Balance and Suppling Exercise to Facilitate Lightness
The Purpose of the Exercise
- This exercise is designed to build strength in the horse, allow him to become more supple by creating bend in its trunk, get him to be aware of where his feet are and need to be, and improve his overall balance with the result that the rider will be able to move those parts of the horse that need to be realigned with more fluidness and lightness.
- It will also help riders to become adroit in the use of the aids and more accurate in the timing of their use so as to be in harmony with the footfall and movement of the horse.
- This exercise may not be considered by the traditionalists as ‘classical’ but it will produce positive results when performed correctly and will help you with all the other normal gymnastic movements. For example, you could take this exercise to the next level of ‘looking into the movement’ using exercises such as, renvers, reverse pirouettes, head to the wall, etc. which would do so much for assisting with the mobility of the shoulders.
- This exercise is also useful as a lead-in to riding La Gueriniere’s Square exercise, which is full explained in his book School of Horsemanship (pages 166-171) and is also discussed in Michel Henriquet’s book Henriquet on Dressage (page 242).
The Rationale for the Exercise
This exercise addresses the problems of flexibility, mobility, and suppleness of the horse based on some guiding principles put forth by past masters and horsemen on the subject. The principles are included as quotes within the text.
- Suppleness of the horse’s shoulders is a forgotten part of equitation. You must have mobility of the horse’s shoulders to move its feet on and off the ground quicker, because the longer a front leg stays on the ground the more it weighs and the longer the horse can leave it on the ground the more they can lean on the hand. For example, if you don’t keep the shoulders up, especially when riding through the corners, the hindquarters will drift left and right, i.e., off the line of travel. HARRY BOLDT, Das Dresseur Pferd (3rd edition), page 23, states “The great masters of riding have always viewed the suppleness of the shoulders rather than the horse’s suppleness as being the most difficult attribute to achieve, yet it is so necessary to make all movements comfortable”. GUSTAV STEINBRECHT, The Gymnasium of the Horse, page 163, says “the freedom of the shoulders in all gaits is always only the result of elevation, and this in turn is a result of the hindquarters carrying the correct weight… (adding that) no stride can be allowed in which the hindquarters are not working energetically”.
- The inside hind leg of the horse is the seat of all resistances. GUSTAV STEINBRECHT, The Gymnasium of the Horse, pages 150-151 states “The rider should therefore pay primary attention to the inside hind leg and ask it, through timely action of his inside leg and spur, not only to step forward but simultaneously also to step toward the outside leg. Only in this way can it be pushed correctly under the weight and become flexible. This rule, as simple as it seems, is the basic rule for all dressage training up to its highest perfection…The importance of this rule is so great that all flaws in the gaits and all resistances of the horse, without exception, can be traced back to non-observance of this rule”.
- GERD HEUSCHMANN, Collection or Contortion, page 14, says” Suppleness in the ribs is one of the most important prerequisites for thoroughness in the horse. Only bend can remove all the resistances in the horse’s body to being ridden. Only bend flexes the horse’s hips.” Additionally, WALDEMAR SEUNIG, in his book Horsemanship, says “The origin of all longitudinal bend comes from the stretching of the outside (of the horse) …and that the bend should evolve into the second- degree bend. This is a direct bend because it occurs using the outside leg and rein to bend the horse without force around the inside leg as a support point…Second- degree bend is more difficult because inside and outside aids must be used in sync.” To put it another way, the late HAROLD FARREN, a highly respected western trainer of horses said, “Always ride the outside of the horse around the inside of the horse and drive with the outside leg.” This means that when the horse’s inside ear moves laterally its outside shoulder should be moving also rather than using its head and neck to turn or change direction. To state this another way: When the horse’s outside ear moves laterally and lines up with your belly button, then it should stop moving and at that point the outside shoulder should move. Additionally, when riding a circle, the horse’s head should be flexed slightly to the inside and in line with its knee. HEUSCHNANN in his book has an excellent diagram on page 37 of what constitutes an incorrect and correct bend in the horse.
- A moving turn on the forehand (making as small a circle as possible with the horse’s front legs) is better than a stationary one because it keeps the horse’s inside shoulder up. You can lose elevation in the shoulder when it stabilizes. Also the isolation of moving the back end of the horse around its front end is very important for loosening and directing the shoulders. GENERAL DECARPENTRY, Academic Equitation, page 145 states “The rotation of the haunches about the shoulders – which latter we should not compel to remain fixed on one spot,, but, on the contrary, should keep moving on a small circle – provides an almost unfailing means of inducing a suggestion of mobilization of the mouth, which, if it is fostered and regularized, becomes the proper “Mise en Main”. According to Decarpentry’s definitions, ‘Mise en Main” is the yielding of the jaw, in the position of the “Ramener”, which is the flexing of the horse’s head at the poll; it is said to be complete when the nose is in the vertical.
