Achieve Re­sis­tance-Free Col­lec­tion

A pos­i­tive ap­proach to tack­ling the top of the Train­ing Pyra­mid

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Karen Adams Photos by Su­san J. Stickle

USEF dres­sage judge Karen Adams ex­plains how the Train­ing Pyra­mid’s build­ing blocks will help you achieve a rounder, more col­lected gait and shape with­out cre­at­ing re­sis­tance in your horse.

Most dres­sage rid­ers en­counter re­sis­tance from their horses at some point when learn­ing to per­form col­lected gaits. As a judge, what I most of­ten no­tice while sit­ting at C is a mis­un­der­stand­ing of how to achieve a rounder, more col­lected gait and shape. When I see back­ward pulling or saw­ing on the reins or hold­ing the horse’s head down—or even the re­verse, a horse drop­ping the con­tact and be­ing be­hind the ver­ti­cal—these in­di­cate re­sis­tance. Horses of­ten re­sist col­lec­tion if they are forced into a fixed shape and held there be­yond their com­fort zones. They tighten, lean or brace the neck or jaw. More ob­vi­ous signs range from pinned ears and swish­ing tails to de­layed re­sponses to the aids and rear­ing or kick­ing at the leg or spur.

As you be­gin rid­ing Sec­ond Level move­ments, your equine part­ner may be­come ir­ri­ta­ble, re­luc­tant to work and even down­right dis­agree­able. In­stead of think­ing of this as a bad thing, view it in­stead as him com­mu­ni­cat­ing his dis­com­fort in his own lan­guage— and as an op­por­tu­nity for you to step back and take stock of your train­ing pro­gram. This red flag is telling you to change your aid-giv­ing meth­ods or train­ing pro­gram. Cre­at­ing har­mony with the horse is one of the most fun­da­men­tal goals of dres­sage. And the only way you can achieve it is by pro­duc­ing cir­cum­stances in which your horse finds noth­ing from you to re­sist against. This sounds sim­ple, but it isn’t easy to do!

In this ar­ti­cle, I’ll ex­plain how the Train­ing Pyra­mid’s build­ing blocks—rhythm, re­lax­ation, con­nec­tion, im­pul­sion, straight­ness and col­lec­tion—can help you work to­ward re­sis­tance-free har­mony. Col­lec­tion comes at the very top of the Pyra­mid be­cause its suc­cess de­pends upon your abil­ity to at­tain all the other im­por­tant com­po­nents first. Rather than think­ing of it as the next box to check off on your train­ing list, think of it as a grad­ual, pro­gres­sive process of gym­nas­tic de­vel­op­ment. The col­lec­tion in a solidly schooled Sec­ond Level horse is not as con­firmed as that of an FEI (In­ter­na­tional Eques­trian Fed­er­a­tion) horse. You can see this in the horse’s mus­cu­lar de­vel­op­ment and the way he trav­els in a more up­hill bal­ance as he be­comes in­creas­ingly ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing more weight in the hind end dur­ing col­lec­tion. For most of us, achiev­ing col­lec­tion at any level can be a pretty tall or­der. It re­quires time, pa­tience and good tools for de­vel­op­ing the Train­ing Pyra­mid build­ing blocks.

Get to the Root of The Prob­lem

Be­fore fo­cus­ing on your train­ing strat­egy, be sure your mount is healthy, sound and com­fort­able in his tack. Your first thought should al­ways be for his wel­fare. When­ever he dis­plays signs of re­sis­tance, run through this sim­ple check­list:

1. Have an ex­pert sad­dle fit­ter check that your sad­dle fits your horse well. Re­mem­ber that his shape may change as his

mus­cu­la­ture de­vel­ops, so he may need pe­ri­odic re­fit­tings.

2. Ask your vet­eri­nar­ian to do a thor­ough ex­am­i­na­tion to rule out any phys­i­cal pain or dis­com­fort.

3. Sched­ule a checkup with an equine den­tist to iden­tify wolf teeth, high points, an ab­scess or jaw pain/tem­poro­mandibu­lar joint disor­der. Also ask the den­tist to eval­u­ate your horse’s bit fit. Some horses with a low soft palate (roof of the mouth) do much bet­ter with a French-link snaf­fle be­cause it drapes nicely over the tongue. A reg­u­lar snaf­fle, on the other hand, cre­ates a nut­cracker ac­tion on the tongue and a pointed arch that can dig into the soft palate when pres­sure is ap­plied to it. (I pre­fer a KK French link for most horses for these rea­sons.) The thick­ness of the mouth­piece should suit the size of your horse’s mouth. The thick­est (21 mm) bits have the gen­tlest ac­tion, but if your horse has an un­usu­ally small mouth, he may be hap­pier in an 18-mm bit.

