BY JENNY ROLFE
Have you ever been to the gymnasium for a workout? What exercises were you given in preparation for the more strenuous athletic movements? In my experience, you are initially taught to control your breathing and then work through some gentle, stretching exercises in rhythm with your deeper inhalation and exhalation. When the body is feeling more relaxed and mobilized, then more ambitious exercises can commence.
Any exercises, whether for human or horse, requires that muscles are warmed-up and loosened before work can begin. Only the muscles which have been allowed sufficient time to warm-up, will be capable of stretching sufficiently, to protect the joints during exercise. Cold weather or stress can tighten these muscles. Injury, stiffness and pain may be caused if these concepts are not fully understood.
The time we allow for effective warming-up, will ensure that the session of training can progress with more empathy and less resistance. The horse can use this time to relax into his work, with muscles encouraged to work, in a fluid and supple way. If this time is not rushed and forced, the more demanding work later in the session should be more harmonious.
Unless the rider has an understanding of the purpose of warming-up, then the work will lack in inspiration and improvement. This scenario, if often repeated, will prevent the training of the horse from progressing with any consistency. The horse will continue to work in the same way, unless we concentrate on exercises that improve his athletic ability and develop a greater ‘feel’ for what we hope to achieve from him. We should not target the warming-up only towards the physical requirements of the horse. This time should also be spent asking him to tune into our way of thinking.
Without a structure, the horse may continue to lack in concentration and energy. We can use this time to guide the horse to work with increasing activity and suppleness.
Training cannot progress with a lack of submission or inadequate energy. When the work becomes more advanced, problems which occur during the movements frequently result from a lack of time spent in basic work. We are aiming to achieve looseness, rhythm and straightness in all three paces, with a submissive and attentive attitude from our horse.
A Focus on Breathing Enhances Concentration
In our teaching, we will be trying to communicate a desire for forward movement. We do not want to be continually asking the horse for this. We would prefer that in all his ‘thinking’ that he should be active and energetic. Unless there is sufficient energy created from the hind limbs, the horse cannot work through his back and relax in the poll. Although visually the energy is being produced by the hind limbs, the source of energy created is from the horse’s mind.
Our horses enjoy movement, as we can see, if we take the time to observe mares and young stock in the field. They love to chase each other, playing and running freely. You can watch them developing games together, just for the joy of expressing free movement.
The art for the classical rider is to introduce the discipline without losing the enjoyment for both the horse and rider.
My Favorite School Exercise
Whilst training in Lisbon, Antonio Borba Monteira taught a very important exercise on the circle, which helped the horse to take a correct contact into the outside rein. To ride this exercise, walk forward on a fifteen or twenty meter circle, and then position your shoulders and upper torso, slightly into the circle. With your inside leg placed slightly behind the girth, encourage the horse to move his quarters, away from your leg. The horse should ‘melt’ away from your inside aids and take more connection with your outside hand and leg His body will move over towards your outside leg which will support and contain the movement. The flexion of the neck is away from the direction of the movement. If you are yielding to the left, his neck flexion is to the right.
For just a few strides, feel the horse working into the outside rein and moving away from your inside hand and leg. Encourage the horse with focus on your breathing as this will enable your pelvis to follow more freely with the sideways motion of the horse.
Practice this exercise for just a few strides then continue to walk forward on the circle. Your shoulders will help to guide the movement of the horse. The inside hand (wrist) should be turned slightly inwards (towards the rider’s abdomen) when positioning the neck of the horse. This is an action of asking with a squeezing of the fingers to encourage the inside flexion. We do not want a constant connection. We ask, then when we receive, we can give.
Ask, Wait, Then Receive and Give
This will guide the horse to working correctly into the outside rein contact, using the basic principles of the diagonal aids.
When this submissive feel is established, take a breath inward and on the outward breath, work forward into trot. Encourage the first strides to be energetic, using the whip to reinforce if necessary. Maintain the good contact into the outside rein and leg but allow the horse to work deep, but submissively into the lengthened rein. It is vital the horse learns quickly, that in training he needs to be energetic and responsive and not lazy.
If at any stage, the horse falls back heavily against your inside aids, then repeat the exercise in leg-yielding in walk, until he re-establishes the connection, working into the outside hand and leg. It is easier for a horse to understand what is required if we stop the movement when things go wrong. We can then use this exercise to regain true submission to our diagonal aids. It is necessary to praise and encourage the good work, and try not to interfere, when all is going smoothly. When you proceed again forward into trot, allow a longer rein to encourage the horse to lengthen and lift his spine working with both looseness and submission.
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