I love good preparation. I write about it, I teach about it and I use it every time I sit in the saddle. Carl Hester often talks about how movements are only as good as the preparation before them and this (among many other things he says!) is music to my ears. Not only does preparation set your horse up for the movement, but it is also the perfect time to read whether actually asking for the movement is a good idea or not.
Although I think we should all make better preparation a goal for every ride, today is about the way we finish an exercise or movement. If you are wondering why I started an article about the end of a movement by talking about the beginning, here is why…
As riders begin going up the levels, there is a tendency to slip into survival mode, especially when riding movements that are new to you and/or your horse. Aside from the excitement of knowing you are riding something fancy, a lot of riders explain that they “don’t want to disrupt” their horses or are afraid that they are going to ruin the movement by doing something wrong. I totally understand this, but while survival mode may feel safe to us, it feels a bit like being abandoned to our horses. When you clearly prepare for a movement, apply the aids for a specific movement and then stop doing anything (sometimes including breathing!), you just hopped into the backseat and are no longer driving. In order for a movement to maintain good quality, we need to continue riding throughout the entire movement and finish it in a clear and purposeful way.
There are several reasons that the way you finish an exercise or movement is so important:
This week’s exercises will focus on riding every step, so not only are you prepared to finish the movement clearly, but you will also be aware of any changes that may have happened during the movement. Let’s head to the ring…
Intro/Training (working trot):
This exercise may sound a bit simple at first, but let me assure you, it is not! Begin by riding a twenty meter circle in working trot at a specific letter (let’s say E). This circle will begin and end at E, so the first step will be to ride every circle separately in your mind. You are not just on a continuous twenty meter circle in the middle of the arena, you are riding a single twenty meter circle at E and then another twenty meter circle at E and so on. Now that you have a specific start and finish point of your circle, we are going to begin changing the rhythm of each circle.
I want you to think about two different working trots. Let’s say a relaxed working trot and then one with a bit more pizazz, Ride one twenty meter circle in the relaxed rhythm and as you ride past E, begin one twenty meter circle in the bigger rhythm. Each time you pass E, begin a new circle in a different rhythm. At first, transitioning between rhythms may take a quarter of a circle or so, but this is where we are going to really clean up the exercise.
In order for the transition to be clear, you need to maintain the rhythm of the first circle all the way to E. When I use this exercise during a lesson, most riders stop riding the first circle about three quarters of the way through while they begin thinking about making the transition onto the next circle. When you do this, you and your horse become disconnected, so when you get to E and ask for a different rhythm, the first first steps are spent getting re-connected and by the time your horse responds, you are well past where you wanted to be. So really focus on riding that relaxed rhythm for every step of the twenty meter circle and don’t let the fact that you are approaching E back you off. Keep riding and as you pass E, close your leg and ride the next twenty meter circle in the bigger trot.
*Goals for the exercise:
The fun thing about starting with such a simple exercise is that you really put anything at E. A halt, transitions in and out of medium walk and even working canter, just be sure to remember the goal of this exercise… finishing the movement you are in (the twenty meter circle you are currently riding) before you begin riding the next movement. Have fun!
First/Second (working canter):
We expect a bit more from horses working at First and Second Level. When you read from First Level Test 1 through Second Level Test 3, you will notice a big difference in the required canter work. The quality of your canter becomes more and more important as you advance up through the levels. The ability to control the rhythm, balance and activity in the canter in important as you begin introducing lengthenings, counter canter and simple changes. This week’s exercise is going to focus on riding a great canter all the way up to various transitions.
If you were riding full arena in working canter and your trainer asks you to show lengthened canter on the long side, most riders focus would go immediately to the lengthened canter (Will it be big enough?, Will it be round enough? Will it be straight?) and while all of these things are important, the working canter you are in now has the most influence on how good your lengthening can be.
If you are about to ride a counter canter serpentine is your mind jumping ahead to things like, “I hope my horse doesn’t make a change.” or “I hope she just keeps cantering this time.”? If so, you may be missing out on the small shifts happening underneath you right now that would answer your questions ahead of time.
