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Collection of Short Articles

Cynthia F. Hodges, JD, LLM, MA

Thoughts on the Canter
What to Do When You Have No Trainer
Solutions to Half-Pass
Grand Prix Potential
Criteria for the Training Level Horse
Training in Germany

Thoughts on the Canter

This was meant as a response to the article "The Foolproof Canter Depart" by Heather Mason in the September 1999 issue of Dressage Today.

The horse's inside hind leg initiates the first step of the canter stride, not the outside hind.  This is the reason that the horse picks up the inside lead more easily on a 10 meter circle; the inside hind is forced to step under the horse. Because the inside hind steps into the canter,  the aid to canter is the rider's inside leg at the girth when the inside hind leg is swinging forward (at both walk and trot). The rider knows when the inside hind is coming forward because the inside fore leg is on the ground, the barrel of the horse swings to the outside and the rider's seat is pushed forward and to the outside.  This is easy to feel at the walk and extended trot, but harder at the working and collected trot.  If the rider cues with the outside leg back, he is not only targeting the wrong hind leg, but he is encouraging the horse to swing his haunches to the inside (this will cause swinging haunches in tempi changes later on).

To prepare the horse for the canter depart without the horse getting upset or anticipating, the rider can alternate posting and sitting trot for a certain number of strides before finally sitting and asking for the canter.  The preparatory half-halt not only gets the horse's attention, but half-halting on the outside rein on the outside hind leg (half-halt when outside fore leg is down) will cause the horse to bend in the outside hind leg and assume more weight on it.  The inside hind leg is then freer to swing forward into the canter.

One should also remember that straightness in all gaits is fundamental in dressage.  Counter-flexing briefly in canter will test the horse's suppleness and balance. Counter-flexion in the trot is a good exercise to practice before attempting counter canter.

GOAL OF DRESSAGE: To attain even flexion and equal assumption of weight in the horse's hind legs.

The amount of shift in balance towards the back will be dependent on the horse's strength in the hindquarters. If one were to place all of the exercises into a hierarchy, one would see that each asks the horse to bend the hind legs and therefore strengthen them according to his ability. The beginning exercises (shoulder fore, 20 m circles) ask for a small amount, the advanced ones ask for a great degree of bend (piaffe, passage). Only the classical dressage schools still perform the ultimate exercises in hind leg gymnastics: the airs above the ground.

What to Do When You Have No Trainer

I think that every rider should read at least some basic dressage theory once you have decided to pursue the sport. In an ideal world, the student would study the theory, and then the trainer would either confirm or correct as need be. The necessity of being well-versed in theory increases when you are left to ride on your own without the practical guidance of a trainer. I can recommend some excellent books to read in the interim. I think the books to start with are The Complete Training of Horse and Rider by Alois Podhajasky and Ecole de Cavelerie by de la Gueriniere. I also recommend Riding Logic by Wilhelm Mueseler, Dressage: a Guidebook for the Road to Success by Alfred Knopfhart, Horses are Made to be Horses by Franz Mairinger, Gymnasium of the Horse by Gustav Steinbrecht, and System der Reitkunst and HerrBaucher und seine Kuenste by Louis Seeger. Useful information can also be garnered from Kurt Albrecht, Eugen Abel, Werner Habermann, Gunnar Hedlung, and Albert Brandl.

Knowing why you are training something and what the ultimate goal is will help you stay on track. You will become a thinking rider rather than one mindlessly obeying the orders of the trainer. You will also develop your own style, but one that is grounded in proven methodology. Don't be afraid to ride by yourself, but know what you are doing and why beforehand.

Solutions to Half-Pass

On the "Solutions" page (back page) of the May 1998 issue of DT, Kyra Kyrkland talks about getting left behind in half-pass, canter and walk pirouettes. I think it's important to point out that the illustration shows the rider looking straight ahead -- not in the direction of travel. Perhaps many riders lose their balance and get left behind because they do not focus on where they are going. In half-pass, it is important to keep your eye trained on the letter of destination (better even to be slightly in front of the letter). Otherwise, it is difficult to see half-pass for what it is -- a travers (haunches-in) on the diagonal.

Grand Prix Potential

I find it interesting that so many people ask whether a horse has Grand Prix potential. Shouldn't every horse, assuming he has decent conformation, be capable of GP movements? Isn't the whole point of dressage to develop the horse physically and mentally to the point where he can perform the GP lessons? If one trains the horse systematically and correctly, he should, in theory, be able to carry out GP movements. Maybe the question should ask whether the rider has GP potential. So many riders get stuck at 2nd Level because they can't master flying changes, for example, yet this and every movement in dressage is natural to the horse. The only difficulty is getting the horse to execute a movement he does in nature on cue. Even though I believe every horse can or should be capable of GP, I know that not every horse can compete at a national or international level, but that is something entirely different.

