Fitness Facts for your Horse’s Back
As riders, we spend a huge amount of time on our horses’ backs, imagining them to be created by Mother Nature for the sole purpose of carrying us astride. The irony lies in how weakly suited the equine back actually is for this task. Gaining knowledge about a few basic but rarely spoken about workings of the spine we sit upon goes a long way in any rider’s education. Below, I have included a few misconceptions that I frequently encounter from riders when giving clinics.
You do not sit on back muscles
The majority of riders believe that the horse carries his rider with his back muscles. Therefore the stronger his back muscles become, the better he will be as a riding and performance horse. Not so. It is not the horse’s muscles but rather his ligament system that supports the rider’s weight. To make an analogy, his back functions like a suspension bridge. So, yes, our saddles do press down and make contact with the big fleshy muscles along his spine, but they alone are incapable of carrying us. It’s his ligament system in conjunction with his musculature that needs paying attention to.
Each vertebra in the horse’s spine has little bony projections along its sides called spinous processes. These projections are connected by a thick ligament called the supraspinous ligament which becomes the nuchal ligament from the withers forward. A sheet of elastic ligament tissue runs from both the nuchal ligament and the spinuous processes in the withers to each neck vertebra; therefore, the neck acts as a lever with forward and upward traction on the rest of the spine.
When the horse stretches his neck to create positive tension on this nuchal ligament, it draws the spinous processes in the withers upward, which then pull the rest of the spine upward. As this happens, the horse’s lower back and sacrum are automatically lifted, too. Thus, the suspension bridge that I analogized above is capable of bearing a load. Without this mechanism working, you could imagine the horse’s back muscles being like a bed sheet hung out on a clothesline. Imagine if you pinned up both ends of the sheet horizontal to the ground and then dropped a bowling ball in the middle. The bowling ball would sag down and fail to be supported, right? That is precisely what happens if the horse’s ligament system doesn’t function as it needs to as described above.
His Neck Down Does not Mean his Back is Lifted
With the recent popularity of different training techniques like natural horsemanship and hyper-flexion, trainers have emphasized the benefits of a lowered neck position for the horse, supposedly for the primary belief that getting the horse’s head/neck down means that his back is lifted. While getting the horse’s neck in a lowered position is a great place to start (as opposed to, say, having his head straight up in the clouds), it does not guarantee that his back is lifted or engaged. This is disheartening news for many well-meaning amateur dressage riders who hope that, after the hard work of getting a horse to lower his neck, the rest of the equation is more or less taken care of. But it isn’t. A horse can be in any number of lowered neck positions and avoid using his back entirely. Think of today’s fad of exaggeratedly low postures for Western Pleasure horses. Those horses are not using their backs at all even though their necks are as low as possible. This is just one example. But suffice it to say that any horse that isn’t stretching his neck down and outward from his chest in the appropriate posture to lift his back is simply traipsing around with a low head carriage but no engagement in the back. Think of horses that carry their chins pulled in towards their chests, heads too low, being controlled by pulley gadgets like martingales, etc. None of these use their backs. So, yes, getting your horse’s neck lowered is a great place to start, but don’t assume that the rest of his spine as organized as it should be.
30 Days to Fitness… No Way
We humans tend to grossly underestimate what is involved in bringing a horse to a reasonable level of riding fitness. I commonly witness riders believing that, after 30 days, a previously unfit horse has reached a suitable level of conditioning. However, because of the fragility of their vertebral columns, among other things, horses require several months of exercise for their back and abdominal muscles to gain the necessary strength and flexibility to maintain good posture under a rider’s weight. It can take up to a year to develop the fitness necessary to handle an hour’s worth of walk, trot, and canter in the arena. Yet, how many riders expect this after just one month of “conditioning” their mounts?
Do not be fooled by what you cannot see. Many of us see a large mass of muscle, bone, and brawn when we look at our equine counterparts in comparison to ourselves. But we must not assume they are machine-like in their ability to handle exercise if not slowly and carefully prepared for it. In other words, it’s impossible to judge a horse’s physical preparedness by what you think you can see on the outside. When the appropriate amount of time is not taken to thoroughly condition a horse, all kinds of postural compromises will result. These negative effects are difficult if not sometimes impossible to correct. So, if I could give equestrians one rule to follow despite their eagerness, impatience, and greed to succeed, it would be this: give your horse one full year to reach optimal fitness.