Begin by riding working canter full arena. Really ride every stride and be sure that you are aware of how the canter is going. Don’t stop at the fact that you are still cantering and pretty round, be more specific. Is there enough energy at your disposal? Is your horse bringing that energy into the outside rein? Is the inside jaw actively softening? Keep asking yourself these things all the way up to the beginning of the next movement… and then the next movement… and the next (catch my drift?). Ride a fifteen meter circle in working canter at V (tracking right), lengthen the canter from V to S and then ride another fifteen meter circle at S. Don’t think about the similarities between this exercise and the First Level dressage tests. This exercise is all about focusing on riding three separate movements, clearly and purposefully. Yes, the movements should flow, but the focus should be on riding each separate movement the best you can.
As you are approaching the end of your fifteen meter circle at V, don’t start building momentum for the upcoming lengthening. A good quality working canter should have enough energy to lengthen and if it doesn’t, fix the working canter and then return to the exercise. After riding through this exercise a few times, your horse will start to figure out what is going on and this can help. If they know the lengthening is coming, they are ready for it. This can be helpful, but be sure that is does not effect the quality of your working canter or the geometry of your fifteen meter circle. No one but you and your horse should know that a lengthening is coming. As you complete your fifteen meter circle, close your leg for the lengthened canter from V to S. Finishing the lengthening and starting that circle at S is the most difficult part of this exercise. Riders tend to take their leg off too early when transitioning from a lengthening, medium or extension and your horse needs your leg to, first, maintain the movement until it is finished and then second, to keep the hind end active during the downward transition. By “leg”, I do not mean a squeezing or driving leg, I mean a softly closed leg explaining to your horse exactly what you want and where. Simply taking your leg off does not mean return to working canter. Really ride the lengthening until the last stride you want it and then sit up, softly close your thighs, half halt and ride a transition back into working canter. Your fifteen meter circle at S is just as important as the one ridden at V. It should not begin on two wheels and it should not end with the feeling that you are glad the exercise is over (even if you are ;)). Be sure that although that is the last movement of this exercise, you leave the fifteen meter circle clearly finished and ready for whatever comes next.
*Goals for the exercise:
If you and your horse are confident in the walk-canter-walk transitions, you can customize the exercise by riding a fifteen meter circle in medium walk, collected canter in either true canter or counter canter from V to S and then back to medium walk for the fifteen meter circle at S. However you choose to customize the exercise, be sure to remember the goal of the exercise, riding every step and finishing every movement clearly and with purpose. Have fun!!
Third & Above (collected gaits):
Half-pass is first introduced at Third Level and a required movement in every test through Grand Prix. When I think about how important it is to properly finish a movement, half-pass always comes to mind. This is true at all stages of development. In fact, I find that most horses understand half-pass better when we are just as clear about the end of the half-pass as we are the beginning. Being able to correctly come and go from half-pass is far more important that being able to ride many steps of the movement during the developmental stages. In the beginning, most horses can only maintain correct positioning for a limited amount of time, so finishing the movement clearly before they lose their balance, bend or relaxation really helps maintain quality over quantity.
Being mindful of the way your horse finishes the half-pass will really tell you a lot. Did the last few steps of your half-pass feel more like a leg yield? Did your amount of bend decrease as the half-pass progressed? Did you feel unorganized once your half-pass was finished? Now while these things happen to every horse and rider during the learning phase, they should not continue on as a normal part of how your half-pass finishes. Once you and your horse have a good understanding of the basics of half-pass, you need to begin maintaining the quality of the half-pass. This means finishing the half-pass with the same focus that you started it with.
When we think about this idea, we assume that we are already putting the same focus on the last few steps as we did the first few, but in my experience, this is not true. Most riders spend a lot of time preparing to start the half-pass (and we should!), but once it has begun, we tend to accept a loss of bend, rhythm, self-carriage and overall quality as something that just happens. By riding every step and learning from your horses past tendencies, you can begin finishing your half-pass better than it started! Lets begin…
This exercise can be ridden in any gait, but today, I will focus on collected canter. If you are riding this exercise in a defined space (an indoor arena or inside of a fenced ring), be sure that you remain aware of your surroundings at all times. There are several steps to the exercise and they all work together, so be sure that you have enough room to complete each step before you run out of space. The amount that you ride of each element will depend on your abilities and can expand as you advance.
