Wednesday, September 5, 2018

“YOU MUST FEEL EXTENSION IN THE COLLECTION, AND, COLLECTION IN THE EXTENSION”~Robert Dover



This article is the sixth and final article in a series that has served to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. The tiers are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams
The USDF Training Pyramid defines Collection as follows: “COLLECTION (Increased ENGAGEMENT, LIGHTNESS of the Forehand, SELF-CARRIAGE) The horse shows collection when he lowers and engages his hindquarters– shortening and narrowing his base of support, resulting in lightness and mobility of the forehand. Because the center of mass is shifted backward, the forehand is lightened and elevated; the horse feels more ‘uphill’. The horse’s neck is raised and arched and the whole top line is stretched. He shows shorter, but powerful, cadenced, steps and strides. Elevation must be the result of, and relative to, the lowering of the hindquarters. This is called ‘Relative Elevation’. It indicates a training problem if the horse raises his neck without displacement of his center of mass to the rear. This is called ‘Absolute Elevation’ and can, if pervasive, adversely affect the horse’s health and his way of going. Collection with Relative Elevation will enhance the horse’s self-carriage, so that he can be ridden almost entirely off the seat, and the aids of the legs and especially those of the hands can become very light.”
Here we enter into dicey territory. Ask a million riders what collection is, and, you may get a million different answers, particularly if they do not hail from a Classical Dressage background. The USDF definition is clear, however. In order for collection to exist, there must be balance. It must be RELATIVE TO the degree of lowering and engagement of the hindquarters. It is hard to see. Judges and trainers(trainer meaning anyone who sits on the back of a horse and attempts to proceed through the levels-not necessarily a professional) must work very hard to develop their eye. It is hard to develop. It takes longer. It probably means lower scores as it is developing. It is much easier to see elaborate articulation of the joints. It is much easier to see a high poll. It takes time, education, and discipline to discern the difference when a horse instead bears more weight on his hindquarters in the stance phase, narrowing his base of support and shifting his center of gravity more onto the hindlegs. This causes the muscles of the belly area and the thoracic sling to contract, thereby lifting the topline. The poll then becomes the highest point as a matter of training, strength, fitness and ultimately engagement. If this is being done correctly, day in and day out, a horse’s entire musculature will reflect that. He will have rounded, peach-shaped buttocks. The long back muscles, which lie under and behind the saddle, and the trapezius muscles which lie right behind the wither, will grow and create a lifted look to the back. The muscles along the top of the horse’s neck will also grow, vs. the muscles on the underside of the neck. The throatlatch area may even become more defined, and the jugular groove area may become more defined. While a horse’s innate conformation will play a role in how much difference can be made to the musculature, it nevertheless should reflect good training.
If it takes so much longer to develop relative elevation as opposed to absolute elevation, why then is it important that collection be developed in relation to the engagement of the hindquarters? Why take the time? The main reason is to improve the horse’s physical longevity and comfort. I recommend everyone do an internet search of a horse’s spinal processes. If you study the way a horse’s spine works, it serves to illustrate why it is so important that a horse learn to open his topline and REACH for the bit. Teaching a horse to continue to reach for the bit even as he closes his frame takes much longer than simply shortening the reins and driving strongly. When the horse stretches open through his topline, the spinal processes separate, allowing them to work in freedom with far less chance of them rubbing, which would create inflammation and joint damage. It also allows a horse to engage all the lifting muscles in his body, which allows him to use his muscles vs. only the joints, ligaments and tendons in his legs to propel himself over the ground. The whole body works. When the whole body is working in harmony, the horse becomes much easier to influence from very small aids on the part of the rider, emanating primarily from the seat. Because his balance and center of gravity have shifted towards the hindquarters, he becomes more elevated from the shoulder and will feel much taller. Ridden this way consistently, he may actually appear to GROW taller due to the development of the topline muscles as described in the previous paragraph.
How do we determine if a horse is being ridden in relative elevation/correct collection, vs. absolute elevation/false collection? There are visual cues. It takes training the eye to see it in real time by studying photographs and video in slow motion and/or with repeated pausing of the video to check each moment in the stride. Once you can see it this way, you begin to develop the ability to see it in real time. It is not easy to learn to do, because even judges who have been trained and have years of experience will miss it, often rewarding the high poll and extravagant movement over the horse whose movement is perhaps less extravagant, but, much more balanced and harmonious. It is a task worthy of a lifetime of study, because if you are serious about dressage, even if only to achieve harmony and balance with your horse and not necessarily to compete at Grand Prix, then you will want to teach your horse to balance himself onto the hindquarters and learn not to “prop” with the front legs. The horse already naturally carries his balance more to the forehand at liberty, but when you add the weight of a rider to that horse, and we sit right behind the shoulder, you can see why it becomes very important to help the horse learn to better distribute his-and your-weight more evenly over all four legs.
Here is a super article that discusses the issue of Relative vs. Absolute collection in depth. Realize it is as much an opinion article as it is an educational article, nevertheless the illustrations offered are very informative. http://www.sustainabledressage.net/collection/false_collection.php
Below are two photos of the same horse, in the same photo session, taken probably less than a minute apart. This is passage. At first glance, the first photo appears much more spectacular. It is a fairly good moment and it does appear that the front end is very lifted. However if you then look at the next photo, you can see that the tension is now gone, as evidenced by the naturally hanging tail and the nose now clearly in front of the vertical. The horse suddenly appears shorter behind the saddle, and while both photos demonstrate the horse’s willingness to engage behind with powerfully coiled hind legs, the second photo clearly shows more correct loading of the stance hind leg. Do not be fooled by extravagant movement. Often the more expressive the movement, the more tension involved. With time and strength, the outline of the same horse in the second photo will serve to more correctly develop her topline and ultimately the expressiveness of a much more correct passage. Photo credit goes to Robert Schmidt of utahlens.com
 

If you think that this article does not apply to you because you are riding at Training level and only just schooling First level, think again. What you need to realize is that the best way to identify real collection is when the horse is “let out” into medium or extended trot. The possibility for this is already being developed at First level, where the Purpose of the level is defined as: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit.”

Thrust is what causes the horse to cover more ground, from the hind leg toward the front leg, as opposed to a horse that pulls itself along with reaching front legs and trailing hind legs. Upon moving to Second level, we read the following Purpose: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having achieved the thrust required in First Level, now accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection); moves with an uphill tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage is required than at First Level.” Notice that the acceptance of weight on the hindquarters(collection) is EVIDENCED BY the uphill tendency in the medium gaits.

Below is a photo of a First level horse in a trot lengthening. The diagonal pair of legs are exactly parallel. His nose points exactly where his front foot is pointing. His throat latch his open. His shoulder even appears higher than his hip. While uphill balance is not a requirement at First level, since this IS First level test 3, it is nice to see that uphill tendency even in this lengthening. For top scores at this test, a judge will want to see that the horse looks as though he is prepared to move on to Second level. Photo credit goes to Terri Miller. 