Consider His Age
Under modern training norms, horses are generally first ridden as two- or three-year olds. Their bodies, particularly the elasticity in their still-forming tendons and ligaments- are very adaptable to exercise in these early years. However, some three-year olds, especially warmblood breeds, are not developed enough to be ridden above a walk. Some owners fail to realize that the growth plates in the horse’s back are the last ones to close; therefore his skeleton and supporting soft tissue are quite susceptible to permanent damage if required to bear the weight of a rider too early. So, when you are determining whether your young horse is ready to be ridden, have your veterinarian help you assess whether the plates in his back, not just his knees (as are most commonly referenced) are closed up enough for work.
As responsible stewards of these noble equine partners, we should heed the above points with any horse under our supervision. As with humans, a healthy back goes a long way in the overall health and athleticism of the whole creature. When preparing the horse’s back to carry us, mind the time-tested adage: make haste slowly.
Thoughts of jumping never enter most dressage riders’ minds coming down the center line. For others, though, a combination of jumping and dressage blended together in the same arena represents the perfect cross-training challenge. It also gives riders a peek into our history, to a time when all dressage horses were required to jump in competition. Modern riders can satisfy their penchant for interdisciplinary competition with a relic of our past, the Prix Caprilli tests that have trickled down from the start of U.S. dressage decades ago.
Prix Caprilli appears nowadays mostly in schooling shows, combined training events, and Pony Club rallies, but originally served the more serious purpose of introducing dressage and refining arena skills among American riders as equestrian sports gained a foothold after World War II. The Prix Caprilli tests progress by level, similar to today’s U.S.D.F. tests, with jumps ranging in height from low cross-rails to 2’9” fences. Tests are held in a 20×40 meter arena, with refusals and knockdowns penalized. They derived their name from the Italian cavalry instructor Federico Caprilli, who is credited with inventing the forward style of seat for jumping.
Historically, several levels of Prix Caprilli existed with various arrangements of obstacles. The oldest test archived with the American Horse Show Association (now the USEF) dates back to 1961 and includes cantering over a row of four cavalletti with one stride in between and jumping two 3’ jumps. Test directives call for ‘ordinary trot,’ ‘ordinary canter,’ 20 meter circles, and a rein back. A later test version from the mid-1960s has four jumps in the arena—one on each quarter line and one on each end. Riders were directed to trot over the 18” cross poles and to canter a 2’ picket and a 2’ brush obstacle.
While they might seem out of place with modern riders who want to specialize in dressage, the original purpose of Prix Caprilli mirrored the intent of our current Training and First Levels. The tests also served as a reminder for the emphasis on cross training.
The rule book from AHSA in the early 1960s states:
Purpose: to determine that the correct foundation is being laid for successful training of the riding horse: that the horse moves freely forward in a relaxed manner and with rhythm, both on the flat and over small fences, its spine always parallel to the track of the prescribed movement; that it accepts the bit and obeys simple aids of the rider.
Many would like to see a return of Prix Caprilli along with similar training challenges. Judge and faculty member of the USDF “L” program, Axel Steiner is one of these enthusiasts.
“From a rider’s standpoint, I wish it would re-gain popularity,” said Steiner, who believes that most horses enjoy themselves when jumping and remain “mentally much sounder” when allowed to cross-train. But maybe more importantly, learning to jump creates better dressage riders, Steiner believes.
“Every rider should be able to jump a three-foot fence,” said Steiner recently, noting that jumping and, even in many cases, the use of cavalletti has gradually disappeared from today’s instruction. He would prefer to see this change. Otherwise, young dressage horses are missing out on not only the conditioning benefits but also the “forward-thinking” that comes from jumps. Riders, meanwhile, are only learning to operate in sterile environments.
Grand Prix trainer and F.E.I. vaulting judge Jeff Moore of San Juan Bautista, CA recalls the early days of U.S. dressage when nobody thought twice about jumping. Every dressage horse jumped.
“Back then, everything was different. Things have changed quite a lot,” said Moore, who has been involved with equestrian competitions for 50 years.
All dressage tests from First through Fourth Level in the 1960s and early 1970s required riders to exit the arena after the final salute and then jump an obstacle ranging from 2’6” to 2’9”. This compulsory obedience jump was not given a score but was mandated to demonstrate a horse’s submission and overall training.
“Nobody thought anything about it. Everyone just accepted that’s the way it was,” said Moore.
Since the existence of Prix Caprilli pre-dated the formation of USDF, many of the old tests have not survived. While some clubs write their own, many groups rely on the popular tests created by dressage Olympian Lendon Gray for her annual Youth Dressage Festival in New York and are now available to the public. Gray recalls riding Prix Caprilli tests as a young trainer on the Florida dressage circuit in the mid-1970s and wanted to encourage the combination of dressage mastery with good gymnastic jumping among young riders. Initially, she thought the Prix Caprilli tests might appeal mostly to Hunter and Jumper riders, enticing them to dabble in dressage. Interestingly, the tests have appealed more to her dressage students and encouraged them to incorporate some jumping into their schooling. This pleases Gray.
“It has ended up being a way to encourage these dressage students to jump. It’s sad that today’s students don’t jump and are just doing dressage; that’s too narrow,” said Gray. She prefers to see young riders cross-train more. Many of her students have noticed their horses becoming more supple, responsive, and forward when schooling for the Prix Caprilli tests.
“I can remember when I was a kid and, as an eventer, we would do our dressage on Monday, then show jumping on Tuesday, and so on. It never occurred to us to put the two together in the same arena. But that’s what this does,” Gray said about Prix Caprilli.
Equine sports conditioning experts agree that dressage horses should include gymnastic jumping in their training to enhance performance and prevent injury. Small jumps require the dressage horse to repeat eccentric-concentric contractions of the extensor muscles in the hindquarters, which are the same kinds of contractions we need in highly collected movements. It is also argued that jumping creates suppleness in the horse’s vertebral column due to how these exercises encourage the horse to arch his neck and back.
In her authoritative book Conditioning Sport Horses, professor and researcher Dr. Hilary Clayton states “Gymnastic jumping has a place in training dressage horses, especially up to the medium level. The fences do not need to be large, in fact smaller fences are more effective.”
Today’s riders can choose from Prix Caprilli Introductory level, Training Level, or First Level. Aside from working over jumps, the tests closely resemble the USDF tests for each level. The Prix Caprilli First Level test, for example, includes lengthening within trot and canter, leg-yield, and a 20 meter stretching circle in trot rising. Riders are asked to jump a small fence several times throughout the test– while on a large circle, when crossing the diagonal, and after a leg-yield from the rail.
Admittedly, Prix Caprilli can be tricky for judges. Dressage pioneer and long-time judge Peter Lert of Scotts Valley, CA recalls judging Prix Caprilli when the tests were a regular part of dressage competitions in the late 1950s and 1960s.
“As a judge, I found them quite difficult to score,” said Lert, adding that he wasn’t always sure what to give more weight—the submission and accuracy or the roundness and quality of movement in the dressage portions. Lert saw Prix Caprilli as a way to introduce dressage to Americans. The new discipline could attract existing jumper riders to the burgeoning sport of dressage slowly making its way here from Europe in the 1950s.
After the U.S. Cavalry disbanded in 1948, the focus of dressage for military purposes—the only form of its existence in the U.S. until then—shifted to civilian sport. As many dedicated European immigrants came over to help Americans learn the sport, Prix Caprilli tests came with them. As dressage matured here and the USDF formed, regular dressage tests became more specific in their movements and Prix Caprilli eventually disappeared. By the late 1970s, they were no longer offered at shows.
Today, they still appear in Pony Club rallies and schooling shows at dressage clubs around the country, including the Alaska Dressage Association, Nebraska Dressage Association, Oregon Dressage Society, and dozens of combined training groups.
Many cross-training advocates believe if Prix Caprilli re-gained popularity, dressage riders would be encouraged to take a more inter-disciplinary approach to their training. This would lead to freer moving, more forward mounts.
