Sunday, July 6, 2014

So, you need to improve your Dressage

Welp, here is a nice, informational post with three exercises that might help you (actually, any rider) out a bit. I don't suggest that you attempt these the first time without a qualified trainer or on a horse that isn't completely trained (unless you're a professional and know what you're doing, in that case, have at it).

Three movements not found in Dressage tests that you should be doing!!
There are plenty of classical movements that have, over time, been forgotten about in competitive 'D'ressage. After discussions with a few members here in PM- it seemed like a good idea to pick a few of the most useful ones and make a thread.

'D'ressage tests were created to do precisely that: TEST a pair. The movements are not laid out in an order or a fashion that is conducive to schooling them. What's more- there are plenty of variations on the same movements, or even separate movements that have been left out altogether... sadly, this leads a lot of people to school only what is on the test, rather than school a dynamic, gymnastic system in order to better EXECUTE the test.

Here are three movements that historically, were very valued in the training of the horse, but because they are not tested, many are unaware of their benefits or even their existence!

1) Fléchi droit

This was essentially taking the historical flexions and applying them in movement, on the straight.
This is a classical movement that was included in both the French and German cavalry manuals.
German cavalry officer:

This movement is essentially, asking your horse to stay bent while moving on a straight line. It is a VERY good test to do on any horse and see if he is following his shoulders, or his nose. Obviously, in English disciplines, we don't want the horse to follow his nose. The horse should be able to bend any direction and have his shoulders move regardless of this bend.

The easiest way to begin fléchi droit is by asking for a slight bend (with an open poll!!) in the corner or on a circle, and then moving straight while keeping this bend along the wall. As this becomes easier, start to ask for more bend. 45 degrees is the ideal, but in walk, you can go up to 90.

A rider showing about 90 degrees in walk:

Personally, this is the very first movement I do with all horses immediately after mounting. For me, it is a 'systems check'. It allows me to see right away if my horse is favoring a particular hindleg, contracted behind an ear, resistant to bend one direction, etc. When you start this movement, pay close attention to what your horse is doing. Is he twisting the poll? Trying to close his poll? Is he avoiding the bend by bringing in his haunches? OR, bringing in his shoulders? Is he offering too much bend? Is he resistant to bend? All of these attempts on his part are to avoid STRETCHING his outside muscles and it will help you to find out exactly where he is most contracted/where there is the most resistance.

Play with it and see what happens. Do it again after your normal schooling routine and see if it is any easier. If it isn't- your ride did not address some areas of contraction in your horse. Even if it seems as though this is only addressing the neck- it is addressing the WHOLE body of the horse. It takes good balance and muscle suppleness for a horse to bend a clear 45+degrees and keep his four feet on the same two straight lines.

Remember that in this exercise your outside rein is critical in helping to keep the horse straight. Being able to open it towards the wall or close it towards the center of the arena (indirect rein) is crucial in controlling the shoulders. Also remember that ANY bend is useless of the horse is not holding it himself and just hanging on you. So allow your inside rein to be very soft and even slack occasionally to TEST that the horse is holding the bend on his own- sometimes, the horse will then show you a whole new evasion so you can see a way that he was trying to cheat the exercise.

2) The Strong Trot

The strong trot came before the extended and medium trots and is SO important for muscular symmetry.

An old article by Karl Mikolka about the importance of neck flexions which mentions the use of the classical strong trot:

The strong trot is the ultimate forward trot. It asks the horse to take the LONGEST steps he possibly can, regardless of speed. It REQUIRES that he speed up and have a lengthened frame, so a more extended neck position. This trot is especially important for those horses that tend to have straighter shoulders or choppy gaits: QH's, some TB's, some arabs, some Baroque's, etc.

Developing a strong trot takes practice, but it will undoubtedly improve a horse's relaxation, suspension, length of stride, straightness and balance- all through muscular symmetry. The trot is the most diagonal gait the horse has and it gives the rider an opportunity to work both sides of the horse equally- this is important to make a horse STRAIGHT. A straight horse is a horse that is moving symmetrically: meaning he is not holding any stronger contractions on one side than another. NO horse on Earth is born straight, we as riders have to make them this way through schooling.

