The Sandwich Lope
The Sandwich Lope
When Western Dressage first established itself, we instructors struggled to describe the requirements of a “working lope” clearly enough for students. We wanted to be sure to differentiate it from the stilted gaits seen in the Western Pleasure discipline, and yet it was also not the animated jumping-across-the-ground canter of the traditional dressage world.
It should have springiness and energy, we told students, but not excessive speed. The horse should be adequately on the bit and lifting his back but maintaining the obedience and calmness seen in reining horses.
So, what exactly might that feel like? In the past year, hopefully without disparaging my classical dressage roots by foregoing high falutin’ descriptions, I have landed on a darn useful description.
When trail riding her often spirited Andalusian, a former student of mine used to praise the moments when cantering along a ridgeline she felt like everything was so smooth and calm and rhythmic that she could eat her lunch in stride.
I began to think of this as the sandwich test. If you and your horse were balanced and rhythmic enough to proceed with the reins in one hand while the other brought a sandwich to your mouth, you had a working lope. You should feel that you are decidedly traveling over the ground rather than grinding along and the horse should carry you on a softly engaged back that gives you a smooth enough ride to savor your sandwich.
Some horses are gifted with a balanced lope from the start. In my experience, though, most are not this naturally blessed, and the rider must invest a certain amount of effort to make the gait what we desire. Below are some of my tips for doing so, because as you have read in previous postings, I am a huge advocate of ample time spent cantering. It does wonderful things for the horse’s body. And while those wonders are happening, I suggest you think about your favorite kind of sandwich to put it all to the test.
Tips for improving the canter:
- Don’t overlook the effectiveness of a two-seat position. If your horse has a hurried or bone-rattling canter, don’t try to force yourself in to an elegant dressage position; help him out by riding in a lighter two-point position until he learns to canter with a lifted back and only then adopt a deeper seat.
- Don’t get stuck on the circle. As soon as you’re able, intersperse circles (or half-circles) and straight lines. This progresses a horse’s balance much quicker and helps him achieve self-carriage.
- The horse needs to breathe. For horses that hold their breath in the canter, the gait will always be rigid and hard to ride. If you can feel the horse holding his breath, or you hear him grunting instead of exhaling on the downbeat, ask him to work harder for 30 seconds and then stop completely and give him a loose rein to offer him a chance to let out his air. Many horses will at this point sigh or blow through their noses. If not, gather the reins and go back immediately to cantering for another 30 second bout and repeat.
- If your horse has a sluggish lope/canter, use cavalletti in your daily routines to create more “jump” in the stride. Place single poles on the ground spaced randomly around your arena.
- Don’t assume that if YOU have anxiety about the canter your horse also does. Likewise, do not assume without reliable data that the canter is more difficult for your horse than other gaits. Using a heart rate monitor can tell you just how ‘hard’ he finds the canter or not.
The Magic Behind the Poles
Walking Ground Poles
For years, they sat on one end of our indoor arena—five ground poles anchored by concrete blocks. With unwavering consistency, we worked our horses over them once a week, either ground driving or riding. But it was not until the winter when my mom and I watched Dr. Reiner Klimke videos over and over that I realized why our ground poles remained set up all the time.
Their purpose was not to alleviate the monotony of training sessions as I assumed but to physically improve the horse. As I sat in Mom’s office and watched the videos of Klimke’s students beginning each ride walking and trotting over poles, I realized there is really something to this. On the screen, sleek Warmbloods became looser and freer in their bodies right before my eyes. Of course it would be a couple of decades before I learned why they did; at that moment the mystery intrigued me enough to commit to keep using our own poles, no matter if I could describe why or not.
If world-class equestrians found it useful to ride over ground poles, then I thought we should, too. Various pole patterns have since formed a central part of my clinics and lessons. Most riders can feel the positive changes right away in their horses: their gaits become springier, jaws soften, cadence improves. Finally, about ten years ago, equine fitness studies caught up to some of the practices of old classical dressage masters. Now we had our why for riding poles.
Thanks to researchers and vets like Jean-Marie Denoix, Gillian Higgins, Hilary Clayton, and Andris Kaneps we have learned how successfully ground poles serve the horse’s neuromuscular coordination. They activate and release tension from his bottom line muscle chain, which in turn softens his jaw and poll, resulting in reflexive signals for relaxation throughout the body. Also, because of their fixed position on the ground, poles interrupt the horse’s habituated stride patterns. In this way, they stimulate activation between his brain and nervous system. This leads to gaits that are not only more rhythmic but also stay free from restricted ranges of motion.
Ground Poles at the Start of Your Ride
The following are my tips for benefitting from ground poles on a regular basis.
- The simplest way to use ground poles consistently is to walk back and forth over them 20 times at the beginning of your ride. You can do this every day. Do not assume there is more value in trotting them.
- Make a place on your farm where you can LEAVE them set up. If you have to set them up each time to use them, you will not stick to a consistent plan.
- There is no exact formula for how many poles you should set up. Just use what you have. Typically, four to six poles in a row works for most riders/horses. You do not need a fancy type of poles.