Gymnastic jumping over low raised poles can free up a horse’s shoulders and create more active hind leg movement, said Gina Miles, Olympic Three-day Eventing Silver medalist. She has noticed better dressage performance results from using cavalletti and small jumps to reduce boredom and dullness.
“It also encourages more suspension,” said Miles. This in turn leads to the horse bearing more weight behind.
For Dr. Gail Hoff-Carmona, owner and director of Los Alamos Dressage Center, the first school of dressage in the U.S., modern riders should use the concept of Prix Caprilli in their everyday schooling. A huge proponent of cross-training, Hoff-Carmona believes better equine athletes can be made by combining jumping with dressage. She remembers entering her first dressage competitions in the early 1970s and, in order to do so, needing to prepare her horse to jump.
“The form didn’t matter so much. It was just the idea that a horse could jump as well as do dressage, which is something I really believe in,” said Hoff-Carmona, who to this day schools with cavalletti and gymnastic jumps on a weekly basis. All of her dressage horses, including the F.E.I. mounts, are required to jump at least small obstacles.
Hoff-Carmona clarified that different objectives can be met for each discipline by adjusting jump spacing. In dressage, we should not seek to ‘open’ the horse’s stride as much as jumping trainers might with their horses. We are using jumps to achieve a different frame, namely to help the horse compress and collect his posture. This is, after all, the whole purpose of cross training, rather than how high or fast the horse jumps.
“We ride the horse to bring himself much more under from behind than to jump particular obstacles,” she said. Vice versa, dressage can help cross-train jumping horses by bringing them more onto the aids, relaxing them, and improving their balance. The two disciplines really do seem to belong together, given how much one improves the other.
Trainer Karen Rohlf of Florida, echoes this symbiotic relationship of dressage and jumping. Rohlf, who represented the U.S. four times as a Young Rider and passed her USDF ‘L’ judge test with distinction finds herself addressing dressage challenges by getting outside of the box.
“We have an opportunity to let the obstacles do the work for us! I am always looking for ways outside of dressage that will build my horse’s skills inside dressage,” said Rohlf. With gymnastic jumping, riders can create a situation where the horse is offering to work harder but not because of stronger aids. Before riders know it, their dressage has become easier.
“It is a way to work smarter, not harder,” said Rohlf. With a smile, she reminds riders that they might have a little fun along the way, too.
Cross Training for Successful Daily Rides
If you’ve ever undertaken an exercise program, you have undoubtedly come across the merits of cross-training. Maybe this was as simple as a sports coach reminding you not to work the same muscle groups on consecutive days or recommending strength conditioning along with your endurance training and so on. Where athletic training is involved, cross-training provides an edge not obtainable by continually drilling the same muscle groups or cardiovascular response daily.
The most commonly known reason for cross-training is to avoid repetitive motion injuries—inevitable breakdown that occurs from taking the body’s muscles, joints, and ligaments through the same series of movements day after day. Cross-training allows your horse to achieve peak fitness without creating inflammation, muscle/ligament tears, or other injuries along the way. Maybe lesser known, though, are the other compelling reasons to cross-train. These include the ability to get more out of your performance and to train your horse for a much higher level of athleticism, which makes him more enjoyable to ride. This has the double benefit of making his riding and training more enjoyable for him too.
Interdisciplinary exercises like the ones includes in this book allow the horse to acquire more powerful and efficient locomotion. They teach his nervous system to recruit the best muscle fibers for each movement and exercise, leading to his ability to perform with greater ease over time. These types of exercises, outside your specific discipline, take a horse’s joints through a larger range of motion than his regular movement patterns. By making these gains in his overall balance, coordination, strength, and suppleness, your horse will quickly overcome the training roadblocks that impede many horses. For instance, exercises that require a different level of intensity or coordination can greatly improve your horse’s collected work. Too often, these roadblocks cause horses and riders to get stuck for prolonged periods of time. When this happens, riding can become frustrating, boring, or overly difficult. However, by integrating some cross-training into your normal routine, your riding journey will maintain forward momentum. And it will be fun!
