In training the horse along the principles of dressage, there is one quality that, though it is elusive and often subtle, is fundamental to everything. This quality is balance – if it is correct, everything is possible; if not, systematically the gaits of the horse are destroyed. In my experience, few trainers really address themselves, in depth, to the concept of balance. I have formulated a philosophy over the years with ideas from some significant teachers in my background, but mostly from the horses I have trained. I share it with you now.
The horse’s method of locomotion, when left to his own devices, is to propel himself forward over the front legs – letting the force of momentum developed by his weight do most of the locomotion. Except for initiating the movement forward (when the momentum has not yet developed), the horse is traveling on a small percentage of thrust from behind and a large percentage on momentum. Bringing the horse into horizontal balance more or less equalizes these percentages – 50% thrust and 50% momentum. The horse at this stage is able to stabilize his balance and demonstrates this by maintaining a clear, consistent, working rhythm; the activity and carrying ability of his hindquarters is sufficient to keep the momentum of the forehand controlled. This can only occur in relatively slow rhythms, a quicker rhythm indicating that the horse has slipped to the forehand and is falling after the momentum. The horse must balance himself not like a seesaw (where he would be constantly tipping back and forth), but instead the hindquarters must be brought under the horse to achieve a “pedestal-like” base of support under the center of his body. Therefore, along with the slow rhythm, we must also have long strides – reaching well under with the hind leg. Slow rhythm and long strides are only possible with true impulsion (impulsion being thrust from the hindquarters, not speed). The horse’s hind leg must be controlled by the rider’s leg so that they can be brought under the horse to support the body, thrust forward in long strides, and lift up the body of the horse in suspension. As impulsion is increased, the forehand lightens even more and cadence is developed. Cadence is the clarity and deliberation of the rhythm and is formed by the coming together of balance and impulsion.
The lateral movements of shoulder-in, travers, renvers and two-track all help the rider bring the hind legs under the body, provided the balance is maintained and the rhythm is controlled. Transitions develop the strength of the haunches and give the rider opportunity to school the obedience of the horse to the rider’s leg and seat (small of the back). The horse must be ridden with the rider’s aids in the following sequence; the leg of the rider initiates energy that travels from the horse’s haunch throughout his back and into the bit. The small of the rider’s back either, supports the existing gait, pushes to lengthen the gait, or absorbs the energy in downward transitions. The unbalanced horse cannot be controlled by the leg – for he is always falling towards the rider’s hand… then he is reprimanded with the hand and the hind legs are stifled even further. The balanced horse, because his haunches are being ridden under him without interference from braced seat bones, steps forward through a raised and relaxed back and becomes increasingly supple. The suppleness, in turn, allows the pedestal-like balance, thus causing the forehand to be free of weight. The resulting lightness appears as freedom and mobility of the shoulders. The haunches are connected through the body to the bit, and the horse is truly ridden from the leg into the hand. He is on the bit with fully engaged hindquarters.
Now, let us consider some of the more common pitfalls along the way to achieving this goal of dressage. If the rhythm is too fast to begin with, as is so often the case in misguided attempts to ride “forward”, then the horse begins with the balance tipped to the forehand – a victim of his own momentum. The more energy added (in the name of impulsion), the more the horse “chases” his balance. Because the horse is unbalanced, he stiffens his back. The horse on the forehand cannot bend and every “movement” attempted by the rider brings him more out of balance. Obviously, the horse not balanced in a single track cannot properly execute movements of a double track – therefore, “shoulder-in” (nothing more than leg-yielding because of the inability of the horse to bend), or any other lateral exercise, only causes the horse to come more out of balance. Then, because the horse is a creature whose balance is instinctually linked to his existence, we have created a situation that very often results in tension. The chain of events continues, and what often emerges, depending on the temperament, is the horse that “turns off” the requests of the rider and becomes dull and sluggish or, at the other extreme, the horse who becomes very tense and explosive, running through the bit. Sharp spurs for the ”dull” horse or a more severe bit (or some other restraining device) for the tense one only compound the problem and intensify the force. The horse can never become elastic and supple for he truly cannot engage his haunches. As the requests of the rider become even more difficult (progressing through the movements of each advancing level), the horse becomes stiffer and more resistant and tension continues to build. The gaits and movement deteriorate, sometimes even resulting in physical lameness. One sees much proof of this in competition; there are many nice-moving horses with good gaits at training level, but very few at third and above. Trying to achieve collection on such faulty foundation as I have described is disastrous because the horse is out of balance and is not controlled by the rider’s leg. The rider then attempts to pull the horse together with the hand (remember the sequence of the aids), and this results in a shortened neck, stiff back, trailing haunches and quick, tense, flat strides. The horse may be forced through the movements of each level, but the gaits have been destroyed. It goes without saying that the principles of dressage are to improve the gaits, to make the horse elastic and submissive (without resistance), and certainly not to ruin the gaits in faulty attempts to demonstrate the “movements” (incorrect as they are) in competition.
If the rhythm is slow and the strides long, the horse is “working” much harder (with more impulsion) that if the rider allowed a faster rhythm, tipping the horse on the forehand and allowing momentum to do some of the work. Of course, slow rhythm and energyless, short strides are incorrect, but it is important to remember that the strides must be lengthened in the same rhythm. If the horse’s strides are short because he is stiff through the back, then suppling exercises will help – but almost always just putting the horse in balance will cause him to relax his back and his gait will begin to “swing through”.
Riding the horse on the outside rein is also a function of balance. The horse is controlled by the rider’s outside rein and leg, bending around the inside leg of the rider. His is channeled into a “chute” or track determined by the positioning of the rider’s legs. The outside hind leg of the horse must track longer than the inside hind leg – this “stretch” on the outside is what causes the bend on the inside. If the rider does not control this outside leg and encourages it to step longer, than every corner of circle causes the horse to come out of balance.
The inside rein is soft, allowing the horse to “step into” it – another way long strides are encouraged to achieve greater engagement under the body. Bending is physically impossible for the horse balanced on the forehand; therefore, if the horse is not balanced, the rider can only “turn” by pulling on the inside rein. The result of this is that the horse is drawn onto the inside shoulder. Most riders will react to that by pushing the horse off the inside leg toward the outside of the circle. So now the horse falls to the outside and one problem is traded for another with force trying to achieve what the horse could not, at that point, do. When we do not prepare the proper conditions, failure is inevitable. The examples of this are endless.
Balance is the “bottom line,” for as you can see, the absence of good balance not only prevents the horse from realizing the full potential of his movement, but destroys its beauty. To address the subject of balance is to deal comprehensively with literally every principle of dressage. To understand it, at least in part, is to open doors in the training of the horse through which both horse and rider will pass with a sigh of relief?
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR ARLENE RIGDON