- Take note of what changes in your horse as he works over poles. Does he stretch his neck lower? Have more energy? Does his back feel any different under you?
- For walking, space the poles approx. 2’8” apart.
- Do not micro-manage your horse if he stumbles or trips. Try to stay out of his way and let the poles do their work. They WILL do the work.
How Much to Give Away
How Much to Give Away
Many of us make our horses stiffer with our attempts at kindness. Aiming for light and forgiving rein contact, we sometimes make the mistake of too much looseness, which feels erratic and unclear to the horse. Rather than improving our horse’s balance and physiology, we cause him to fall apart immediately following moments of correct movement. Whether or not to interject releases of pressure with the contact is not the question; the question is when and how to do this.
Like many of my students, I want my horse to know when he has done something good. This includes when he has organized his body and stretched through his neck to make a soft contact with the reins. To praise him, I want to make a little release feeling in the reins. I see riders all the time with the same idea, except they often push their arms all the way forward, putting loops in the reins right when the horse has established a connection between himself and the rider. Possibly, this technique is even taught in some disciplines.
While the intention is good, the action is not.
Big variations in rein pressure disrupt the horse’s extensor muscle chain that channels propulsion from his hindquarters. Rather than easing in to the positive tonicity of maintaining a flexed poll and arched topline, he feels the rider abandon the postural framework. His nose pokes out, his back sags, and he loses balance. His rider then regains a light tension on the reins in order to re-establish his correct posture, and the whole cycle starts again.
Neither the horse nor the rider becomes steadier in this scenario. With the contact always coming and going, the horse’s back stiffens, his tongue muscles tighten. He relies on his forehand for equilibrium. The rider, meanwhile, develops a habit of pushing her elbows forward, collapsing her chest.
Am I advocating that riders should not offer a release of some sort? No. Riders absolutely should offer a lightening when the contact becomes nice. The trick—and the big challenge for us kind riders—is to give this release with a small movement of our fingers. With our hands and fingers we can offer the horse a lot; we do not need to push loops in the reins. An instructor once described this to me as “letting the steam” out of the contact. By opening your fingers in to a loose fist when the horse is moving correctly, you can create a lightening while maintaining the same rein length and bit position in the horse’s mouth. This consistency leads to steady recruitment of muscle chains that hold the body in good alignment. Avoiding big variations in rein length and tension prevents these muscular impulses from becoming erratic, or from being recruited without the continuity needed to increase strength and elasticity.
Studies of equine anatomy have shown how constructive it is for a horse to travel while ‘on the bit.’ They also show what a positive training tool the bit can be for the horse’s muscular development when used with good intention. The bit, and rein contact as a whole, allows us to trigger positive neuromuscular reflexes throughout the entire horse by generating engagement and looseness that both begin and culminate in the horse’s head and neck. In sum: yes, we do want feather light contact with the bit. Remember, though, that lightness is trusting and steady, not intermittent and sloppy.
A Dressage Trainer with No Arena?
Everything about the possibility of running my dressage business from this property suited me perfectly—big pastures, access to trails, trailer parking. Or I should say everything except one glaring absence: an arena. A usable ring with good footing sat in the back of the property but in addition to being pretty tiny it was a round circle. It struck me more as an area to longe horses rather than attempt dressage workouts.
I stared at it while pondering a year without defined corners or long diagonal lines to practice trot extensions. Yet, without clear answers for how we could fare as a dressage business without a proper arena, I leapt with faith in to this facility. That initial trial year flew by, became two, and then what I’m hoping is permanent residence. Two things happened when I moved in to our lovely serene facility in Larkin Valley that has led to this hope. First, the horses became happier and healthier than ever. Second, I thrived as a dressage trainer without a dressage arena. This absence, and its unexpected benefits, has sharpened my daily focus, allowed me to fully embrace cross-training, and opened my eyes to some new ideas along the way. It’s these ideas I want to share here since I know many of you readers have also creatively overcome challenges to training environments.
First, as I became more creative using any available area (field, driveway, paddock) for schooling, I got a while lot more at ease with working with unseasoned horses outside the arena. This in turn helped me convey a better sense of confidence to them. During the previous years when I spent an intensive amount of time in the arena, I grew a little apprehensive of all the distractions and excitement outside the fenced world. That of course perpetuated me spending more and more time in the arena and less outside. Now as I viewed our entire property, not just the tiny round ring, as one big schooling area, these boundaries between the safe confines of arena and the world outside dissolved.
Next, I tractored up a 400-meter track in our front pasture. The footing is not perfect, but suitable enough for moving the horses out at speed. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with riding on that track. My dressage horses enjoyed gallops and long forward stretches of trot. Pretty soon, I realized that they were staying fresher and energetic even during hard work weeks. In dressage it can be tempting to go in the arena every day to fiddle around trying to perfect one or another skill. Between not having a formal arena, and now enjoying so much freedom of movement on the track, I was avoiding the repetitive schooling that dulls many horses. With my assorted schooling areas including trails, we were living and breathing my fondness for cross-training and for utilizing varied footing surfaces.
