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Step By Step

Manolo’s Message - Head Rider from the Royal Spanish School in Jerez (home of the 2002 World Equestrian Games discusses, in a series of articles, training the horse … from the very first kindergarten days all the way to Grand Prix.  In this article, he tells us about some of the problems that can occur and how to prevent them.

 Step by step

 You would never expect the kindergarten child to be able to jump straight into a high school level of education.   It is the same for the horse: we must never “jump steps” or rush the levels in our training.  It is vitally important that the horse understands each exercise, and the rider must ensure that the horse has the physical capabilities, flexibility and balance before attempting the next exercise.

 It is vitally important not to start any bending and flexion exercises until the horse is able to walk, trot and canter around the arena in a nice, comfortable rhythm with light and even contact.  It is important that the rider learns to use the reins as a pair, not individually.  The reins must be of absolutely equal length.  Often a rider will use too much inside (or outside) rein, which causes head tilt and stiffness, inhibiting the horse’s head carriage and ability to flex. 

 Once the horse is happy and confident going large round the arena, we can start a small flexion exercise in each corner.  Don’t make the corners too deep for a green horse; just ask him for a little flexion to the inside as you go round the corner.

 Next we can start asking for the five metre loop.  This would seem like a simple exercise, but it is not.  The rider must ensure it is performed softly and carefully,  We need to take plenty of time to develop the muscles, the tendons and the ligaments so that the horse can easily bend through every vertebra of the spine equally, from the poll to the tail.  If the flexion is not soft and the spine cannot bend naturally, we are not creating suppleness, we are creating a big mistake.

 The five metre loop should be introduced down one side of the arena only, and performed here and there, not repeated over and over again.  This purpose of this exercise is to help us develop SOFTNESS of flexion, and to introduce the horse to the bend that will, over a period of time, get larger . 

 The five metre loop introduces the first steps of a three-loop serpentine. But it is ONLY when the horse is truly happy, with an easy head carriage on a nice contact that we consider building the size of the loop to 10 metres, 15 metres, and then to the three-loop serpentine (with 15 metre loops).  But this is further down the track: the 15 metre loop should not be done with a young horse.

 If the horse has a little more trouble flexing more to one side than the other, we must not force the issue, but instead find ways to work around any resistance.  For instance, if the horse is a little stiff to the right in the three-loop serpentine, start this exercise on the left rein and turn the middle loop into a 15 metre circle.  This will give you time to gently correct the problem, and allow the horse the chance to build confidence about flexing to the right. You can then continue the serpentine and finish with your last loop to the left.

 Going straight

 The horse must learn to travel straight very early on.  This is where he develops much of his gymnastic ability. A young horse should do more straight work than circle work, and should not be asked for any flexion on straight lines, just to go straight.  The rider’s hands should have gentle, light contact on even reins when travelling on a straight line.

 The repetitive nature of circles, if too many are performed, puts a terrible strain on the horse’s muscles, ligaments and tendons – and can destroy his confidence.  Too often, we see hock injuries from performing too many circles.

 It is very important not to repeat any exercise too many times. Not only does it put too much strain on the same muscles again and again, but also it creates boredom and sourness.  No one wants to do the same thing over and over, and neither does the horse.

 We must always keep the work fun and interesting, so they come back to the next session with great enthusiasm.

 A natural walk is the foundation for good paces

 It is also important to encourage the walk.  It should be nice and relaxed, with great beauty.  You must allow the horse to walk free and relaxed. Your pelvis should also be relaxed so each seat and hip bone can move independently, in time with the horse. Allow your shoulders and arms to move softly, so as not to obstruct the horse’s movement.  We must remember never to restrict the horse’s natural head nod at walk and canter (there is no head nod at the trot).  The rider must have equal contact on both reins, and follow the horse’s normal head carriage, so as not to block the head movement in any way.

 Once the horse is comfortable and relaxed, we occasionally halt, then walk again and give a pat.

 Encouraging a free walk is the foundation for good movement in all gaits. A good trot and canter both develop from a good walk.  We can also gradually teach the horse to distinguish between free, extended, medium and collected walk through becoming attentive to the movement of the rider’s body.   When the rider becomes stiller, the horse will learn to still and collect his own movement, and vice versa.

 Sitting trot makes young horses hollow

 To do sitting trot on the young horse is no good.  When a horse is only three or four, his bones are not even completely formed.  At this stage the horse’s muscles are not developed properly, either.