The Exercise – Moving the Horse’s Hindquarters Around Its Front End and then Moving the Front End of the Horse Around Its Hindquarters
- This movement is described in two parts but the goal is to ride it in one continuous, fluid motion just like two partners dancing. It should also be done in both directions as well as to the inside and outside of the circle – but not all at one time.
- This exercise is a good introduction to the shoulder-in movement
- This exercise also helps to mobilize the horse’s jaw – IF the neck is kept straight
- Keep the horse’s head UP; the poll OPEN; DON’T shorten the neck; and DON’T have a lot of bend in the neck (the head should be slightly flexed to the inside, be in line with the horse’s inside knee, and with the shoulders UP)
- Keep the horse moving. When executing the first part ride a smaller circle with the front end of the horse than the hind end. Just make sure all four legs are stepping (this is not a turn on the forehand)
- It might be beneficial when first starting to use this exercise to use a ‘structure’ whip (a stiff dressage whip) rather than a ‘forward’ whip (one that is ‘whippy’ and would thus create too much energy) so that you do not get out of position
FIRST HALF OF THE EXERCISE – MOVING THE HINDQUARTERS AROUND THE FRONT END
- Begin the exercise at the walk on a counter-clockwise (left) circle. The diameter of the circle is up to the rider depending on the horse. It can be anywhere from a 20 meter (about 66 feet) circle down to an 8 meter (approximately 26 feet) circle. At a place of your choosing on the circle, perform the following movements riding into the circle:
- Raise your inside (left) rein slightly above the withers and twist your left wrist so that your little finger is pointed in the vicinity of your right hip. This action will keep the horse’s head flexed to the inside (this is the indirect rein of opposition in front of the withers – the 4th rein effect). Just closing your fingers on the rein to provide a little tension should suffice
- Maintain the contact with the outside (right) rein, but lessen the tension on the rein by slightly opening your fingers to ensure that you do not oppose the action of your inside (left) rein
- Slightly arch your lower back in order to lessen your weight on the horse’s
*At the same time, step into (‘load’) your outside (right) stirrup. This will hold the horse’s outside (right) shoulder on the ground a little longer; bring your left leg back a little behind the girth and push the horse’s hindquarters 180 degrees to the right and ensure that you touch and release with each step of the horse. Do this when the horse’s left hip is in the down position but starting to move forward and up. This will be the non-weight bearing leg and will be free to move.
Each step of the horse’s left leg should step slightly forward and to the right, landing under the mass of the body. You do not want the horse to shuffle around
SECOND HALF OF THE EXERCISE – MOVING THE FRONT END AROUND THE HINDQUARTERS
Now that you have moved the hindquarters 180 degrees to the right around the front end, you will now move the front end of the horse 180 degrees to the left around the hind end
* Shift your weight away from the pommel/horn by flattening your lower back and center yourself in the middle of the saddle
*Step straight down into your inside (left) stirrup while keeping the lower part of your leg ‘open’. Do this when the horse’s inside hip is on the up position. This inside hind leg will be the weight-bearing leg positioned under the mass of the body and provide support as you ask the front of the horse to step around it. By doing this, it will also ‘unload’ the right side of the horse to make it easier for the right front quarters of the horse to step around to the left and turn almost within the length of its body.
**SPECIAL NOTE: Step into the inside (left) stirrup to have the horse turn under you. Step into the outside (right) stirrup to have the horse turn “flatter” and go more forward through the turn
- At the same time, move your outside (right) leg a little behind the girth area and drive with that leg. Do this when the shoulder is in the back position but starting to move forward. When the horse’s inside ear (left) moves laterally the outside shoulder (right) must move with it also – do not overbend the neck, but keep the horse’s head slightly flexed to the left
- Also, use your inside (left) rein as an indirect rein of opposition in front of the withers (the 4th rein effect) by squeezing the rein with your fingers to cause the horse’s left shoulder and leg to step a little backward so as not to be in the way of the right front leg crossing over in front of it (‘setting back the shoulder’). If you were to move the left rein forward and away from your body with an opening rein (the 1st rein effect), the horse would step forward and not shift its weight back over its hocks so that the front end could step across
* Simultaneously, apply your outside (right) rein against the right side of the horse’s neck (the 2nd rein effect or neck rein) – but do not cross the mane with the rein. If necessary, you can slightly move the rein toward the horse’s outside ear, brushing it against the hair of its neck and ‘think’ about ‘pushing’ it in the direction of the inside ear. This is the principal rein of action. The left rein is the supporting rein.
- Once the horse has completed the 180 degree turn, continue walking forward in the same direction that you were going in at the start of the exercise.
- Walk a circle or half-circle and start the exercise again going in the opposite direction.
- Once you have ridden the exercise in both directions, then ride out of the circle onto a straight line to confirm that your horse is moving more
- Then go back to the exercise and ride it to the outside of the circle in both directions followed by riding out into a straight line again.