Forward, Straight & Balanced, Parts 5 and 6

February 22, 2012
Palm Patnership Training

This month we’re ready to add additional exercises to further our collection work. Again, this material is taken from the four-part series that Cyril and I did for Horse & Rider with the magazine’s writer, Sue M. Copeland.

Before we begin a new exercise, however, I think it is important to review why collection is important. Collection is the compression of your horse’s body from poll to dock and it is the natural next step once you have achieved balance. Collection occurs when the horse rounds his body like a Slinky toy so that his hindquarters are lowered, his back is lifted, and his shoulders and poll are elevated. From this body position, the horse can perform maneuvers with a higher degree of athleticism than he could in a longer frame.

Because our new exercise is a variation on stride adjustments, let’s review why stride adjustment is an important exercise in training collection. It works because in order to lengthen and shorten his stride, the horse must engage his hind legs and push from behind. That rounds his back and elevates his shoulders. Transitions within a gait also help the flexibility, strength, and responsiveness of his joints and muscles. This enables him to hold this configuration for longer and longer periods of time.

Warm up your horse, and then practice the stride adjustments on a circle that you learned in the previous article. When you get your horse to instantly decrease/increase his stride in response to your aids at the jog, graduate to the lope:

1. On a large (at least 60-foot) circle to the left, pick up a medium lope. Use your acceleration aids to ask your horse to extend his stride. In case you have forgotten your seat and legs are your acceleration aids, with the seat being the primary aid. Lean back slightly with your shoulders, rotate your hips slightly forward, sit deeper in your saddle, and push on your back pockets in rhythm with your horse’s stride as though pushing a swing higher. Squeeze lightly with both legs to further engage his hindquarters and open your fingers to invite him to increase his stride.

2. When you reach the starting point of your circle, sit back and sit deep, and use your stride-shortening aids as you guide your horse onto a small circle. Your aids to shorten your horse’s stride are: lean your shoulders slightly back to drop more weight into your seat as you cease to follow his rhythm; maintain contact with your legs (to keep his weight shifted rearward), but relax any pressure; and close the fingers on your outside hand to reinforce the slow down message. Because you have asked for the speed reduction with you seat and legs, rather than by hauling on his mouth, the result should be a rounded back and deep, reaching steps with his hindquarters—the introduction of collection! Be ready with your seat and legs to drive your horse forward if he should stall out and break to a trot. With practice, you will come to feel him suck back as he is about to break gait; and you will be able to correct him before he actually breaks by using seat and leg pressure.

3. Once you have completed the small circle, drive your horse forward to lengthen once more. You are aiming for a collected, balanced frame, with your horse’s hindquarters lower than his withers, and his hind legs driving deep beneath his body. The repeated lengthening and shortening of his body causes the horse to relax, and it makes his entire frame supple. Practice several circles in both directions. Incorporate this stride-adjustment exercise, along with the one in the previous newsletter, into your daily program so that you will be ready to move on to lateral work for more collection.

You can practice the circle-in-a-circle at the walk and jog as well as at the lope, and you can practice the previous circle exercise at the lope. Feel free to mix things up! The more you do this, the more interesting and better it is for both you and your horse.

I now would like to give you a quick way to feel whether or not your horse is moving straight and freely forward.

In Front of Your Leg
Your horse is ready, willing and able to work on collection when you can feel that he is moving freely forward without running through your hand. He feels energetic, not lazy, even when he is moving slowly. He is light in his front end with his poll above his withers, and he is responsive to your seat and legs.

As you learned in Part 2 of this series, your legs influence the back two-thirds of your horse’s body, from the withers to the tail. This part of the horse is his engine. Your legs, combined with your seat act as both accelerator and brakes—decreased pressure means “stop,” and increased pressure means “go.”

Your seat controls your horse’s hind legs—his speed. When you are correctly balanced, your hips move in sync with your horse’s motion. To speed him up, move your hips faster than his current movement. To slow down your horse, tighten your stomach and rump muscles in order to slow your hips’ following motion.

When your horse is moving freely, is soft in your hands, and is clearly pushing himself forward from his hind legs rather than dragging himself along with his front ones, he is “in front of your leg.” His poll should be the highest part of his neck, meaning his face is at, or slight ahead of, a vertical line that is perpendicular to the ground. If his nose were to tip behind this line, you would know that his weight is tipping forward onto his front end, and you would see that the crest of his neck is higher than his poll.

The opposite of a horse being in front of your leg is logically called being “behind your leg.” If your horse is behind your leg, he will feel lazy and jerky in his movement and have a short, stiff stride and abrupt transitions. He also will feel heavy on his front end since his weight will have shifted onto it, and his hind legs will be dragging out behind him because they cannot reach beneath his body. In short, he is not balanced!

If you try to “set” a horse’s head and force fake collection with your hands rather than allowing true collection to happen by engaging your horse’s hind end with your seat and legs, you will get a horse that is not balanced and one that is behind your leg! If you feel your horse falling behind your leg, go back and practice the exercises in Part 2 of this series until he is straight, forward and balanced once again.

The Half-Halt
A half-halt is a commonly used dressage aid to help with collection. Think of it like a “brake tap” in which you slow your horse by closing your outside hand in rhythm with his stride, while maintaining his energy by keeping your seat and leg aids driving him forward. (Close your fingers for no longer than it takes you to inhale.) This will compress his body as his hindquarters sink, his back rounds, and his shoulders lift as you drive him gently into your bit barrier. That is collection!

Use the circle from the previous exercises to practice slower-speed transitions using the half-halt. Remember, you want him to slow down without losing his energy (and thus balance). Close and open your fingers of your outside hand in rhythm with his stride until you achieve the desired slower speed.

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