It’s not every day that riders of all levels can take advantage of the knowledge and training techniques taught for centuries at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria. But for three days last year, a group of riders from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania did just that under the tutelage of Andreas Hausberger, the Chief Rider at the SRS. A horse breeder’s son, Andreas joined the SRS in 1984 and was appointed Rider in 1993 and Chief Rider in 2007. Dressage rider and trainer Bruno Greber had organized the clinic where he is based at Pasmore Stables in Whitehall, Virginia.
During each 45-minute private lesson, Andreas demonstrated an unwavering attention to detail that boosted riders’ confidence as he followed a basic lesson structure:
- Riders warmed up their horses on their own outside the arena.
- After an introduction in the arena, they rode a brief rising or sitting trot, showing circles, serpentines and work on the rail while Andreas focused on the quality of the trot and the rider’s position. Once these were satisfactory …
- riders worked on changes within the trot on a 20-meter circle. When the horses showed balance and attentiveness …
- riders proceeded to canter. Again, Andreas looked for the quality of the gait and rider position.
- Riders then worked on changes within the canter with Andreas asking them to demonstrate correct half-halts and the ability to keep the correct tempo.
- During a short break, riders allowed the horses to “chew the rein out” into a stretch.
- Riders returned either to collected sitting trot or collected working canter to begin developing lateral movements, more distinct collection, consistent expression, clearer rhythm and greater harmony.
- After the riding portion on the first day, the horses were worked in-hand to improve engagement and self-carriage. On the following two days, the in-hand work was done prior to the mounted work.
Within this lesson structure, Andreas helped the riders overcome various challenges from gripping with the knee to keeping the upper body supple to correcting a horse overflexing to the inside during shoulder-in.
Proper Riding Position
During the early stages of each ride Andreas corrected position errors, big and small, including these:
Challenge: Gripping with the knee and thigh
One lower-level rider did not realize she was gripping with her knee and thigh, constricting her horse’s ability to travel smoothly forward in a clear rhythm. To help her loosen the leg, Andreas encouraged her to take her knees away from the saddle but still allow the calf to remain on the horse. When she reverted to the old habit, he reminded her again to loosen the knee. The difference in her horse was easy to see as they started to ride the transitions within the trot on the 20-meter circle: If her knees began to tighten, the horse had trouble achieving the medium trot and the collected trot was bouncy and looked stiff. As the rider worked with what she said felt like “almost the back of my calf,” the horse began to swing and carry her more smoothly.
Challenge: Keeping the seat deep in the saddle
Another rider who had switched from jumpers to dressage only a few years ago struggled to keep her seat deep enough in the saddle consistently. Her horse regularly pulled her further out of position as a result. The solution took two steps:
Step 1: The rider concentrated on bringing the horse’s neck to her. To do this, she kept her upper arm at her side by engaging her shoulders, not her arm muscles, while encouraging her horse to continue with the same amount of activity she had shown throughout the lesson. As the balance between the rein contact and the energy of the haunches improved, the horse began to arch her neck. Then Andreas asked the rider to lift the center portion of the arch upward toward her by sitting more into her horse. The result was a continued lightening of the horse’s weight off the rider’s hand.
Step 2: Once the horse was lighter, the rider dropped her stirrups and focused on keeping her horse’s neck up on a 20-meter circle. As she kept the horse from dropping her neck too low, the rider’s seat got deeper and deeper. By the end of the lesson she was riding canter–sitting trot and medium trot–collected trot transitions multiple times and without stirrups. On the second day, she rode without stirrups, but from the start, the horse did not pull and the rider was more solid in her position. They then moved on to shoulder-in, half-pass and greater collected work.
Challenge: Keeping the upper body supple, wrists soft and shoulders down
An upper-level rider struggled to keep his upper body supple (without it moving back and forth a little), his wrists soft and his shoulders down. Andreas drew more attention to the relaxation of the wrists in every transition and movement by pointing out the tension whenever it appeared, and the upward tendency of the shoulders lessened. This made the rider aware of how one subtle position error can lead to a greater one. As the shoulders dropped, the suppleness and steadiness of his upper body also improved, but to improve it more Andreas increased the frequency and types of transitions—upward and downward between and within the gaits, on serpentines and circles of varying sizes, within lateral steps—always with a sharp eye and quick correction if the rider’s wrists got stiff, starting the chain reaction of errors.
Lateral Movements and Collection
Once riders had the chance to improve their positions, Andreas increased his focus on collected work. Again he followed a clear pattern but added the difficulties of riding the proper tempo and carriage.
