Top dressage judge and coach Karen Adams offers a positive approach to tackling the top of the Training Pyramid. In Part 1, learn an exercise to test and improve your horse's lateral suppleness.
In this lovely harmonious collected canter, Jaralyn Gibson Finn, owner of Finesse Dressage LLC, channels her 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding Sanford’s energy between her lower legs, seat bones and hands. His inside hind leg is stepping well underneath his center of gravity, elevating his front end and producing a nicely cadenced suspension. Her centered position and erect upper body support his upright balance, while the soft, but well-bent angle in her elbows creates her hands’ forward “attitude,” which, in turn, results in his quiet mouth and peaceful facial expression.

In this lovely harmonious collected canter, Jaralyn Gibson Finn, owner of Finesse Dressage LLC, channels her 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding Sanford’s energy between her lower legs, seat bones and hands. His inside hind leg is stepping well underneath his center of gravity, elevating his front end and producing a nicely cadenced suspension. Her centered position and erect upper body support his upright balance, while the soft, but well-bent angle in her elbows creates her hands’ forward “attitude,” which, in turn, results in his quiet mouth and peaceful facial expression.

Most dressage riders encounter resistance from their horses at some point when learning to perform collected gaits. As a judge, what I most often notice while sitting at C is a misunderstanding of how to achieve a rounder, more collected gait and shape. When I see backward pulling or sawing on the reins or holding the horse’s head down—or even the reverse, a horse dropping the contact and being behind the vertical—these indicate resistance. Horses often resist collection if they are forced into a fixed shape and held there beyond their comfort zones. They tighten, lean or brace the neck or jaw. More obvious signs range from pinned ears and swishing tails to delayed responses to the aids and rearing or kicking at the leg or spur.

As you begin riding Second Level movements, your equine partner may become irritable, reluctant to work and even downright disagreeable. Instead of thinking of this as a bad thing, view it instead as him communicating his discomfort in his own language—and as an opportunity for you to step back and take stock of your training program. This red flag is telling you to change your aid-giving methods or training program. Creating harmony with the horse is one of the most fundamental goals of dressage. And the only way you can achieve it is by producing circumstances in which your horse finds nothing from you to resist against. This sounds simple, but it isn’t easy to do!

Training Pyramid

Training Pyramid

In this article, I’ll explain how the Training Pyramid’s building blocks—rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness and collection—can help you work toward resistance-free harmony. Collection comes at the very top of the Pyramid because its success depends upon your ability to attain all the other important components first. Rather than thinking of it as the next box to check off on your training list, think of it as a gradual, progressive process of gymnastic development. The collection in a solidly schooled Second Level horse is not as confirmed as that of an FEI (International Equestrian Federation) horse. You can see this in the horse’s muscular development and the way he travels in a more uphill balance as he becomes increasingly capable of carrying more weight in the hind end during collection. For most of us, achieving collection at any level can be a pretty tall order. It requires time, patience and good tools for developing the Training Pyramid building blocks.

Get to the Root of the Problem

Before focusing on your training strategy, be sure your mount is healthy, sound and comfortable in his tack. Your first thought should always be for his welfare. Whenever he displays signs of resistance, run through this simple checklist:

1. Have an expert saddle fitter check that your saddle fits your horse well. Remember that his shape may change as his musculature develops, so he may need periodic refittings.

2. Ask your veterinarian to do a thorough examination to rule out any physical pain or discomfort.

3. Schedule a checkup with an equine dentist to identify wolf teeth, high points, an abscess or jaw pain/temporomandibular joint disorder. Also ask the dentist to evaluate your horse’s bit fit. Some horses with a low soft palate (roof of the mouth) do much better with a French-link snaffle because it drapes nicely over the tongue. A regular snaffle, on the other hand, creates a nutcracker action on the tongue and a pointed arch that can dig into the soft palate when pressure is applied to it. (I prefer a KK French link for most horses for these reasons.) The thickness of the mouthpiece should suit the size of your horse’s mouth. The thickest (21 mm) bits have the gentlest action, but if your horse has an unusually small mouth, he may be happier in an 18-mm bit.

4. Ask a recommended chiropractor or massage therapist to check your horse for joint or soft-tissue sensitivity or soreness in the back, shoulders, neck, etc.

5. Ask your farrier to make sure that your horse’s feet are healthy, that the footing is reasonable (or well tolerated if he is barefoot) and that he doesn’t have a corn under the shoe or an abscess forming.

Barring any of these issues, the next logical step is to honestly assess your own aid-giving tendencies and try to figure out what your horse is objecting to. Here’s where dressage theory can be really informative. Let me explain:

Your job as your horse’s trainer and steward is to learn how to correctly channel and manage his energy flow from his active hind leg to the front without resistance. This allows you to put his body into whatever shape you want, i.e., long and low, shorter and rounder (collected), flexed and bent for lateral movements or to facilitate straightness and so forth.

Imagine you’re going to ride him through a narrow tunnel or corridor and need to form both sides of his body to fit through safely. Think of sending his energy through the corridor with your legs, weight, seat bones and hands on either side. In essence, you are making the shape (with your own body aids) that you want him to adopt and then you are allowing his energy to flow into that shape.

If there is a hole, or weakness, in your corridor of aids, then your horse’s energy can leak out through that hole. This can happen, for instance, if you overbend his neck, which causes his energy to drift out over the outside shoulder. You need to plug up your “aiding holes” to allow his energy and impulsion to move through the entire length of his body without getting blocked anywhere. Resistance is a sign of a block or leak in that flow.

