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Wednesday, 20 November 2019

November's Dressage Exercise of the Month

It's the second post in our winter training series and this month we're going to focus on how to help you become in control of your horse's shoulders and hind, & we'll start off with a basic exercise to get you going! Later on in the post, I'll share with you our favourite exercises to put the basics into practice.

I'm going to apologise now - there's no pretty photos or diagrams for this. My artwork skills, unfortunately, don't extend that far!

Both of these turns can start to test your control of the shoulders (turn on the haunches) and quarters (turn on the forehand), and are a great way to tune up your horse's aid to move away from leg pressure. 

Some trainers will start with the turn on the forehand, however, I've always found this quite difficult when coming to a halt and moving the quarters over. I also believe it goes against the principles of training to maintain forward momentum in movements, therefore, I'm going to start with riding a turn on the haunches.

Turns on the haunches

First up, turn your standard 20m circle at E or B into a square visually. In preparation, make sure that you are riding straight - I come off the track a couple of meters to test my straightness down the long side on both reins. I'm looking for a good quality forward walk that maintains a straight line and straightness through the horse's body.

If it's your first time teaching or riding a turn on the haunches here are my tips for how to:
  • Ride your square with curved corners to get used to the shape and become familiar with the lines you'll ride
  • Gently half-halt using your upper body and outside rein as you approach the corner to your square
  • Using your outside leg aid, while half-halting, apply pressure just behind the girth. Keep your inside leg neutral and in an allowing position
  • Your seat aids should have slightly more weight down the inside
  • When applying outside leg pressure, half-halt and guide your outside hand to the direction in which you wish the shoulders to move to. Make sure your hand never crosses the neck
If you correctly apply the aids, your horse should move to the quarters through your half-halt preparation, and as you apply the outside leg pressure and guide him from the outside, his inside hind leg will come more underneath him to enable him to make the turn. He will continue his forward momentum throughout the movement, including and crucially, throughout the turn itself; he should never stand still and only move the shoulders.

When you've completed the turn, using your forward momentum, move off and continue around the square making sure you're straight along each edge.

Described above is how to do this exercise in walk. It is not possible to do in trot due to the two-step rhythm, but if you want to progress, you can aim toward canter quarter pirouettes. This is a fairly advanced dressage movement and should be performed with correct progression training to ensure that it is correct and injury is avoided. 

Hopefully, in reading through this exercise, you'll start to understand why I use it as one of the first exercises to introduce leg pressure aids - it describes the basic principles of turning a horse around a bend. You need a half-halt to balance and shift more weight into the quarters, the horse needs to accept and be willing to bend around your inside leg, and you need control of the outside aids to guide him around his turns (not pulling from the inside rein aid).

Turn about the forehand

So now I've detailed out how I ride a turn on the haunches, I'll start to look at the turn about the forehand. Cathy (my flatwork trainer) gave me the phrase "about the forehand" because it better describes the movement while maintaining forward impulsion.

The key difference here is that there is no halt to turn on the forehand in the movements that it is preparing you for, so instead at the moment of halt, I ask for the turn.

For this exercise make your square a little narrower by staying 1.5-2m off the track on the long side. Once again, make sure that you are straight before starting the exercise and that you have a forward-thinking, active walk. It can also help to practice walk-halt-walk transitions for a few minutes before your begin teaching your horse this exercise. Make sure that you are active into the halt, you work on being straight & square in the halt, that your horse stands still, and that when you ask, he moves off actively and straight.

If you're not sure or need a bit of a refresh, here some tips to help you ride a turn about the forehand:
  • Ride an active and straight walk along your square's edges, and as you approach the corner, use half-halts to ensure that you are balanced
  • Prepared to halt. This doesn't mean that your rhythm slows, but that your horse is prepared for what you are about to ask
  • In the moment of your final 1-2 footfalls coming into the halt, ask for the turn about the forehand
  • To ask him to step over with his quarters, you'll need to adjust your 'standard' inside position, shifting your inside leg a little further back to indicate to move the quarters & thus, you'll outside leg will also need to move back a little. Keep a little more weight to your inside seat bones and your outside should a little further back
If you and your horse haven't done this before, be happy with half a step. This isn't a natural movement for your horse to perform so don't expect 90 degrees the first time. Crucially, if your horse does make a correct step (or even half a step) move forward in a straight line, even if it puts you off your square direction. The key learning for him here is to move away from your inside leg pressure with only his quarters and continue his momentum forward. 

