I’ll Get That Gate
Years ago, I saw an ad for remote gate openers that riders could wear on their belts. The picture showed fancy dressage horses and riders meandering through a field approaching a gate that they would now, conveniently, not need to dismount in order to pass through. I looked at the ad with envy. My cowboy friend who was glancing at the magazine over my shoulder found the belt gadgets much less enviable.
“Why don’t you just teach your horse how to work through a gate so you don’t have to get off?” he asked. “AND you wouldn’t need some silly button on your belt.”
I scoffed in spite of not having a legitimate reason except that it just was not part of the dressage training realm. We had so many other, more important, skills to teach our horses. In fact, I could not think of a dressage horse/rider I knew locally that bothered to open a gate—wood, metal, or otherwise—while astride. I figured the kinds of riders who devoted hours to learning those kinds of tricks were either recreational riders or ranchers with horses that did basically anything you pointed them towards.
We dressage riders on the other hand rode more refined and sensitive mounts meant for fine-tuning the nuances of balanced movement daily as opposed to the unsophisticated footwork for opening gates. At least this was my thought when I scoffed at my cowboy friend. My whole riding life to that point included getting off and re-mounting at every gate I encountered whether on trail or entering an arena. In other words, our dressage horses were too impatient and disrespectful for these more menial tasks. In another hour or so, I was re-calibrating my priorities around what counted as menial.
Just to prove to my buddy that I COULD open a gate from horseback if I had to—how hard could it be?—I brought out a Second Level mare I had been riding for a few years. We sidled over to the arena gate, where the mare clearly expected me to stop and get off. After a few minutes of fidgeting and head-tossing, the horse briefly stood quiet. Not entirely sure myself the steps for opening a gate, I figured I would just lean over and un-hitch the clasp and then wander through, no big deal. Except I was not close enough to reach it, so I asked the mare to step over a little. She ignored my leg and raised her neck to yank the reins from me instead. Then she barged forward impatiently and I had to circle around a few times before I could get her to stand still anywhere near the gate again. This time, she swung her head sideways like a battering ram.
After two more harried and unbalanced grabs for the gate from the saddle, I admitted that this process was proving more challenging that I imagined. Still, it did not entirely seem like a challenge worth devoting a lot of time to at the sacrifice of a day schooling dressage movements. My cowboy buddy suggested I just work on the first step, which was simply to get my horse to stand motionless alongside the gate until she was good and bored with it. By now, my mount had begun tossing her head up and down, dancing around like she was on a live wire. Whether or not any of this gate nonsense felt relevant, I was peeved at her antics and not to mention a little embarrassed. I opted to accept my buddy’s challenge and conquer that first step: I would insist the mare plant all four feet and stand still like an old ranch horse, no matter how long it took.
By the time that happened, I was sunburned and thirsty. Over an hour had passed, but finally the mare finally let out a big sigh and lowered her head. Never in my riding life had standing still seemed like such an unconquerable goal. Or had it? It occurred to me that I might have never asked for such a long swath of stillness and focused doing-nothing from a horse I was riding. Instead, we were always moving and doing something: bending, half-halting, refining impulsion.
Maybe, just maybe, every one of my horses lacked the patience and foot control needed to open and close a gate while mounted. In other words, my fancy prancy dressage horses had gaping holes in their rudimentary training. With my Second Level horse finally standing placidly under me feeling supple, straight, and attentive I concluded that my priorities needed some adjusting. After all, if by Second Level a horse and rider cannot maneuver through a gate with ease and balance, they are probably kidding themselves about how tuned and responsive they are.
Before that humbling morning, I saw ranch tasks like gate work to be the realm of unrefined old plodders rather than sophisticated mounts. After conceding how wrong I was, I saw this simple task as a culmination of dozens of foundational training skills, most of which we dressage riders glossed over in our pursuit of ‘more important’ ones. Within this seemingly simple task, my mount proved how feebly in possession she was of patience, focus, lateral flexibility, softness, obedience. You can bet that since then I have overhauled my dressage training progression. And you can bet when I see someone hurrying on foot to swing open a gate for me, I wave them off.
I’ll get that, I say. With that comes the commitment to stick with it as long as necessary. Depending on the horse I am riding, it might take 20 seconds or 20 minutes. But frankly there is no point hurrying off to work on anything else unless the horse and I can check off the numerous rudimentary, and dare I say ‘unsophisticated’, skills at the gate.
Just for the record: nowadays, I find a horse who works gates like a pro more enviable than any remote control belt.
Ride the Right Way
The cornerstone of any aspiring dressage rider’s skills is the ability to ride long and low, or in other words to stretch the horse’s top line forward and downward in to the contact on long reins. This posture, as I will clarify below, ensures that the horse is working correctly from his back and haunches. It also maintains looseness in the horse’s shoulder, spine, and neck.
Riding the Wrong Way
Unfortunately many riders, in their disciplined aspirations to ride their horses on the bit, fail to realize that riding long and low is a critical component of riding a horse correctly in to the contact. In fact, nowadays it often seems fashionable for dressage riders to have short, tight reins the entire time they are mounted.