This book will give you an easy roadmap for identifying useful cross-training principles and exercises and show you how to incorporate them into a plan that works for you. Above all, you will learn that you do not need new equipment, a different boarding situation, or even a drastic change in your normal routine.
First, let’s consider the purpose of cross-training. Some riders mistakenly assume that the value only comes from giving the horse a “mental break” from his regular dressage training. This isn’t the case. Cross-training exercises still require effort and work, after all, so while the horse may approach them with a bit more eagerness, they don’t exactly constitute a rest for the horse mentally. Instead, the purpose of adding variety to your schooling is to strengthen different muscle groups and improve proprioception (and therefore balance) in ways that don’t happen in everyday dressage riding. Also, it allows for conditioning the dressage horse without risking repetitive motion injuries (e.g. soreness, strained tendons, tired muscles) from always drilling the same movements.
These exercises will enhance your horse’s overall athletic ability– balance, coordination, strength, stamina. Imagine how much better your canter circles will be, for instance. Or your shoulder-in, transitions, impulsion.
The following are my guidelines for blending cross-training elements into your daily rides. They’re applicable to students of all disciplines, but especially useful in keeping a dressage athlete’s body in full working order. Give them a shot and see what happens. And remember to have fun.
Backing Up to Go Forward
Backing up can hugely improve our horses’ strength. When done properly with the horse in a rounded frame, rein-backs put the same demand on the horse as sit-ups or crunches do for us humans. It requires the horse to firm up and engage his tummy and back muscles while simultaneously stretching his hamstrings.
Julie Rotolo, a popular equine massage therapist around San Francisco Bay area, tells her clients that rein-back is arguably the most important exercise they can do for their horses.
“Hands down, it’s one of the best all-around conditioning exercises you can do,” said Rotolo, noting that the horse should ideally perform it with a low neck frame.
Gina Miles, 2008 Olympic gold medalist in eventing swears by backing up hills, which she does with all her performance horses in hand and under saddle. So, find a driveway, a knoll, or a pathway somewhere that you can ask your horse to back up for 10-15 steps, three times a week. At first, you may only get a few decent steps before you have to stop and remind him to lower his neck. Aim to get as many steps as the horse will willingly give. Ten steps should be your goal at minimum.
Take a Hint (and a stroll) from the Masters
Growing up, I watched a lot of training videos by dressage legend Reiner Klimke and I noticed the same thing about every single one: at the start of each session, his students would ride their horses in a walk on long reins repeatedly over a line of ground poles outside the arena. When they felt the horse’s back start to relax and swing, they gathered up their reins, headed into the arena and began their workouts.
Klimke obviously knew what equine chiropractors have since proven—that slow work over poles allows the horse’s sacral region to rock back and forth, thereby loosening. Few other exercises, except rein-back and walking down hills, have the same effect. And without focused loosening, this area of dressage horses gets pretty jammed up from doing so many collected movements.
Add this simple routine to your daily sessions. It’s simple, quick, and requires no special equipment except for a few fence poles that you probably already have lying around. Setting them up someplace outside your arena allows your horse to relax mentally before entering the arena. It also means that he’ll get to warm up on a different type of ground/footing, which in itself is a type of cross-training. There’s no need to go any faster than a walk. Just give yourself—and your horse—five minutes of sauntering slowly back and forth over those poles. It’s like medicine to his body!
Add a Slope to your Longe
We dressage riders are most often fanatical about finding level ground with good footing to ride on. However, when it comes to longeing, it can help your horse’s balance and hind-end strength—a lot!—by occasionally doing your groundwork on a gentle slope, also with good footing. In fact, this exercise is so great for horses that many equine physical therapy books recommend it for rehabbing horses after time off. It’s also frequently suggested as a cure for chronically crooked horses. Working a horse on sloped terrain encourages the horse to use his back in a way that improves looseness along his dorsal muscles and over his croup. On the descent portion, the horse’s abdominal muscles engage to balance him. On the ascent, his hip and back muscles engage. Therefore, the exercise is valuable in developing his entire core.