Criteria for the Training Level Horse

From Dressage & CT magazine, June 1998, Free Rein, page 18.
A Training Level horse must be on the bit, that is, he must accept the bit and maintain a steady contact on both reins. I think the confusion about being on the bit stems from the fact that it isn't required for his head to be completely perpendicular to the ground (on the vertical). He is allowed to have his nose a bit in front of the vertical, which is actually the case for every level. The big no-no is to be behind the vertical.

The Training Level horse's frame is going to be a bit longer than a horse at, say, 2nd Level, who is expected to have developed a measure of collection. This does not mean that the training level horse is allowed to shuffle along on the forehand. No, he must show at least the beginnings of self-carriage and impulsion. He must not lean on his rider's hands for support.

At Training Level, the horse should be able to bend equally to both sides on a 20 meter circle, be straight, which he should be able to do if he can bend equally to both sides, carry himself in balance, maintain an even contact on both reins without resistance, be relaxed in his back, exhibit correct gaits and rhythm, and be obedient. Without these prerequisites, there is no foundation upon which to build.

Training in Germany

Over the past Christmas holiday (1997), I had the opportunity to train in Germany. I visited several stables in the Verden/ Bremen area, where my husband's family lives. The horses there were quite breath-taking. Almost every one was a 17h warmblood and gorgeous. From riding with the Germans, I got a better sense of "throughness," as well as "whispering" one's will to the horse, that is thinking a transition or a slower pace, for example, and influencing him with invisible aids. It was also quite thrilling to be able to practice tempi-changes and pirouettes on the well-trained horses I was given to ride. It was a treat to school in the indoor 20x40 meter arenas, which seem to be standard there. It was a bit chaotic however, because I was riding with as many as four other horses at times. What I did not like, though, was that the horses were very heavy in the reins and non-reactive to leg aids. What I felt is what I consider to be the overuse of draw reins, which causes the horse to come behind the bit and overbend in the neck. At one stable, I saw one rider pull her horses from front to back, with the horses' chins to their chests. The horses were not bent at the poll, but in the middle of the neck, very much behind the bit. One young horse was lunged with side reins so low, that his chin touched his knees. The same was to be seen at another stable. Some riders pulled their horses' heads in and even sawed on the reins. Most of the horses were overbent in the neck and a few had developed a pacing walk and a four-beat canter from being held in too much. According to Alois Podhjasky in Horse and Rider, draw reins should be used when teaching a new lesson, if need be, but never to set the horse's head. I do not want to say that this problem is Germany-specific, it was only there that it became apparent to me. The most important lesson to remember is that the rider should not let his ambition turn the horse into an object that must be bent to his will. Nothing forced is ever beautiful, especially if dressage is to be considered an art form.

Response by Julia Dahleen

What you saw on your Christmas trip to Germany was the all too common (nowadays) deep and low method of schooling the horse which has become popular in recent times. This method was brought back to the front lines by the successful modern day dressage riders such as Nicole Uphoff and Anky van Grunsven. This is a topic of great debate these days, with many arguments pro and con. Proponents of this idea claim increased submission, faster training (and therefore sales), and a lighter feel in the reins earlier on in the training. On the opposing side, is the belief that deep and low only curls up the horse's neck and disconnects it from the rest of the body. The belief here is only the long and low method of FORWARD and downward stretching, which creates a stretch of the muscles over the withers, thereby raising and strengthening the horse's back muscles, is of value. I personally believe that one should go to the history books and see the severe flexions of Baucherism to understand that the deep and low work that you witnessed is only for VERY skilled hands (a handful in the world perhaps?) and anything else considered the opression of the horse's character and a slam on his good nature.
Julia Dahleen

Response to Julia Dahleen

What I saw in Germany was grossly behind the bit - the horses were being reeled in with draw reins. The ones I rode were trained to 3rd Level or above, but were extremely heavy in my hands. I guess "forward and down" are the key words, not "chin to chest." I didn't get the feeling of harmony, lightness or self-carriage. To me, dressage should develop the horse to where even a child has no difficulty riding him. Trust me, no child would have been able to hold these horses up! I guess it just rubbed me the wrong way to see the horses forced into such headsets - especially in Germany where the riders have such good reputations (deservedly?)

Explanation as per Karl Mikolka

"Let us suppose that contact is started too early and too heavily. Young horses must be ridden long enough in their daily training until they begin to relax and reach for contact with the rder's hands. If the rider takes up contact on the horse's mouth too soon, before the horse relaxes, the horse's muscles remain in their cramped condition. The horse then does not carry his own weight and that of his rider on his four legs, but rather leans as heavily as he can into the rider's hands. Should the rider now pull even harder with his hands, the neck muscles of the horse no longer have to do their job properly. Thus the rider is not strengthening the neck muscles of his horse, but only carrying the whole load in his hard hands. The horse then leans on his rider's hands, and the elastic connection between the long back and neck muscles is broken. The hindquarters drag, so to speak, behind, and impulsion is lost." (Mikolka, 389)

Mikolka, Karl. "The Basis for Gymnastic Training of the Horse." USDF Dressage Manual. Originally appeared in Dressage & CT, November 1972.

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