Begin by riding collected canter right lead full arena. At the top of the long side, begin by riding a few strides of shoulder fore. The amount you need will depend on how the canter feels. I always begin half-pass with a shoulder fore positioning, so if your canter is really great, you may only need one or two strides. Once the shoulder fore feels correct, ride half-pass right from the rail towards the quarterline really focusing on a maintaining the amount of bend and body positioning that you had in the shoulder fore. Your outside rein should remain steadily in contact (this is your job) and the inside jaw needs to be actively softening (this is your horses job). Think about riding the inside hind leg towards the outside front leg. This will prevent the haunches from over taking the shoulders. Many riders tend to feel that they need more haunches in the half-pass, when they actually need a better positioning in the inner neck. It may sound like there are too many things to think about as you ride the half-pass, but you can do this. Break it down to three elements: your outside rein staying in position (this requires more muscles memory than brain space), active conversation with the inner jaw and your outside leg riding the inner hind leg.
As soon as you begin to feel a loss of… anything, return to shoulder fore right on a straight line parallel to the long side. This is where you will fix what you were losing. Be sure that the second shoulder fore is the same quality, angle, bend and feel of the shoulder fore you began the half-pass with. Once you are confident in the shoulder fore, ride a very small, very controlled half circle to the right and repeat the exercise. If you stay focused and in control of your surroundings, you should be able to repeat this exercise several times without needing to change direction. The better the half-pass becomes, you will begin riding less shoulder fore and more half-pass, but always remember the goal for this exercise: that both shoulder fores are the same quality and the only way that you can do this is by maintaining the quality of your half-pass.
Once you are capable of returning to a well positioned shoulder fore at any point during the half-pass, you can continue riding the half-pass wherever you need to go.
*Goals for the exercise:
Look at the diagram of this exercise and if you lack confidence or coordination, begin by riding it at the walk, so you can think slowly and get into the swing of things. Once you are organized, move onto collected trot and then eventually in collected canter. This exercise will improve horses and riders at all stages of development, as your half-pass improves, continue to challenge yourself in the exercise by asking for more bend, more angle or more control. It is a great warm-up and a great way to challenge the control you have over the overall quality of the half-pass. A definite must have in your riding tool box! Have fun!!
Structure is an absolute necessity when it comes to having success in training your horse. I have always been an advocate of riding with clear, simple aids, but this blossomed to a whole new level during my time with the Bartels.
There are several reasons that maintaining structure during training is so important. The biggest reason for me is just how far apart our idea of a great ride is from what our horses would rather be doing. Now I am a firm believer that there a lot of horses out there that genuinely enjoy being ridden and love the partnership they have with their rider, but I also know that when your horse is out in the pasture on a sunny day, there is not a big empty space in their heart that can only be filled by twenty seven canter transitions… right? So as soon as we stop riding with structure, they begin filling in our “holes” with what they feel is right.
What is your horses idea of the perfect day? Grass, sunshine, no bugs, freedom and being naked is probably pretty high on the list too. Is traveling uphill on that list? Maintaining jaw softness? Tracking straight? Being focused on a humans requests above all of the other incredibly interesting things in their surroundings? Most likely not…. so when you think about it in this way, it is very easy to see why so many riders tell me that as soon as they stop riding “well”, their horse “falls apart”. The reason I put these words in quotes is because I want to replace the word “well” in that idea with the word “structure” and “falls apart” with “returns to their natural tendency”. To me, the idea that every time I stop riding with structure, my horse returns to his or her natural tendencies is not very confusing or frustrating at all. Yes some elements may continue for a bit thanks to muscle memory or training good habits in the past, but its only a matter of time that your horse will fall out of auto-pilot.