On the other hand, here is a photo of a horse in working trot without that same degree of engagement. There are some things to like about this moment, however, this horse is not being asked to work in a way that will teach her to carry more weight on her hindquarters. It is okay at Training level, but she will need to learn to reach more underneath my seat with her hind leg in the swing phase, so that the hind leg in the stance phase is required to bend its joints more, thus allowing an overall better balance on the way to the development of collection. You can see by this illustration that how you ride your horse at Training level will set him up for correct collection in the future. If I were to ask this horse to lengthen stride with this much lack of engagement in the working trot, the strides would likely quicken rather than lengthen due to the balance already being on the forehand. It is thus in the extension that we find the proof of collection.

I hope this series of articles has been helpful. Recognize your place in the journey. Self examination is important for growth. We all make mistakes, but it is important to learn from them. Luckily for us, horses are very forgiving and so long as there is a steady supply of hay and carrots, they will usually suffer our ineptitudes with dignity and grace.
I dedicate this article to Charisma, the one noble soul who set me on this journey and allowed me to become a better person and rider while keeping me safe in spite of myself. To her I owe a debt I can never repay.




Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ride Your Horse Calm, Forward, and Make Him Straight


This article is the fifth in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. The tiers are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams
The USDF Training Pyramid defines Straightness(Improved Alignment and Balance) as follows: “A horse is said to be straight when the footfalls of the forehand and the hindquarters are appropriately aligned on straight and curved lines and when his longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track on which he is ridden. By nature every horse is crooked, hollow on one side and stiff on his other side, thereby using one side of his body somewhat differently from the other. This also causes uneven contact in the reins. Appropriate gymnastic exercises develop the horse’s symmetry. This allows him to engage both hind legs evenly and prepares him for collection. This process improves the lateral as well as the longitudinal balance of the horse.”  Notice the term “longitudinal axis”-this means from poll to tail along the horse’s spine. Also notice the term “alignment”-it is exactly like the alignment in your vehicle. If the left front tire turns out and the left rear tire turns in, your tires are going to wear unevenly and your ride will be less than smooth. It is exactly the same for the horse’s alignment. All four legs must travel along the same axis, not deviating sideways. Now read the Purpose as stated at the top of all Second level tests: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having achieved the thrust required in First Level, now accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection); moves with an uphill tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage is required than at First Level.”
It is important for the reader to realize that just because straightness is not mentioned in the Purpose of the tests at Training level and First level, does not mean that we should not already be looking for a degree of straightness right from the beginning. Read through the Directive Ideas for the movements in Training level test 1. Over the course of thirteen movements, “straightness” is mentioned seven times. Straightness is furthermore mentioned under the Submission section of the Collective marks at the end of each test. At its most basic level, straightness simply means that when travelling on a straight line, your horse must actually travel on a straight line. This is easier said than done! To further complicate matters, not only must your horse walk, trot, or canter on a straight line, but, his shoulders and hind legs must track straight. There should not be a bulge in the shoulder or a drift of the haunches. Now add to the equation the demand for turns onto and off of the centerline, twenty meter circles, transitions…all the while the horse has to stay exactly on the prescribed line of travel, and keep all his body parts on that track. This is very hard to do, mostly because horses are born crooked. But, here is where the rider comes into play as well. Humans are born crooked too. If the rider is unaware of her own crookedness, it is very likely she will be equally unaware of her horse’s crookedness. 
As a horse proceeds up the levels, his capacity for straightness must improve. But straightness begins at the beginning, from the first time he is lunged and the first time he is ridden. If the horse is unable to describe reasonably symmetrical circles around his lunger without a rider on his back, it is a sure bet that once mounted, the added weight and crookedness of the rider will only compound that lack of symmetry and alignment. As the horse progresses in his training, the rider has to assess from the first ride, and from the first minutes of every ride thereafter, whether the horse takes a symmetrical amount of contact on each side of the bit. This high degree of attentiveness to the early training rarely happens, and so we are frequently faced with having to address it once the horse has been under saddle for a period of time. This is the boat most of us are in. There aren’t that many Charlotte DuJardin’s out there, so even accomplished riders make mistakes or take shortcuts in the early training. Even at Training level, we have to start assessing whether or not we can ride our horses calmly forward with a level-appropriate degree of straightness.
I promised to link the layers of the Pyramid. While Straightness is near the top of the Pyramid, just before Collection, it can easily be assessed at the previous layers. If a horse is not travelling in a reasonable state of alignment right from the beginning, it will reveal itself in a variety of ways. The rhythm may be slightly marred, often noticeable at the canter when the stiff, crooked horse lands too soon with the leading front leg, causing the canter to appear lateral. The tempo will often vary, particularly from one track to the other. Some horses “run away” on their stiffer side, while others get “sticky” on their stiff side. The connection will be too strong on one rein and not secure enough on the other rein. Impulsion will suffer if one hind leg is habitually stepping to the outside of the center of mass, as will uphill balance-a hallmark of Collection. These issues can easily be categorized under the Relaxation with Elasticity and Suppleness portion of the Pyramid due to the fact that they are addressed by means of various suppling exercises, but think of Suppleness and Straightness as being two sides of the same coin. No part of the Pyramid can really be separated from the others or worked in exclusion of the others. It is just a matter of degrees. I personally feel that ALL layers of the Pyramid should be present in every horse at every level and that the only thing that changes is the degree of expectations for the quality that will be exhibited. This mindset plays homage to the often-heard debate of whether Straightness should in fact be placed ahead of Relaxation/Suppleness on the Pyramid. It isn’t, in my mind, a matter of one before the other, but rather, a matter of both developing together. Anyone with experience in Natural Horsemanship will tell you that if the horse’s body is comfortably aligned and able to move in a balanced way, that will go a long way toward improving his mental relaxation. I cannot tell you how many horses I have taken in as reschool projects who were so completely crooked within their bodies and in their way of going that they had become very nervous and difficult under saddle. Simply addressing the extreme lack of symmetry, balance and alignment did wonders for the Relaxation of these horses. Horses do not like to feel out of balance as it impedes their ability to protect themselves.
With all the above in mind, how do we set about developing straightness in our horses? I will remind the reader of the definition of Straightness, and reference the second half of it directly here: Appropriate gymnastic exercises develop the horse’s symmetry. This allows him to engage both hind legs evenly and prepares him for collection. This process improves the lateral as well as the longitudinal balance of the horse.”  Key to this is the word “appropriate”, meaning, appropriate to the horse’s level of training and the rider’s level of experience.  It all starts with the lowly twenty meter circle. Can you ride a perfectly round circle? The old masters would hand rake the ménage before riding in order to determine if their circles were accurate. I recommend doing this sometime. Riding a correctly shaped circle, versus an oval, an egg, or even a potato chip as one former student described her attempts at a circle, is not easy. There will be many potato chips on the road to the perfect circle. I teach students how to do it by first teaching them the geometry of the arena, and then, setting up guide cones. Cones are a rider’s best friend. I use them when training young horses too, not just for the new riders. They are not expensive, and are incredibly useful all the way up the levels. I have used them for developing turns on the haunches, turns on the forehand, and even the pirouette canter. Besides the twenty meter circle, the other critical figures for developing a horse’s straightness at Training level are changing rein across the diagonal, riding the centerline, and staying the same distance from the rail the entire length of the rail. If a horse is not reasonably straight, staying the same distance from the rail for a full sixty meters is nearly impossible. As riders become more skilled and horses more educated to the aids, the leg yield becomes a very valuable tool. While a leg yield technically falls under the heading of a suppling exercise, I would like to point out a critical piece of the straightness equation here. How many leg yields have you witnessed that drift sideways with the horse’s shoulders dragging the rest of the train lazily behind? When riders get back their score sheets and they read “haunches trail” with the commensurate low score, they generally then proceed to use more leg in a vain attempt to get the hind legs to cross, and then wonder why their horses just run faster instead of crossing more. Been there, done that. But think about the leg yield this way. Your horse’s body might be two or three feet wide in total. If you start your  leg yield with the shoulders already bulging a foot in distance to the outside, now suddenly the diagonal hind leg has to go a third to twice the distance as the front leg in order for your horse’s body to remain parallel to the long side. If the rider instead pays attention to where the shoulders are before starting the leg yield, the hind leg will not have to travel nearly as far in order to connect to the outside rein, which is the whole purpose of a leg yield: to develop inside leg to outside rein connection. This one small attention to the detail of Straightness appropriate to the level on the part of the rider will make the horse’s job infinitely easier and leg yields will require little to no leg. A simple shift in the rider’s weight will make it happen. To continue with the concept of level-appropriate gymnastic exercises, shoulder in becomes the mother of gymnastic exercises. It’s younger cousin, shoulder fore, should be a state of daily ridden existence for horses as soon as they are able to understand the concept of inside leg to outside rein. Ultimately the haunches have to be controlled as well, and this is where the more difficult gymnastic exercises of travers, renvers, turns on the haunches and half pass come into play. The more correctly the rider can bend her horse and connect her horse, the easier it becomes to straighten her horse in the truest sense of the concept. Once the shoulders can be correctly placed in front of the inside hind leg, a horse is well on its way to being sufficiently strengthened, engaged, and balanced for more advanced collected work.
Straight Rider, Straight Horse, Photo Credit Blesk Photography

