“Because of the great variety in equine conformation, science can teach the equestrian practitioner only the general principles by which he has to abide. It furthermore describes the individual movements and exercises, how they have to be executed in perfection, and what effects they have on the horse’s gaits. It is the rider’s responsibility, concerning the individual properties of his horse, to make the appropriate choices among them. Scrupulous observation of certain main principles as well as growing experience will be or will become reliable counselors for him in the process.”
G.Steinbrecht (Das Gymnasium des Pferdes, 3rd edition, 1935, 72, translation: TR).
In continuation of some of the thoughts of last month’s article, I want to focus on the gymnastic aspects of dressage in this month’s issue, since they are of such vital importance, yet they don’t seem to be common knowledge.
As I had mentioned previously, good dressage training should always develop the horse’s natural gaits, improve their quality, their purity, and promote the soundness and well-being of the horse. Otherwise, it has to be considered incorrect, no matter how advanced the movements are that the horse can execute. The training program, therefore, has to be designed accordingly, taking into consideration the horse’s conformation, gaits, temperament, training history, strengths and weaknesses.
The movements and exercises we ride should never be considered to be ends in themselves, but they are a means to an end. They all have certain effects on the horse’s gaits and can be used to improve the horse by suppling, straightening, balancing, connecting, and strengthening him. It is the rider’s responsibility to analyze where a certain issue originates, i.e. which muscle group is too stiff, too weak, or too wobbly and disconnected for the horse to be able to execute what the rider is asking of him, and then to find exercises that go right to the root cause of the problem, instead of wasting valuable time on fiddling with surface level symptoms or on mindless repetitions of a faulty movement. Otto von Monteton (1877, 306, translation: TR) expresses this in a nutshell: “The craft says the horse is supposed to learn this and that. Therefore, I have to practice it. The art says: What is the main obstacle that is preventing the horse from executing this or that? That is what he has to overcome first. As soon as the obstacle has been overcome, the horse will be able to execute the movement.”
If someone treats a movement as an end in itself and teaches it to the horse without the necessary preparation and without any analysis of its effect on the horse’s posture and gait under saddle, then the movement becomes a mere circus trick that has no value for the horse’s physical and mental development. The old German and Austrian riders used to refer to this contemptuously as “Pudeldressur” – poodle dressage, a “stupid pet trick”, so to speak.
There is furthermore a certain general sequence in which gymnastic exercises typically have to be introduced to the horse, since they all build on each other and each movement serves as a preparation for others. They are not like computer programs that can be installed at any time and in any arbitrary sequence.
The training must always start by teaching the horse to adhere to correct arena patterns in a consistent tempo, with a consistent stride length and energy level, as well as with the correct alignment of his hips and shoulders on the line of travel. This principle is first introduced to the young horse at the longe line, long before he ever carries a saddle or a rider. This is the foundation on which balance, straightness, the light, steady, and even rein contact, impulsion and collection are built. If a horse cannot stay on a round circle in a consistent tempo without the additional weight of the rider, it can only get worse, if you add the rider’s weight.
Already during this stage, and even more so under saddle, the horse must also learn to let his spine become a part of the line of travel, i.e. on curved lines his spine has to form a segment of the arc of that line. This is referred to as “bending in motion” and is considered one of the most important basic building blocks of correct, gymnastic dressage.
The arena patterns that are used to introduce the concept of bending in motion to the horse are the corner, the circle (various sizes), the figure eight, and the serpentine. The horse also has to learn to execute the transitions from a straight line to a curved line and vice versa, from a large circle to a smaller circle and vice versa, and from bending and turning left to bending and turning right and vice versa, without changing tempo, stride length, energy level, and without losing suppleness.
Under saddle, it should feel to the rider as if the horse’s inside hind leg were yielding a little to the inside calf when the horse is being ridden on curved lines. The rib cage should feel like it’s yielding to the inside thigh. The horse’s inside shoulder should feel like it’s yielding to the inside knee, and the poll and jaw should yield to the inside rein. At the same time, the outside of the horse has to become convex and stretch into the rider’s outside leg and rein. A lateral bend without simultaneous stretching of the muscles on the outside of the horse’s body is counterproductive.
