Balance, Collection, and Forward:
The Basis for more Advanced Dressage Work
Let me just start by saying that I have ridden dressage for over 30 years and have develop an appreciation of its art and beauty. In its purest form it takes you to the heights of soaring on invisible wings and gently lets you down on the softest of cushions.
Good horsemanship has been around for ages and training techniques practiced by the classic trainers of old never die. These trainers practiced horsemanship and they understood its wants and reactions in the same manner that our new trainers espouse. A horse reacts the same now as it did 100 years ago when you first put a bit in its mouth.
Common sense, compassion, an understanding of the horse along with correct training techniques will allow you to developed your horse to its fullest. Training a dressage horse to compete at the international level requires the very maximum out of the horse and the results can be physically demanding. But if you want that level you need to be prepared to sacrifice something.
The following is my interpretation of classical dressage and my own judgment that I developed to create a way to practice good sense with older classical dressage techniques. Does it require gimmicks...no. Does it require common sense...yes, with an understanding of the workings of the horse
Three words that seem to send people into a state of confusion are collection, balance and forward. Any one cannot exist without the other as each is required to be present to a certain degree to make the picture whole.
Forward can be described as the addition of thrust from the hind quarters to propel the horse into a certain direction. It can also be described as the absence of constraint developing into suppleness. It is from this we can develop a correct head carriage. As a result of the horse reaching for the bit the back becomes more active and carries the riders seat forward without rough bounces, The ribs expand with the rear legs reaching more under itself causing them to press closer to the riders leg. The rider will feel a slight lifting of the forehand and there will be more of the horse in front of him. The rider is in effect changing the horse from a natural balance to an acquired balance.
Acquired balance requires a horse to maintain its rhythm by even distribution of the weight ( work) load on each leg. Without this, equilibrium is imperiled and the horse loses balance and hurries. Each step will be going faster and faster in an effort to gain its balance. The rider even with sitting deep may not be able to help the horse once it has reached a certain point.
To achieve " acquired balance" the rider maintains contact with the horse through the lowest point of the saddle. Sitting slightly behind the hips the spine swings with the horse with the lower leg remaining in contact but not gripping the horse. These together induce the flexion and extension of the rear legs. If the rider "feels" the horse they will realize that movement in the horses body provide an " alternating" left/right leg control. Allowing this movement to come into passive resistive hands and increasing the lateral flexion to the outside rein by "vibrating" the inner rein to induce the horse to come softer on that side.
This driving will in essence strengthen the topline and by producing a longer more energetic stride within the horse and create more energetic pulsations along the dorsal muscle group, the whole spinal column is stretched towards the front causing the horse to become supple and contact with the bit. The activity of the hindquarters counterbalances the stretching and maintains equilibrium. The training and gymnastic exercising of these muscles will allow them to do their job and become stronger, therefore "fill out" the topline.
In a horse moving properly the back is extended two ways......downward and to the rear. This double extension owing to the stretching of the hindquarters makes the topline--croup,back and the crest of the neck longer in collection than in any other posture. It will also allow the horse to adapt to the bit by having the hind quarter strength to be lowered and allowing it to adapt to the bit.
The bit is accepted by the horse as a result of driving the horses rear quarters more underneath himself which causes the pulsations from this forward reach to pass along the spinal column, through the riders driving seat to the poll. This will cause the forehand to rise and the horse adapts to the bit according to its conformation.
Long explanation and easy to do once you understand the mechanics involved.
The biggest problem most people have is that they ride the horse from front to back and all that does is stifle the forward reach of the rear legs. The end result is the horses balance goes off and the horse either leans on the bit or throws their head up. The rear legs in both cases travel behind the horse and it will either run to try to bring it's balance together or just play the "lazy" game.
The other biggest fault is to ride the horse forward but to the point that the horse is running into the bit and is balancing itself on the bit. In this case the rider has failed to ask the horse to balance on the outside rein. A properly trained dressage horse is "caught" between a driving inside leg a supportive outside leg and a soft light inside rein and a communicative and supporting outside rein. Without this the horse has all sorts of evasions such as balking or running out.
I teach all my students to ride the rein forward. To do this the horse is on the outside rein with a little more pressure than the inside rein. The inside foot will prevent the horse from falling in. The outside foot applies enough pressure to turn the forehand 1/4 the width of the horse towards the inside. This ensures correct contact with the outside rein, prevent the falling out of the horse and act as a counter to the inside foot. After the initial hold release ONE rein very slightly only as far as the next step the horse will take and resume contact afterwards. This might appear as a circular almost massaging motion of the hand. Upon resumption of contact a slight vibration of the rein will ensure the horse does not "sit" on the rein. This is repeated on the opposite rein. THIS IS NOT SAWING as proper contact MUST be attained by one rein before the release of the opposite rein is started. DO NOT RELEASE the outside rein to the horse when in training and in a corner or on a curve.
Very shortly you will find that the horse will maintain a headset according to the degree of collection requested with only the slightest touch of the rein. And you can test this by a full release of both reins for a step or two.
If we have reached this stage then collection either of a greater or lesser nature can be asked for however we must not be fooled by the horse that evades this demand and creates the appearance of collection. These horses will have legs that will appear to move correctly but there is no connection between the legs, back and poll. These horses go with a stiffened or hollow back and lull even some of the best riders into thinking they are "collected".
It is not unusual for these horses to simply raise their legs higher, but the suspension and support phase within the traveling arc of the rear legs is not there. The legs are barely on the ground before they are lifted, usually as a snap as opposed to thrust and support which is actually required. This can be seen readily in the gaited horses esp. Saddlebreds where the neck is tucked and the poll is the highest point the back is often hollowed and the rear legs do not truly support the body.
As the horse shortens the stride (to provide support) and reaches forward the abdominal muscles MUST contract to support the connection from the rear to the front hence collection. The horse must have a rounded back and cannot fulfill the demands the rider will ask with a hollow back. True collection can be felt by the riders seat and legs. As the rear legs become more supportive the ribs will expand and "fill" out the riders legs, almost like them being pushed outwards. The loss of collection can be felt by the rider as the horse suddenly disappearing from under him and causing his legs hanging limply.