What Does Impulsion Look Like?



This article is the fourth in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. The tiers are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams
The USDF Training Pyramid defines Impulsion(Increased Energy and Thrust) as follows: “Impulsion is the term used to describe the transmission of an eager and energetic, yet controlled, propulsive thrust generated from the hindquarters into the athletic movement of the horse. Impulsion is associated with a phase of suspension such as exists in trot and canter, but not in walk. It is measured by the horse’s desire to carry himself forward, the elasticity of his steps, suppleness of his back, and engagement of his hindquarters. Impulsion is necessary to develop medium paces, and later on, with the added ingredient of collection, extended paces.”
If you think you should stop reading now because that description included a discussion of the medium, collected and extended paces, and you are “only” working at Training level, then you will be missing out on the big picture and ultimately slowing your progress. Here’s why: Like Rhythm, Impulsion is included as one of the Collective Marks in the General Impressions section of all Dressage tests. Rhythm is addressed directly in the Gaits score with the term “Regularity”, and Impulsion itself is a coefficient. All the other tiers of the Training Pyramid are addressed in a more holistic manner throughout the tests in the Directive Ideas. With the above description of Impulsion in mind, here is what the USEF Tests say with regard to Impulsion in the Collective Marks: “IMPULSION (Desire to move forward, elasticity of the steps, suppleness of the back, engagement of the hindquarters)”
Even at Training level, we must think of the future. Besides, if you are showing Training level, you should ideally be schooling First level at home, and even dipping your toes into the shallow end of Second level with such helpful lateral work as shoulder in. With that in mind, now read the Purpose as stated at the top of the First Level tests: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit.” The word “thrust” is the key here. First level is the first time the horse is expected to demonstrate the thrust necessary to produce lengthenings of stride, a consistently level balance, and, more consistent contact. Since thrust is a key component of Impulsion, it is therefore a desirable quality at every level. However, in my experience, terms such as Impulsion and Engagement are widely misunderstood by most riders until they have achieved a number of years of experience developing horses up the levels. I will attempt to clarify it in a written format, with the caveat that I feel the only way to really understand is to first be able to identify it visually in the ridden horse, and, then, to feel it under saddle.
Let us first say what Impulsion is NOT. Impulsion is not speed. Impulsion is not explosiveness. Impulsion is not slow, either. It is a well-known Dressage cliché: Speed is the enemy of impulsion. Impulsion is that happy place of a horse that is very easy to ride forward or sideways with minimal driving aids. The horse remains focused on his rider, staying active with the hind legs which work towards the center of the horse’s mass, so as to maintain enough balance to demonstrate the requirements of the level at which horse and rider are working. In other words, the horse is using his propulsive power in such a way as to produce a harmonious performance. It is often said that the more impulsion one has, the more submission one needs. I love this statement, and, do agree with it. However, we as riders have to respect who our horses are. Every horse comes with his own degree of innate power. On a certain level, too much submission will inhibit the impulsion, and riders who are over-horsed will have no choice but to become guilty of inhibiting that impulsion just because they want to feel safe. There is NO shame in this whatsoever, but it is a reality that must be respected by all involved in the team and we as riders have to be fair in our expectations of our horses. We can’t kick and hold, it just isn’t fair. The kind horse will shut down and tune out, and the challenging horse will become naughty and unpredictable. We can only ask for what we can tolerate.
When I think of impulsion, I think of it in all caps: IMPULSION. The degree of impulsion needed as one proceeds up the levels increases dramatically, and it is very hard to add it back once it has been taken away. It is therefore very important, if the rider and/or the horse have plans to work at higher levels later on, that the horse be ridden by someone early in its career who will not be afraid to feel “THE POWER”. A Grand Prix horse really needs to have a great deal of desire to go forward that is not generated by the rider. This kind of self-going power can be intimidating to ride, so it is understandable that a greener, less “broke” horse might be ridden well under power in the interest of safety. That said, the DESIRE to go forward should never be blocked by the rider, if the advanced levels are a goal for the horse. There will eventually come a time when the rider must trust(allow), and, the horse must….GO.
When watching horses work, one can look for physical signs of a high degree of impulsion by looking for the following characteristics. First, a horse with good to excellent impulsion will appear to work mostly on his own, with the rider playing the role of guide. Second, the horse’s hind legs will take the same length of stride forward underneath the center of mass, which will allow the horse to reach evenly into both reins with no twist in the neck or tilt in the poll. Third, in the stance phase, the hind leg will work more from the point of the hip forward, rather than coming too far behind the vertical before pushing off. It will also flex well in the hock and stifle during this stance phase, vs. stiffening(this is what we mean by “engagement”). It is this engagement that gives the horse the ability to work in a better balance, less and less on the forehand as the training progresses. Fourth, there will be a more marked moment of suspension, producing what we call “cadence”. Lastly, the back will appear to lift the entire front end(“relative elevation”), and the muscles will appear filled and swinging.
When riding your horse, you can look for the feeling created by improved impulsion. If your horse feels as though he is taking you around the arena and is more or less maintaining the tempo and pace without much direction from you, you are well on your way. This is not as easy a feeling to produce as one may think. Horses will fail to maintain the tempo and pace for a number of reasons: lack of balance on the part of the rider who will therefore block the horse with her hands and/or gripping legs; lack of symmetry in the ability to bend left vs. right(if your horse speeds up on one track and slows down on the other, that is a sure sign he is not yet symmetrical in his bending); lack of evenness in the rein contact(this is a chicken and egg situation-is the uneven contact due to a mouth/hand/rein issue, or, is it due to an uneven hind leg? The rider, with help from a more experienced trainer, must determine this early and often.); laziness on the part of the horse; and last but not least, timidity on the part of the rider.
