Published in Topline Ink Equestrian Journal, July/Aug. 2009, p. 17 [online here].
Strengthening the hind legs is key in dressage because balance is the ultimate goal. When the horse can carry himself and the rider in balance, the quality of the gaits is improved, and the horse’s soundness is preserved. To move in balance under the rider, the horse must shift weight from his forehand onto his haunches, and many of the exercises in dressage are intended to build strong hind legs. Unfortunately, horses will often try to avoid carrying more weight on the hind legs. They will use various evasions for which the Classical School has developed solutions. The techniques discussed in this article for strengthening the hind legs of even a reluctant horse are stirrup-stepping, the windmill, the rein-back, and the Hankensprung.
Before explaining these approaches to loading the hind legs, it is important to understand how the hind legs function. Classical theory recognizes that the hocks work like springs they push back against the weight that is placed upon them in the opposite direction with equal force. Just as a ball will bounce higher the more force is put on it, the bouncier a horse’s gait will become the more weight is placed on the hock. By putting weight on the hind leg and then driving forward, the rider can create a big, springy stride that lifts the horse’s forehand, allowing the horse to carry himself more in balance.
One way to put more weight on the horse’s hind legs is by stirrup-stepping, an aid that belongs to the “secret” aids of the Old School. By stirrup-stepping, the rider can load a specific hind leg, causing it to bend more and push off of the ground with more force. For example, if the rider wants to put more weight onto the left hind leg, he or she should momentarily put pressure on the left stirrup. The extra weight will force the croup to lower on the left side, which will flex the joints of the left hind leg. Because the hock is more compressed when the hoof hits the ground, the horse will push off with more force. It is best to put weight on the hind leg while it is off the ground because, otherwise, the horse could stiffen and resist bending. Stirrup-stepping can create a springier gait, especially if the rider drives the horse forward just as the horse is pushing off with the hind leg.
Another Old School exercise that strengthens the hind legs is the windmill. This exercise is also a correction for horses that are stiff, disobedient to the leg aids, or that refuse to go forward. For example, If the horse is ignoring the rider's right leg, the rider should halt and turn the horse’s head to the right. The rider should place his or her right hand at the right knee and bring the horse's nose to where it almost touches the rider's right toe. The rider should then half-halt on the outside (left) rein, which will put the horse's weight onto the right hind leg. Then the rider should give alternating half-halts on the left rein, and with the right leg, encourage the horse to step slowly to the left, pivoting around his front legs. The windmill forces the horse to bend his right hind leg joints and then push up with that leg in a similar way as a deep knee bend, strengthening the hind leg. The windmill also teaches obedience to the leg and stretches out the horse’s sides. One should be careful to execute the windmill correctly, however, because the horse can injure himself if he pivots too quickly.
The rein-back is an exercise that lowers the haunches and shifts weight onto them. It demands a greater degree of stifle flexion than the windmill. The rein-back can also be used to correct a horse that rushes, or tries to evade the rider’s driving aids by going sideways or backwards. In the rein-back, the horse must bend the stifle of each hind leg more than usual when he steps backward. The rider should put more weight on the hind foot the moment it is set down. This is easier to do in a chair-seat, which also makes it more difficult for the horse to rush backwards. By shifting his or her center of gravity to the rear, the rider increases the burden on the horse’s hindquarters, which forces him to sit and bend in the hind leg joints. When the horse goes forward again, he pushes off with his hind legs in a way that is similar to a deep-knee bend, which strengthens the hind legs. The rider should be careful to not allow the horse to avoid the stifle flexion by stepping sideways with the croup. The rider should also be careful not to put more weight on the hind legs than the horse can carry, as the horse could fall backwards in the rein-back.
The exercise that makes the greatest impression on the horse is the Hankensprung, which is a rudimentary school jump related to the courbette. This exercise forces the horse to bend in the hind legs to an even greater extent than the rein-back. The Hankensprung is an appropriate correction to use on horses that are leaning very heavily on the forehand, or that try to evade the rider’s aids by rearing or leaping. To begin the exercise after a sufficient warm-up, the rider should trot forward briskly on a straight line, and then bring the horse to a quick halt, while being careful to keep the horse straight. The rider should then use half-halts in combination with driving aids to cause the horse to lift his forelegs off of the ground. If the horse does not jump, but rather merely rears, then the rider should yield on the reins and, at the moment the forelegs start to return to the ground, take back on them again and lean back with the upper-body. The rider should then drive the hind legs underneath the horse’s body. When the horse's body is at the highest point from the ground, the rider should hold the forehand strongly with both reins so that the horse lands with his hind legs first. By lifting the forehand and jumping off of the hind legs, the horse must bend in the hip, stifle, hock, and fetlock, and then push his and the rider's weight up off of the ground. This strengthens the hind legs to a greater extent than the other exercises previously discussed. The Hankensprung demands skill and tact from the rider, but the result can be a significant improvement in the horse's carriage.
Using the techniques of the Old School, the rider should be able to convince a reluctant horse to shift weight onto his hind legs. One should always bear in mind that balance is the goal. When the horse is driven forward after shifting weight to his haunches, he will move his center of gravity forward to the center of his body. The rider should keep it there by shifting the weight to the haunches, and then driving forward again as often as necessary to keep the horse balanced. When the horse is able to carry himself in balance under the rider, he will develop the best quality of gaits possible, while also preserving his soundness.
Seeger, Louis. Herr Baucher und seine Künste. Ein ernstes Wort an Deutschlands Reiter. Verlag von Friedr. Aug. Herbig. Berlin, 1852. [Translation]
Louis Seeger was a student of Max Ritter von Weyrother of the Spanish Riding School, and the instructor of Gustav Steinbrecht, the author of Gymnasium of the Horse.
Translations on classical dressage: