DT Classic: Building Power in Relaxation
A top German professional explains how to make your horse active and cadenced without losing relaxation.
Hubertus Schmidt describes how to keep your horse active and cadenced without losing relaxation.
The dressage horse who retains his relaxation at the highest levels of collection is the ideal. He is dynamic and elastic, swinging, steady and beautiful to watch. The rider doesn’t have to push or work too hard. He just sits quietly because his horse is well balanced. Relaxation is not only physically beneficial for the horse’s muscles, tendons and bones, but it is also beneficial for his interior—for his heart. Relaxation is the first goal that we strive for from the beginning of the horse’s training. However, a lot can go wrong when the rider tries to collect his horse and make him more active and expressive. Tension creeps in because the collected work is much more difficult than the warm-up, in which the horse is a little bit on the forehand.
For me, the key to having relaxation at the highest level is being absolutely sure that you have it in the warm-up—that you develop looseness and suppleness before you start any collected work. If your horse hasn’t achieved these qualities in the easy work, achieving them in the more difficult work is impossible. When you look at some of the Grand Prix horses in the warm-up area of a horse show, you can be fairly sure that some of them never really relaxed and stretched. As a result, the rider asks for collection, and the horse gets higher and shorter in the neck and tense in the back. He may show something that looks like cadence, but the horse is not lower behind with active hind legs and a swinging back. All Grand Prix riders—amateurs and professionals alike—have
this challenge, which is why I work on it so conscientiously. I try to make my horse powerful, active and cadenced in the most difficult movements without losing his supple and swinging back.
Whether I’m riding a 4-year-old or a Grand Prix horse, the first 15 minutes of my warm-up is essentially the same:
1. I start with the posting trot. A spectator wouldn’t be too impressed with my initial trot work because it may be a little on the forehand and have no cadence. My horse may be flat because I’m not asking for activity. I’m just doing loosening exercises. Later, when I ask for collection, he won’t look like the same horse. He’ll get an 8 for his collected trot, but for now it is very normal looking.
2. I pay special attention that the horse is straight on straight lines and curved on bent lines—that his hind legs follow the bridle to the right and the left equally so that he doesn’t have a stiff side in which the haunches swing out.
3. My horse follows the bit to a solid contact. Warm-up is not only for loosening but also for developing this steady contact with the bit. From the beginning, when I pick up my reins in the walk and posting trot I expect my contact to be steady. I don’t like loose reins or keeping the horse behind the vertical. It’s very important that your horse be low in the neck and reaching forward toward the bit.
4. During this time, I ride him on a bent line to get him on the outside rein so when I give the inside rein in Uberstreichen he stays on the outside rein and maintains the inside bend.
5. In the warm-up, I want to be sure I can stretch my horse down to the bit with a long neck in any situation. Ideally, I only have to give a half halt, be a little lighter in the hand and push in front to ask the horse to follow the bit down and forward. The horse that you can stretch is really loose and good in the back. Later, I’ll want to be sure that he can stretch in collection—that I can make the neck higher or stretch him lower and longer in the neck even in the most collected movements.
6. I also do trot–canter and canter– trot transitions. I know my warm-up is over when I can do perfect transitions
between a relaxed working trot and a relaxed working canter such that the horse’s neck is low, and he is either in front of or exactly on the vertical. If he comes behind for a moment, it’s not bad, but it’s important that the horse not become short in the neck or behind the vertical, in general.
I pay special attention to the downward transitions from working canter to working trot, making sure that he doesn’t get shorter in the neck or slower in the tempo. I don’t think of it as a transition backward but rather from gait to gait. Our upward transitions between working trot and working canter must stay totally to the bit, not higher or lower, shorter, slower or running into the canter. The horse must keep the same flexion and bend and the same forward momentum.
This sounds very simple, but if you ask a few Grand Prix riders about the difficulty of these “simple” transitions, you will find that no one thinks it’s easy. The transitions between working canter and working trot show a lot about the training. If I can do them well, I know I can start to prepare for the collection.
I’ll usually reach my warm-up goal with a Grand Prix horse in about 15 minutes. However, if my horse has had a few days or even weeks off, he may be a little hot—running and strong in the hand—and it may take a week or more before he is really through the back enough (relaxed, soft and easy) to ask for much collection. I could go back to
working piaffe, passage and pirouette in only a few days, but the quality would not be good enough. Dressage training is not like training a dog. If I say “sit” 10 times, my dog learns to sit, but horses need to stretch and loosen their muscles and become strong.
To do a good piaffe with low hindquarters requires thoroughness, suppleness and power. After time off, it’s not possible for them to do it. With an older Grand Prix horse, it may take longer than 15 minutes of warm-up because the work of lowering the hindquarters is difficult. With a 5-year-old, I might need a half hour of warm-up and then do 15 to 20 minutes of collection. With a new horse that isn’t used to my system, the entire ride may be warm-up.
Asking for Collection
After the warm-up, I prepare for collection by doing transitions forward and backward that skip a gait, such as from canter to walk and walk to canter. Then, step-by-step, I use half halts and dressage movements in trot and canter to ask for more collection, cadence and swinging. If the horse is really through and using his back, my request for more collection works perfectly: • I shorten the reins a bit and stay
still with my hands; • I push the horse forward a bit with my leg against my hand and sit a little heavier; • If the horse is through, he can’t move forward, so he moves uphill, starts swinging through his back, becomes more active behind and shows more cadence.
When the stride is lengthened and shortened, the heavy point—or the center of gravity—changes, and the horse needs to be able to stay in balance. The balanced horse in collection will carry himself when you give the reins in Uberstreichen; he won’t change his frame or his speed. Then we stretch again. As I increase the power and collection, I monitor my horse’s relaxation so I maintain the looseness and the suppleness.
When I push the horse to add cadence and power to get his haunches more active and lower, he may get stronger and hotter. If that happens, I once again get him relaxed by making him a little lower and more reaching. I go more freely forward for a few steps and then ask for the higher collection again. I do the piaffe, passage or pirouette only when the trot and canter are good enough. Eventually, he will accept the higher collection without losing his relaxation.
When you lose the back…
When things go wrong, the problem is often with the bridge of muscle from the hindquarters to the bit. The horse is not really in front of the leg. The rider loses the quality of the contact and is unable to collect his horse on the outside rein.
You will realize you have lost the quality when your horse is not forward or swinging and he becomes uncomfortable to sit. Instead of becoming more active, his stride becomes smaller.
Most horses stiffen against the hand and get too high in the neck, and then the rider has to hold the collection with his hands.
However, some horses get too low and behind the vertical. These are
Angard is an 11-year-old Hanoverian stallion owned by Elisabeth Ehrenrooth.
This article was first published in the December 2003 issue of Dressage Today. Hubertus Schmidt describes how to channel relaxation found in the warm up into more collected work. Editor’s note: The images in this article are from 2003. Today, DT requires all subjects in the magazine to wear safety helmets.
3. Transitions between working trot and working canter show a lot about the training of your horse. The horse should stay totally to the bit. He should not become higher or lower, shorter in the neck or slower in the tempo, and he must keep the same flexion and bend, as well as the same forward momentum.
4. When I take up my reins in the walk and posting trot, I want a steady contact from the beginning.
2. In the warm-up, I make sure Angard can stretch down to the bit with a long neck on straight lines and circles. To ask him to stretch, I am lighter in the hand and push in front with my legs, and he follows the bit.