After working with, and observing the work of so many up-and-coming elite riders, it is perplexing to see that there are still so many fundamental faults in the performances. At first I thought it was endemic to a particular national style that had proliferated through the exaggerated effect of certain teachers. Although this may not have been the case initially, I believe these problems are now universal among many elite dressage riders, regardless of country. I have chosen three areas of concern that, if addressed, could make a huge difference in the overall performance of dressage. Over the next couple of months, I will discuss 1. bend, 2. hollowness, and 3. the inattention to deviations in limb patterns.
If over-bending or counter bending the neck were put into a business model, it would be a very poor investment toward producing high quality dressage horses. What riders gain in the short term (perhaps some increase in mobility of the neck, or some increase in submission, or some increase in the reaction to the bit), is overcome by the negative results that come from blocking the proper action of the back, disturbing the horse’s ability to balance, and inhibiting good mechanics of the hind legs and hips, all of which are the sources of quality collection: one of the most important hallmarks of the best dressage. (article continues below)
Let’s go back to the basics. If you ask a good dressage rider what it means to ride straight on a circle, he or she will probably fairly quickly get around to describing that the horse’s body bends to follow the arc of the circle. If you push him or her, the rider will probably tell you that the tracks of the hind feet will line up with the tracks of the front feet. The hind foot may track a little under or right on top or perhaps a little over the track left on the ground from the corresponding front leg; but they will be in line. If the footing was freshly groomed and the horse traveled a circle, one would be able to see two lines of hoof prints: the left hind in line with the left front and the right hind in line with the right front. If we connected these dots, we would see two circles like train tracks. Are the circles the same size? No, they are not. If a horse were traveling on a ten meter circle, and its feet were approximately 6 inches (15 cms) apart, the outside circle described on the ground would be approximately 3 to 6 feet or 1 to 2 meters longer than the inside circle.
When the horse does not extend on the outside or bend inside, it is forced to lean like a bicycle, moving here on one track. The horse is beyond ‘ship straight’—it is actually bent to the outside. The result can be seen in the tracking and balance.
When the horse is bent correctly to the inside, it is “dressage straight”; this bend allows the outside to extend correctly and the horse leaves two distinct sets of tracks.
more facts on straightness follow
The simple fact that the inside and outside describe two different circles is constantly dismissed by riders and trainers, even though it is crucial for the proper training and development of lateral balance. If a rider uses the outside rein to counter bend the neck or uses it strongly enough to have a braking or retropulsive effect, it will restrict the outside stretch, drive, and particularly engagement of the outside hind leg. The rider will have effectively pulled the bend out of the horse, with at least two very serious effects. One is that as the outside is restricted, the tracks will not line up. The haunches will slip to the outside as the spine line becomes too straight. The major effect here is that the rider has moved the power source off to the side. Like a rear engine car, the horse begins to spin out. The energy slips instead of effectively pushing forward. In terms of dressage, the rider is limiting his or her power to collect by misaligning the power train. The hind end is now out of position or worse, restricted, and cannot engage properly and instead becomes lighter. In the way a sports car fishtails, the horse transfers the weight onto the shoulders: the opposite of collection. There is always an inverse relationship between sideways movement and forward movement or engagement for collection. Poor attention here begins to plant the seeds for all kinds of deviations later on. A game horse will keep trying if the rider insists incorrectly, but it will find a way around the proper form and instead of building proper muscles, tendons, and ligaments, it will put more strain on an already demanding exercise.
Bending to the outside forces the horse out of balance like a bicycle on the turn.
The principle of inside bend is unshakable.
The second effect of limiting the outside stretch is that the forced straightness or counter bend will force the horse to lean over to counteract centrifugal force, the same way a rigid framed bicycle has to lean inwards to negotiate a circle. The horse’s center of gravity tips onto the shoulders and the hind legs push instead of engaging and learning to carry, or collect.
A common problem — the horse is bending right whilst traveling left. When this occurs, rather than shortening the left rein, you may have to let out the right. This happens constantly in riding: riders shorten on the left to correct the bend (so they now have two short reins) instead of allowing the outside to stretch and lengthen around.
The curve of the horse’s spine must match the curve of the circle.
On a motorcycle, 75% of the stopping power is in the front brake as the mass tips forward and the hind end lightens. When riders start feeling a more permanent increase in the weight of the reins, the object should not be to shake the horse off the bridle by rein manipulation; this is a red flag that the horse’s hind end needs to start carrying more load and possibly applying transitions is in order.
The upper level movements are not mysterious, they are the results of conformation and the fundamentals that trained them, good or bad. A good pirouette comes of out a system of riding and training that has facilitated the dexterity and strength of the outside hind leg and back. If you are skating on a big frozen pond and you want to turn towards the left, what skate will you drive with? This is the same way that the horse will negotiate a circle. It will be the same outside hind leg that will do the most work later in the pirouettes, as it helps to lift the mass and propel it sideways in progressive lifts, pushes, and jumps. If elite riders really understand bend and have the discipline to stop trying to solve everything with the hands, they would practice mastering bend with the seat and legs, both putting it in and taking it out when necessary. They would pay more attention to horse’s back and hind legs instead of just the head and neck. There are a million emotional and historical excuses for why this neck and rein obsession continues, but until riders are trained to become more conscious of the back and hind legs than they are of the bit and reins, this will not get better.
In my next installment, I will discuss hollowness, an epidemic in modern dressage – Paul Belasik