Dupaty de Clam also recognized bending in motion as one of the most fundamental dressage principles and summed up the progression of the training very concisely in his brilliant 1777 book “La science et l’art de l’équitation” (p. 279f., translation: TR): “I have followed nature with attentiveness, letting the lessons succeed each other according to what She tells me; and each lesson serves as a preparation for the following one. This way, the horse makes progress every day without getting tired. I have followed the same method to the degree that the training becomes more advanced and more difficult. For the exercise of bending is the principle that underlies all the others. When the horse does it well, he can successively move on to the next ones. This way, one leads him gradually to all those movements whose object it is to move the inside shoulder over the outside one: the main goal of the third class of movements. We have also worked this shoulder predominantly in all the positions that the horse can assume.
“These movements bear a great resemblance, as far as the aids are concerned and as far as the horse's actions are concerned. When he can execute them well on both hands, he has acquired a great suppleness, and one has become master of the inside legs.
“But one still has to make the outside legs pass over the inside ones, which is more difficult: We have had to begin with the simplest exercises, because the movements we just described serve as the foundation for the ones we are now going to reveal. As the first elements have led us to the work we just discussed, I have made it a rule for myself to follow in this book the order which nature imposes on everyone who wants to take the training to the highest perfection by following the direction She gives him. This is therefore what the rider has to do without undertaking any movement lightly, before having previously obtained the essential prerequisites that can facilitate it.”
In these paragraphs, Dupaty refers to the three main stages of bending in motion that the Spanish Riding School in Vienna still follows to this day, because they form a logical progression. The same progression is reflected in the various levels of the competition tests as well.
The first stage consists of bending and turning on a single track, as mentioned above (Training and First Level).
The second stage consists of bending and asking the inside legs to step over the outside ones (Second Level). The prototypical exercise of this second stage is the shoulder-in as well as the counter-shoulder-in. It can be prepared by leg yielding, turns on the forehand in motion, and full passes.
The third stage consists of bending and asking the outside legs to cross over the inside ones. The movements for this stage are the haunches-in, renvers, and half pass (Second Level and above).
The transitions from a single track to a lateral movement and vice versa, as well as the transitions between all the possible lateral movements have to be practiced, until one element flows smoothly into the next one, without losing balance, fluidity, suppleness, tempo, stride length, energy level, etc.
The bending and turning exercises on a single track supple the horse’s belly muscles, as well as the inside hip, especially if they are ridden with a feeling of a hint of enlarging the circle from the inside calf. On circles and in corners on a single track the inside hind leg is the more carrying one, while the outside hind leg is the more thrusting one.
The shoulder-in and counter-shoulder-in supple the belly muscles and the inside hip as well, and they free up the inside shoulder. Here the inside hind leg is the more thrusting one, and the outside hind leg is the more carrying one.
The haunches-in, renvers, and half pass supple the belly muscles and the outside hip, and they free up the outside shoulder. In these movements, the inside hind leg is the more carrying one, while the outside hind leg is the more thrusting one.
In order to maintain the purity of the gaits and to develop the carrying and thrusting power of both hind legs evenly, it is helpful to ride exercises that require the hind leg that is the naturally more carrying one to thrust more, and to ride exercises that require the naturally more thrusting hind leg to carry more.
For instance, it is helpful to lengthen the stride on the circle, when the inside hind leg is on the ground, so that it has to push more. The outside hind leg can be asked to flex and carry more by applying half halts and/or riding down transitions when it is on the ground and supporting the combined body mass of horse and rider.
Another way of alternating between carrying and thrusting is to ride sequences of shoulder-in and renvers, shoulder-in and haunches-in, counter-shoulder-in and haunches-in, or counter-shoulder-in and renvers, in which first one hind leg has to cross over, then the other one does. When the horse can do the simple alternations between two movements, one can ride a sequence of all four. For instance a succession of haunches-in, shoulder-in, renvers, counter-shoulder-in, etc. can be used to supple both hips, as well as the belly muscles, which will lead to greater engagement of the hind legs and increased swinging of the back.
After the hind legs have been engaged under the body mass through lateral work, and after the hip and hock joints have been flexed between the rider’s weight and the ground, they can be relieved again by lengthening the stride, which opens the hip and hock joints and flexes the stifle joints. The horse should welcome the lengthening as a relief and be happy to go forward.
To sum up the main thoughts of this article, every rider should make it a habit to observe his horse closely in each ride, to diagnose where problems originate, and to look for a gymnastic solution by choosing exercises and movements that eradicate the root cause of the issue. That way horses can be taught to live up to their full athletic potential in a reasonable amount of time, while enjoying the journey and staying sound and healthy.