The old masters considered balance and suppleness to be the cornerstones of dressage, because they are the prerequisites for obedience, agility, lightness, impulsion, and collection. Almost all authors of the 19th and early 20th century emphasize the importance of these two concepts and spend a great deal of time explaining how to develop and improve them through gymnastic exercises. At the heart of these exercises are usually combinations of turns and circles of various sizes that require the horse to bend his spine laterally. Once the horse has mastered these basic exercises on a single track, they can also be ridden on two tracks in a variety of lateral movements.
There are infinite possibilities of how to combine voltes, circles, and figure eights with the basic arena patterns, and each rider should become creative and try to design his or her own exercises from the basic ingredients. In this article, I will give one example of how this can be done. In the method I use, I like to start with a relatively simple pattern of straight lines, turns, and circles. I familiarize the horse with the work space by walking the pattern once or twice first. When the horse understands where we are going, I begin adding elements to the basic pattern that add complexity and increase the level of difficulty. The walk is a good gait to explain the exercise to the horse, and it helps the rider to study it, since everything happens in slow motion at the walk, so to speak. Once the exercise can be executed smoothly, I ride it at the trot, which in itself increases the level of difficulty noticeably. And finally, the same exercise can be ridden in the canter, which makes it even more challenging.
One of the advantages of this approach is that the same basic pattern can be used for practically any horse. In its most basic form, the exercise may have a Training level degree of difficulty, and by adding elements to it, it can become a 1st level, 2nd level, 3rd level, 4th level, etc. exercise. When ridden at the canter, many of these exercises require an FEI horse. Another advantage is that in this modular approach there are infinite possible variations on the same basic theme. So the exercise can take on a life of its own and evolve and change with the horse and his needs. This keeps the training flexible and interesting for both horse and rider.
I will begin with the description of the basic line of travel: Begin by riding Whole School on the left rein. Make a left turn at B onto the Half School Line. This turn is in essence a corner.
When you reach the first Quarter Line, begin an immediate 10 meter volte to the right. This volte is framed by the long side, the Half School Line, and the Center Line. Stay on this volte until the horse submits to the line by assuming the bend of the volte with his own body.
When the horse is ready, leave the volte and continue on the Half School Line from B towards E.
When you cross the second Quarter Line (opposite E), begin a 10m volte to the left. This volte is framed by the (opposite) long side, the Half School Line and the Center Line as well. You can stay on this volte again, until the horse has found his balance on the new line.
Then you add a 10m volte to the right through a figure eight, starting on the Half School Line. Both of these two voltes touch where the Quarter Line intersects with the Half School Line opposite E. Both voltes touch the long side 5 meters on either side of E, and both voltes touch the center line 5m from X. One volte touches the long side and the Center Line to the left of E and X. The other volte touches the long side and the Center Line to the right of E and X.
When you are content with the quality of this last volte to the right, you leave the pattern by continuing down the long side on the right rein.
This is the basic line of travel. As you study the exercise, you have to find out which part of the exercise is especially challenging for the horse, and you have to experiment with different ways of helping the horse make the transitions between the different elements flow smoothly.
Here are some suggestions to try that may help the horse execute the pattern better. Before you make your first left turn from the long side onto the Half School Line at B, transfer your weight into the outside (right) hind leg. During the turn, shift your weight into the inside (left) hind leg. This left hind leg now quickly becomes the new outside hind leg in the first 10m volte to the right.
The old masters discovered that the quality of each turn or circle depends on how well the rider can control the outside hind leg, i.e. how well the rider can flex the outside hind leg between the body mass and the ground. That’s why it is helpful to shift the weight into the left hind leg just before beginning the volte to the right. The end of the left turn is also the location where the horse has to change his bend to the right, in order to be able to begin the volte right. This can be supported effectively by hugging the horse with the (new inside) right leg as if you wanted to ask for a slight leg yield from the right leg towards the left for a stride or two, and shortening the (new inside) right rein.
As you enter the volte to the right, you can shift your weight to the inside hind leg for a couple of strides to flex this inside hind leg.
Before the next volte (to the left) begins opposite E, shift your weight into the right hind leg, which will be the outside one in the new turn. Transferring the weight into the new outside hind leg before the turn enables the horse to lift his withers and shoulders and to engage the inside hind leg more under the body mass. If the rider forgets to rebalance the horse onto the outside hind leg before the turn, the horse is likely to fall onto his inside shoulder during the turn, which will prevent the inside hind leg from stepping under. The horse will lean onto the inside rein and counter bend, and the exercise will lose all gymnastic value.
During the transition from the volte left to the figure eight towards the right, opposite E, the rider repeats the weight shift into the new outside hind leg, which is now the left one.
While on the voltes, it often helps the horse to ride a very subtle (almost invisible) leg yield from the inside leg for a stride or two, as if one wanted to lead the hips and shoulders onto a slightly larger circle line. This creates a weight shift away from the inside shoulder and towards the outside hind leg. Although this is conventionally called a leg yield, the main aid should be a swinging of the rider’s pelvis towards the outside of the circle line, so that the horse is invited to follow the seat and weight of the rider. The inside leg then merely asks the horse to stay underneath the seat.
The weight shifts from one hind leg to the other in preparation for the next turn are challenging for many horses, since they involve a change in balance and bend. If a horse cannot yet execute them smoothly at the trot, then practice them at the walk until they really flow easily. The rider’s task here is to find out exactly when, where and how to adjust his seat so that he is in a position to guide the horse seamlessly through the individual parts of the exercise.
Once the horse can execute this pattern in the walk, try it in the trot. Once you can do it in the trot, add a shoulder-in on the straight lines. For instance, begin with a shoulder-in left on the first long side to B. Then turn left at B, ride your first 10m volte right, and continue down the Half School Line from B to E in a shoulder-in left again. Opposite E, ride the second 10m volte (to the left). Then ride the figure-eight to the right and finish the exercise with a shoulder-in right on the long side between E and the corner.
In the shoulder-in, the combined body mass of horse and rider needs to be supported by the outside hind leg so that the freedom of the inside shoulder increases, the engagement of the inside hind leg improves, and the outside hind leg is prevented from swinging towards the outside.
Remember always to establish the new bend before beginning the new turn, and to shift the weight towards the new outside hind leg before asking for the new bend. Once you have established the new bend and you begin the turn, you may have to shift the weight into the new inside hind leg, depending on the horse’s needs. Remember that the main turning aid is a rotation of the rider’s pelvis. Leaning to the inside without turning the pelvis makes the horse turn like a bicycle, i.e. without bend. The inside leg and rein support the bend. The outside leg and rein support the turn. The inside rein cannot turn the horse, because it will block the inside hind leg and throw the horse onto the shoulder of the stiffer side and away from the body mass.
Start simple and let the exercise evolve. Try variations on the theme by substituting or adding elements or by changing the sequence of the elements. In a way, there is no right or wrong way of designing an exercise. There are always numerous possible alternatives. Some of these alternatives may bring better results with a given horse on a given day than others. Find out by experimenting what works best for your horse on that particular day.
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