4. Ask a rec­om­mended chi­ro­prac­tor or mas­sage ther­a­pist to check your horse for joint or soft-tis­sue sen­si­tiv­ity or sore­ness in the back, shoul­ders, neck, etc.

5. Ask your far­rier to make sure that your horse’s feet are healthy, that the foot­ing is rea­son­able (or well tol­er­ated if he is bare­foot) and that he doesn’t have a corn un­der the shoe or an ab­scess form­ing.

Bar­ring any of these is­sues, the next log­i­cal step is to hon­estly as­sess your own aid-giv­ing ten­den­cies and try to fig­ure out what your horse is ob­ject­ing to. Here’s where dres­sage the­ory can be re­ally in­for­ma­tive. Let me ex­plain:

Your job as your horse’s trainer and stew­ard is to learn how to cor­rectly chan­nel and man­age his en­ergy flow from his ac­tive hind leg to the front with­out re­sis­tance. This al­lows you to put his body into what­ever shape you want, i.e., long and low, shorter and rounder (col­lected), flexed and bent for lat­eral move­ments or to fa­cil­i­tate straight­ness and so forth.

Imag­ine you’re go­ing to ride him through a nar­row tun­nel or cor­ri­dor and need to form both sides of his body to fit through safely. Think of send­ing his en­ergy through the cor­ri­dor with your legs, weight, seat bones and hands on ei­ther side. In essence, you are mak­ing the shape (with your own body aids) that you want him to adopt and then you are al­low­ing his en­ergy to flow into that shape.

If there is a hole, or weak­ness, in your cor­ri­dor of aids, then your horse’s en­ergy can leak out through that hole. This can hap­pen, for in­stance, if you over­bend his neck, which causes his en­ergy to drift out over the out­side shoul­der. You need to plug up your “aid­ing holes” to al­low his en­ergy and im­pul­sion to move through the en­tire length of his body with­out get­ting blocked any­where. Re­sis­tance is a sign of a block or leak in that flow.

Iden­tify and Fill in Your ‘Aid­ing Holes’

We all have aid­ing holes. No hu­man body is per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal; most of us are left- or right-handed, which means we have a dom­i­nant (stronger) side and a weaker (but of­ten more flex­i­ble and sup­ple) side. If your arena has mir­rors, pay close at­ten­tion to your po­si­tion as you ride by. Most peo­ple sit with more em­pha­sis on one seat bone or with one tighter thigh, which is less able to lengthen and lie flat, or with one hip or side of the rib cage col­lapsed. Some­times we aren’t en­tirely con­scious of things we do that affect the horse.

For in­stance, if you of­ten sense that your horse is stiff or plank-like in one or both directions, you might start pulling on or “milk­ing” the in­side rein to soften or cre­ate flex­ion. But un­til you rec­og­nize this as an in­side-leg is­sue in­stead of a rein is­sue, it will never be fully re­solved. In­stead of fix­ing the lat­eral stiff­ness at the root of the prob­lem, you’ll end up ha­bit­u­ally pulling or nag­ging on the in­side rein with­out be­ing en­tirely aware of it. One of my past teach­ers re­ferred to this as hav­ing a case of “in­side-reini­tis.”

If you don’t have mir­rors, ask a friend to take notes while watch­ing what your body does as you ride at walk, trot and can­ter in both directions. She might see things you are un­aware of do­ing. Or ask her to video you in a les­son or clinic. Watch

the video sev­eral times to eval­u­ate your po­si­tion, your horse’s be­hav­ior, how the in­struc­tor led you dur­ing the les­son and whether you can see any so­lu­tion or im­prove­ment.

To ad­dress both your and your horse’s weak spots, I rec­om­mend us­ing gym­nas­tic ex­er­cises that work op­po­sites against each other (of­ten called rub­ber-band ex­er­cises). These take you out of your com­fort zone a lit­tle at a time, over and over, un­til your com­fort zone be­comes ex­pan­sive. I’ll share two ex­am­ples later.

As you prac­tice these ex­er­cises, learn to prob­lem-solve on your own, de­vel­op­ing a “tool box” full of dif­fer­ent ways to ad­dress is­sues. Keep a jour­nal at the barn and, as soon as you dis­mount and get your horse squared away, sit down and write what you worked on that day, why you did what you did, how it felt, what im­proved and what you think needs fur­ther im­prove­ment.

Only do these ex­er­cises after your warm-up has con­firmed the bot­tom and mid­dle build­ing blocks of the Train­ing Pyra­mid— rhythm, re­lax­ation, con­nec­tion and the de­sire to go for­ward. You have es­tab­lished a rhyth­mic and re­laxed trot and a soft, steady con­tact on both reins. Your horse is ac­cept­ing your in­ner-bend­ing leg and rein and your out­side-form­ing leg and rein—the cor­ri­dor through which you will chan­nel his en­ergy. He is go­ing nicely for­ward with en­ergy and a will­ing at­ti­tude.

Test and Im­prove Lat­eral Sup­ple­ness

The fol­low­ing ex­er­cise, shown in the photos above, will help to loosen your horse from side to side (lat­er­ally) by chang­ing back and forth be­tween an in­side and out­side bend. It is also a good test of his sup­ple­ness.

STEP 1. Trot on a large cir­cle to the right (clock­wise) with your in­side right hip, seat bone, thigh and lower leg po­si­tioned slightly more for­ward, or ahead of, your left, putting a lit­tle more weight down and through that in­side leg. Imag­ine your legs as a partly open pair of scis­sors. Called “po­si­tion right,” this is used for bend­ing or trav­el­ing right.

STEP 2. Ex­ag­ger­ate the bend slightly to the in­side (right) by ap­ply­ing an open lead­ing rein—bend and take back your in­side el­bow while mov­ing your in­side hand slightly to­ward the cen­ter of the cir­cle. Use as much pres­sure as needed to get your horse’s head to come around un­til you can see his right eye while he stays soft in his neck and yields in the area near the crease be­hind his throat­latch and poll. At the same time, press or hold your in­side leg at or near the girth. To­gether, these aids will ask him to hol­low the in­ner side of his body into an arc shape.

To con­tain that shape, bend your out­side knee a bit more than usual so your lower leg is far­ther back and in con­tact with your horse’s bar­rel. This will also lighten your seat bone on that side. For a very sen­si­tive horse, outer knee/thigh pres­sure serves the same pur­pose. Mean­while, your out­side left hand stays on its own side of the neck and re­mains steady but elas­tic to al­low for the in­side bend while main­tain­ing a mostly straight line from his mouth, along his neck and into your hand.

As in most aid-giv­ing sit­u­a­tions, the rule of thumb is to use as lit­tle aid as pos­si­ble, but as much as nec­es­sary, to get the horse’s re­sponse. When he re­sponds, re­move or re­duce the aid im­me­di­ately and praise him.

While you’re bend­ing him, ask your­self, “Can I keep him up­right—not lean­ing in or com­ing in on the cir­cle—and bent around my in­side leg as needed?” If the an­swer is no, ask again un­til you can achieve this with a cer­tain ease.

STEP 3. Next, still rid­ing on the same clock­wise cir­cle, ask for a bend and flex­ion to the left. Re­verse your body aids so that your left (out­side) hip, seat bone, thigh and lower leg are now ahead of your right and slightly more weight is down and through that left sit­ting bone. Close your left leg at the girth and open your left rein to ask him to turn his head to the out­side of the cir­cle while us­ing your pas­sive right rein and leg aids (which are now act­ing more like out­side aids) to con­trol his shape. He should stay on the same large cir­cle but with a slight hol­low­ing on the left side of his body and a fill­ing up against your right leg and rein. This is called “po­si­tion left,” where your left aids have be­come your in­side aids and your right aids are now your out­side aids.

This can be more chal­leng­ing with some horses; you may have to slightly ex­ag­ger­ate your aids to get the job done. Re­peat this change of bend back and forth un­til your horse be­comes loose and but­tery soft in both directions. By re­mov­ing any neck, poll or jaw stiff­ness, you should now have a soft, fluid cor­ri­dor from with­ers to poll. If he can stay on the bit—or on the aids—to this point with­out re­sis­tance or ten­sion, you’re ready to pro­ceed to the next ex­er­cise.

As in most aid­giv­ing sit­u­a­tions, the rule of thumb is to use as lit­tle aid as pos­si­ble, but as much as nec­es­sary, to get the horse’s re­sponse.

Test and Im­prove Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Sup­ple­ness

Vi­su­al­ize an ac­cor­dion or Slinky toy while do­ing this ex­er­cise, shown in the photos on pages 52–53 and pages 54–55. When rid­den well, it can quickly take a horse who is block­ing or stiff­en­ing in the back, neck, jaw or poll to a softer, more sup­ple place. Go­ing back and forth be­tween these op­po­sites sup­ples him lon­gi­tu­di­nally—length­wise from tail to poll—which will make it eas­ier to in­tro­duce col­lected steps. It also pro­motes an hon­est

“reach­ing for the bit” at­ti­tude, which is es­sen­tial for main­tain­ing a con­nec­tion both alive and re­laxed in the mo­ment. By play­ing your horse back and forth this way, you can never force him into a false frame, so he never learns to lock up or re­sist your aids when you shorten your reins.