You’ll want to find a 20-meter circle area to longe your horse where the ground rises approximately three or four feet on one side and slopes downward the same amount on the opposite side of the circle. The footing must be somewhat smooth and stable. Begin by longeing your horse at the walk to ensure he is managing his footwork on the uneven ground. Then, pick up a rhythmic trot around the circle. Keep the tempo slow. In this exercise, the speed must be slow and easy enough for the horse to maintain the same rhythm all the way around the circle, rather than changing his speed from uphill portion to downhill.
Gearing up to Gallop
Popular FEI dressage trainer Yvonne Barteau believes a lot of dressage horses’ movement would be improved by a good swift gallop to free up their back muscles. Many of the sport’s forefathers and authors, like General DeCarpentry and Udo Berger argued this point decades ago. While obviously not a movement in dressage tests, galloping strengthens the horse’s front end and puts his limbs into a greater range of motion, which has the effect of releasing tension in his back from ordinary work.
Riders who train primarily in the arena often fail to gallop their horses, therefore missing out on a really valuable gymnastic tool. If you are unaccustomed to galloping, or a little timid, the best way for you to start is by taking small steps. So, first define your comfort zone. If you are afraid to gallop, you will not be a useful teammate for your horse. You will, however, be able to incrementally get past your fear one small step at a time.
Begin in the arena with a regular working canter. Then, for 30 seconds, make the canter bigger (slightly faster and with longer strides). You may sit in half-seat. Come back to a regular canter. Then, again make the canter bigger for 30 seconds and return to a regular canter. Keep doing these bouts for a period of several minutes until you’re able to stay in the bigger canter for longer than 30 seconds until it becomes a sustained period of galloping. If you eventually decide to take your efforts outside the arena, great! If not, don’t worry. Galloping is a useful exercise no matter the terrain.
** Note: In a bigger canter, the horse should never be out of control or excitable or start pulling on the reins, etc. That’s why we start in the arena to show him how to do things appropriately. If your horse shows a tendency to get excited or out of control, he needs to learn what’s expected of him. So, stick with the 30 second bouts until he learns the drill!
What is Western Dressage?
At its core, Western Dressage is no different from Classical Dressage. Many Western horsemen agree that the goals and methods for training a Western horse are the same as those used over centuries among Classical Dressage enthusiasts. The relatively new discipline of Western Dressage bridges the alleged separation that has existed between these two worlds, bringing together the strong history of horsemanship surrounding the American West and the traditions of dressage dating back to ancient times that have been carried on in institutions like the Spanish Riding School. Some say it combines the superb riding of American Cowboys with the systematic training methods of venerable European institutions.
For many, this marriage was only a matter of time. With its commitment to harmony, lightness, good horse-human connection and communication, and athleticism, Western riding is a natural blend for dressage. Western Dressage, officially branded in the United States in 2010, uses the principles of Classical Dressage to improve the balance, cadence, and carriage of a horse. Following a similar progressive training path to traditional dressage, Western Dressage builds on an individual horse’s natural abilities to carry himself and uses increasingly more difficult gymnastic exercises to improve from there. Some of the on-going goals include: a horse that moves with his center of gravity shifted towards the rear, greater elasticity in his muscles, responsiveness to the aids, perfection of longitudinal and lateral balance, and the ability to work with ease and grace through progressively difficult patterns and exercises.
A Western Dressage horse moving correctly on the bit should demonstrate that he stretches into the rider’s contact. He should not be shown with a draped rein. Instead, there should be LIGHT rein tone evident between horse and rider. It should appear that the horse is seeking a feel of the rider’s hands. While doing this, it should appear that his neck is arching and stretching forward from his body or that he “looks through” the bridle. Riding strong visible rein cues, constantly bumping the bit, or causing a horse to gape his mouth are considered serious faults. Special emphasis is given to a quiet mouth with head carriage that reflects the degree of collection and an appropriate balance for each individual horse. Head and neck carriage are the result of the Western Dressage horse learning to carry the rest of his body in balance. Riders must not take short-cuts to create a head set prior to the horse learning to use his body properly. Riding either one or two-handed is permitted, as is using snaffle or curb. Riders choose the best option for themselves and their mounts.
