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Top Horse Boarding Facility’s Lessons Learned – Part 6: Dressage and Connection

January 29th, 2014

Top Horse Boarding Facility’s Lessons Learned – Part 6:  Dressage and Connection

At Whispering Hope Stables the Owners and I, as Head Trainer, not only provide the best horse riding facility in the Raleigh/Cary/Apex area; but on educating and training our equestrian athletes and their riders. Here my focus is on dressage basics as the necessary groundwork for other disciplines including hunters, jumpers, cross-country, and pleasure riding.

Collection is the ultimate goal of Dressage training, and therefore is the pinnacle of the training pyramid, where each building block must come into play. First based on rhythm, then relaxation, connection, impulsion, and straightness, all of these come together over much time and practice to create collection. This is then demonstrated by a lightness of the forehand and shorter, more elevated steps.

The first misconception many people have about collection is that Step One is collecting the reins. Collection is NOT a shortened frame created by constraint of the front end held in tight reins. Besides creating all kinds of tension and discomfort, this puts the horse on the forehand, they will either hollow their backs and pull upward, or curl downward and get heavier and heavier.

Incorrect collection results in the lateral walk, a loss of rhythm demonstrated by the walk changing from a normal four-beat gait into a two beat; that is both left legs, then both right legs type gait.  This walk is rarely seen when the reins are released; except in cases where the horse is so used to being constrained that he carries that tension in anticipation of the reins being pulled. In the trot irregularities often appear in the lateral work, where collection is supposed to begin. Pulling the reins to force a sideways motion instead of asking the horse to step over into a steady connection causes rein-lameness, magically cured by releasing the rein and activating the hind leg.

If your horse is sound with the exception of his lateral work, revisit your use of the reins. In the canter, constriction of the reins results in a flat, four-beat gait. The judge’s comment will often be, “lacks jump in canter.” In other words- activate, lift, and release to lighten the forehand and don’t just crunch the horse together so his movement is diminished. It’s not that the reins aren’t an active part of communicating with the horse in lateral work or collection, it’s that they must be touched and quickly released in a small imperceptible way so that the touch of the reins is a directive, not a drag. Keep in mind that the bit is on the horse’s gums- how hard would someone need to touch your gums to get their point across? No harder than fingers on a keyboard, if you have taught your horse to understand what you are asking.

A release doesn’t have to mean letting your reins droop either, it can be as subtle as moving your ring finger forward to relieve rein pressure.

Collection also has nothing to do with lessening the energy level or slowing. It is true that less ground will be covered as the steps get more elevated, but there should be just as much energy in the collected trot as there is in the extended trot. True collection actually elevates the front end by articulating and lowering the haunches in response to half-halts from the seat. These half-halts activate the energy of the hind leg, but ask for the impulsion to go upward rather than forward. The hand momentarily closes in the half halt to shift the forward energy upward, but it immediately releases to allow freedom and relaxation of the muscles.

It is true that without a disciplined rider position this would be nearly impossible, but the components of such a position warrant another article entirely.  I will just state here that for an effective seat, we must be sure our own hips are articulated forward and under to allow the thighs to come away from the saddle. A rider with a hollow back will grip with the thighs and cause the horse will hollow its back in response, which will more than likely resort to pulling on the reins. Effective hands must be trained on a buckstrap to act separately and yet remain still apart from the motion of the body, and not get tricked into needing to “fix” the horse’s position by pulling this way and that. Yes I know it’s so tempting sometimes, but don’t fall for it! For the horse to stay in balance, the hands must stay put. Adjust the reins, not the hands.

Collection is where the entire training pyramid must come into play. A loss of rhythm indicates constriction, or loss of relaxation.  Any loss of connection would fail to support the horse and help him shift his balance onto the hind end, or fail to maintain impulsion. Any loss of straightness would be a result of tension, loss of connection, but ultimately would result in losing the maximum power for lift.

It is up for debate how much the role of the front legs add to collation by braking, or pushing upward. There is no doubt that most of what you see in passage and piaffe involve the strength of the shoulders for stopping the forward movement, but this is not in keeping with the theory of classical dressage.  Here the lowering of the croup, strengthening of the quarters and flexion of the joints allows the hind end to take more weight, lifting and freeing the shoulders.

I hope these examples have given you some ideas of how you can improve your connection with your horse today. Release the reins, and just enjoy!

Written by:  Laurie Hutchinson

Head Trainer

Whispering Hope Stables

Laurie Hutchinson is the Director of Training at Whispering Hope Stables, Raleigh’s Premier Equestrian Facility. In 2014, she is competing Whispering Hope Sporthorse’s Hugo Boss in the USEF Young Horse Dressage Program for 6 year olds and her own Veva Rose in the Grand Prix and the USEF Developing Horse Grand Prix for 8-10 year old horses. She can be reached at (919) 851-6237 for lessons, training and clinics.