Wednesday, Jul. 24, 2024

The 21st Century Dressage Horse Is Stronger And Better Than Ever

Understanding the biomechanics of the dressage horse shouldn't be so confusing, and yet after all the discussion about Rollkur I wonder if everyone is looking at the same thing.

When I see a horse actively seeking the bit and moving rhythmically with no tension through the back and shoulders, then, to me, this is good training, whatever the method.

Conversely, when I see a horse stiff, with no movement through the back, locked jaw, and stiff shoulders and neck, there's no harmony; this is a bad display of dressage.
PUBLISHED

ADVERTISEMENT

Understanding the biomechanics of the dressage horse shouldn’t be so confusing, and yet after all the discussion about Rollkur I wonder if everyone is looking at the same thing.

When I see a horse actively seeking the bit and moving rhythmically with no tension through the back and shoulders, then, to me, this is good training, whatever the method.

Conversely, when I see a horse stiff, with no movement through the back, locked jaw, and stiff shoulders and neck, there’s no harmony; this is a bad display of dressage.

The first step to creating a great dressage horse is rhythm and relaxation (focusing, straightness, forwardness); if the horse is not moving free and forward then the upper level movements will be short strided and tense, and the horse will never be through.

If you want to reach the 70 percent and above in dressage tests, the horse must first be through and relaxed–it’s essential.

Too many times I see riders forcing a horse into a frame: inside leg to outside hand. It doesn’t matter that the horse is flinging its head all over the place; the outside hand must remain fixed. The result is a horse with short steps, no relaxation through the back and a locked shoulder. And if the horse doesn’t cooperate, simply kick more and hold harder. It also helps if you are a strong man.

ADVERTISEMENT

For women, there has to be a better way. I have learned that I cannot physically hold a horse–I’m simply not strong enough. Currently, I ride a 14.2-hand, 6-year-old pony stallion with a large neck, and if he wants to fling his neck around, he can, and there’s little I can do to stop it.

So I ride him forward with two giving hands, encouraging him to reach toward the bit. In doing this it also encourages him to stretch (and swing) his back and flex (strengthen) his stomach muscles–the understated but most important factor of riding horses deep.

Strength Training
In essence, the purpose of riding deep has actually little to do with the neck and much to do with the stomach and back. Flexing (strengthening) the stomach muscles prepares the horses later for collection, so that when you ask the horse later on in the training to sit on his hind end, he already has the muscles built to do it. The ideal is to ride horses forward with light contact so that when you ask them to sit on their hind end, they can easily switch the balance, be-cause the proper muscles have been conditioned.

Conversely, with the more classical method of riding there’s little change in balance. The stomach muscles are not strengthened to the same degree as when riding a horse deep. Consequently, both back and stomach muscles work evenly. Unfortunately, with the added pressure of the rider on the horse’s back muscles, the equation suffers, thus causing the retraction and soreness of back muscles and the increased work of the stomach muscles.

The main difference between riding deep and the more classical method is the horse’s neck position. In the classical method it’s heightened and actually causes the back muscles to either cave or to be static, thus losing the action of the hind leg. If the stomach muscles are strong enough, the hind leg can move more freely under the horse because it’s supporting a frame that’s strong enough to hold itself for the increased impulsion of the hind leg. If the stomach and back are not strong enough, then the hind leg takes short steps and often moves out more behind the horse.

It’s interesting, too, for someone to ride both types of horses. Generally, a classically trained horse is harder to sit, because it’s the rider who absorbs much of the horse’s movement. With a horse that has been trained deep, the horse remains in his own rhythm and almost sucks the rider in.

ADVERTISEMENT

For a particularly talented rider, the key is to ride lightly on the back so that none of the horse’s movement is stifled by the rider’s seat. We always want to encourage the horse to lift the hind leg higher with no punishment; if the rider is slamming into the horse’s back, he’s hardly going to want to engage his hind end.

Positive Tension
After the rider has allowed the horse to move rhythmically and forward and the horse can do so with no tension in his body, it’s time for the next step.

To collect the horse, the horse must shorten his back and further contract his stomach muscles with either training system. Ideally, you want the horse to be able to handle this change in balance. With the highest degrees of collection–the piaffe–the horse must become contracted and move the energy up instead of out.

This is when positive tension is necessary: the horse must keep the same rhythm and relaxation as when in the less collected movements, but be able to hold himself in such a way that tension exists–it’s in the flexion of all the muscles that are wound tight–like an accordion or spring. The stronger a horse, the more positive tension is going to be apparent: the horse can sustain the frame and rhythm of the piaffe steps with greater height and ability; the result will be increased engagement of the hind end in the piaffe steps.

Ultimately, the opponents of riding horses deep are missing the key point. But as long as they refuse to look at the system objectively, the horses that are trained this way from a biomechanical approach are going to have scores higher than the classically trained horse.

The analogy could be drawn to the track star running the 50-yard dash: if his only practice is the 50-yard dash, then he’s sure to lose against the runner with better conditioning who runs not only the 50-yard dash, but the 100-yard dash, the 200-yard dash and the mile. It’s as simple as that.

Tiffany Tyler, of Ashburn, Va., is spending a year training in the Netherlands with Anky van Grunsven. She grooms Salinero, Krack C and Painted Black. Tyler responded to the Sept. 2, 2005, Horseman’s Forum written by Chronicle freelancer Birgit Popp called Who’s Responsible for Maintain-ing the Classical Principles of Dressage? and wrote her own Forum, Modern Dressage Horses Are Athletes, Not War Horses, which was published in the Oct. 21, 2005 issue.

Categories:

ADVERTISEMENT

EXPLORE MORE

No Articles Found

Follow us on

Sections

Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse