Breathe Life Into Training

October 15, 2010
Jenny with her Spanish stallion DELFIN
Jenny with her Spanish stallion DELFIN
Click an Image to Enlarge

by Jenny Rolfe


‘In allowing a horse, to be a horse, we can become more effective as trainers’


I have found loose work to be an invaluable tool of training whether you are teaching a young horse or working at an advanced level of training. Time spent watching the horse at liberty can give valuable direction when planning the future of his training. This is an opportunity to assess his natural movement and his general athletic ability. Also we can assess the responses and reactions as well as his energy level and state of mind.

We can learn to understand the natural mechanics of movement when we work with the horse with no tack or restriction and just watch him demonstrating his true nature and ability. Over time we can begin to tune into the spirit, emotions and individual nature of the horse to become more effective as trainers.

Engagement, submission and collection are all part of the natural movement of the horse. When he learns to respond in this way with only ‘mind to mind’ connection, the aids of the rider can become less rather than more.

The horse seeks natural balance and when ridden this can be enhanced by a good natural balance of the rider. If the rider constantly alters his balance with strong leg or hand aids, this can be extremely unsettling for the horse trying to move in a regular rhythm.

Subtle communications can be learnt, taught and exchanged during the time spent working from the ground.

Sometimes work under saddle can manifest problems, for instance resistance in movement, lack of impulsion or problems with contact. These problems can be addressed under saddle but importantly, watching the horse at liberty can add a new dimension within training. You can see how the horse responds and adapt your aids and energy accordingly. For instance, the horse may feel too restricted, when ridden, with too much pressure from the reins. His delicate mouth may feel tight with forced contact which creates a lack of confidence when the horse moves forward into a restricting hand.

A relaxed neck and head is the result of a relaxed mind using sufficient energy in physical movement. Energy can be bourne of fear and flight or it can be an expression of pleasure and pride for the horse. The horse was born to move and when he is confined to a stable and only allowed movement under a rider, this is most unnatural for him.

His character yearns for physical freedom and yet a desire for connection with his herd. This way of life is security for the horse-it is his nature and as trainers we owe it to the horse to be respectful of his true nature and spirit.

Seeing is believing and when you feel the horse connect with you and circle around you with confidence, connection and collection, you can build a deep confidence in your relationship. Your ability to communicate can be built upon focus and connection. When you see the possibilities for interaction with no tack or restriction from the rider, it will change the way you ride. The relationship can be built from the ground which is the foundation to prepare for more harmonious aids in riding. The horse has already built a connection of trust, from the ground.

Developing the Athlete

Good communication between horse and rider is fundamental to a successful programme of training. The horse lives ‘within the moment’ and to gain a positive response it is helpful for us to put aside problems from the past and concerns for the future when we are working with him.

When we connect with the horse at liberty, all our thoughts and focus are with the horse, in that moment of time. This is an excellent discipline for the rider to learn the power of intention, together with a focus on core- breathing. These skills can then be used to enhance harmony and communication when training under saddle.

Loose Work -Advantages for the trainer:

An opportunity to aquire skills of leadership and demonstrate the power of intention

Observation of the horse –his mood and way of moving

Learn to work with the personality of the horse- gain more understanding of ‘horse language’

An opportunity to gain the focus of the horse – this pattern of learning and communication will then be reflected in work under saddle –hence confrontation is minimized

To connect with the horse through core breathing – enhanced by riding.

Loose Work - Advantages for the horse:

An effective method of warming up and preparing to receive the rider.

An opportunity to let off steam with no tack- his natural exuberance can be unleashed without restriction- he is allowed to be a horse- a free spirit

A chance to communicate with the rider in a very natural way for him

To acknowledge the trainer/rider as the herd leader

To connect with the trainer and also enjoy freedom in movement.

To learn about correct working gaits, in his natural balance, with no rider-

To build the correct muscles which help to support the weight of a rider.

To connect with core breathing – this will be the key to balance and harmony for both horse and rider.

To learn to breathe correctly in work and be encouraged to sigh, to release any built up tension, through concentration and physical movement.

Trotting Poles

Trotting poles can be very useful in loose work. These exercises teach the horse to think about where he is placing his feet and he naturally stretches through the muscles of his top line to look down at the poles. Also if the poles are raised to say 4 inches, the horse can learn to work with more elevation and cadence and greater fluidity within his back.

I normally slow the pace, before the horse reaches the poles so he has a steady rhythm which allows him time to elevate and gain more upward stretch through his joints.

Natural Self- carriage

We may observe the horse working loose who is lacking energy in his movement with insufficient propulsion from the hind limbs. When he lacks activity, you will see this results in the head and neck carriage becoming more elevated. You will also observe that the horse will be less animated and attentive to you. You then have to ask for more focus and energy from the horse. He will then naturally produce true self-carriage, elevation and fluidity within his movement. This will result in a natural (not artificial) lowering of the head and neck carriage. When you begin to understand how the horse can work in this way, with no restriction from the bridle, it will change the way you feel when you ride. Once the horse is positioned correctly, using his hind limbs with activity moving both forwards and upwards, then his neck and head will come into a natural working ‘outline’. This ‘frame’ should not be forced in ridden work, but encouraged, by instigating forward, fluid energy, from a calm and trusting horse.

In this way you can learn where the horse has to be mentally and physically to gain the desired balance and posture and once these skills are learnt from the ground, it encourages lightness of aids from the rider.

Loose work is an opportunity for the trainer to establish his leadership, thus taking this relationship through to the ridden work. Trust can be built which will bring about harmonious riding.

Dressage can be an art form providing inspiration for both rider and spectator.
The essence for art will be to see both horse and rider moving as one – the rider with a smile on his face and the spirit of the horse being enhanced by his joy through balance, energy and grace.

In my experience loose work is invaluable and sadly rather neglected as part of a training program.

The power of this connection is enormous and can benefit hugely the relationship and harmony sought by all dressage riders and trainers.

The art of dressage training is only possible because of the bond between man and horse and also the love of the horse for athletic movement. His joy and pride can be enhanced through a training program borne of mutual understanding.

Jenny Rolfe gives clinics with her Iberian stallions – Her book and DVD ‘Ride From the Heart’ are available from her web site