This is a theory article and not a training article but I will diverge for a moment to address a common issue. Rider fear is one of the biggest inhibitions horses face when developing the impulsion necessary to advance through the levels. It can be very intimidating to ride a big warmblood at his full power. It is important to assess realistically your tolerance for impulsion as a rider, and then learn to be consistent and fair in your expectations of your horse, based on your tolerance. You can most definitely improve your tolerance for that impulsion with careful “guts-building” work. This is done in a safe and familiar atmosphere, by establishing your baseline impulsion for the ride. Then, if only for a few strides at a time, push your hands a little bit forward, sit a little more up, tick your horse a couple times with the lower leg and just “let” him go on his own. It is a little bit like learning to ride a bicycle without holding onto the handle bars. Just try for a few strides at a time. You will find that this will not only improve your tolerance for impulsion, but it will also improve your horse’s forward desire, your balance as a rider, and the overall connection. There are other ways to improve your tolerance for the power needed to improve your horse’s impulsion. Make sure you are as safe as possible, and, work with your trainer to come up with a plan to develop your boldness as a rider in a systematic way. I like to ride out on the trail and school there, but, not everyone has access to trails or a trail-safe horse. Other ways to achieve similar results might be to do more canter work early on in the ride so as to free up your horse’s back; to do more canter work in general; to use cavaletti work(Jan Lawrence wrote a fantastic series of articles for the Newsletter last year); and to view bad weather days or barn distractions as opportunities to learn to ride your horse in more exciting situations that naturally help to improve their energy level. Again, safety is paramount, so it is important for you to work with your team to create a systematic plan to develop your confidence that works for you and your horse. Honor your place in the journey.
Even though impulsion is scored individually in the Collective Marks at the end of your test, it is nevertheless an integral part of the Directive Ideas for each individual movement within the tests. A high degree of impulsion will just make everything that much better. It is that little something extra which gives all the movements sparkle. A technically correct, three track shoulder in with insufficient impulsion will result in a 6 or 6.5 at best. But if the horse “powers down” with the hind leg causing him to lift the back and shoulders, takes springy steps that reach well forward, and reaches boldly toward the bridle with the neck, that same technically correct shoulder in now becomes an 8.5 or more. Even though elasticity is often thought of as more of an innate trait in a horse, it can absolutely be developed and improved. It is developed when the horse learns to carry himself boldly forward day in and day out, every stride, every ride. Even if your horse was born a small mover, you can absolutely develop the impulsion and elasticity with good riding and training. One of the best ways I know to improve a horse’s impulsion in a positive way is to take your training to the trail. I frequently school higher collection while on the trail, because then my horses want to go, and I can just sit in and half halt to produce more elasticity in the steps while the horse keeps the pedal to the metal-so to speak-all on his own. Below is a photo by Robert Schmidt of utahlens.com, demonstrating this. This horse came to me with a very well developed piaffe, but the passage lacked cadence, lift and scope. By working it on the trail, I was able to take her added freedom into the work, developing the passage into something to really write home about and make it match her beautiful piaffe. It is the classic example of that cliché that we need to feel collection in the extension, and, extension in the collection. She wanted to extend here(you can see it in the coiled haunches!), and all I had to do then was sit in more and hold her on my seat.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

How are Connection, Rein Length, and Weight in the Reins Related?

This article is the third in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. The tiers are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams
Connection(Acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids) is the third tier in the USDF Training Pyramid. The explanation further illuminates: “The energy generated in the hindquarters by the driving aids must flow through the whole body of the horse and is received in the rider’s hands. The contact to the bit must be elastic and adjustable, creating fluent interaction between horse and rider with appropriate changes in the horse’s outline. Acceptance of the bit is identified by the horse quietly chewing the bit. This activates the salivary glands so that the mouth becomes moist and production of saliva is evident. The softly moving tongue should remain under the bit. The quality of the connection and balance can be evaluated by ‘üeberstreichen’, releasing the reins (to demonstrate self carriage) or by allowing the horse to chew the reins out of the hands (to demonstrate relaxation).”

This article will be on the longer side, simply because the concept of connection is by nature very specific to each individual horse and rider, and is furthermore a dynamic state, changing within the ride, from day to day and from year to year.  This makes it a very nebulous concept that is difficult to explain. It has to be felt. This is why robots will never be able to judge dressage, and is also why dressage judges trained within the same system will have differences in opinion. It is the point from which all of the advanced work develops, thus a clear understanding on the part of the horse and the rider is critical.
Perhaps one of the most concerning topics for newer dressage riders is rein length, and, the amount of pressure or weight in the contact. It is a subject often discussed. The most difficult concept for riders to learn at the basic levels is how contact(the amount and the evenness of the pressure in the rein) relates to connection(the ability to influence the back and hind end and stay "on the aids" aka "throughness"). Many riders want me to tell them which notch on their handstop reins is the correct notch. Unfortunately, my answer always has to be "it depends". If there was a set formula for these kinds of things, dressage would not be so difficult. It would boil down strictly to science, vs. the art that it actually is. Art is a reflection of emotion, feel, or intuition. However, good art is always based in science and therefore the two are not wholly independent. An artist who does not have the technical skill to use her tools correctly cannot convey her vision, no matter how creative.

