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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

Dancing with the Sucked Back Horse
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter

©1999 - All Rights Reserved

When you are struggling with a sucked back horse, what you are struggling with is your horse's tuning to your aids. This is a life long process, and not a very easy one at that. It is something that starts on the ground, and never ends, even for a second as long as you are in your horse's presence.

The very first thing any horse has to learn is to pay attention to the rider/handler. This is necessary, because without mutual focus and attentiveness, there can be no communication. Without it, the horse will very soon do whatever he feels like doing, and that can in turn become dangerous for the human.

The next step is to apply the aids with precision, so that there is no contradiction amongst themselves on the one hand, and no contradiction between the aids and the horse's natural footfall sequence on the other. Contradictions lead to confusion, and confusion leads either to the horse tuning the rider out, or becoming angry and rebellious, depending on his temperament.

When I give an aid, e.g. with my calf, I expect an instant clear response. If the horse fails to respond, I follow up immediately with another aid, which is not necessarily heavier, but maybe given with more attitude, quicker, briefer (is that a word?), possibly backed up by a light tap from the whip or the spur. I want to feel the energy rippling through the horse's body as the hind leg is snatched up at this point. Most of the time, heavy aids only make the horse duller, whereas precisely timed, brief, light aids get the horse's attention much better.

This brief description shows the demands that are placed on the rider:

  1. We have to center our undivided attention on the horse, because if we don't concentrate, why should the horse?
  2. Our timing must be flawless. If we apply our aids at the wrong moment in the footfall sequence, we get something different than we had intended, sometimes even the opposite, because the aid then does not make sense to the horse.
  3. The aids have to be coordinated correctly. E.g. when the leg is applied, the hand has to allow the hind leg to come forward, and the torso must enable the horse to carry the load more with the hind legs than with the front legs. Any contradiction only makes the horse tense and confused.
  4. We have to follow through with whatever it is we are doing, and we must be lightning quick with our reactions.
  5. We must be consistent, no matter where we are or what we are doing with our horse. We cannot, e.g. flop around on our horse on a trailride on Sunday without having the horse on the aids, and then expect him to do precision work in the arena on Monday. We have to demand the same focus and precision on the trail as in the dressage ring or in a jumping parcours.
When a rider is experiencing the problems you are describing below, the underlying causes are usually a combination of the above 5 points. The list may not be complete, it is only a compilation of the most relevant areas that came to mind immediately. These are the things that I see in each and every lesson I teach. Usually it is a combination of the rider leaning forward a little bit, so that the impulsion is impaired, a leg aid that is applied at the wrong time and that lasts so long that it is, in fact, a grip, not a driving aid any more. Gripping drains even more energy. Often the rider stiffens his hips as well, which prevents the back from moving. In addition, the reins are usually too short and the hands fail to release when the leg drives, so that the impulsion is destroyed even further by the hands. Analyzed this way, actually all of the rider's aids, even the legs, are diminishing the impulsion, instead of increasing it, in this particular scenario, which is quite common.

The rider then usually reacts by intensifying the aids, leaning even more forward, even pumping with the shoulders in an effort to push the horse forward with his torso, which only makes things worse. On top of that, the rider SQUEEEEEZES with his legs until his face turns red - and the horse still has not moved. It is a downward spiral of escalating aids. Some of the more phlegmatic horses invite the rider a little bit to go down that road. The only way out is to sit up, lean back, stretch and relax the legs, release the reins, and give light, but precise aids. I know it's easier said than done, but I'm afraid it's the only way. We have to learn to be clear in our communications and to stay out of the horse's way during the execution.

Another issue that is connected to this is that many riders don't want their horses to go forward, because they are afraid of the energy, so they subconsciously kill it right from the start. They don't realize that the more energy the horse places at the rider's disposal, the safer he is, because he is not holding anything back. The more the horse sucks back, the less energy he gives to the rider, the more dangerous he is, because all this stored up energy will come out sooner or later in the form of spookiness or bucking, etc., especially if the horse is a warmblood. The rider has to learn to bring all the horse's energy out and to channel it in the right direction. This is the reason why the most advanced dressage horse must be the safest and most reliable horse under any and all circumstances, because he holds nothing back, he gives all of his strength and energy to the rider. is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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