British Dressage Training Director Paul Hayler used a statement that is generally accepted but perhaps not thought about sufficiently as the main theme of his lecture demonstration to riders and judges at Belmoredean, West Sussex (10 March). He said: “All dressage is about Balance”.
He continued: “All dressage is about balance, because if the horse is not balanced, it affects the contact and the rhythm. Often riders will see the comment on their test sheets, ‘when in better balance….’
To illustrate balance at the early levels in a horse’s training and compare that with the balance of a grand prix horse, his guineapigs for the first session of the day were Aldborough Rubenhall, top, who is being competed at Grand Prix internationally by his daughter Bobby, and a five-year-old mare, another homebred, attending her first ‘party’.
He explained: “As a young horse Ruben needed to be helped with his balance because he’s built croup high and has a roach back. But even as a young horse he had a very active hind leg which didn’t help him at that point because it just ploughed him on to his forehand.
The mare has been in work for six months. She is a genuine novice horse who is ‘horizontal’ in her build and carriage. We are able to compare the two horses respective states of balance and also their musculature.”
To begin with Ruben was producing a cadenced trot that has become natural to this educated horse, but Paul assures the audience it is entirely manufactured. However, he asks Bobby to ride rising and flatten it to a ‘nice, quiet trot’ — a bit on the shoulder and neck lowered to give the stallion time to warm-up over his back, soften his neck, loosen his joints and relax. Ruben, he says, is quite a nervous horse who comes out with a lot of bravado but with tension showing in a fussy mouth that can be ignored at this point in either a training session or show warm-up.
He also asks the mare’s rider to lower her neck to soften over the topline.
“Don’t worry if she is too deep and even a bit behind the vertical. That’s not a problem — we’re training horses here to be athletes, we’re not riding them in front of judges. They cannot physically or mentally trot round with the poll at the highest point all of the time.
“You have to understand the mechanics of the horse and how it moves. Also, by putting the horse’s head down a little bit it releases endorphins into the brain that help relaxation. A horse in a field will mostly have its head down grazing but will bring it up when something catches its attention and then the adrenaline kicks in.”
Remarking how well the mare is coping for the first time in front of spectators, he asks the audience to note: “She is working in a good rhythm and is very steady and easy to watch because she trots through her body. The legs are active but also her neck is moving, her ribcage is moving and her back is moving. She has a good brain and she is quite an athletic horse, so we can develop her muscle structure and mental ability and hopefully eventually she will be a national or even international grand prix horse. We don’t know at this point as we’re at the start of the journey.”
Both horses canter. “Again the mare’s canter rhythm is nice but I would like to see her a bit lower in the outside rein, a little deeper.
Ruben is over his back now although still deep in the poll and neck, but he has a nice steady even rhythm and the more Bobby canters him like this the more he will relax.
Because he has a big stallion neck Bobby’s job is to get that neck softer and through, so that when she uses the rein he listens and doesn’t block in the contact or the neck. A lot of horses will block at the bottom of the neck where it joins the chest, so we have to spend time making them flexible and rubbery and then you want them to stretch over the top line and over the wither and back.
He asks Bobby to progress to a more uphill balance by starting to bring Ruben’s shoulders up, to sit more on the outside hind leg: “Bobby is going to take the outside rein more and half-halt on that — ‘hey wait’ — but at the same time her outside leg is going to push the outside hind under to connect to the outside rein.”
When the horse goes out through the outside shoulder he asks Bobby to flex him to the outside and once the balance is achieved her job is to keep him straight and, by going forwards and back, get the horse more sitting on the hind leg. Ruben demonstrates how he can maintain his balance in a sitting frame while not losing the energy and activity in the hind leg so would be able to do a canter pirouette if asked.
“Bobby can bring Ruben back on to the hind leg and make him to sit because he is strong enough in his back, his quarters and his hind legs to hold that balance and frame.”
By contrast, he observes, the mare is not yet strong enough to sit and carry — she is just pushing off the hind leg and forward but in a good balance and to a nice contact: “Her canter is faster and she could have more jump off the floor, but as a novice horse I wouldn’t expect her to sit any more than this or be able to come up more in her forehand. And I’m not worried that she is a little bit down in the poll at times because, referring to the Scales of Training, I like the rhythm, the contact is good — nice in the hand, mouth still — and I like the way that she is supple over her back and is in an outline. She is very supple to the inside and she has enough impulsion.”
To demonstrate the point that the mare is not ready for more collection, Paul asks the rider to try to slow the rhythm, by squeezing with his knees and then take her forward.