Challenge: Preventing a horse from overflexing his head to the inside during shoulder-in
Andreas asked riders to start the collected work by riding shoulder-in on a circle. While they worked in this position, he reminded them that the goal was to have the horse’s shoulder—not the head—to the inside. To encourage riders to be aware of the inward tendency of the head, he had them think “counter flexion” while maintaining the shoulder-in. With this simple adjustment, the horses who had wanted to overflex their heads to the inside improved in their head and neck position and also showed clearer and less-hurried steps with added expression in the shoulder-in (and later the half-pass). When asked about the use of counter flexion in the shoulder-in, Andreas said it is an effective way of making “the outside rein more there.” In this correct position, riders were able to continue around the arena and even down centerline in the shoulder-in. Riders were then asked to change the line of travel, frequently performing either right or left 10-meter circles off the centerline and coming back to it in either the shoulder-right or shoulder-left. Riding the Friesian Wiemer V, Bruno Greber made these transitions from movement to movement, making the shoulder-in look soft, effortless and seamless.
Fewer horses showed errors in the haunches-in, but for those who did, the cause was generally the rider’s slight immobility in the hips, which constrained the horse’s ability to perform well. Andreas suggested a simple shift of the seat to the inside of the saddle, which fixed the problem.
After riders had worked through these exercises alone and in series (for example, a circle in shoulder-fore to the long side in shoulder-in to a 10-meter circle at B or E to haunches-in in both trot and canter), Andreas then asked them to add the half-pass.
He was keen to remind them of two overarching thoughts for the half-pass:
1. There must always be shoulder-in prior to half-pass.
2. Go slow. If there was too much speed, the horse looked like he was running through the movement. When the steps were more measured, the half-pass floated to the side and the horses relaxed and become more confident. “The important thing is that [the horse] understands,” Andreas said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
These regular changes of exercises, movements, tempo and cadence kept the horses and riders so engaged that the riding became more about feeling for the correctness rather than struggling for correctness. It kept the work, in an often-heard term over the three days, “playful.”
An additional piece of every rider’s lesson was working in-hand. On the first day, it occurred after the mounted portion, when the horses were more energetic; on the following days, in-hand work was done before the riders mounted, when the horses were quieter and more focused. In-hand is the technique where the horseman works the horse from the ground to encourage engagement of the hind legs to create self-carriage. When asked about the benefits of in-hand work, Andreas said, “It works different muscles. The point of classical riding, the art of riding, is to work all the horse’s muscles, not just some. In-hand activates muscles that are not necessarily used in the riding.” In general, you start in-hand work with a quiet, trained or lazy horse to energize him and then ride, but with an energetic horse, the riding portion should come first.
Riders presented their horses to Andreas, who did most of the in-hand work, with their tails knotted, a longeing cavesson over the bridle, side reins attached to bit rings and a short line attached to the top ring of the cavesson. Andreas carried an in-hand whip—a whip that is longer than a dressage whip but the same configuration.
The goal of the first day’s session (not more than 10 minutes) for horses who had never worked in-hand was control of speed and greater use of the joints. Standing next to the horse’s head facing his haunches, the handler, through body position and a gentle touch with the whip, would encourage the horse to take one small step forward. Typically, the horse would overreact and move forward two or three steps. The handler then used the short line attached to the cavesson quickly to stop the forward movement and settle the horse. The horse was again asked for just one step. It did not take long (two to three corrections) for the horse to understand he was to take only one step. The process was repeated, increasing the number of steps until the horse calmly responded to only the number of steps requested. Once the horse had mastered this, the handler concluded the session.
With the horses who had worked in-hand before (and with those who progressed through the initial phase on the first day), the handler, again usually Andreas, checked for attentiveness to the cavesson and the in-hand whip. After the initial slow walk forward on the rail, Andreas would lightly touch the horse on the hind leg to activate the hock and rotate the hip, resulting in the horse stepping more toward the center point of his body while at the same time keeping the forward space of travel to a minimum so they could move into piaffe and later passage. With every horse this created better lift of the shoulders because the haunches were sitting and supporting the weight.
For a few horses, the work included greater lift of the foreleg and articulation of the shoulder. The handler achieved this by lightly touching the foreleg with a short bamboo pole as the horse walked in collection. The star of this exercise was Melody Light’s Valsar, a half-Andalusian trained and ridden by Lynn Jendrowski, who appeared to start reaching to tap the pole with his hooves on his own. Lynn commented that this has “really worked on Valsar’s strengthening and self-carriage.”
As the clinic concluded, many riders felt the improvement not just in themselves but also in their horses, demonstrating that classical dressage training principles remain as important today as ever. Lynn summed it up best: “Andreas is truly a master and I look forward to his return to work with him again.”
This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.