The Bigger Picture? Forget it!

Posted by in balance of the rider and horse, Blog, canter to trot transitions, canter to walk, canter transitions, controlling the shoulders, freeing the back, get your horse going, get your horse listening., getting your horse in your hand, go forward, goals, interesting schooling, keep a contact, keeping your horse busy, serpentines, serpentines and 10m circles, straightness, straightness in turns and circles, straightness in walk, transition problems, transitions, transitions from canter to trot, trot, trot and canter, trot or canter, trot to halt, Uncategorized on Mar 24, 2012

You’ve heard the expression “Look at the bigger picture” – right? It’s a great way of looking at life. But not when you’re schooling your horse! Too many riders focus on getting their horse on the bit without actually thinking about what gets him there.


On the bit is the result of good schooling – not something that’s needed at the start. It doesn’t matter if you’re schooling your horse for the first time or working towards a Grand Prix dressage test if the fundamental parts are wrong your horse can’t work onto the bit. Forget about the bigger picture. Start looking at the smaller one!


To work correctly your horse needs to sit back on his hocks. This gives him the balance and the energy to drive himself forward. If you contain this energy by holding a steady rein contact you’ll push his quarters nearer to his shoulders and he’ll have to round his back. This gives him the shape everyone refers to as on the bit.


Your horse can’t sit back on his hocks if he’s crooked. His shoulders must be directly in front of his quarters. Whilst there is a chance your saddle needs checking or his back is ‘out’ there’s a strong chance his crookedness is down to one thing. You!


Your position affects everything your horse does. Whatever you do with your shoulders and hips he’ll do with his. On a circle if you turn your shoulders to the inside but not your hips he’ll do the same. His shoulders will turn but his quarters will go straight on – or swing out. It won’t matter how much outside leg you use if your hips aren’t in line with your shoulders he’ll stay crooked.


On the bit isn’t created by pulling your horse’s head back towards his body – or from side to side. All this does is makes him uncomfortable enough to drop his nose down away from the pressure. The minute you stop he’ll come up again because the muscles in his back are tense and they need to stretch.


When your horse’s back is tense it hollows. This pushes his quarters and shoulders further away from each other. He can’t sit on his hocks and no matter how hard you use your legs your efforts are wasted. Stop pulling and maintain a steady contact on his mouth and he’ll relax. When you use your legs he’ll step under his body and work forward into your contact. This contact acts like a dam. Energy gets trapped behind it and as long as you don’t drop it you’ll keep him connected between leg and hand.


Schooling isn’t boring but trotting endless circles is! Your horse’s job is to do as you ask but your job is to make life interesting enough for him to want to. Get creative! Ride figures of eight in walk and trot. Canter 15m circles instead of 20m. Anything different will spark his interest and keep his attention.


Three loop serpentines are great shapes to use in any pace. It’s not the shape that makes them difficult – it’s how you tackle them. A serpentine is just three half 13m circles joined together by straight lines. They’re interesting to use in trot and, done correctly, fun to use in canter.


Trot serpentines to focus on your position. As you ride each loop make sure your shoulders and hips are in line. Your horse will do the same. When you can turn and straighten him without constant corrections he’ll relax and work into your contact.


To get your horse shorter in his outline you need to get his quarters nearer to his shoulders. You need to ‘shunt’ them together. Ride trot to halt transitions as you cross the centre line. Ride forward into the halt. Your legs aren’t asking for speed – they’re pushing his hocks further under his body so he can sit back and balance.  


The way you sit on the saddle will affect your transitions. Take responsibility for your own weight. Sit square to the front and on all three parts of your seat. As you cross the ¼ line straighten up, sit up and look up. Look down and you’ll tip forward. Your horse will fall onto his shoulders and find it impossible to sit on his hocks.


To keep your horse’s attention ride circles in the end of each loop or add a 10m circle as you cross the centre line. The fewer aids you have to use the easier it is for your horse to understand. Turn your shoulders and hips onto the line you want to take and he’ll do the same. Keep your hands together and you’ll keep his shoulders together and stop him falling in or out. Focus on keeping the contact the same in both reins. If you lose the contact on one rein you’ll allow energy to escape.


Cantering a serpentine isn’t beyond the capabilities of any horse. Start by cantering the first loop. Ride a full circle to gauge the size of it. Ride straight across the school when your horse is balanced. Trot as you cross the ¼ to give you time to steady him before you start the new rein. Stay in trot for the rest of the shape.


Add each loop by asking for canter on a circle within it. Initially it’s important to focus on making the size of the loops accurate so your horse stays balanced. As he improves you can start to introduce the transitions between the ¼ and ¾ lines. Don’t limit yourself to canter to trot either. Why not use canter to walk? They’re great attention grabbers and they’ll improve your horse’s balance and concentration.


Everyone needs to think about the bigger picture. It’s what motivates you to try harder. But get obsessed with it and you’ll stand no chance of reaching it. Get your horse working forward, keep his attention by using fewer aids and more interesting movements and before long you’ll find he’s relaxed in his back, straight and focused. Isn’t that the bigger picture?


Good luck and enjoy your schooling. 

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