Find the Right Dressage Frame

2013 national Intermediaire I champion Kimberly Herslow explains how and why the outline of your horse’s body changes as you move up through the levels.

At all levels in dressage, the goal is to engage your horse’s hind legs to create energy and receive it with your hands. This develops a connection from his hind end to his front end, helping him to move as athletically and gracefully as he can for his stage of training. 

As a horse moves up through the levels, his frame—the shape of his topline and body—changes. Becoming stronger and fitter, he can increase the degree of his hind-end engagement while you collect that engagement with half-halts, encouraging him to compress his body and lift his shoulders and withers more. His head and neck come up, leaving his poll as the highest point of the frame and creating a very light, expressive front end. 

A misconception shared by many riders as they progress through the levels is that they need to hold their horses in to get that more elevated, collected frame. What you really have to do is ride your horse from back to front, so he can come up and through the connection to get that frame correctly. The key is the correct rein length and having the horse’s hind legs strong and quick enough for his level to maintain a natural frame, not one that’s fixed or forced.

In this article, I will show you what a horse’s frame should be at the various levels and how it is achieved. 

1. During the walk at Training Level, Janet Miernicki’s 8-year-old Oldenburg gelding, Roemi, is responding to my leg and reaching under himself with his left hind leg. This powerful push gives the feeling that his energy is flowing from his hind legs up and through his body, lifting his shoulders and withers while allowing him to stretch into a connection through the reins to his mouth. The straight line from my elbow to the bit helps create this connection as my hand receives the energy. Though Roemi is stretching, he looks as if he’s going uphill.

© Nancy Jaffer

To keep him a little bit active and maintain his balance, I softly move my fingers a little in the rhythm of the walk with some support from my lower back and leg, if necessary. The connection is electric and elastic at the same time.

I try not to use my leg that much because the leg sometimes can create more tension in a negative way. I want to make sure my horse is honest in front of my seat, moving into my working fingers so I don’t take away from the expression I’m trying to create.

2. At the trot, Roemi has the same frame he had at the walk, but I have shortened my reins and added a little more leg to ask him to continue engaging his hind end. This results in a swing in his back and allows him to keep stretching down through his neck but still lift through his withers. He is coming through to the connection, which has to be created from the hind end. When you get it right and the energy comes over your horse’s back into your hand, the feeling is like a big, reciprocating ball of energy.

© Nancy Jaffer

Creating Energy

To create the energy from behind, allowing your horse to move up into the connection, you need to have a balanced position and supportive core engaging your seat. If you aren’t in good balance, you’ll fall behind and your horse won’t be able to engage his hind legs or you’ll pitch forward, which will block the energy going through the connection and push his forehand down, making him heavier in the bridle resulting in a downhill feeling.

3. At First Level, the frame is a little shorter than it is at Training Level: Roemi is coming a little more uphill through his shoulder. But the same basic principles apply at both levels—his hind leg still is coming under his center of gravity and the connection is still from back to front with a straight line from my elbow to the bit. My reins are a little shorter than they were in the Training Level frame, but I made sure to create the activity from behind before shortening them.

© Nancy Jaffer

The Parallelogram

When a horse is in balance at the trot, each pair of his opposing front and hind legs form parallelograms: The hind legs are at the same exact angles as the front legs. In Photo 11 below Donnermeyer (Donnie), a 16-year-old Hanoverian gelding I own with Christopher Ofenstein, is engaging his right hind leg up under his center of gravity and lifting his shoulder and withers up through the connection so his right hind and front left legs form one parallelogram and his left hind and right front form another. In particular, note the elevation through the front left and right hind leg. They’re almost the same spacing off the ground. This is classically correct and what you should see in all trot work. When you have a horse truly connected in the working trot, you’ll see the parallelogram.

4. At Second Level, there is more engagement than at previous levels. This increased engagement helps Catherine Mahon slowly bring up the frame of Aroselma, a 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, and compress her body.

© Nancy Jaffer

Coming into Second Level, the horse has greater physical ability to carry himself better than one at Training or First Levels and create more power and cadence as you ask for collection. As his body becomes capable of carrying more, you can create more energy by riding from the leg into the same elastic hand. At this stage, you’re just starting to show a little more collection, so your horse isn’t super light in the forehand yet. You just want him to be balanced moving through his topline to the bit—reaching out a little to the bit and moving forward—in an even and regular rhythm.

5. At Third Level, Catherine is asking for a little more collection. She uses more leg to ask Aroselma’s hind leg to come through, and with a shorter rein and using half-halts, she brings the mare’s neck into a shorter position. This gets Aroselma stepping into the connection so her frame starts to come together and she becomes more elevated in the shoulder.

© Nancy Jaffer

At this level, you can use a double bridle or a snaffle. I prefer to continue in the snaffle for the introduction to real collection, but it depends on the horse.

Bending for Suppleness

Stiffness in a horse’s neck prevents the energy from flowing from his hind end through his body and into the bit.

To supple stiff horse, you first have to ask him to move forward off of your leg. Then using your inside leg and hand,you bend him on his stiff side so the energy comes through the bend. You then release the bend immediately and see if the suppleness in his neck is improved so the energy can come from behind and he can move up to the bridle.

In this photo Catherine is demonstrating the amount of bend I use to supple a horse. Aroselma is stepping over in the bend and yielding off the inside leg as Catherine bends her. She’s trying to connect her to the outside rein and step through her body a little more. She’s not just pulling the mare’s neck around. Ideally, I’d like to see the horse’s right hind stepping across more under her center of gravity to help supple her through her entire body and improve the throughness.

A note about stiffness and bending: Stiffness in a horse’s neck almost always comes from a part of the body behind the neck. But if you’re trying to work through this problem and nothing seems to be improving, have your veterinarian come out and take some X-rays and ultrasounds to see if your horse might be suffering from arthritis in the neck.