I like to think that the reason we train positive repetitions, good muscle memory and strive to create good habits in our horses is not so one day we can stop riding so well, but it is kind of like insurance for the moments when we make a mistake. I have no desire to stop riding the best I can (that would not be fair to my horse), but I do know that I will make mistakes in the future and if I do have a lapse in good judgement or forget to give my horse clear structure, hopefully the hours in the saddle that I did ride well, will help my horse to help me during those times. I think there are too many trainers with the goal of creating a machine beneath them that knows what they have to do and what will happen if they don’t. Is this a training partnership? Not in my book. The reason that I want to ride my best as consistently as I can is that I want my riding to matter to my horse. If I am riding fabulously, I want my horse to go fabulously and when I am not riding so great, I shouldn’t feel upset when my horse mirrors this.
So how do we avoid losing the structure of our ride? As I type this question out, I feel like I need to say that it is completely normal for mistakes to happen. Mistakes are the way that we learn how to do things better the next time. Today is not about trying to be the perfect rider, it is about forming a structured goal for every ride that helps you to make the most out of your time with your horse. So, in answer to the question, the best way to avoid losing the structure of your ride is to begin every ride with a goal.
There is something heavy about a goal. For some reason, riders tend to lump goals and potential failure together in the same category. For myself and for my students, a goal is simply something to ride towards. If you reach that goal today, wonderful! If you didn’t quite get there, you already have a goal for tomorrows ride. A great rider doesn’t look at a goal in the context of winning or losing, but as a way to maintain your focus and gauge your progress. Imke Schellekens-Bartels says that the time you spent riding without a goal is time wasted in the saddle. I loved this when I first heard it and loved it even more as I thought more about its application. She didn’t mean that every day has to be spent learning something new and difficult, she simply wanted purpose to what a rider is doing in the saddle. It is pretty easy to understand why this is so important on the days where something new or more advanced is being introduced, but it is truly just as important during day to day schooling, on the trails or through a set of cavalettis.
Becoming a structured rider will improve the relationship between you and your horse in two different ways…
Our main goal as a rider is to try to convey what we want to our horses so that they will do it, right? That sounds way easier than it actually is. Unfortunately, our horses do not speak English and we do not speak horse. In human to human communication, we can describe exactly what we want with a few simple words, but between horses, body language is the way to go. In addition to our vastly different communication methods, I believe that communication in general is much more important to our horses than it is to us. How many times have you heard someone say, “Well thats not what I meant.” or “I mean no offense.”? Well to a prey animal that lives or dies by their ability to read the communication given off by other animals and humans, what you communicate is very important.
Tips for riding with structure:
Horses, in general, are lovely creatures. Yeah there are some bad seeds in the bunch, but I have found them to be very few and far between. Something handy about the great majority of horses is that they warn you when something is about to happen. So many riders talk about how their particular horse does something naughty “out of the clear blue sky” and I am not saying this is impossible, but I do believe that it is unlikely. This is kind of like the saying, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one was around to hear it, did it make a sound?”. Allow me to explain… Just because we were not aware of the warning signs, does not mean that they were not given.
I remember watching a friend of mine ride a very cheeky young horse and someone behind me said, “Its funny how she is so full of herself, but she doesn’t run away.” Well, this horse was not deciding not to run away, this talented rider was adapting her warning signs and preventing disaster by doing so. This particular rider is very good at what he does, but he is not a magician (although I have had my doubts at times). Every one of us can ride this way, but it requires a structured awareness of not only what your horse is actually doing physically, but what they are communicating about their future plans. Some small, but important signs that often are ignored are small rhythm changes, habitual drifting in a particular area (even the tiniest amount), a shift in sensitivity to your aids (either becoming more sensitive or less), a change in breathing patterns… and there are many more signs that can be added to this list and you do not need to be clairvoyant to recognize them. I often ask my riders, “Where are his ears?” during a lesson. A horse cannot be fully focused on you with both ears pointing out of the arena. This is certainly not a guarantee that something horrible is about to happen, but it is an early warning sign that you either have lost or are losing their focus. When you are on a nice relaxing and your horses walk begins to speed up, don’t wait until things make a big change, correct the change when it is small.
Just being aware of the signs your horse is giving you helps to keep you aware of what their plan is and the earlier you become aware of changes in their plan, the better position you are in to react successfully.
I hope this helps motivate you to begin making structure a very important element of the time spent with your horse. Remember, structure doesn’t mean rigid and goals are your friend. Happy riding everyone!!