Identify and Fill in Your ‘Aiding Holes’

We all have aiding holes. No human body is perfectly symmetrical; most of us are left- or right-handed, which means we have a dominant (stronger) side and a weaker (but often more flexible and supple) side. If your arena has mirrors, pay close attention to your position as you ride by. Most people sit with more emphasis on one seat bone or with one tighter thigh, which is less able to lengthen and lie flat, or with one hip or side of the rib cage collapsed. Sometimes we aren’t entirely conscious of things we do that affect the horse.

For instance, if you often sense that your horse is stiff or plank-like in one or both directions, you might start pulling on or “milking” the inside rein to soften or create flexion. But until you recognize this as an inside-leg issue instead of a rein issue, it will never be fully resolved. Instead of fixing the lateral stiffness at the root of the problem, you’ll end up habitually pulling or nagging on the inside rein without being entirely aware of it. One of my past teachers referred to this as having a case of “inside-reinitis.”

If you don’t have mirrors, ask a friend to take notes while watching what your body does as you ride at walk, trot and canter in both directions. She might see things you are unaware of doing. Or ask her to video you in a lesson or clinic. Watch the video several times to evaluate your position, your horse’s behavior, how the instructor led you during the lesson and whether you can see any solution or improvement.

To address both your and your horse’s weak spots, I recommend using gymnastic exercises that work opposites against each other (often called rubber-band exercises). These take you out of your comfort zone a little at a time, over and over, until your comfort zone becomes expansive. I’ll share two examples later.

As you practice these exercises, learn to problem-solve on your own, developing a “tool box” full of different ways to address issues. Keep a journal at the barn and, as soon as you dismount and get your horse squared away, sit down and write what you worked on that day, why you did what you did, how it felt, what improved and what you think needs further improvement.

Only do these exercises after your warm-up has confirmed the bottom and middle building blocks of the Training Pyramid—rhythm, relaxation, connection and the desire to go forward. You have established a rhythmic and relaxed trot and a soft, steady contact on both reins. Your horse is accepting your inner-bending leg and rein and your outside-forming leg and rein—the corridor through which you will channel his energy. He is going nicely forward with energy and a willing attitude.

Test and Improve Lateral Suppleness

The following exercise, shown in the photos above, will help to loosen your horse from side to side (laterally) by changing back and forth between an inside and outside bend. It is also a good test of his suppleness.

STEP 1. Trot on a large circle to the right (clockwise) with your inside right hip, seat bone, thigh and lower leg positioned slightly more forward, or ahead of, your left, putting a little more weight down and through that inside leg. Imagine your legs as a partly open pair of scissors. Called “position right,” this is used for bending or traveling right.

STEP 2. Exaggerate the bend slightly to the inside (right) by applying an open leading rein—bend and take back your inside elbow while moving your inside hand slightly toward the center of the circle. Use as much pressure as needed to get your horse’s head to come around until you can see his right eye while he stays soft in his neck and yields in the area near the crease behind his throatlatch and poll. At the same time, press or hold your inside leg at or near the girth. Together, these aids will ask him to hollow the inner side of his body into an arc shape.

To contain that shape, bend your outside knee a bit more than usual so your lower leg is farther back and in contact with your horse’s barrel. This will also lighten your seat bone on that side. For a very sensitive horse, outer knee/thigh pressure serves the same purpose. Meanwhile, your outside left hand stays on its own side of the neck and remains steady but elastic to allow for the inside bend while maintaining a mostly straight line from his mouth, along his neck and into your hand.

As in most aid-giving situations, the rule of thumb is to use as little aid as possible, but as much as necessary, to get the horse’s response. When he responds, remove or reduce the aid immediately and praise him.

While you’re bending him, ask yourself, “Can I keep him upright—not leaning in or coming in on the circle—and bent around my inside leg as needed?” If the answer is no, ask again until you can achieve this with a certain ease.

STEP 3. Next, still riding on the same clockwise circle, ask for a bend and flexion to the left. Reverse your body aids so that your left (outside) hip, seat bone, thigh and lower leg are now ahead of your right and slightly more weight is down and through that left sitting bone. Close your left leg at the girth and open your left rein to ask him to turn his head to the outside of the circle while using your passive right rein and leg aids (which are now acting more like outside aids) to control his shape. He should stay on the same large circle but with a slight hollowing on the left side of his body and a filling up against your right leg and rein. This is called “position left,” where your left aids have become your inside aids and your right aids are now your outside aids.

This can be more challenging with some horses; you may have to slightly exaggerate your aids to get the job done. Repeat this change of bend back and forth until your horse becomes loose and buttery soft in both directions. By removing any neck, poll or jaw stiffness, you should now have a soft, fluid corridor from withers to poll. If he can stay on the bit—or on the aids—to this point without resistance or tension, you’re ready to proceed to the next exercise.

Meet Karen Adams

Karen Adams is a U.S. Equestrian Federation “R” dressage judge, instructor and coach in Keedysville, Maryland. She grew up in Alaska, where there were no dressage teachers, so she hired Karl Mikolka to come teach weeklong clinics in the early 1970s. She found him very inspiring and subsequently headed east to attend Meredith Manor School of Horsemanship in 1975–1976.

After graduating, Karen landed a teaching job at Linda Zang’s busy public lesson program at Idlewilde Farm in Davidsonville, Maryland. She considered this a perfect apprenticeship: At the time this farm was the teaching base for Col. Bengt Ljungquist, coach of the U.S. dressage team. Karen quickly became Idlewilde’s head instructor and farm manager. She competed through the Prix St. Georges level and her horse Aleutian was USEF (then AHSA) Fourth Level horse of the year for Zone III in 1980.

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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