Part 1: Forward and not so forward.
As an instructor, I have been frequently asked what exercises students can do to create a better equine athlete. Your horse may never go to the Olympics but he’s doing a sport and he should have the best possible chance of using all of his body correctly and well. This month, I will be featuring weekly exercises that you can do at home to improve performance which has also been shown to reduce unnecessary sports injuries. None of these exercises will interfere with whatever you are doing with your horse currently and all horse can benefit from these gymnastic exercises whether he’s a dressage horse, hunter or a backyard pony.
Firstly, it is important to establish your position. Sit with the classic straight line from your shoulder to your hip to your heel and with your shoulder tall but relaxed. Keep the seam on the side of your breeches vertical from your waist to your seat and you’ll be able to eliminate many common position problems such as perching, falling behind the motion, hollowing your back or collapsing in your middle and rolling onto your back pockets. As your upper body influences your horse’s shoulders and forehand, it is important to keep your shoulder perpendicular to the track and your chest looking where you want to go. (I remember my first riding instructor telling me to point my belly button where I wanted the horse to go.) Allow your upper arm to hang softly vertical by your side and have your forearm be an extension of the rein, in other words form part of the straight line from elbow to hand to bit. Close your fingers softly but firmly on the reins and hold your hands with your thumbs up. If the backs of your hands have the same angle as your horse’s shoulder, they will have an effective position and the best distance apart.
Exercise 1: Going forward and not so forward (Forward and Back)
Use your seat to start teaching your horse to communicate and respond through his back which is the first process toward lengthening; this also applies to collection and extension. By using your seat which is actually your butt, seat bones and thighs, you’ll be able to create an accordion like response in your horse, developing this longitudinal flexibility which is his ability to lengthen and shorten his stride instantly to your pushes. Longer pushes mean longer strides, shorter pushes mean shorter strides.
Ride the walk on a straight line, with either a long or loose contact as this will encourage you to make your seat aids more effective. In this exercise, go from a medium walk to a freer walk, where your horse stretches taking up more ground and takes up longer strides, the longer the better. Then smoothly return to a medium walk. Lengthen the walk using your seat and leg, then shorten the push in your seat to shorten the steps in the walk.
Feel the movement of your horse’s rib cage. When the rib cage swings left, you’ll feel it push your left leg out a bit and this is when your horse’s right hind is stepping forward. Perhaps have a friend call out to you, “right, left, right, left” in time with your horse’s movement until you get the feel of this movement. Each time your horse lifts a hind leg off the ground, smoothly and rhythmically use your seat aid to give him a push forward asking him to take a longer step. You should be able to feel him get longer, looser and generate a nice swing under you. What’s a push? I describe the push as that movement you used to make on your swing when you were a kid to get the swing to go higher, it's like a scoop. I have heard some trainers refer to the “push” as polishing the saddle with your seat. Whichever image works for you, just remember to keep relaxed as you push and don’t tighten your body. Remember an effective seat comes from sitting into your horse, not sitting on top of your horse.
Not all pushes are equal. I compare a push to that of a radio volume. When I’m first teaching my horse to listen to my seat or push, I may need to turn up the volume to 9 or 10 out of 10 so that he clearly understands what I want. Once he responds, I reduce the volume to maybe 3 or 4. If he makes a mistake, up goes the volume. I always try, however, to make my seat aids as quiet as possible even though the volume is high. Remember, if a horse can feel a fly on his side, he can feel the lightest of your aids. As soon as you horse responds to this soft push, you’ll never want to use a heavier, louder aid again. The true achievement of dressage, I think, is giving the impression to a passer-by that you’re just sitting on the horse enjoying the ride and your horse is doing what’s required of his own free will.
Ask for shorter strides by stretching up your upper body, growing tall in the saddle reaching for the sky and shortening the push. If after a stride or two your horse still continues at the same stride, take up the reins slightly telling him to come back because your seat was telling him to shorten that stride. Maintain the contact until he takes a shorter step, then reward him by softening your hands forward and return into a loose/long contact. After 4 or 5 steps of a shorter walk, again use longer pushes to move your horse forward with longer strides. Continuing altering between longer and shorter pushes until he immediately responds to your seat with longer and shorter strides.
Good Luck, Larissa 🙂