So how long should a dressage rider's reins be? Furthermore, how much pressure should the rider feel in her hands? It depends. The first thing riders must understand is that the contact belongs to the horse, and connection is a gift the rider earns. It is the job of the rider to ensure that the horse is first traveling with a good forward thought, with correct rhythm in all three paces. The horse should be supple enough to bend somewhat symmetrically left and right, all with a relaxed state of mind and minimal negative emotional or physical tension. Once this is established, the length of the rein and the weight of the contact depend on a number of factors: 1. The ability of the horse to engage the hind leg, whether affected by level of training or conformation. A long backed, downhill horse will obviously be less able to engage the hind leg and shift its balance to load the hind end during the stance phase as compared to a horse that is shorter and more uphill. 2. The degree of lateral and longitudinal suppleness of the horse. 3. The lateral and longitudinal flexibility of the horse’s jaw and poll and the amount of space in the throatlatch area. 4. The sensitivity and/or stoicism of the horse. Iberian horses often prefer a lighter feel, whereas a more old-fashioned style Warmblood may prefer a much more solid feel. 5. The horse’s conformation in terms of neck shape, set and length. 6. The correctness of the rider’s seat and hands as well as the rider’s physical strength. This correctness goes directly to “tolerability” of the contact that the rider offers the horse. It goes without saying that the more correct the rider’s seat and hands are, the more tolerable the contact will be for the horse. 7. The stage of training of the horse. A green horse, be it a green Training level horse or a green Grand Prix level horse, may at times need more help balancing. The more confirmed the horse is at its level, the better able it is to hold the connection through the rider’s seat vs. relying on the support the bit creates. There are many more factors that could be mentioned here, but these are the most common.

Biomechanical studies have shown that most horses prefer a weight of roughly 2 lbs in each rein. This more or less answers the question of how much weight should be in the reins. But the nuance of the feel in that weight can vary greatly. Two pounds of dead weight with no adjustability will cause even the strongest rider’s fingers to fall asleep and shoulders to get sore. One can only imagine how the horse must feel in this scenario as well. On the other hand, a highly trained horse who is strengthened to full capacity and in complete balance and harmony may work with only the weight of the reins and still remain completely connected to his rider. Furthermore, a very powerful and big moving horse can offer a very elastic and malleable connection of five or more pounds, particularly in the extended paces or in the passage. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the rider to develop her seat and position to such a degree that the “feel” is not lost in the contact. A rider who falls behind the motion or stands in the stirrups will necessarily rely on the horse’s mouth for her balance, thus limiting the horse’s ability to use the contact to create an honest connection from the hind leg, through his back and into the rider’s hand.

As for rein length, again it depends. The horse who is properly connected from the hind leg, through its back and into the rider’s hand will fill up the length of the rein as it is lengthened gradually by the rider, stretching down and out. This is why the stretch down circle is such a fundamental part of the tests in Training and First level. There also used to be a canter stretch down at Second level, and conscientious riders will still check the horse’s willingness to stretch every single ride, at every pace. The difference between a beginning rider and a more educated rider is that a beginner will view that pesky trot stretch down circle in the Training and First level tests as a “movement” and not as a tool to gauge the honesty in the connection as the educated rider does. The horse lowers and stretches as the rider tactfully feeds out length, yet remains completely adjustable. Any horse can be taught to drop its head to the floor on cue, often seen when riders widen their hands or see saw the bit. That is not connection and will not develop the scope in the topline needed for advanced work.

Riders must realize that a long rein is not any more kind than a short rein, and quite often it can actually be less kind. If the reins are too long, and the horse is not properly connected, completely on the aids, and in full self-carriage, then by necessity the rider will only be able to make contact by pulling back. Using the hand in a backward fashion is a cardinal sin in development of a horse’s willingness to accept the bit. Recall my earlier statement that the contact belongs to the horse. The other major realization for riders concerning rein length is that in order for the contact to remain elastic, the length of the rein must be elastic, not static. This elasticity comes from the stability of the rider’s seat and position, and the ability to absorb the bounce in the elbows. The wrists must remain stable, but, the elbows must flow and follow, to eliminate any “snapping” of the reins. The rider must be able to adjust the rein length quickly and tactfully at any point throughout the ride, without disturbing the acceptance of the bit. Anyone with some climbing experience might relate to the following comparison. A rock climber always climbs on a rope that is dynamic. The rope has some stretch. The lead climber always has a very light but elastic connection to this rope, and it is the life-saving job of the belayer to maintain just enough connection with his leader to prevent a fall to the deck. If the lead climber were to fall, the elasticity in the rope would give slightly and thus absorb energy from the fall, preventing the climber or his belayer from being snapped in half upon making full contact with the rope. This system only works if there is not too much slack in the rope, nor too much tension which would prevent the leader from advancing upward. This is a life and death scenario, but nevertheless clearly emphasize the need for a proper understanding of connection. As it pertains to the feeling the horse encounters, if a rider does not have enough control over her position to maintain a light, elastic, reasonably steady connection with the horse’s mouth, the horse will feel that same “snapping” at every rise and fall of the stride. Place a bit over your shin and have a non-riding friend move the reins in various ways if you would like to understand how the unpredictability of an inelastic and unsteady elbow/hand/bit connection can cause you great distress. Such is the lot of the horse and it is important for every rider to work very hard to improve her position enough to offer a “tolerable” contact to her horse.

How does a rider determine whether or not the connection is good? Much of this depends on feel. The horse will feel easier to sit, even(especially) a big moving horse, because the connection from the hind leg to the hand creates a steady wave on which the rider can balance and follow. The sounds of the footfalls will diminish as the horse’s body and back absorb the concussion. The space behind the saddle will fill in as all of the muscles of the horse’s back fill and stretch in reaction to the lifted abdominal muscles. The horse may feel taller as the hind leg engages and bears more of the load. The legs will work in sync and there will be no roughness in the way each hoof impacts the ground. The rider will be able to open and close the horse’s frame-commensurate to his level of training-at will. The horse will go easily forward, and respond smoothly to the half halt. A rider who understands fully the concept of a quality connection also understands that you don’t teach a horse extended trot as though it is a movement. Extended trot develops naturally over time, with correct attention to the basic details of rhythm and all it encompasses; relaxation and all it encompasses; and the development of an even and committed acceptance of the bit by a horse that is genuinely on the aids and in front of the leg.

Connection is where the rubber meets the road in this discipline, and the quality of it can make or break a horse’s ability to progress through and beyond Second level, which is the foundation for all the advanced work. It also will make or break a rider’s ability to ride at an advanced level, because a horse that is well connected is easier to ride. Ask any Grand Prix rider, and they will tell you they spend the bulk of their rides developing the basics of Rhythm, Relaxation and Connection. They use the touchstone of Second level work to prepare their horse day in and day out. It behooves every rider and every horse to work every day toward an elastic, dynamic, mutual connection irrespective of competitive goals. Who doesn’t appreciate that feeling of oneness only achieved when horse and rider are genuinely connected?