 The young horse is naturally a little on the forehand, and perhaps a little hollow through the spine.  To do sitting trot will only encourage those “hollow” muscles to develop.

 The horse has to be able to flex and bend, and the spine must be loose in every single vertebra.  If we do sitting trot on the horse before the horse has developed the correct muscles, we will start to jam the vertebrae together.

 Just imagine if someone sat on your spine … You would have to be very fit, very strong, and yet very flexible to be able to cope, and not to get sore in only a matter of minutes!

 Only when the horse has found his natural balance under the rider, and has rhythm and timing, can we start the sitting trot.  Some horses will take longer than others to find these qualities. Some take longer because their riders are stiff or have not yet found the right balance themselves.

 Good breathing leads to good work

 Riders very rarely concentrate on their breathing, and they often don’t think about how the horse is breathing, either. 

 The rider must learn to breathe deeply, with “softness in the air”.  We must also listen for the horse’s breathing. A young horse will often breathe too fast, because he may be a little tense about what is expected, and he is not yet completely fit.  It is important to give a young horse plenty of breaks to recover his breath.  It is terrible when the horse is taking stiff, frightened breaths.  He cannot relax and become soft and attentive to what is being asked of him; he cannot discover enjoyment in his work.

 Proper breathing encourages athleticism and mental concentration because it helps supply oxygen to the muscles and brain.  All athletes work on their breathing.  Don’t forget that your horse is an athlete, too.  It is most important to be soft, be natural.  Be careful never to instil fear in the horse, so that his natural breathing will develop.

 By encouraging the horse’s softness, and following the young horse’s natural movement, rather than enforcing unnatural movement, or stiffening or stopping the horse’s movement, we will help the horse develop his natural breathing. 

 Develop soft transitions early

 Good breathing is very important for transitions. We must keep our own breathing very soft, otherwise the horse will become very tense and stiff very quickly.

 It is very important that we start to think about our transitions carefully at an early stage.  Transitions should be soft and very careful.  We should practise transitions on a straight line, and make sure that the horse is not rushing or running away from the leg.

 With a young horse, ask for transitions on a straight line only – not on a circle.  He will not understand how to keep the bend and do the transition, and you will create tension and resistance.

 Transitions must be done with softness, either with the leg, or with the rein only. To a young horse, the leg means “go forward” and the hand means “slow down”.  We must not confuse the horse in the early stages by using both at the same time.  However, before asking for the transition, we do ask with the hand for the horse to go a little lower with his head and neck.  We want the nose to be in front of the vertical, not on it or behind it.  Then we give a little release with the reins and ask the horse to go forward from our leg.

 Balance between the hand and leg

 One of the greatest challenges for the rider is to learn how to balance the horse “between the hand and the leg”.   Initially, balance is about making sure the young horse can differentiate between hand and leg aids, and the rider learning what is too much or too little.

 If the leg is too tight, then the horse will rush.  If the rein is too tight or too loose then that is not “balanced” either.

 Later, balance becomes about learning how to develop feel,so that we are using the hand and the leg together  – in total unison.  But we have to build up to this stage slowly.  We must be careful never to apply too much pressure.

 Above all, we must learn how to release at the appropriate time, so that the horse is never held in between hand and leg.  Instead he receives the reward of release, which makes him more comfortable and confident that he is doing what is being asked.

 In later years and advanced training, e.g., in piaffe, it is the balance between the leg and the hand that creates true brilliance.  In flying changes, if we use the rein only, we will create great problems.  If we use the leg only, we will also create great problems.

 Beautiful music

 It is only when the hand and leg are used together, in total harmony and in total unison, in the way that is appropriate for each horse at each stage of training, that we will develop the horse correctly.  

 It is like playing the guitar.  Think of the hand on the strings as the legs on the horse.  The hand on the frets is like the rider’s hands on the reins.   When we are just learning the guitar, we keep the tune simple.  As our skill levels increase, we learn to play chords and more complicated tunes, and develop a better feel for creating a more harmonious sound.  We must work the frets and strings separately and yet together to get the desired sound.

 Our horse is the guitar.  It is up to each rider to become a fine musician, and to treat our instrument with care and respect so that it will last a long time, and help us create truly beautiful music.

Copyright © 2003 Manolo Mendez & Australian Equine Arts 

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