The gaits for Western Dressage parallel those of traditional dressage, allowing for the fact that Western Dressage is suited for a different conformation and type of horse, generally speaking. The discipline grew out of a sequential and fine-tuned method of improving and showing off the movement and athletic feats of a stock horse and remains best suited to those kinds of horses that might lack the suspension, extended leg movement, or overall animation and size that would lead them to excel in traditional dressage.
The Western Dressage horse should move with impulsion, a forward-thinking attitude, engagement, and looseness. He should be highly maneuverable and his stride quickly adjustable. While his stride length in walk, jog, and lope is not expected to be as extravagant nor ground-covering as what is commonly seen in today’s modern dressage arenas, his gaits should demonstrate a good swinging stride length respective to his type. A clear difference is drawn between today’s Western Pleasure type of competitions and the movement expected in Western Dressage. The latter expects a more forward-moving horse. Emphasis is not placed on a high level of suspension in the gaits, nor is a very slow-moving and dull gait rewarded.
For competitions, western attire and equipment is required. However, for everyday schooling, riders are encouraged to ride in the equipment and gear of their choosing that allows them to achieve their goals. Many modern stock type or all-purpose saddles are suitable. A close contact saddle is generally best for enabling the rider to communicate closely and clearly with subtle leg cues. Therefore, saddles with bulky fenders or large rigging systems for the cinch will pose challenges for riders. For up-to-date Rules about equipment, visit the Western Dressage Association® of America at www.westerndressageassociation.org.
Finding Shape and Frame from the Ground Up
Ask a dozen riders what their primary goal is and I bet at least eight of them reply with the wish of getting their horses on the bit more consistently. Achieving a correct and consistent topline posture is indeed a vexing issue for most riders. Many grab their side reins in the hope that they will teach the horse’s neck to stay put where they want it. However, from a physiological standpoint, auxiliary aids like side reins are not the cure-all that many riders hope. The primary explanation for this is that a tight or weak muscle never improves by being fixed in a static position. What results is a pattern of restriction: reduced blood and oxygen flow. In response to being held in a fixed position, an undeveloped muscle either braces, fatigues, or passes on workload to a compensating muscle group. None of these outcomes leads to progress.
I am going to share with you a better way to go about things.
When I travel to horse expos around the country, riders frequently come up and ask me how they can get their young, un-fit, or un-experienced horse to carry himself better. My answer is always the same: put his body in the outline you want him to learn. This means that even before you get in the saddle, spend time repeating exercises that show and develop his body how to be rounded and on the bit. The best part of this is that you can do it all without any pressure of the bit in his sensitive mouth.
Horses object to being on the bit for two reasons. Either they do not mentally understand how and why to put their spines in the posture we’re asking or they are physically inhibited from doing so. Sometimes it is a combination of both. The most straightforward and simple way to accomplish our goal is to simply put the horse’s body where we want it, helping him from the ground to develop the mental and physical ability to hold himself in a frame. By repetitively doing this, the horse’s musculo-skeletal system is recruited properly without physical resistance or mental apprehension.
I start all horses the same way. First, I saddle them and put them on a longe line, with the rope attached to a cavesson over their bridles, so I am not longeing from pressure on their mouths. A rope halter also suffices. Then, before asking them to move out on a circle, I create the shape that I want in their bodies. I do this at a halt by asking the horse to lower his neck out and downward (and then praising him) and then stepping around behind him and asking for a pelvic tuck (in photo). Now his topline is rounded in the shape I want, mirroring an “on the bit” posture we want him to have under saddle.
Now, from this posture, I gently ask him to move forward for several strides. In the beginning while he is still learning, he will eventually throw his head up after a little while. That is fine. Allow him to travel for another several strides and then bring him back in towards you and re-position him by lowering his head and tucking his pelvis. Then, send him forward again. You can also mix things up by putting his body in the correct shape and then executing a few turns on the forehand or back him up 10 steps. Or you can just walk along beside him around the arena, re-positioning him as necessary. Break up these maneuvers with a 2-3 circles of trotting on the line. By continually re-positioning his body and putting it in balance, you will help his nervous system form a habit of being here.
This is technical work and you want to be sure not to nag your horse for long, picky sessions. But by doing short focused sessions like this for 10 minutes at a time, you will be amazed at how quickly the horse’s body changes without needing restrictive gadgets or aids.