The photos that follow will illustrate some points outlined in the article. I like to use photos of myself and my own horse for a more real world comparison, and also for copyright reasons.

Photo one illustrates a three year old horse showing at Training Level at his first show, in proper connection. Notice the parallelism of the diagonal pairs of legs, the slightly open throatlatch, and the reach through the entire topline towards the bit. The rider’s elbows are allowing forward, and the line from the elbow, through the forearm, the hand and to the bit is straight. The poll could be slightly higher, but this is a good moment in connection for a young horse. Photo credit Dow Williams
Photo two illustrates a Third level horse who has lost the commitment to the connection. At first glance, it’s quite a nice-looking moment, but on further examination you will see that he is not reaching out to the hand and has instead retracted his neck slightly. The rider’s hands are slightly above the line of connection. If the photo were taken from the other side, we would notice that the joints of the hind leg have not taken enough weight to sufficiently lift his entire mass into a more uphill, “out to the bridle” manner. This is a great example of an honestly working horse who is not quite yet strong enough to support his mass in more advanced work. It isn’t a terrible moment, but, little leaks sink big ships. Photo credit Andalusian World Cup

Bend: Is it the Origin of Self-Carriage?

This article is the second in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. They are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams


Bend: Is it the Origin of  Self-Carriage?

The USDF Training Pyramid lists Relaxation(with Elasticity and Suppleness) as the second tier of training, following Rhythm(with Energy and Tempo). The complete description of Relaxation goes on to state: “Relaxation refers to the horse’s mental state (calmness without anxiety or nervousness), as well as his physical state (the absence of negative muscular tension). Usually, the mental and physical states go hand in hand. The horse learns to accept the influence of the rider without becoming tense. He acquires positive muscle tone so that he moves with elasticity and a supple, swinging back, allowing the rider to bend him laterally as well as lengthen and shorten his frame.”
With the assumption that all readers agree about the importance of the mental state in the horse’s training, I will elaborate in this article on the last sentence, which refers directly to lateral and longitudinal suppleness. The lateral suppleness, and the horse’s acceptance of the rider’s bending aids, directly affect his longitudinal suppleness(the stretch through the topline). It is this suppleness that teaches the horse how to carry his body correctly on the line of travel so that he is ultimately able to carry himself in balance. The balance created in turn develops the horse’s self-carriage. How does bend influence balance? Can you have a well-balanced horse traveling with adequate engagement and self-carriage for the level, without correct bend? Take a look at the score sheet for nearly any Dressage test. Count how many times bend and balance, often together, are mentioned in the directive idea box for the movements. As an example, in the 2015 Third Level Test 3, bend or balance are mentioned seventeen times. Furthermore, the words “engagement” and/or “self-carriage” are mentioned seventeen times, again, often together. In a test which contains 24 scored movements, those four words are mentioned 34 times in the Directive Ideas. Engagement and self-carriage are inextricably linked to balance, and balance develops from sufficient and correctly executed bend, which becomes the framework for each of these other states of being. As they are all very closely linked concepts, none of them can exist in any degree of quality without the presence of the others. Balance, engagement and self-carriage develop naturally from correctly executed bend, step by step, ride by ride, year by year.
What do we mean when we use the term bend as it relates to riding? Bend, in simple terms, means that the horse’s body is shaped to match the line of travel. The degree of bend required is different for a green horse as opposed to a Grand Prix horse. The bend must not only be sufficient to match the line of travel, it must also be precisely executed in order to be of any use in creating the other states of being. There are many ways a horse can attempt to offer bend, but only one way is correct. Each body part, and each leg, must stay fully on the line of travel. This is not such an easy criteria to fulfill. Every horse, and every rider, is asymmetrical to some degree. We all have a stiff side, and, a dexterous side. We all have a hand or foot that is more agile, and, one that is stronger. Think about which hip you put your child on. Think about which foot you use to operate the pedals in your vehicle. The hip you put your child on is the strong hip. The foot you use to operate the pedals is the dexterous foot. I am betting that for most people reading this, those are not the same sides of the body, unless you have had some sort of injury that has forced you to change to the other side for carrying out these tasks. Your horse is no different. Watch him lower his head to eat hay off the ground in his stall. Which foot is forward, and which is back? Which front hoof has a tendency to get too much heel, and which one tends to get too much toe? The forward foot generally gets too much toe, and, the foot that is placed under the sternum usually gets too much heel. This asymmetry affects the way he moves. It is normal. It is the job of the rider to address her own asymmetry, as well as her horse’s asymmetry. It is a never-ending job and very few horses or riders are ever one hundred percent symmetrical. This is where correct bending under saddle becomes indispensable as a tool to develop balance, engagement and self-carriage. In order to bend correctly, BOTH of the horse’s shoulders must travel in such a way that both front legs reach freely forward towards the line of travel. The hind legs must do the same. Any minute deviation from the line of travel in any limb or section of the horse creates an automatic loss of correct bend, and therefore instantly reduces balance, preventing the horse from being able to fully engage and thus carry itself.