Some peo­ple might worry that ask­ing the horse to reach for­ward and down into the bri­dle regularly would en­cour­age him to travel on his fore­hand. This is true to some ex­tent. But don’t worry, it is only a tem­po­rary state, one that is ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial for elim­i­nat­ing ten­sion and re­sis­tance. Once that is achieved, you can ask your horse to shift his bal­ance back onto his hind legs and be­gin to de­velop col­lec­tion.

For this ex­er­cise, I rec­om­mend us­ing smooth reins with­out stops, which might cause fric­tion against your fin­gers.

STEP 1. While trot­ting to the right and main­tain­ing an in­side bend on a large cir­cle, ask your horse to stretch for­ward and down­ward, drap­ing his neck as you grad­u­ally lengthen the reins. If he’s not fa­mil­iar with these aids, be­gin by feel­ing both reins more firmly to get his at­ten­tion. Bend both el­bows at a near right an­gle so the joints act like pul­leys, al­low­ing your arms and hands to go for­ward or back­ward as needed. To keep the in­side bend on the cir­cle, your in­side rein may need to be a bit shorter than the out­side rein.

While main­tain­ing a sup­port­ive “po­si­tion right” with both legs and reins to pro­duce the cor­ri­dor, give on the out­side (left) rein by mov­ing that hand an inch or two for­ward. Then al­low the fin­gers of both hands to be open and invit­ing, rather than in firm fists, to en­cour­age your horse to reach. As he starts to drop his head and neck, keep a light feel while grad­u­ally let­ting him take the reins lon- ger. Tim­ing this is chal­leng­ing, but al­ways try to stay “con­nected”— never throw­ing the reins away. Praise him with a pat on the neck and a soft qual­ity to the hand so he wants to find the con­nec­tion with you and stay there. It is very im­por­tant to praise even the start or be­gin­ning of stretch­ing into the bit. Some horses re­ally come around if you make a big deal out of them.

Think of this stage as be­ing “on the bit with a longer neck.” The length of time you stay in it de­pends on your suc­cess. If all goes well and he stays in rhythm and tempo, keeps the in­side bend and hon­estly stretches for­ward and down­ward, praise him and con­tinue for one or up to three cir­cles. Try to keep him con­nected and reach­ing into both reins. Think of them as tele­phone lines where the mes­sages can be sent and re­ceived only if the cir­cuit is not bro­ken or loopy.

With prac­tice, your horse will learn to lengthen his neck and reach to­ward the con­nec­tion with the bit the mo­ment you give the hand for­ward and close your legs. Most horses love this stretch­ing part. Learn to use it as a re­ward, not just in a rest­ing phase or end of a ses­sion, but at other times in your work also.

STEP 2. Now it’s time to bring your horse up into a rounder con­nec­tion and shape. Grad­u­ally shorten your reins by tak­ing both el­bows back and slid­ing your fin­gers grad­u­ally up the reins to the length of neck you want. Or, if you can do this with­out los­ing the con­nec­tion, take both reins in one hand at your de­sired length and then re­turn to one rein in each hand. Ei­ther way re­quires prac­tice. When you reach the rein length you want his neck to be, give with the fin­gers a lit­tle to en­cour­age him to stretch again into the hand to­ward this rounder, more up­hill neck shape.

Mean­while, keep your in­ner and outer “cor­ri­dor walls” true and in line with the big cir­cle shape you are rid­ing and chan­nel his ac­tive en­ergy straight be­tween both lower legs, seat bones and hips into your re­ceiv­ing hands. Keep your el­bows bent, but with a for­ward “at­ti­tude” in your hands, which stay as pas­sive and quiet as pos­si­ble. If you do this tact­fully and with good tim­ing, your horse will sim­ply adapt his shape to the rounder bas- cule you have made with your body aids. Praise him, soften your fin­gers and do not over­stay your wel­come. Keep this rounder shape for no more than one cir­cle in the be­gin­ning.

STEP 3. As soon as your horse shows that he can stay soft and give to this shorter con­tact (or even start to, if this is new to him), praise him and send him for­ward and down­ward again into a longer neck and rein. Let him find a com­fort­able, soft con-

nec­tion there. If he loses the stretch or gets hol­low, take your el­bows back with a light driv­ing leg aid un­til he chooses the rein ten­sion that en­cour­ages him to soften him­self and yield for­ward and down­ward. Then re­ward him right away.