The common result of this is a horse that travels in a cramped frame, or appears to be on the bit while actually carrying his back and top line hollow. Riding exclusively in this frame day after day creates bad postural habits in addition to stiffness in the spine. For riders to assume that his false roundness is an optimal manner for his horse to travel is a grave mistake. Riders then often form the habit of trying to get the horse on the bit by shortening his neck and bringing his chin back towards his chest. Instead, riders must constantly refine the skills of pushing the horse’s whole body out to the bit, so that the horse lengthens and stretches his neck away from his chest. This is the test of riding long and low, and why it is so important to practice daily.
Horse Moving Off the Forehand
Too often in today’s dressage arenas, I see and hear riders operating with the assumption that by keeping the horse’s head and neck up in an elevated position while riding, it keeps the horse from moving with weight on the forehand. I frequently hear the instruction for riders to “get the horse off the forehand” by lifting up his head and neck. For many, this may give the false impression that the horse is now traveling uphill. In reality, according to the mechanics of his body, the horse’s neck elevation has little to do with how much weight the horse does or does not carry on his forehand. It is very possible for a horse to have an elevated neck carriage and still be on the forehand. Likewise, it is possible for a horse to travel with a low neck position and be OFF the forehand.
Far more important than where his neck is exactly positioned are the elements of looseness versus restriction in his scapula and shoulder movement, whether the neck is properly toned versus tense, the lift and tuck of his abdominal muscles, and the soft swinging of his back under the rider. These elements directly determine whether a horse is able to elevate his withers and draw the weight up out of his front legs. When one of these elements is not occurring properly, the best plan is to ride in a long and low frame until it is corrected.
Riding the Right Way is for Everyone
New dressage riders sometimes assume that long and low riding is a training concept they are meant to get beyond and then put behind them. Riders are not asked to perform long and low in dressage tests above First Level, but they must understand that they do not eliminate it from schooling. Top international riders ask their horses to work in this posture daily, either in warm-ups or cooling down. Long and low is also frequently used during the middle of a schooling session to refresh the swinging motion in a horse’s back or as a way to ride the horse more forward in front of the rider’s aids. Regardless of a horse or rider’s level of training, riding in a long and low posture is necessary for a few minutes each day. It ensures the consistent quality of your on-going training.
The physiological facts behind this concept make it a truism for any thorough training program. Just like their human counterparts, horses need frequent elongation of their spines. Some trainers refer to this as opening the back. Stretching the horse’s spine from ear to tail releases potential rigidity and blockages before these can form. It relieves pressure that builds up in the lower back due to collection, sitting trot, and other demands.
Through its active stretching, riding long and low tunes up the strength and looseness of the horse’s neck muscles, shoulder girdle, and pectorals. It maintains the suppleness– and therefore the performance– of these muscles in a way that is not accomplished when one riders only in a fixed and collected frame.
Every horse is conformed differently; and therefore, requires a slightly different neck position for long and low. As a general rule, though, aim to ride with your horse’s poll level with or slightly lower than his withers. You want him to extend his neck forward and downward as if he were interested in sniffing something on the ground directly in front of him. Be sure to maintain positive but light tension in both reins equally and ride at the same tempo as for working trot, no faster and no slower. Always perform long and low in riding trot to encourage maximum freedom and stretch of the horse’s back. Do not forget to readjust your reins as needed. If the horse loses balance or his attention wanders, he might raise his head and create slack in the reins. Shorten the reins quickly at this moment to maintain the positive but light tension. Once you have re-established a feel of his mouth, begin to lengthen the reins again. When you are able to maintain a consistent feel wight the contact by these subtle and quick rein adjustments, the horse will learn to stretch and hold a steadier posture in the long and low frame without becoming disorganized or lifting his head up away from the bit.
Important Training Principle
When I rode with the late Egon von Neindorff in Germany, our lessons began and ended the same way every day: each and every rider needed to ride in posting trot in a long and low frame for several minutes. In a group lessons, this might take some riders much longer than others to accomplish. Regardless how long it might take, we all waited and rode until every single horse in the arena achieved the stretched, loose, swinging frame that master Neindorff was so adamant about. Our lessons never deviated from this basic outline. In his riding school, it did not matter if you were an advanced dressage rider or a novice; absolutely everyone stretched their horses out to the bit in a long frame before and after riding in collection or working postures.
Some days I felt this was tedious. I wanted to get to more of the “fun” parts of our riding such as flying changes and half-passes. In the years since, however, I have had the good fortune to work with all kinds of horses, varying in wide degrees of body types and athleticism. Though their bodies have differed, they have all responded to the rule that, without frequent loosening and elongation of the horse’s spine, a rider can only achieve a false frame. By following the training principle that every horse shall stretch long and low as frequently as he travels in collection, I have been blessed to watch these horses become looser, more content, better moving, and free of soreness day to day. Do not forget that this is one of the primary goals of dressage and is as critical as the more “fun” stuff.