Riders must recognize that MORE bend is not necessarily the answer, nor is “more” necessarily what judges mean when they mention it on your score sheets. “More” cannot exist, if “correct” does not come first. Next time you hang out with your horse, observe him balancing himself in his natural state. For example, consider the simple act of biting a fly on his flank. Your horse balances himself by compressing the inside of his body and stretching the outside, pushing his shoulders and belly out as the head and hips come in. We as riders can use the horse’s innate sense of balance to our advantage, just by making this one observation. We can use this biomechanical reality of how a horse’s body functions to control him if he becomes unruly, by exaggerating the placement of the head and hips to the inside, in order to prevent him from bolting away from a scary object. But we can also use our knowledge of this tendency to fine tune that bend to such a degree that we create a very heightened state of balance that places those shoulders directly in front of the horse’s hind legs, its engine. Every time we place our horse in perfect bend, we require the horse to place slightly more weight on the hind leg that is to the inside of that bend. That creates strength in the glutes and hamstrings of that hind leg with repetition, no different than the human athlete who does squats to create more strength in the same muscles. This is why it is so important to change direction frequently. It is a known quantity that muscles get stronger from repeated cycles of stress and rest. The other thing that happens to that inside hind leg is that its joints must also take more weight, and flex more deeply. It is in this heightened state of flexion(“engagement”) that the power for extension is created. So long as the rider allows the horse to direct the energy created in movement away from the line of travel(i.e. a habitually bulging shoulder or hind leg that is always placed just to the inside-which not accidentally tend to go hand in hand), that energy is wasted because it is unable to be used for the purpose improving balance, engagement and self-carriage. Bend, properly employed, aligns the horse's body so that the energy created goes the right direction for our purposes. It takes a lot longer to fill forty 100 gallon water troughs if there are ten leaks in the hose than it does if the hose is solid and distributing the energy of the water flow directly to the intended line of travel-said water troughs.
Riders must recognize that it is their duty to notice every footfall, and further notice any time any part of the horse’s body leaves the line of travel. All the cogs in the wheel must stay in total alignment for maximum efficiency. The more a rider notices, the more times she can make adjustments to her horse’s alignment on that line of travel. It is vitally important at that point, once she has noticed, and made the correction, to then LET GO(“self-carriage”) to a certain degree(please don’t drop your horse on his head by abandoning your own self-carriage), to see how well the horse has understood. This letting go, this uberstreichen, is what allows the horse to learn how to carry himself in balance in the unnatural state of carrying a rider whose way of being (vertical) is completely opposite to the horse’s way of being(horizontal). Imagine carrying a backpack that lies perpendicular to your back and consider just how much that would affect your balance. Now imagine that backpack wiggling around with no control over its own balance, but then punishing you every time you lost yours while struggling underneath its ineptitude. We have to notice the horse’s failure to stay on the line of travel with each body part, and, show it the way. But, we also have to understand our own duty in affecting that very delicate balance, by being as impeccable with our own positional alignment as we expect our horses to be.
It might seem contradictory to consider bend in creating balance when one considers that we also have to ride on a straight line. It is easy enough to ride on a circle and get the horse to reach through his topline and remain in adequate balance. But the minute the horse is asked to leave the circle and carry on down the rail, riders have a very bad habit of forgetting to ride and letting the rail take over the job of directing her horse on the line of travel. Experienced riders always ride in shoulder-fore. It is a cliché in dressage, that a straight horse is ridden in shoulder-fore. But this “straightness” is achieved with-wait for it-BEND. Not much, mind you. But just enough. Just enough to require the horse to narrow his shoulders, and shift them inward so that they line up in front of the inside hind leg. In order for the horse to take this shape, he must, by sheer force of his biomechanics, displace his ribs ever so slightly away from his riders inside leg. This is the beginning of bend. It is this ability to keep the thought of bend even on a straight line that allows the more experienced rider to keep her horse better connected, aligned and balanced no matter where she is in the arena. This is why “Relaxation with Elasticity and Suppleness” comes before Straightness on the training scale. Consider the following excerpt from an article in the May 2005 issue of Dressage Today, written by Sandra Adair about a 2005 symposium conducted by the Houston Dressage Society, which featured Robert Dover. The author writes that Mr. Dover explained the basics as follows: “The driving aids-the seat(back, trunk, weight) and both legs-generate forward motion; the bending aids-both legs and the inside rein-work together to produce straightness; one regulating aid-the outside rein-helps the rider control the effects of the first two sets of aids, and, adjusts the rhythm, flexibility and ultimately the balance of the horse.” (I will point out that I do think the author meant tempo vs. rhythm.) Notice the part I highlight. The BENDING aids produce straightness.
The Dressage test writing committee is very careful to write the tests in such a way as to help the riders better train their horses. In every test, riders are given the opportunity to establish the bend and balance in the first two movements. Read every test, from Intro A through Second level. The second movement box in every one of those tests reads “C track right/left”. In the Directive Ideas box, in each of those tests, the very first thing mentioned is “bend and balance in turn”. It is the rider who asks her horse to turn directly off the line from her outside aids with no deviation outward, asking with her inside leg to stay upright as he wraps himself around that supporting leg to take the exact shape of the line of travel as he makes that turn, who is setting her horse up for the balance needed to progress from just started to Grand Prix in the least amount of time, with the most correct muscling. So many riders spend hours upon hours trying to get a better trot lengthening, but how many realize that it was in the turn through the corner that their horse was either prepared or unprepared to be engaged enough and balanced enough to comply with the request? The devil is in the details. The photo at the end of this article shows a centerline, turn, medium trot sequence that earned an 8 and a 7 in a Second level test. Photo credit goes to Pam Olsen, prophoto.bz. Notice the placement of the inside leg of the rider(myself), supporting the bend through the turn. For top scores, my horse could have been even more engaged behind, and his shoulders would have then been even more uphill, preventing his inside front leg from coming even slightly behind the vertical in the stance phase. I could have accomplished that by asking him to be even more correctly on the line of travel with his haunches with my outside lower leg, and, I could have kept my hips, shoulders and hands more level, preventing him from dropping his inside shoulder in spite of the good placement of my inside leg. The ever so slightly lower inside ear and my inside hand acting in a backward fashion are dead giveaways that his shoulders weren’t totally level in the turn. My trunk and seat could have done a better job backing up my correct inside leg.


