Anyone who has spent any time in the wonderful world of dressage has come across this concept. There have been thousands of excellent articles written on the subject and rather than reinventing the wheel here (and risk boring myself and you!), please refer to the EA National Dressage rules Section 7 - Paces and Movements: http://www.equestrian.org.au/site/equestrian/national/downloads/2005/dressage/rules_tests/2012%20Rules%20and%20tests/2012%20Dressage%20Rules.pdf for a full description. Rather, we shall be looking how our riding affects these principles.
Rhythm is where it all begins! In walk, trot, canter including the collected, medium and extended paces (also free walk!), our position will affect the rhythm in negative and positive ways. If we do not allow our body to move in rhythm with our horse, how can we expect the horse to walk/trot/canter in the correct sequence of footfalls with fluidity and cadence!
* When my horse walks or canters, do my elbows remain soft and allow the head to move?
* Does my rising trot match the trot rhythm of my horse? (plus you can use your rising trot to influence the rhythm!)
* Is my sitting trot allowing the horse to move with elasticity and correct tempo?
* In the canter, am I sitting with the leading leg, or against it?
* In all paces, am I plugged in with my seat on the centre of gravity so I can move together with my horse, or is my seat constantly shifting, allowing my upper body to move in front or behind the balance of movement?
Our position must remain correct with sufficient muscular tension yet relaxed and dynamic in order to move with our horse. Experiment with the feeling of too much/too little tension in your muscles (break it down section by section eg. forearms, thighs, lower back etc) to find the right balance for you. Observe how the differences affect the way your horse moves forward.
Suppleness is where it all starts to come together! Here we are talking about:
1. physical suppleness of the horse
a. longitudinal: over his back, within the “circle of contact” where energy is able to come and flow through the frame without any blocking.
b. lateral: musculature on either side of the horse can stretch & contract equally.
2. mental suppleness - where the horse is relaxed, submissive yet still moving with energy!
We expect our horse to be “supple”, but what about the rider??! If you can’t move easily through your day without struggling and hurting, think about how this will carry through to your riding! You will “hold” when you need to “give”, “collapse” where you need to maintain equilibrium and if you are not able to move fluidly, then your horse will struggle to do so also!
“Only a well trained and fit rider can inspire its horse towards top performance”
Olympic Silver medal winner Adelinde Cornelissen
Contact - The horse accepts and follows the rider’s hands. Contact is supple, elastic and correct. Correct contact is the “circle of contact” where energy, created by the hind quarters, flows through the horse’s body without impediment from both hinds legs equally into both sides of the mouth (which is essentially the rider’s hands). The horse is able to move freely within this contact when required, demonstrating an elastic frame and suspension of the steps.
* Do I encourage the activation of the hind quarters?
* Do I maintain an elastic and dynamic feel of my horse’s mouth so he is encouraged to remain and grow in confidence within the contact?
* Am I well-balanced in my position to be able to establish and maintain a good contact, or am I constantly letting the reins bulge then pulling my horse’s mouth to hold myself still?
Again, experiment with too loose/too firm contact to see how it effects your horse’s forward rhythm, his frame (longitudinal suppleness) and bend (lateral suppleness). See how it’s all coming together?
Impulsion - Forwardness and energy generated from the hind legs (not speed!). How much impulsion to ask for depends on the level of suppleness & contact, as impulsion “channels” through the supple musculature of the horse into an elastic contact.
Keep the impulsion at a level at which you and your horse can stay in balance! There is no point creating a wonderful energetic trot if you are unable to sit it. As a judge, I have seen some entertaining examples of beautifully moving horses with unbalanced, struggling riders. Before long, the horse will grow tired of the struggle - training and performance will start to go in the wrong direction. For me, suppleness is the key - the more supple you are physically, the more able you will be to move with your horse and stay in balance. Build the impulsion hand-in-hand with your ability to ride it!
Straightness - The horse’s hind feet tract through to the footfalls of the front feet (i.e. the left hind tracks through to the left front, and same for the right side). Sounds straight forward, right?!! If your horse is supple, then he has a good chance of being straight. The same goes for us as riders - if you are physically supple, you will be able to sit straight! Again, as a judge I have seen some interesting riding positions, with rider’s sitting off to one side which of course has the horse trying to balance underneath them, with the result of the horse ending up on 3 or 4 tracks! Suppleness = straightness = a sound & efficiently-moving horse.
Collection - Can you ride an effective half halt? This is the path to collection. As a result of correct rhythm, excellent suppleness, acceptance of contact, a good impulsion, remaining straight, then the horse can gradually become more “closed” and move in balance/self-carriage. Through the horse’s acceptance of effective half halts, there will be a progressive lowering of the hind end, a freeing of the front legs & lightening of the front end. The co-ordination of your aids from a correct position will enable you to ride half halts with excellent feeling and responsiveness. Remember that everything is a progressive development!
This bears mentioning again: it is UP TO OURSELVES to be disciplined riders! Ride consciously. Break it down step by step and allow yourself (and your horse) time to make the corrections for a more harmonious partnership.
By the by, it’s interesting to note how The Training Scale relates not only to Dressage, but to all other equestrian sports. Think about showjumping, carriage driving & vaulting for instance. These disciplines also require Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness & Collection as the benchmarks of harmonious education and development of the horse.
Trish Braithwaite is a qualified EA/NCAS Level 1 coach, assisting riders of all ages & abilities and their horses in dressage, showjumping & crosscountry training. Trish coaches full time in & around Brisbane, Australia. She can come to you at your place or to another suitable venue, anywhere. Contact Trish at email@example.com or 0427 134 033.