Developing your horse's lateral suppleness is essential in order to properly develop longitudinal engagement and elasticity.
Every horse can be divided into three major muscle "rings":
- The hindquarters- starting from the top of the tail, over the croup, down the flank and over the stifle, back up the hind leg to the base of the tail.
- From the low back in front of the croup, along the spine to the front of the withers, down he shoulder [where the neck emerges from the shoulder] through the chest and along the belly back up the flank in front of the stifle.
- From the girth area behind the elbow, up to the base of the withers, over the neck, poll, jaw; down the base of the neck back to the chest where it ties into the girth area.
Like the picture of the Olympic rings, these three rings overlap one another. Each area where they begin and/or overlap can be considered a "hinge point" where you can introduce lateral bending into your horse's frame. By creating lateral range of motion you are able to supple your horse's spine, and develop the carrying power of the muscles in your horse's back.
If you approach your horse in a systematic way, it can be quite easy to develop his understanding of how to accept and yield to the lateral influence of the rider's aides. Most horses develop resistance or confusion when the rider unintentionally mixes up the sequence of the aides, leaving the horse uncertain as to how to follow the directions being given.
For a rider to be able to introduce lateral movements in a clear and systematic way, it is important that they have first gained enough education in their own body to be able to separate their aides. You must have an independent seat that is both capable of following the horses' motion and influencing the horses' motion. The rider must have control of their arms and the ability to separate the action of their elbow and forearm from the action of their wrist and fingers. They must be able to maintain a feel to the bit that does not include balancing off the reins with their hands. Lastly, the rider must have independent leg aides. You must be able to make an action with one leg, for example bringing your foot back or making a quick activating aid with your heel or spur, without an action in the opposite leg , or up in your seat, torso or shoulder.
These are developments that should be accomplished first on the lunge line and then with independent riding. When a rider has accomplished these aspects of body control and awareness, learning lateral work and the sequence of the aids can further refine your ability to feel and control the balance in your body.
The Dressage tests issued by USEF and used at the national level are written by a highly accomplished panel of professionals who have spent their lives training, judging and educating dressage horses and riders. The tests get rewritten and reissued every four years, and they are an excellent reflection of the progression you should introduce to your horse and the expectations you should develop for your own and his ability as you progress up the ladder of dressage.
Unfortunately many decades ago, the base movement from which all lateral work is developed, the Turn on the Forehand, was removed from formal dressage tests. This is a movement that introduces the basic concept of the horse yielding to rein and leg pressure, and that teaches the rider to separate their aids in the correct sequence, and in my opinion, is indispensable in the development of lateral work. The best aspect of the Turn on the Forehand is that it is introduced from the walk or halt, giving the rider time to process the sequence and balance without punishing the horse when they unintentionally lose their balance.
The Turn on the Forehand as ridden by a dressage rider asks the horse to accept the flexion from the inside rein, yield the inner shoulder and the inner hind leg to the pressure of the riders inner leg, resulting in a slight advance of the legs both front and rear as the horse performs the movement. This is different than the Western Turn on the Forehand where the horse is asked to pivot on his inner shoulder and NOT to pick up his inner foreleg. This creates confusion for a horse who has been trained in one discipline and is now learning another.
For the development of a Dressage horse, the turn on the forehand is a very simple and systematic way of teaching both horse and rider the correct sequence of the aids.
- Sitting with a balanced and independent seat, with legs hanging draped over the horse but without gripping, the rider initiates contact with the inside rein. Actions much like squeezing the water out of a small sponge are made over the inner rein until the horse understands that a slight yielding of the jaw is the only expected response. Visually, the rider can see a slight indentation where the jaw line meets the throatlatch. You should just see the edge of the horse's inner eye and inside nostril, with the nose of the horse vertically under the eye.
