- TRAINING -

Training a powerhouse

- dressage training with Sophie de Clifford -

Meeting for their weekly lesson, Emma Turnbull and Sophie de Clifford have their work cut out for them. Emma’s green mare, Audacious, is fresh from a recent holiday and has brought plenty of energy to the arena. Developing control and utilising the power of this talented horse is the lesson’s focus, helping to prepare Audacious for her first season of competition.

Words: and photos: Show Circuit

On the day of the lesson, Audi has only recently come back into work after a few weeks off, and it is also the first time she has been away from home since her break. These two things combined are making her very fresh and hot to start with, so instead of beginning with a longer rein and a stretch, in the interest of safety, Sophie asks Emma to start on a contact.

“Ideally, we’d like to start with a stretch, but today it’s not safe. Audi is green and hasn’t been out for a while so that the stretch would be unsuccessful. Right from the beginning we need to gain obedience to the hand and leg, so we’ll keep her round and on the bit, and when she’s relaxed, we can come back to the stretch,” explains Sophie.

Even with a contact, Audi is very forward, and Sophie instructs Emma to do some leg yielding to get her to accept the leg. “She’s so hot and wants to tank off. Audi needs to allow you to put your legs gently on her sides, so that she doesn’t over-react when you give a leg aid, for example, in a transition to canter. Remember – legs on the hot ones, legs off the cold ones,” she reminds Emma.

Transitions create balance

Transitions are so important in making a horse more forward and brighter off your leg. Riding transitions within the pace will help to make the horse more responsive to the rider’s leg and seat aids and will help with engaging the hind legs, making it easier for the horse to carry himself. The horse should be encouraged to extend the length of his stride while maintaining the same rhythm and balance. The difference in stride doesn’t have to be massive, it just needs to be enough to get the horse to start developing his ability to lengthen and shorten his frame.

 

Try it for yourself:

Ride forward for a few strides, then return to a working pace before riding forward again. Keep a steady contact with the reins and encourage your horse to lengthen his stride by using a gentle leg aid. Bring him back with a gentle half-halt. You will be amazed at how aware you become of the slightest delay in the responsiveness your horse offers. If he’s listening to your aids, he’ll make transitions smoothly without losing his balance, popping his head in the air or interrupting his rhythm.

The upward transition from trot to canter requires that the canter be the same speed as the trot, so concentrate on making the first few steps of the canter come from the hind leg. Your hands must be still, maintaining the contact and not pulling back. Your horse must learn to round up from behind. Think of this as ‘squashing’ the horse up to the steady bit.

Once your horse understands this aid, he will arch his neck from the withers and reach forwards into the contact. This has the effect of lifting his back and allows him to bring his hind legs under. Once he does this a few times, let him stretch.

 

Problem spots

 

Rushing

If the horse tries to run through your hands and speed up rather than lengthen, you’ll need to use more outside rein to contain the energy.

Losing balance

This usually happens because the rider is asking for more than the horse can offer - simply try asking for a little less.

Flexion and bend

Circles are a great tool to improve flexion and bend.

To start, you need to teach your horse to flex at the poll, to the right and to the left. This is very subtle and doesn’t mean hauling your horse’s head from one side to the other.

At the halt, flex your horse to the right by increasing the pressure very slightly with your right hand and allowing the same amount with the left. The horse should respond by turning his head to the right at the poll so you can see his right eye and nostril and the cheekpiece of the bridle. He should quietly mouth the bit, too. Even up the rein pressure, then repeat to the left. It is important to keep a soft hand that can follow the horse’s mouth to ensure that the contact is consistent. Following on from flexing your horse to the right in halt, now turn your upper body (hips and shoulders) to the right. You’ll notice that your legs are automatically positioned with your outside (left) leg behind and your inside (right) leg down into the stirrup.

 

Mix it up so you are not just hanging onto the reins with the horse leaning. Establish bend on the circle, then straighten the horse and ride him forward on a straight line, then circle again, either on the same rein or after changing the rein. Or circle away from the track, then leg-yield a few steps back to the track to push the horse more into the outside rein, then circle again. Make sure you’re riding forward and ensure that the horse responds immediately to your leg and seat.

Leg-yield to create suppleness

Leg-yield is a great suppling and engagement exercise that works the whole body. Being soft and supple through the body and neck allows your horse to bend without stiffness and to work freely without excess tension through his back and muscles. He can then perform movements and transitions more smoothly and with better balance, which leads to the development of strength and muscle. It will also become easier for him to engage his hind end and lift through his shoulders.

Leg-yield is a movement where the horse moves forwards and sideways at the same time while keeping straight throughout his body. However, he is slightly-flexed away from the direction of travel. So, if the horse is moving towards the right, he will be looking slightly to the left.

The movement is a novice lateral exercise that can be performed at either the walk, trot or canter, along the long side of the arena or across the diagonal. When changing the rein on the diagonal, leg yielding helps get the horse onto the new outside rein and inside leg and keeps him thinking. It’s a great movement for every horse, especially during the warm-up at events, no matter the level.

When you practice riding leg-yield, it’s important that you give yourself a definite start and finish point. If you don’t have a target point you’ll end up moving over more quickly on the rein your horse finds easiest and you won't even realise anything is different.

Problem spots:

  • Hollowing
    Just encourage him to soften by playing gently with the bit.

  • Too much neck bend
    Make sure your contact is even and that you have enough outside rein contact. You only need to see the corner of your horse’s inside eye for the leg-yield, anything more and you are bending too much.

  • Falling through the outside shoulder
    Reduce the bend in the neck and keep your horse straight, using your outside rein and outside leg.

  • Loss of rhythm and balance
    It’s easy to lose rhythm and balance so remember to ride forward into the movement and use half-halts to correct him and carry on. If he loses rhythm and balance, don’t keep pushing him on because it will make the problem worse. The half-halt is my best tool if I need to ask the horse to really listen to me.

  • Too much sideways movement
    So that you don’t get back to the track too early, set yourself a marker to ride to and keep riding forward throughout the movement.

  • Too little sideways movement
    Make sure you are not blocking the horse in any way and apply a little more leg pressure.

Shoulder-fore

 

Shoulder-fore is the introduction to shoulder-in for horse and rider. In both movements, the horse’s forehand is brought towards the inside of the track, while the hindquarters remain on the track. However, in shoulder-fore, less angle and less bend are required. Shoulder-fore encourages the horse to take more weight onto his hind legs and step more actively underneath his body with the inside hind leg. It also helps to supple the shoulders. When you ride shoulder-fore, your shoulders should be parallel to your horse’s shoulders. If your horse falls behind the leg and slows, or falls onto the forehand and rushes, half-halt and ride a circle to rebalance him and start again. Whatever gait you’re riding in, try to keep a regular rhythm.

 

Try it for yourself:

Start with this exercise in walk and once you feel satisfied that you and your horse have a clear understanding, try it at trot. As you come onto the long side of the school, imagine you’re going to ride a 10m circle in the corner, but as your horse takes the first step onto the circle make a half-halt and use your inside leg to ask him to keep going down the side of the school. Use your outside rein to support your horse’s outside shoulder. Maintain the correct angle with your inside rein.

Shoulder-fore is the mini version of shoulder-in. The rider asks for less angle and less bend in the shoulder-fore. The rider looks to the inside track and turns her upper body and shoulders where the shoulders of the horse are to be placed. The inside rein opens slightly and brings the horse’s nose in, while the outside rein closes against the neck and brings the shoulder in.

Shoulder-in

 

Following on from shoulder-fore, this is another lateral movement that is useful in helping your horse to become supple through his whole body. It also helps the horse collect and become more uphill and is a tool for straightening your horse. Shoulder-in promotes control of the horse’s inside hind leg, which is critical to the correct execution of several upper-level movements. The movement requires more than just bend as the horse is required to stretch the inside hind leg a little farther sideways than normal, which causes him to lower his inside hip in collection. This movement is performed on three tracks. The horse should be slightly bent around the rider’s inside leg and should be looking away from his direction of travel. His inside foreleg passes and crosses in front of his outside leg, while his inside hind leg is placed in front of his outside leg. The ideal angle of the bend is 30 degrees. The goal is to have the neck supple, allowing the horse to be put in a position willingly without being forced.

 

Try it for yourself:

 

Ride a 10m circle, two or three times in the same place, at the beginning of a long side in the arena, following the rules above for flexion and bend. Then start another circle, but as soon as your horse takes the first step of the circle, half-halt and maintain the angle as your horse brings his forehand one step off the track. Keep sufficient contact on both reins to maintain this ‘inside position’, and use a bit of extra inside leg to ask your horse to step sideways along the track. After a few steps, straighten up and continue along the track. Repeat this circle - shoulder-in - straight exercise several times around the school, then repeat it on the other rein.

 

Ride this exercise in walk to ensure your horse learns to flex and bend both ways before doing it in trot or canter. Finish off by riding the horse deep and stretching him to alleviate and release any muscle tension.

 

Something a little harder

 

Travel on the three-quarter line in shoulder-in, then straighten the horse for six strides, then transition back to shoulder-in. Make sure the horse stays balanced throughout. It is important that he remains straight between the shoulder in movements. The goal is to encourage the hind leg to come under the horse’s body more, allowing him to lift through the forequarter. Using the three-quarter line is a great test to ensure that the horse is not relying on the side of the arena. The horse must be working off your aids and using himself. Try this at walk and then trot the shoulder in to test if you can hold the same line. You will quickly find out if the horse is drifting. If he is, go back to using the side of the arena to assist you.

Add in some leg-yielding or shoulder-in while out on a hack rather than in the arena to keep things varied.​

Pace work

 

Pace work is great for improving your horse’s fitness and is essential to both overall health and performance. If your horse is relatively fit, trot and canter up medium hills to improve the suspended movement. Don’t overdo it - 15-20 minutes of trotting and relaxed pace work is generally enough. It’s about getting the horse to stretch through his body and take a longer stride after spending time in the arena taking a shorter stride, rather than trying to make him tired. Lots of walking and trotting up hills is great to improve strength in the back end, and it also helps with the horse’s coordination and balance. Don’t forget to work on straight lines or very gradual bends to help your horse find his own balance when doing hill work.

Hacking out

 

Do plenty of hacking out of varied types. You can hack out for hours or minutes at whatever speed you feel like. I try to hack each horse out twice a week or use hacking to cool down my horses. It is beneficial to all horses even if it is just used as a bit of downtime for both of you. I always want my horses to finish their work in a relaxed easy manner after they have tried hard for me and a short hack is a nice way to do that.

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