Archive for July, 2013

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Top Horse Boarding Facility’s Lessons Learned – Part 2: Dressage, Rhythm and The Base of the Training Pyramid

July 17th, 2013

As the Head Trainer at Whispering Hope Stables, we pride ourselves not only on providing the best horse boarding facility in the Raleigh, Cary, and Apex area, but on educating and training our equestrian athletes and their riders. We focus on dressage basics as the necessary groundwork for other disciplines including hunters, jumpers cross-country and pleasure riding.

In the last issue I began to address the first of the six pieces of the training pyramid, Rhythm. The next piece, which together with rhythm makes the base of the pyramid, thereby laying the foundation for all further progress of the horse, is known by the German word Losgelassenheit. This is defined as “suppleness, combined with looseness and with complete absence of tension.”

So, how do we achieve this? The first step, which is often overlooked and the reason for so much tension in the neck and back of most horses, is that the rider must establish the balance and hard-earned muscle memory to maintain that balance without grabbing on with the legs or hands, which can make the horse brace to maintain his own balance. This is the reason that effective riders have usually spent countless hours, not only in the saddle, but also in the saddle having their positions micromanaged by someone trained to notice every little misstep in biomechanics so that balance is achieved in the rider’s core.

The horse’s balance is then maintained by the combination of seat, and gentle leg and reins aids, but never by the constant pulling or squeezing that results when a rider is out of alignment. This kind of precision must be learned at the hands of an expert, and in the saddles of many, many horses. Mirrors and videos are also invaluable in addressing the truth of the matter when an expert is not as readily available as we would like.  In order to properly address the training scale, I will have to assume that the rider with the intention of improving the training of the horse has attended to this fundamental need. With that said, let’s get back to the business of creating the perfectly balanced horse.

To create losgelassenheit, the first step is to detect tension, and alleviate it.  Some of the signs of too much tension are a constant pulling, resulting in bulging biceps and sore shoulders in the rider, an open mouth of the horse, a tongue sticking out trying to alleviate the pressure from the bit, an inverted neck with bulging under neck muscles, a curled neck with a bulging short poll muscle, or even the feeling that letting go of the reins would result in major problems.

Tension is most likely a result of constraint on the part of the rider. I’m sorry, I know it hurts to hear, but it’s true. If a horse feels like he is pulling, one must have a look at what is on the opposite end of the rein: a hand. Releasing tension on one end, without fail releases it on the other. The horse cannot lean and certainly cannot pull. What he could do, which prevents many riders from releasing, is speed up, raise his head, or lose his steering altogether. These issues can all be addressed in ways other than holding tension on the reins.

In the last article, I addressed speed as part of rhythm. The rider should maintain balance without gripping with the thighs, which again will take constant reminding until the muscle memory is established. If the knees or heels tend to come up, or a stirrup is constantly lost, it is most likely resulting from a gripping inner thigh. Only when riding deep into the seat with relaxed thigh muscles can you teach a horse to halt and half-halt by momentarily closing the seat, thigh and hand, followed by an immediate release as soon as you get the reaction desired. Fine-tune this reaction until it happens instantaneously, within one stride. When your half-halts are effective, you can control the speed with no more tension on the rein than a slightly stretched rubber band.

Until a steady connection is established, releasing the rein may result in the reins slipping through the fingers or the rider suddenly finding the reins too long and totally loose. This is when the ability to steer or keep your horse stretching forward and down is lost. Here we need to master making the release subtler. A release is simply a moment of letting go of any tension. It could be moving your hand forward an inch for just a second, or ideally, keeping the hands in place and moving your ring finger forward just enough to relieve any pressure.

A horse that has been taught to give to the pressure of the bit will take advantage of this freedom to stretch lightly into the bit. You don’t want the reins to get loose or long so that your horse is looking around for any available distraction.

To maintain the frame and direction of travel, the rider must establish and reinforce parameters of what is expected. If the horse braces, comes above the bit, or starts sightseeing, the steady hand of the rider (which has been established by riding with hands always touching the buckstrap or saddle, otherwise they are probably bouncing around much more than you think!) should not follow, but increase pressure by simply being still. When the horse feels this pressure, he should soften to it so that he can get the reward of having freedom again. Pressure from the bit is his signal to pay attention to you, and relax his neck and back. If he responds by pulling back, take the training down a notch, even to the halt, and show him that when you hold the rein snugly, he can flex his jaw and find a release from the pressure.

Exaggerate the release to reward him as he learns this, and make a fuss over him. He’ll only enjoy the training if he can get confidence from learning what he can do to please you and get praise. Then take that same idea to the walk, continuing to ask him to relax the jaw, and in the moment that he does you can close your leg and ask for a bigger step, then relax more, then bigger step, until he is pushing forward, with his nose on the ground, in a big, loose walk. Then apply this same idea to the trot, knowing that each time you “go up a gear,” he is going to have a little more tension for you to release, but that if you are diligent and rewarding, he will learn to trot with his nose on the ground, in a slow, big, stretchy trot. It’s the same at the canter.

A horse should be able to walk, trot, and canter, with his nose on the ground, without speeding up or pulling. The rein is held to ask the horse to release tension, and then goes back to having just enough connection to the bit so that it feels rubbery. This amount of tension is plenty for steering, and allows gentle corrections to be made by closing the fingers to ask the horse to stretch forward and down again. This is exactly why there is a stretch circle in the training level test. This relaxation down into an elastic rein is the basis for all further training if you want to create a happy, sound horse.

Now that we have created a rhythmic, relaxed horse with Losgelassenheit, we can address the next element in the training, Connection.

Written by:  Laurie Hutchinson

Head Trainer

Whispering Hope Stables