This movement is ONLY possible in walk - it cannot be performed at any other pace. 

Louie & I still struggle with this movement on its own and usually practice the basics to then combine with more complex exercises that use its principles. At first, Louie couldn't understand to move his quarters without moving forwards too. I simply stood him in front of a fence and used the leg to push him over, which helped him understand to step around his forehand. We still can't perform an absolute turn on the forehand which some trainers will enforce, but we can turn around the forehand to 90 degrees and move off in a straight line with an active walk.

If you are struggling with your horse understanding the aid, check your outside shoulder remains a little further back and you have a good contact down your outside rein. You can exaggerate your inside leg position for the purpose of teaching the aid, or alternatively use a long dressage whip to gently tap the top of the hind leg and encourage it around WHILE asking with all of the other aids. This can be a lot for a rider to ask if it's their first few times riding the movement, so you can also try a whip from the ground to do the same effect. 

You can take both turns about the forehand and turns on the haunches, and make the exercise around a square more complex by alternating the turn you use on each corner, or make the square smaller but make sure you establish straightness on each edge. 

Introducing lateral exercises with the principles

With the above two exercises, you'll have helped your horse to understand aids to move the shoulders independently and the quarters independently too. It's a big step to now expect them to progress right away to shoulder-in/fore and travers / renvers... But there's lots to do to help you along the way!

One of my favourites that helps to get a horse used to lateral work is a simple leg yield. Often during my warm-up, I'll work on a 15m circle and spiral in and out using the aids to make my circle smaller through the outside aids (turn on the haunches) and make it bigger through inside leg pressure while controlling the speed and direction with the outside aids. 

While making your circle smaller, make sure your horse doesn't fall in - if you take your inside leg off, what happens? Your contact should be inside leg to outside rein with your outside aids asking him to step across and make the circle smaller, but the circle shape should be smooth.

As you make the circle bigger. there are two things to watch out for - the quarters falling out or the shoulders pulling your horse around the circle. Correct the quarters with a slightly further back outside leg aid and guide the shoulders back in with your outside rein aid and your own shoulder.

Once you're confident you can spiral in and out correctly and with ease, you can move onto leg yielding in a straight line. Here's where you'll find out how straight you are and where you'll need any correction aids to complete the movements correctly.

The exercises I like the most for leg yielding on a straight line are coming down the three-quarter line and as you pass E or B, leg yield back to the track. Use the first part of the three-quarter line to make sure you are straight and have active movement in the pace. Remember your horse should move sideways straight. My aim is always better quality of straightness and keeping activity rather than reaching the track again, although rejoining the track before the corner is the end goal.

You can reverse this exercise so that you leg yield from the corner coming onto the long side (at M or K on the right rein, or F or H on the left) and yield towards the centre line. To ask for the leg yield, you should change your diagonal and flexion so that the horse understands the "new inside" aid. To help you with your change of bend, work up the long side a few strides straight before changing bend & diagonal, and asking for the leg yield.

Once you are more confident & correct, you'll be able to zig-zag from the centre line. From the right rein, turn onto the centre line. Get straight and leg yield to the left to the three-quarter line, sit to change the diagonal, and leg yield to the right to the quarter line, before changing again and leg yielding to the left again to the three-quarter line before meeting the track again. Again, don't push for reaching your quarter lines, opting instead for a quality straight leg yield. Bigger sideways steps will follow as you become more established and your horse finds his strength and suppleness.

The zig-zag exercise can have an additional complexity added by your first leg yield being back towards the track you just came from. Don't forget to change your diagonal and inside flexion to assist with the movement for your horse. 

If you struggle with your leg yield, teach your horse / allows yourself short learning periods so he or you can process what is being asked and needed. A few steps in the early days is good progress - don't expect the perfect leg yield straight away. 

I hope that you enjoy having a go at these exercises over the coming weeks or months. I find it a great way to break up our flatwork training session while we're bound to the arena during the week in the darker months of the year. Why not tell us how you got on in the comments below?

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