- Once the horse is accepting and yielding to the slight pressure of the inner rein, the rider shifts a SLIGHT increase of weight to their inner seat bone- if you are sitting correctly your weight should be distributed evenly, 50-50, to both seat bones. A slight increase means you develop about 52-48 over your inner seat bone. Then the rider activates the horse with quick, light actions of their calf, touching the horse's side and IMMEDIATELY releasing their leg. Most starting riders WAY over ride these aids, causing the horse to brace or block rather than yield. Remember that a horse can feel a fly walking on their side- they FEEL you, the issue is do they UNDERSTAND you. Every horse will initially start to pull up or against the rein as they feel the impulse of your leg. This is where the maintenance of the sequence is imperative. Keep a quick, light, massage action transmitting down the rein AS you impulse with your inner leg. At the start it is fine for the horse to lower their head down and over bend to the inside as they step forward and outward from the rider's inner leg action- literally falling through the outside shoulder- so that they truly understand the 100 % yield that is expected of them simultaneously from their hind leg, ribcage, shoulder, neck and jaw.
- Once this is understood, the rider starts to refine and balance the horse's response by adding support from their outside leg the moment the horse initiates the shift from the inner legs. This stands the horse up and sends their momentum forward rather than outward.
- As the horse carries his body forward, the rider receives the balance and momentum into a soft closing of their outside hand. The connection through the outside rein is what defines the balance of the horse's frame. A longer rein = a longer frame. Adjusting the length of the outside rein starts to give the rider a clear understanding of the relationship of the outside rein to the horse's balance.
Turn on the forehand can be introduced along a wall, or out in the center of the arena. Initially the rider can allow the horse to move quite a bit as they process the aids, up to the equivalent of a 10 meter half circle. As the rider and the horse gain an understanding of the movement, a smaller area illustrates a greater understanding of the body mechanics involved. A correct and advanced execution of the movement involves the aides being ridden and accepted in such a rapid sequence that the horse appears to flex, yield, and return to a halt in one smooth action.
When the rider has mastered this simple sequence, the flow needed between the leg, seat and rein aides will be quite easy to carry in to the leg yield, the next movement in the development of the dressage horse.
Leg yielding is the first lateral movement to appear in a dressage test. It is well worth reading the USEF rulebook for the definitions of each of the lateral movements, as they are described in exact detail. [The USEF rulebook can be accessed online at www.usef.org go to the Dressage Division. These descriptions are better than many that you will see published!]
Leg yielding in a Dressage test appears at first level, although hopefully a rider will have been using Turn on the Forehand and Leg yielding in the course of their Training level work.
Once a horse and rider have coordinated the Turn on the Forehand, the Leg yield is easiest to introduce by walking the horse through the corner of the arena on an oblique line that intersects the wall at about 40 degrees. If the rider is working to the right, the flexion will be initiated on the left rein, so the horse is looking out to the wall. The sequence of the aides is the same, but now the rider uses their weight to flex the horse around their outer leg, and then uses their seat to direct the horse along the arena wall. It is important to realize that the 52-48 weight split must be flexible once the horse is moving. The rider's seat must move with and mimic the horse as long as he is moving in the direction and on the angle requested. Too much yield in the haunches will require the rider to correct with a light pressure of their outside leg. It is important in that moment that the rider is sitting in a 50-50 balance of their seat bones. Think of starting a lateral movement like what an accomplished ice skater does to start moving- they thrust with one leg, then as momentum builds they are able to glide evenly over both skates. When momentum starts to fade, they thrust again. Loss of balance causes the thrust to be obvious, otherwise the thrust blends into the motion and momentum of the skater, appearing effortless to the observer. As a rider, the lateral thrust is sent from a temporary shift over your inner seat bone and from your inner leg, across the horses back to your outside leg and receiving rein. Once you start to achieve this coordination along a wall, the exercise is increased in difficulty by riding from centerline and returning to the wall. The rider must be able to integrate the action of the inner and outer aides across the balance of their seat bones for this line to appear smooth and to stay straight. By the same token, the horse must be able to accept and process the aides sequentially in their body for their muscles to respond in a coordinated manner. Do not interpret a loss of balance as a resistance to the idea, but rather understand and observe where the loss of balance occurs and address which aid lost communication or coordination in that moment. This is where the absolute understanding of the aid sequence becomes so important, as quickly returning to the flow of inside rein/inside leg/ across the seat to the outside leg/up to the outside rein will correctly reestablish your horse's balance.
Timing becomes an aspect of fine tuning your aides. Asking a hind leg to yield when it is air borne makes the horse's job easy, whereas asking it to yield when it is on the ground makes it difficult, and sets you out of balance with your horse. Learn to separate your aids, then learn to coordinate them, then learn to time them- this is the work of the true Masters in Dressage!
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