Some­times a horse will go down, hit the con­tact, then come up above the bit and need to be sent back down again. This just means you were a tad slow in soft­en­ing your reins. The more you do it, the bet­ter your feel and tim­ing will be­come.

Re­peat this ex­er­cise with the aim of get­ting your horse but­tery soft go­ing back and forth be­tween a shorter and longer frame, spend­ing half to up to three cir­cles in each mode. Al­ways ride him en­er­get­i­cally for­ward and give him noth­ing about your aids to re­sist against—no pulling the head in or saw­ing on the reins or rid­ing him into a set hand. The beauty in this ex­er­cise is that the horse be­comes softer, more mal­leable and more will­ing to fol­low your re­quests be­cause he is not be­ing forced into a hard or back­ward hand or pulled into a slower gait.

All the while, main­tain the same rhythm and tempo, rid­ing in such a way that your at­ti­tude and your aid-giv­ing show no bias be­tween the longer work and the shorter work. It is all equal. One is not harder than the other; one is not work and the other rest. It is all on-the-aids work rid­den from the hind legs up into the con­tact.

If you can achieve all the im­por­tant in­gre­di­ents of the Train­ing Pyra­mid in both directions, It is very im­por­tant to praise even the start or be­gin­ning of stretch­ing into the bit. Some horses re­ally come around if you make a big deal out of them. prac­tice the ex­er­cise both ways. If not, one di­rec­tion will suf­fice for that day.

In­tro­duce Col­lec­tion Grad­u­ally

As your skills in this ex­er­cise im­prove, you can be­gin to de­velop more col­lec­tion. Think of this as short­en­ing your horse’s steps and out­line with­out sac­ri­fic­ing the en­ergy, ac­tiv­ity or im­pul­sion. When you shorten the reins to the length of neck and frame you want him to adopt, ride him for­ward into them, en­cour­ag­ing an ac­tive hind leg and a reach­ing neck and topline.

Over time, his col­lected trot will be­come more en­er­getic with for­ward pur­pose and a rounder, more up­hill bal­ance. His with­ers will be­gin to rise and the mus­cles along his back, shoul­ders and hindquar­ters will strengthen. His self-car­ry­ing abil­ity will also im­prove as he be­comes more ath­letic and bal­anced. You can then ask that he carry more weight in his hind legs, an im­por­tant qual­ity of cor­rect col­lec­tion. Think of these ex­er­cises as pro­gres­sive and gym­nas­tic in na­ture, de­vel­op­ing his en­tire body, in­stead of what we hu­mans tend to do, which is focus on and pull back on the parts we can see from his back: his head and neck.

Be­fore at­tempt­ing more col­lected steps in this ex­er­cise—or in any other move­ment—re­view the warm-up goals I de­scribed ear­lier. With­out be­ing able to tick off these boxes, I would not ask for col­lected steps.

Also try the stretchy cir­cle at the can­ter, bring­ing your horse from long and low to a rounder, more col­lected can­ter and then back down again. To take this ex­er­cise to the next level, ride be­tween length­ened or medium trot and a more col­lected trot—or be­tween length­ened or medium can­ter and a more col­lected can­ter—again rid­ing the op­po­sites back and forth to de­velop the

qual­ity of both the longer steps and the shorter steps. (For more de­tail on this ex­er­cise, read Laura Graves’ ar­ti­cle, “Tuned In: SelfGo­ing Horse,” on www.Prac­ti­calHorse­

Keep the work lively and vary your train­ing pro­gram so you don’t get too rou­tine-ori­ented. Be sure to work your horse in both directions regularly to de­velop his bal­ance and mus­cu­la­ture in a pur­pose­ful and op­ti­mal way. Re­mem­ber, this train­ing is pro- gres­sive and you are build­ing an at­ti­tude and trust in your horse that the con­tact and con­nec­tion are where he finds com­fort. By keep­ing this broader per­spec­tive in mind and in­cor­po­rat­ing these ex­er­cises into your pro­gram in a play­ful way, you can make col­lected work fun for your horse. In turn, he’ll re­ward you with a bet­ter at­ti­tude and a will­ing­ness to tackle new stages of his train­ing with en­thu­si­asm.

FAC­ING PAGE: In this lovely har­mo­nious col­lected can­ter, Jar­a­lyn Gib­son Finn, owner of Fi­nesse Dres­sage LLC, chan­nels her 12-year-old Hanove­rian geld­ing San­ford’s en­ergy be­tween her lower legs, seat bones and hands. His in­side hind leg is step­ping well...

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