We Keep On Learning

Aug 14, 2017 - 11:32 AM

Education can enhance our current beliefs as well as challenge us to revise them in light of new research.

Life with horses is a never-ending education.

This winter the U.S. Dressage Federation invited Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judges Lilo Fore and Denmark’s Hans-Christian Matthiesen to fill in some of the remaining holes in our education.

They gave a greatly appreciated two-day seminar for trainers and a day later joined the members of the USDF Instructor Certification Faculty for a more private education session.

The topic of choice was stiffness over the back and lack of symmetry in lateral bend, but the presenters wandered into different areas as well.

As we well know, horses do not come equally supple to both sides any more than we riders are symmetrical. Few of us are able to write with both hands or stretch evenly to either side. Yet we expect our horses to function equally on both sides, which we consider extremely important for their rideability. This quest for straightness is a work in progress for as long as we ride the horse because his gymnastic training goes on his entire working life. It’s true that some horses are naturally more “straight,” while others are tougher to convince.

The path to making the horse “comfortable transportation” as my mentor Col. Bengt Ljungquist used to say, is long and sometimes tedious but surely worth it in the end when the horse reacts to the slightest aid, is able to move in a straight line, and feels buttery in the bend to both sides.

The presenters took turns commenting on the three horses and riders who were demonstrating. All were well trained and so cleverly ridden that the riders could actually at times hide from us which side was the horse’s stiff side.

The exercises prescribed for each horse varied slightly, because they were quite different in conformation, attitude and movement and how they accepted the contact. The most talented of our demo horses was also the one that was the most difficult in the mind (so, what else is new?), and he could never truly let go in his neck and relax in front of the withers. This type of horse, who tends to just carry the bit in his mouth but actually avoids the contact, is quite tricky to keep in front of the leg and traveling straight in the shoulders. Leg yields at different angles from both posting and sitting trot as well as at the canter were a big item, and the riders reported an improved reaction and feel after repeating them.

Naturally the process then went on to shoulder-in, travers and renvers, both on straight and bent lines.

Lilo and her colleague pointed out how important the position of the rider is to the success of creating a straight horse, and they once again emphasized the benefits of longeing students to promote a centered seat, which complements the efforts of the horse.

Both presenters had horror stories about their “years on the longe,” and many of us knew the drill and felt their pain. Without doubt, longeing works quicker and more efficiently than anything else to promote an independent seat. For young children, a pony with a sense of humor ridden bareback can also accomplish miracles!

The development of the “second trot,” which most horses don’t come with, was touched on, and on this subject Hans-Christian pointed out the importance of developing a strong core in the horse. With weak stomach muscles a horse has trouble balancing himself and his rider, and therefore collection becomes problematic. Soggy cores are not a desirable feature in either rider or horse, and looking at the combination the instructor can easily detect weakness in this area.

Transitions are a very important tool for the horse to develop strength on this subject, as well as consistent and gradually more demanding lateral work. If the horse is mentally ready and willing to do half-steps or even a little piaffe, this exercise also builds up his core muscles.

Concave And Convex

As I watched, I revisited what I’ve learned from my horses over the years and what my students have discovered as they progressed.

When I talk to my students about what causes the crookedness inherent in most horses, I prefer referring to the concave or contracted (short) side and the convex or long side. Then it’s easier for them to understand that the job of the rider is to stretch out the muscles on the short side with the help of a variety of gymnastics.

The inexperienced rider tends to prefer riding on the rein of the hollow side, because the horse bends easier on the circle and turns more easily to that side. As time goes on, however, the rider realizes that this is the evasive and lazy side where the horse avoids the contact on the bit and the energy generated from the rider’s leg.

Later on, when the horse becomes more educated and starts more sophisticated work, it’s common that the rider starts to appreciate the formerly “stiffer” side. The reason is that there tends to be a quicker and more accurate reaction to the aid on the convex side because the horse cannot avoid the leg on that side.

As the horse becomes straighter the contact becomes more elastic and pleasant in the rein on the convex side, and that hind leg is more accessible to engage. At that point the rider starts to pay more attention to the slower reaction on the concave side and the lack of honesty in the contact on that rein. I have found that the majority of horses tend to bulge out to the right and fall away on the left, but that may be just my own experience.

Bits, Tongues And Footing

On the issue of contact and connection there was a brief discussion about the FEI and the demands of a double bridle.

Personally, I have always supported a choice of either because, like many trainers, I have met horses that were perfectly content in the snaffle and never truly accepted or worked happily in a double bridle. They just appeared insulted having more metal put in their mouth. I believe it’s only a matter of time before the FEI will follow our national initiative and allow the riders a choice through the levels. Both presenters also favored a choice.

Hans-Christian, who is an experienced veterinarian with his own clinic in Denmark, shared with me some of his own interesting findings related to performance. He had already lectured on some of these topics, and later he sent me the PowerPoint information.

Did you know horses have a bone in their tongue? When using our much-improved technology, in particular CT scans, there has been an unveiling of two thin bones, which attach to lower ligaments of the jaw in the back of the tongue, split and run on each side of the tongue from the jaw halfway down the member. When injured or aggravated, the tongue bone swells and becomes painful.

I don’t want to give the impression that thanks to this information, we should assume that all tongue issues relate to the discovery of the tongue bone. However, it gives us some additional food for thought when we have problems with tongues pulled up in the roof of the mouth or flipped over the bit.

On the subject of footing, Hans-Christian voiced some concerns with the “perfect” footing we all now demand for our horses, which is de rigueur at every large show around the world and increasingly common in dressage barns. Because of its sticky and spongy quality, it gives the horse a tiny bounce off the ground and tends to prevent the hoof from sliding forward as it will on natural footing.

When acting as chef d’equipe at a recent Olympics, Hans-Christian found that daily work on this kind of surface tired his team horses after several days because of exaggerated articulation of the joints and the extra bounce off the ground. In the long run, exclusive work on this “perfect” surface could develop joint problems. In addition, the lack of concussion prevents the expansion of the hoof to promote circulation.

Hans-Christian suggests a variety of areas for work such as grass and sand and walk on hard surface on roads and asphalt in combination with the man-made special footing.

It’s always refreshing to get together with other horsemen to listen and discuss subjects we’ve actually lived with most of our lives, to hear another point of view and find out new discoveries. And, at times, also get some of our own theories confirmed.


Anne Gribbons was the U.S Equestrian Federation technical advisor for dressage from 2010-2012. She has trained and shown 15 horses of her own to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships, as well as in Europe, including the Aachen CHIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been named U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American Games silver medal-winning team for the United States. Anne is a Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she was a member of the FEI Dressage Committee from 2010-2013. She was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2013. Anne started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995, and a collection of those columns is now available in the book Collective Remarks.

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