You must first be able to ride your horse in a extended neck position- not too low like long and low as this will block his shoulders. It's important that his poll is MORE open than not in the beginning- even if it is totally open like a nice hunter or WP horse. Then, ask the horse to trot as big as he can without breaking into canter- really push the limit of what he can do even if it feels like you are running around like a crazy. For some horses, it is easier if you do this at the beginning on a circle, but eventually, you should be able to do both: on the circle and straight. Do this even for only 10 strides and then come back down to your normal trot. Do it again in another say 20 strides. Continue going in and out of the strong trot until you feel that the horse is not just running but REACHING. (some horses will reach early on) Do NOT stay too long in strong trot, it is a movement remember so it's in and then out, not a whole ride like this. Otherwise, you are teaching your horse to RUN instead of reach. If he just thinks about running, he will think about how to conserve his energy while doing it, which means NOT reaching.

After you have practiced the strong trot for a several lessons (and not necessarily everyday), you will feel that even though the horse is speeding up, he is starting to really REACH, both with his feet and his body. This is a strong trot. Now you can work to bring the benefits of this movement into the rest of your work. When bringing him down from the strong trot, ask him to keep the longer strides and reaching frame but just at a slower pace. As him to do the strong trot with a higher position, but without sacrificing the length of stride. Ask to do the strong trot for SHORTER periods of time. Ask the strong trot to be stronger- with him reaching MORE.

Watch a video of your strong trot and especially pay attention to the horse's hindlegs. If you are able, you can feel it in the saddle also- one hindleg will always very obviously flex less than the other. His hips will drop and rotate MORE in one direction than another. In your hands, you will feel the contact be stronger in one rein than another (another reason why the strong trot on a circle is a good thing to practice). It is very difficult for the average horse to keep a concentric (shortened) contraction when doing a true strong trot- this is why these weaknesses become so very obvious and clear, because he is unable to 'favor' and 'protect' himself (due to the speed and his balance: very forward) in the places where he is contracted: he has to MOVE every part of his body.

You can practice lengthenings where you increase stride length without speed all day and NEVER get the same benefits. Without seriously altering the balance of the horse (via the longer position AND the speed) and making his body MOVE, he can hide his contractions in even the smallest degrees so that you cannot feel. And even if it is just a small contraction in his lengthenings, as you move on to other more difficult work, it will become bigger and bigger.

3) Lateral work on the circle!!!

Lateral work on the circle is arguably older than lateral work on the straight! We know that the very old classical masters all taught lateral work first on ONE pillar and wrote extensively about the importance of having a horse move around ONE axis.

I'm sure many people have heard of leg yield on a circle- spiraling in and out, but if it is done correctly- it is NOT a leg yield!!! It is a shoulder in! Leg yield should not have bend- in the circle exercise you have a bend inside and viola: shoulder in on the circle.

Shoulder in, counter in, travers, renvers, can ALL be done on the circle. Sadly, Dressage tests today ONLY ever ask for working/pirouette- which is when the work has evolved to another level of difficulty. Practice travers on a 20m circle first!!!!

SI should always be the one you start with first. The key here is to make sure the horse is supple in the bend (just like with the fléchi droit) and your circle stays the SAME size. Again- it is a movement so go in and out of it, don't expect to do a whole circle in SI your first time.

Why on the circle? On the circle- you can isolate the movement around ONE leg. For example: In SI it's the inside foreleg. In Travers it's the inside hindleg. When you do it this way, it helps to feel very clearly with which leg the horse is more likely to cross and less likely to engage and with which leg he does the opposite. Example: SI on a circle going right, the horse might offer a LOT of bend and even though he REALLY swings his haunches out and is crossing a LOT behind, he is not stepping UNDER himself and so the gait becomes slower with less reach (he is also likely to try and make the circle smaller this direction). SI on a circle going left however, he offers very little bend and is keeping the same pace and circle, but there is almost NO crossing behind and it is difficult to get his haunches OUT.

Once you can do SI on a circle easily in BOTH directions... SI on the straight is like a total cake walk.

That was long but hopefully interesting.
I hope this was a little bit helpful or provided you with some new information. You can find the original post here, and I encourage you to read through the thread and ask questions as PiaffePony0412 and many others on the forum are invaluable sources of knowledge!

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