HORSE AS ATHLETE
Strategy and tactics for Development
We have discussed walk as a foundation gait for horses and for humans. What we can understand, in addition, is that a biomechanically correct walk and its variations are an extraordinary tool for developing the whole horse as an athlete. Each gait has its own possibilities for developing specific muscle groups in the context of particular exercises. The overall plan of action for enhancing a horse’s athletic capabilities is called a strategy, while focusing the strategy on a specific goal is called a tactic.
We will look at a 1-2-3-4 plan: pure gaits, basic bending, long/low riding and lateral work. Riding with a “classical” body alignment is neutral with regard to gravity. Maintaining this posture is a potent influence for the athletic progress of a horse. Half-halts are specific combinations of rider position and weight to encourage development of strength plus range of motion in a calm frame of mind. Further, the gravity neutrality of correct posture allows complete connection through a horse’s top line and bottom line muscles (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Horse and rider are presented in an extended trot with level balance. Black circles indicate approximate centers of mass (COM), which should remain conjoined for half halts. Latissmus dorsi and medial gluteal muscles form the outer group of back muscles that a rider feels as the legs move. A contracted muscle feels like a lump, which goes away when the muscle relaxes. Ventral serrate muscles are available to the rider’s lower leg (calf muscles) to maintain the horse “on the forward aids,” the seat controls the hind quarters while the reins-to-hands receive the results of combined aids. The sternohyoid group of muscles connect to the “jaw within a jaw” or the hypoid apparatus: between its arms pass the windpipe and esophagus. Undue pressure on the reins will choke the horse if the poll is brought too low or the face comes well behind the vertical. It is important to the physiology of exercise that a rider is aware enough of anatomy to allow the horse to breathe in comfort during aerobic exercise.
The Training Tree
A Training “Pyramid” with bounded stages is a concept sometimes proposed to embrace a strategy for training. I prefer to show a plan with a gradient “Tree” rather than borders between criteria (as some organizations do) because “borders” imply abrupt change, even if authors are only using a diagrammatic device. An important feature of a training strategy is GRADUAL CHANGE CLEARLY UNDERSTOOD BY THE HORSE. My “tree’s” foundation shows ATTENTION as a first requirement for training, followed by CONFIDENCE as a second requirement. My reasons for describing attention and confidence as basic are simple. if a horse is inattentive, the lesson at hand is not likely to be learned, let alone understood. If the horse cannot understand, its confidence will be limited, and possibly a lesson will be mentally tagged with tension, a problem that could crop up every time an exercise is asked. A distracted, tense or resentful horse might be dangerous to handle. Under tension, muscle contraction/relaxation cycling may not reflect optimal capacity at a particular session. A tense horse will also be crooked because its stronger side contracts more than its weaker side. It is important that a horse “takes its pride back to the stable” after working to expand its envelope of symmetry, strength and flexibility (see Figure 2 ).
Phases and Timing
Pure gaits are essential for dressage. As the timing diagram shows, dressage has a specific set of timing in the lower left of the diagram. These gaits share some critical features.
First, they have four evenly spaced phases, and their TIMING includes silent times as well as the sounded hoof beats. Timing is a foundation quality for developing muscle strength. If a gait description does not include its silent moments, for our purpose here, it is a necessary feature but not a sufficient condition to understand “duty factors.” Duty factor encompasses the length of time that a leg WORKS against the ground. The longer a leg works in support from toe-down to toe-off, the more balance and muscle effort is required. If you would like to convince yourself of this, march very slowly across your riding arena, with expressive knee action. In this process, you will discover the reason horses prefer to take quicker steps rather than slower: it is less demanding of energy. Be careful with your demands for slower tempos, because while they build muscle, too much “drilling” in slow tempos can take a toll on willingness to perform if the horse is made sore. (see Figure 3).