My goal in writing this article is that I impress upon the reader the profound role correctly executed bend plays in the development of balance, engagement and self-carriage of the horse. The moral of the story is this: The next time you get back your Training level test, and the judge has commented on bend(listed nine times over the course of thirteen movements in 2015 Training Level test 3), I hope you will take the judge’s advice to heart. I hope you will really, truly, and deeply assess your understanding of just exactly how your horse is executing bend. Are you teaching your horse to bend in such a way that its balance improves? If so, then, engagement and self-carriage will most likely become happy by-products of this very basic directive. Dressage, correctly and thoughtfully practiced, is a wonderfully systematic way of developing a horse that allows him to learn everything in a gradual way, and therefore develop his strength in an equally gradual way. Riders will do themselves and their horses a huge favor to really understand the directive ideas as they relate to the Training Pyramid. This method of training we call dressage is what makes the plain horse beautiful, and, the talented horse reach its full potential.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Tempo Control: Is it the Origin of Connection and Collection?

This article is the first in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. They are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams

Tempo Control: Is it the Origin of Connection and Collection?
The first tier of the USDF Training Pyramid is Rhythm(with Energy and Tempo). The description goes on to elaborate: “Rhythm is the term used for the characteristic sequence of footfalls and timing of a pure walk, pure trot, and pure canter. The rhythm should be expressed with energy and in a suitable and consistent tempo, with the horse remaining in the balance and self-carriage appropriate to its level of training.” At this point I will point out that there is a major difference between the terms “rhythm” and “tempo”. Rhythm is defined above. Tempo is the RATE OF REPETITION of said rhythm. The words are not interchangeable and should not be used as such.
The Purpose stated on the Training Level Tests reads: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit.” At its most fundamental level, Dressage training seeks to establish correct basics: the horse should have three clear gaits; he should accept his rider’s aids with calmness and confidence born of understanding; he should demonstrate freedom in his way of going; he should be balanced under his rider; and he should travel at a tempo that is sufficiently active and that remains steady. In examining Training Level Test 1, notice that “regularity and quality of (insert walk, trot or canter here)” is in EVERY SINGLE Directive Idea box. It is mentioned thirteen times in thirteen movements. While the “Gaits” score in the Collective Marks section is only a coefficient of 1, it is nonetheless factored into the score of each and every movement. This requirement holds true through Grand Prix.
Most horses seen in the Dressage ring today have reasonably clear and correct rhythm in all three gaits. By including “regularity” in the Directive Idea of each movement, today’s test writers have seen to that. Riders can’t really train correct rhythm into a horse, but, they can definitely train it OUT of the horse. That goes to Relaxation, and is a subject for a different article. What a rider CAN control with regard to her horse’s rhythm as it pertains to the Training Scale, is whether or not that distinctive footfall characteristic to each gait has sufficient energy, and, whether or not the tempo remains steady. It is this continuous, unimpeded flow of energy from the horse’s hind legs to the rider’s hand that creates the connection between the rider’s aids and the horses mind and body. Dressage is about movement. It is an athletic endeavor, an Olympic sport, and a discipline centuries old. It is at Training level that the young horse is educated to accept the rider’s driving, bending and balancing aids. It is truly the most important level, the platform from which springs all the beautiful movements we identify as “Dressage”.
A horse who moves freely forward, in a clear rhythm that has sufficient energy and balance is a thing of beauty. Horses like to move. It is up to the rider to teach him how to move in such a way that his gaits are enhanced, his balance improved, and his responses are instant. Stand ringside at the warmup arena at any dressage show, and observe how the horses move. Some are bold, active, and committed to the aids. Some are silly and inattentive. Some are hesitant, unsteady, and lacking in balance. Some are each of these at any given time. It is that steadiness of the tempo, the even push of each hind leg as the horse moves resolutely forward towards the bridle, or lack thereof, that will separate two otherwise equally talented horses. Any time a coach or rider concerns herself with where the horse’s head is before insisting that the horse’s tempo and energy become consistent is putting the cart in front of the horse. No amount of jiggling of the bit to create a false frame will teach a horse that his job is to keep the hind leg committed to stepping up to the hand at all times. But once the horse understands the level of energy required and willingly goes to the bridle, accepting it, the connection over the topline is simply the next step on the continuum. Connection is a gift the correctly ridden horse gives the rider, not something the rider demands. The “put your head down or you are going to the packers” mentality has no place in good training. It is this commitment to step into the rider’s hand, this establishment of a trusting connection, that is at the heart of collection. Horses will always come with different talents. Some find the extended paces easy. Some find the lateral work easy. Still others find the high collection easy. And then there are the rare horses that excel in all three areas and that is the stuff Olympic dreams are made of. However, it is the diligent rider who will take the time to solidify the basics on each horse, no matter his area of talent, that will have the most success with the widest range of horses. A horse who can piaffe, but cannot stay balanced enough in the canter to make even a single flying change, is not a Grand Prix horse. Some horses find learning the changes easy and will do them correctly no matter how poorly set up. Others will never make clean flying changes, no matter how many years they have been performing them, unless perfectly set up by the rider. But the problem’s root cause is a failure on the part of the horse to remain committed to stepping into the bridle, and/or a failure on the part of the rider to expect it. It is at the essence of everything we do from the beginning ride to developing the one tempi’s. The conversation goes something like this: Rider says, “horse, here are my driving aids.”; Horse replies, “here is my commitment to step forward towards the bridle.” ; Rider reciprocates, “here is your release, now please carry yourself.” Horse replies, “I can carry myself for this long today.”; Rider acknowledges, “Thank you for your effort today.” This conversation takes place continuously throughout every ride, every day, for the horse’s entire career.
The rider has to take the description of Rhythm in the USDF Training Pyramid to heart when developing the young horse or reschooling older horses. If the tempo is too fast, the horse will constantly ask the rider to balance him by leaning on the hand, or will hide behind the hand with a closed throatlatch and a chest that points down in spite of the high poll. If the tempo is too slow, the horse can avoid developing a real commitment to contact. If the tempo varies, it is a red flag that the horse is too crooked and unbalanced to sustain a steady tempo, and lateral suppleness needs to be addressed. Noticing variations in the tempo can help the rider identify a lack of symmetry, and, addressing the changes in tempo with steadying aids on the quick side and driving aids on the slow side will go a long way towards improving overall symmetry. If the rider further studies the Purpose of the Training level tests, she will see that it is not only the correct rhythm, with sufficient and steady tempo and energy that is crucial, but also that the horse is demonstrating acceptance of the bridle. The two go hand in hand: when the horse willingly and resolutely responds to the driving aids and accepts the bridle, the rider can then create a recirculation of energy that establishes the circle of the aids, and then she is in control of the tempo. It is this circle of aids, this recycling of the energy, that puts the horse “in front of the leg” and allows the rider to gradually influence the entire body of the horse and set him up in a balance and alignment that makes it possible to access both the thrusting power and the carrying power of the horse’s hind leg. It is the ability to access both trajectories of energy that creates, over time, the collection needed to perform at the highest of levels. If your horse is not willing-or you as the rider are too impatient-to meet the requirements as set forth in Training level, he will only learn tricks. His talent may take him a long way, but the tempo control established at Training level is what allows the rider access to all of the gears required to execute the most harmonious Grand Prix test.
To illustrate the relationship between tempo control, connection and collection, compare the following two canter photos.




Thanks to Pam Olsen of ProPhoto for the photo on the left, Andalusian World Cup for the photo on the right. The photos are of the same horse/rider, in the same show season, at Third level. The first photo was taken during extended canter, the second during collected canter. While this is by no means a perfect representation, it serves to illustrate the idea that a continuous flow of energy from the hind leg to the bridle has created a connection through the topline that has allowed me, the rider here, to open and close my horse’s frame to meet the requirements of each pace with almost no change in the reach through the topline or the degree of engagement. All that changed was the trajectory of the energy. There is nearly the same amount of separation of the hind leg, the trailing hind leg continues to work from the hip forward even in the extended canter, the saddle does not sink down as the he stretches out his frame, and his nose points to where his foreleg will land. Because my horse’s tempo is steady, and his energy flows towards my hand, I have the ability to adjust his outline forward and back again with no loss of balance, energy, or engagement. My hands are able to quietly receive and recycle the energy created by the hind leg. These are nice moments taken from reasonably successful rides. No ride is perfect every step of the way, but, studying your horse on film, either through video or still photo, is a very reliable way to assess how secure the elements of the Training Pyramid are in the daily work.

I hope this article helps the reader to recognize how important it is to notice her horse’s tempo, once the establishment of a correct rhythm has been assured. Assessing the tempo, expecting a steady flow of energy, and adjusting the tempo early and often will pave the way for a more honest connection, which creates the possibility of collection. My next article will discuss Suppleness from the Relaxation tier.