“She can’t quite stay in balance in the contact and sustain the easy rhythm because at the moment she needs a little speed to help with her balance. I wouldn’t expect her to be any more collected than she’s offering.”
He instructs the rider to use his knee to hold the stomach and make a canter-trot transition: “He literally closed his knee and thigh and held the horse in the ribcage which enabled him to hold her for a moment or two as she puts her legs down into the trot transition, allowing her to organise her legs and trot on.” Commenting on situations where a horse loses horizontal balance in the downward transition, Paul says:
“So often you see horses going from canter into trot and falling in a heap before they go forward again and that is because the rider has pulled the front in and taken the legs off, so the horse drops its stomach falls onto the forehand and ploughed forward.”
Paul asks the rider to make a transition up into canter and the audience to consider the issue of balance. He points out: “The horse was obedient and got the correct lead, but she came up in the transition momentarily, it wasn’t much, but she isn’t quite strong enough yet to push and keep her stomach and wither up, so she has to put her head up to help her balance.”
Taking the opportunity given by allowing the horse a breather, Paul studies the mare’s walk and when she jogs a little he asks her rider to close his knee to settle her down, pat her and take her neck down so that she works a bit straighter down both reins. “Walk slower so that she has time to place her front feet on the floor and allow her to find her balance in the slower rhythm and you can then organise and stretch her to a contact, before slowly starting to ride the walk bigger — not faster.
“If the horse goes too fast the steps will get smaller and smaller. We want her to relax and stay slower so that she can develop a longer and stronger stride and bring the shoulders up. A greater ground-covering stride will bring the shoulders up — and if you look now the hind legs are stepping over the front foot prints.”
He notes: “The rider is holding the horse’s balance with his seat, not just the hand. I don’t want her any faster but I wanted her lower and the rider taking a little more contact because she needs to be taught where head has got to go. You use the rein to show a young horse that you want it to seek a contact. Later on, when she understands that, you will be able to ride a free walk on a long rein — but you can’t throw the reins at the horse at this point and expect it to understand. Mostly the head will just come up.
“There is no way I’d start off by teaching this five-year-old free walk on a long rein. First I would teach her to walk to the contact and put the neck down to the contact. Then I would ensure that she is balanced in the walk before I let the neck out. At the moment she’s not yet strong enough in her back to hold the neck down and keep walking.”
“When you are backing young horses, it is only when they’ve got accustomed to you that they will put their heads down. At first they put their head up because that way they can see behind you. When they’re relaxed and confident they will be brave enough to put their heads down. At that point you know that you’re starting to have a relationship with the horse.”
Going back to looking at the mare he asks the rider to allow a longer rein but still ride to the bridle and try for a bit more length of stride while maintaining the balance with his seat. He notes that the mare has more ground cover and the back behind the saddle is moving and her hips are swinging. The more she swings, the more the hindleg can step forward and under.
He asks the riders to return to canter. “Most people when you ask about the sequence of canter, look at you blankly, or they say it’s three time. The important thing is that it is the outside hind leg that takes the first stride — it’s the one the horse strikes off on and pushes with. The second beat of the canter is the inside hind and outside fore together, then the nearside fore leg, then there is a moment of suspension. But it’s the outside hind that is the significant influence — the other three legs take care of themselves.
“So we need to have the balance on the outside rein, so that the horse feels secure and connected and the rider can use his outside leg. His inside leg helps keep the horse straight and helps to get the horse’s shoulder up. The inside leg can either be by the girth to influence the inside hind coming up, or you can put the inside heel on a bit to move the ribcage away — when you move the ribcage away, it gives the inside hind leg more space to come through.
“Some horses have a good easy natural canter. Others are naturally canter crooked. You need to look at the horse’s natural way of going and it’s structure and try to improve on it.”
He observes that the mare’s rider bent her too much to the inside at a corner. “Try to keep the neck straighter so that you don’t lose the outside shoulder and allow her balance to fall in. Even flex to the outside and use your inside leg to get her inside shoulder a bit more upright.
“The mare’s rider shouldn’t try to go any deeper into the corner than he is at the moment because she’s a young horse who needs to be able to trust the rider and be able keep her balance through the corner while maintaining the same rhythm. If he tried to go deeper, the horse would back off and get shorter and tighter.”
Bobby can start playing with the corner by going deeper and also ride shoulder-in on the short sides as well. Now both do some forward and back in the canter. Andrew ride forward down the long side and bring her back for the corner. You want the balance to stay the same but the stride to get longer.
© Celia Cadwallader, 17 March 2018
For more training insights from Paul Hayler, see series of articles on this website beginning with http://outandaboutdressage.co.uk/paul-hayler-trains-southern-equestrian-training-seminar/