Second, the four evenly spaced phases of dressage gaits enable true DRESSAGE TRANSITIONS between all three gaits, which are slower than “utility” or “dive and lurch” transitions. Aside from stride length, which affects speed (usually measured in meters/second), each gait will have its characteristic TEMPO. Tempo has some dependency on size and breed, so the numbers that follow are for general understanding. Walk has the slowest tempo sequence at about 55 strides per minute, trot at approximately 70 strides per minute. Canter has the widest range of tempos with 95 strides per minute for the extended form and about 63 strides per minute in pirouettes. Passage and piaffe reflect walk tempos (See Figure 4).
Basic dressage transitions are “up” to a speedier gait or “down” to a slower gait. There are six: walk-trot, walk-canter, trot-canter, canter-trot, canter-walk and trot-walk. All six transitions need balance, coordination and strength and will contribute powerfully to these qualities if performed with accurate timing and preparation. For every transition, the horse must solve two factors: a velocity change or “gap” and limb phases or positions in the “old” and “next” gait. This makes dressage transitions six unique “limb swap” patterns. Learning about these and their associated half-halts is the topic of another article.
In walking, all four phases are marked by a hoof beat. In trotting, there are two hoof beats and two suspensions (silent times) per stride. Cantering has three hoof beats and one silent time per stride. There are some special features of collected canters that we will not discuss here, as they would require an entire article on this gait.
Third, each dressage gait has a DIAGONAL MOMENT (see speed of gaits diagram – Figure 3) that is distinct in its relation to the timing of the overall gait. These diagonal pairs are time-dependent (tempo-dependent) and MAKE IT POSSIBLE TO PERFORM FLUENT, LEVEL, PROMPT TRANSITIONS. In the walk and canter, the front leg at mid-stance and the hind leg at braking show a similarity of these two gaits. Walking is symmetrical: each half of the gait mirrors the other half as the four hoof beats complete a stride. Canter adds jump and a quicker tempo to the walk, repeating only half the gait for each “lead.” This makes the canter an asymmetric gait where the leg sequence for each stride does not mirror activity. Trotting is symmetrical but its diagonals move in a “parallelogram” rather than in the phasing of walk. Some horses have minimal suspension, and it should be noted that worship of long suspension times is a road to a lame horse. Suspension is longest in extended trot and canter, diminishing as the tempo decreases.
Tempo changes or transitions within gaits are the subject of a much longer topic. For now, we will focus on the “ordinary” gaits as they contribute to the athletic development.
Bending is also an important skill for all lateral work. From minimal bend on a 20 meter circle to the bends for leg yield, shoulders-in, half pass and pirouettes and voltes, bending for lateral work and exercises on circles engages mental and physical effort toward a horse’s athletic development. Leaning in through corners and on circles is the signature of a horse that is not bending. Instead, it crosses the inside hind diagonally under its body. Key to athletic progress is the ability to bend and to carry weight with the inside hind placed under the inside hip when a movement calls for that skill. Because of spine structure, the vertebral surfaces connect in a manner that allows some axial rotation with lateral bend. Direct experimental measurements of bending in the rib cage have been performed in detail. The lumbar spine, with long lateral processes of its vertebrae, does not bend laterally, but are capable of slight axial rotation.
Advanced bending includes smaller circles (down to 6 meters diameter) and pirouettes in walk, piaffe and canter. For all work plans, try to have variety for the horse to keep a cheery outlook. All work should be forward and not drilled or over-practiced so your horse never becomes sore or bored.
The contact is difficult to write about because it lies within the sensory abilities of horse and rider. (see Figure 5). Briefly, I include some images of my Azteca mare with a rein connection that is satisfactory or too strong. Connection is a quality that embraces the whole horse and is allied to “throughness.” Throughness means not just absence of resistance or tension, but is a positive condition of continuous, elastic linking of horse and rider. Its character is joyful. An optimal connection through horse and rider not only enables correct athletic progress, it avoids false collection (contracted gaits). Contracted, tense horses over time lose elasticity of movement and may even become “bridle lame.” This type of disability is caused by a rider and is not only difficult to correct, but eventually leads to injury. At this point I should mention that all tack should be well adjusted, with the saddle placed so it does not interfere with the shoulder blade. The bridle cavesson should be loose enough to allow soft motion of tongue and jaw. Horses are clever at moving their tongues in various ways, including withdrawing them from the bit or slipping them over it. For dressage purposes, the bit is a communication device with the tongue. It should not be used for punishment, except in instances where safety becomes a concern. Regaining trust in a bit is much like putting the fuzz back on a peach. “Crank cavessons” seen on bridles are often an indication that some factor of saddle fit, bit architecture or a driving seat are the real problem.
Now We Are Able to Discuss How Correct Gaits, Combined With Specific Exercises That Continue Advancing Physical and Mental Development of Your Horse
With pure gaits, basic bending and a working connection understood, your horse has become well enough developed in all its muscles to begin lateral work. We will assume that in the process of working long and low and in ordinary postures, the contact and its connection through the whole body is comfortably functional (it does not have to be perfect). Long and low work stretches all muscles and is proof of relaxation in mind and body. It must be performed with forward energy to identify your horse’s RANGE OF MOTION in its striding. Time spent with long and low in walk and trot will help refresh work on two or three tracks.
Lateral work is strenuous and you should try to keep the horse refreshed with frequent intervals of forward riding, especially with a swinging back in the long/low exercise in walk or trot. This plan will develop qualities of strength, suppleness (elasticity) and promote the qualities of balance that lead to collection. As the simple bending exercise with Smokey shows, he is briefly collected as he executes a quarter pirouette in walk, carrying me plus himself with the inside hind leg under his inside hip. If you compare this with the images of Max in shoulders-in and pirouette, you can see his smooth muscular development from forehand to hind quarters. Muscle groups are well defined without lumps or stringy sections. (see Figure 6)
Pure gaits and transitions among them add coordination to the efforts of good movement. As we discussed earlier, technical aspects of half halts for transitions are the topic of another article. Careful attention to tempo will prepare a horse for fluent changes of gait. It is important for riders to realize that asking for changes of any sort requires that the horse be “set up” in a way that tells it what will happen next. Sudden demands are likely to upset a calm training session. They also help release the serratus (forehand, trunk) and hind quarters (hamstring group) portions of the “sleep locks” or stay apparatus the horse uses to nap while standing. These muscles are needed for fluid movement when not asleep.
Shoulders-in on right and left reins strengthens the whole top line musculature as well as bottom line musculature ONE HIND LEG ENGAGEMENT AT A TIME. With the same bend, the other hind leg can be engaged in haunches-in. It is usual for a horse to be fluent in shoulders-in on one rein and resist the haunches-in on that rein. Valuable information is available if this is the case, as you have now identified the horse’s weak hind leg. Your training plan then might include some basic bending work in walk squares, using the quarter pirouettes on that rein to strengthen that hind leg as it works inside the bend. Walking quarter pirouettes are particularly useful because they engage each hind leg with a significant duty factor minus concussion of landing from suspension while helping the forehand become supple as front legs cross on the outside of a corner.
Changing length of stride from long and low to a lateral exercise as well as stretch of the whole body promotes muscular development in terms of strength and elasticity. Partial pirouettes in walk are especially useful to help riders work toward collection. The bend and placement of the inside hind leg under the inside hip is especially useful for developing all muscles of the hindquarters. I have omitted leg yielding here, because aids for it are different for some authors. It deserves its own section to help readers understand its history and place in a “dressage school” strategy. The earliest I find it mentioned is by a French contemporary of La Guériniérè, DuPaty de Clam. He introduces it head out on the circle! Riding de Clam’s exercise is often tricky for riders not accustomed to absolute control of position.
In lateral work, the horse needs to be technically straight for a particular figure or exercise. Max is straight on left and right reins. Even with his level of sophistication and understanding, his right side was never quite as strong as his left side. So straightness, symmetry and suppleness are always moving targets for your training strategy. Advanced lateral exercises such as leg yield on a circle or half pass deserve their own article.
Exercises for Training
In closing, I offer a few exercises to assist a training program. These exercises are deceptively simple, but contain elements meant to unify efforts of horse and rider (See Figure 7).
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