two horses, declared: “I need to be more demanding of my communication with my horses rather than passive.”
This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.