DT Clas­sic: Build­ing Power in Re­lax­ation

A top Ger­man pro­fes­sional ex­plains how to make your horse ac­tive and ca­denced with­out los­ing re­lax­ation.

Dressage Today - - Content - By Hu­ber­tus Sch­midt with Beth Baumert • Pho­tos by Arnd Bronkhorst

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.

The Warm-Up

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.

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