6. At Fourth-Level, Jacqueline Fine’s 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Silhouet, is just coming out of the corner for a medium trot. At this level, the horse is starting to show more collection in work for the extended or medium trot. He’s engaging and elevating in his shoulder more and still coming up and reaching out to the bridle. As always, the straight line from the elbow to the bit aids the connection.

© Nancy Jaffer

7. This is an example of a round warm-up trot at the FEI levels. I am bending Donnermeyer (Donnie), a 16-year-old Hanoverian gelding I own with Christopher Ofenstein and asking him to yield off my inside leg into my outside rein to help him bring up his back and supple him. That’s how I ask for thoroughness and roundness. I don’t ask for it by cranking in his head.

© Nancy Jaffer

8. This is an engaged and uphill collected trot. The poll is the highest plane as Donnie, an experienced grand-prix horse, comes through the connection and lifts his back.

© Nancy Jaffer

9. Donnie is coming out of the corner and starting a medium trot. Going from working trot, he is engaging his hind leg well under his center of gravity with the energy moving through his body over his back and neck. His poll is the highest point as he reaches out to the bit to my receiving hand and demonstrates a bit of a lengthening of frame from the back to the front.

© Nancy Jaffer

10. This is an example of a horse whose hind leg isn’t coming under the center of gravity but is what we call “out behind.” That makes him appear to be disconnected in his midsection. Even though he looks as if he’s coming through to the bridle, you see the disconnect to his back because his hind legs are out behind him instead of underneath him.

© Nancy Jaffer

Upper-Level Success: Quick Hind Legs

One of the keys to achieving a proper upper-level FEI frame is that horses have hind legs quick enough to maintain a natural frame. If they don’t have a quick enough hind legs, they won’t be able to do flying changes correctly. Third Level is usually a moment of truth for a lot of horses, where you see if they can do a correct lead change.

If horses can do changes, they usually can do Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I. But then a lot of horses have a hard time transitioning to Intermediaire II and Grand Prix. Realistically, there are very few horses that are strong and quick enough with their hind legs to do piaffe, passage and one-tempi changes.

Some horses aren’t quick enough with their hind legs, no matter what you do. You have to know where the limit is with your horse.

11. Donnie is coming out of the corner starting into an extended trot, where you see the engagement of the inside hind leg and elevation of his shoulder. His inside hind foot is about to step up into the hoof print that will be left by the inside front hoof. His shoulder is elevated and he’s lifting up through the poll, which is still the highest point. The connection from my elbow to the bit is a straight line. You can see he’s pushing to the connection—I’m not pulling him to it.

© Nancy Jaffer

The difference between the medium trot in Photo 9 and this trot is how much engagement I’m asking for and the degree of lift through his shoulder. The engagement and lift in the medium trot is a little less than they are in the extended trot. You want to create as much lift in the shoulder as possible without sacrificing the purity of the trot.

No matter what your level, your horse needs to be engaged from behind to have the energy come over his back to the connection. Some horses haven’t been trained correctly, so if your horse is struggling, you might have to drop down a few levels or even go back to the beginning to re-explain the basics. It always comes back to the basics. If I feel as if I’ve hit a wall, I return to a easier level and try to explain to my horse in a simpler way how the connection needs to be. If your horse understands what the connection is, everything looks so effortless and easy.

Collecting Tools for Her Toolbox

Working out of her scenic Upper Creek Farm in Stockton, New Jersey, Kimberly Herslow has developed her 9-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Rosmarin, to the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) levels.

She trained him herself with input from a variety of experts, including Olympian Robert Dover; Richard Uhlman, an Olympic dressage coach for Austria; U.S. World Equestrian Games rider Betsy Steiner; Hartwig Burfeind, a German dressage trainer and rider; and U.S. Developing Horse Coach Scott Hassler. She also has gotten pointers from U.S. Developing Coach Debbie McDonald and has ridden in clinics with Olympian Guenter Seidel and former U.S. coach Anne Gribbons.

Learning from so many people has been an advantage. “You get tools from everybody and you put them in your toolbox,” Kim says, but she is the one who decides how to use them.

Most recently, Kim has been polishing Rosmarin, known as “Reno,” with the help of U.S.-based Danish Olympian Lars Petersen, as she works toward her goals of riding in the 2015 Pan American Games and perhaps even the 2016 Olympics.

Her international debut was the 2013 Nations’ Cup in Wellington, Florida, where she was part of the winning mixed Grand Prix/Prix St. Georges squad and earned the highest score in the competition.

Despite Reno’s talent and her success, she’s been very disciplined, not rushing her horse to compete at Grand Prix. “I want it to be the right progression. I want to make sure I’m doing it in a way my horse is happy and understands it,” says the 43-year-old trainer.

Originally a hunter rider, Kim was introduced to dressage at college in 1990. It struck a chord with her as she realized how much it can contribute to success in other disciplines.

When she started her barn the same year, Kim did all her own stable work. “I couldn’t afford to hire anybody,” she explains. Plans to train and sell young horses were hampered because she didn’t have an indoor ring until eight years into her project and had to stop riding the horses during the winter.

She discovered Reno as a 3-year-old in Germany. The son of Rosentanz out of a Weltmeyer mare had been under saddle only about six months. “It was pretty cool to have the opportunity to get a horse like him,” she said, noting, “I was very lucky with my timing.”

Reno was reserve in the Verden, Germany, young horse competition as a 3-year old where he got a score of 9 (out of 10) for his walk. “Now I finally have a horse that’s mine, that I don’t have to sell, that I’ve made from scratch. So I can prove myself that way,” she said. “I appreciate everything more because I’ve worked that hard for it.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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