Another unanticipated outcome of being a dressage trainer with no arena has been entering a tight-knit horse community. My neighbor down the block allows me to ride over and use his big beautiful arena when I wish, which involves a brief warm-up jaunt down the road while planning my schooling session. Not only do I enjoy Bobby’s groomed arena, but I also savor the feeling of being connected to a wider horse community than just my own barn and always thinking about how we can help each other out. After all, our industry is more sustainable and healthier for this kind of teamwork.
And, lastly, being without a formal arena forces me to stay laser focused in my training. For instance, when I enter our small round ring with a plan to work on something specific, I get right to it and abide by a cut-off time which is usually 30 minutes. I refuse to drill horses around and around on circles or in small areas, so I give myself a time limit for each day’s formal schooling, after which I’ll ride elsewhere on the property for additional exercise but not for drilling or tinkering around with dressage maneuvers.
My horses’ training has progressed at a pleasing rate, which shows me all those years of fixated schooling for hours at a time inside an arena could have been trimmed to save the horse from repetitive movement. So, how about you? I’m interested to hear what kinds of insights you may have had in regards to your schooling environments as dictated by weather, facility limitations, or anything else. Perhaps you have experienced similar insights? Or maybe you have additional ones to share?
Dressage in Lightness: a frog in the pan?
One story told often during my early dressage education stuck with me partly because it was amusing but also because it became a cornerstone. And lately with observations of modern dressage, it has become a refuge. As the tale went, an older gentleman who was quite a master of dressage liked to show how light his horse’s rein contact was. To demonstrate (and –who knows–probably to show off to friends) he would buckle the ends of his reins behind the buttons of his vest and proceed to ride several dressage movements hands-free.
I learned to ride with my instructors reminding me of this ideal, wondering if I would ever embody this image as eccentric as it seemed. Aboard my wiley pony Sheba, it felt like it would take a lifetime. My feisty mare would have ripped off every button on my vest had I attempted such a thing. Nonetheless, this lightness of contact became an ideal illustrated by stories about and writing by other dressage masters. A rider’s reins should never hold pounds of weight. Even as a kid with unsuccessful achievement of the goal, I understood this to be an inarguable cornerstone of dressage.
Much as I love the vest button story, it has been eclipsed lately by the parable of the frog in the pan. This is the premise that if a live frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out. But if it is placed in cold water that is then brought to a boil slowly, the frog will not perceive the changes and will be cooked to death. It illustrates how things can change permanently at an imperceptible rate.
It seems to me that we dressage riders have gradually accepted the disappearance of achieving lightness. Several years ago, I audited a clinician who taught the necessity of a brief period around Fourth Level during which the horse makes a heavier contact while he is sorting out the demands for increased impulsion. But that phase should definitely end within a few months, she said.
I was not entirely sure I believed there should be ANY phase of heaviness (were we not always striving to help our horses move with lightness and ease?), but I was willing to at least consider the clinician’s point for a moment. At a recent clinic, however, I could not allow so much. As I watched the satisfied clinician and riders, many who appeared to hold ten pounds on each rein, I could only think that some of our classical ideals have been excused so often that they have disappeared. Lightness became the frog in the pan. We have a new norm.
The horses I watched were indeed talented, fancy, exquisite in many ways. They were all FEI horses working on skills like tempi changes and refining their half-passes, which were already pretty dramatic. They displayed confidence in their riders. But what about lightness? As the horses criss-crossed the arena, their neck muscles bulging against the reins, their mouths gaped open, a few ground their teeth. Riders’ arms became sweaty with effort. Some of the riders acknowledged the heaviness, others seemed to not care. Truthfully, I doubt the excessive rein contact affected their scores at dressage competitions. But what I found most peculiar was that the clinician never mentioned the rein tension, the horses pulling against the bit.
I left the clinic disheartened, but mostly perplexed. How and when did this new norm establish itself? Was I too keen on keeping alive my childhood stories of classical masters with vest buttons to see how irrevocably dressage ideals were shifting around me? I was puzzled whether the instructor kept quiet because 1.) he genuinely did not notice or care, or 2.) he cared deeply, but did not want to ruffle any feathers. I thought of my own students, and how it becomes difficult to instill in them the values of lightness when everyone around them is gripped on to the reins as if being towed by the horse’s mouth.
To be clear, it is not my intent to whine or lament or point fingers. I bring up my concern for the new norm because I have faith. I have faith in us riders to pedal the norm backwards, back to training that creates a horse moving with such balance and symmetry that he does not lean against the reins. I have faith that we can restore the crumbly cornerstone of our sport so that we do not even tolerate a “phase” of heaviness.
Sure, I’ll concede that this task can require obsessive perseverance, skill, and resilience. But it’s the right thing for the horse’s body. It’s the right thing for our sport. Let’s take the frog out of the pan while we can. Let’s ride like our buttons demand it. Who’s with me?