By Manolo Mendez Copyright © 2003 Manolo Mendez
The Marriage of Lateral Work and Natural Collection
Head Rider from the Royal Spanish School in Jerez (home of the 2002 World Equestrian Games) continues his series of articles on training the horse … from the very first kindergarten days all the way to Grand Prix. In his last article he described how to introduce the young horse to the lateral movements. Now we discover how lateral work becomes the foundation for all the higher dressage movements.
Lateral work consists of the shoulder-in, travers, renvers and half pass. We start with the simple shoulder-in and, when the horse understands this and can do it easily, we progress to travers (quarters-in) and renvers (quarters-out). When these movements are established, we then introduce half pass. We do not ask for too much of anything in these early stages. We build the horse’s fitness, suppleness and confidence.
Good basic lateral work makes Grand Prix more attainable
Lateral work requires the horse to move forwards and sideways at the same time. These are very special exercises because they develop and supple the muscles – the essential “equipment” for higher level training. The importance of lateral work is reflected through the levels of dressage competition. In Elementary only very simple lateral movements are required (shoulder-in and travers). In Medium and Advanced, increasingly developed movements are required. If the basic lateral work has been rushed or forced, this will show up more and more as the horse moves up through the levels. There will be more resistance: the horse will be finding it difficult to get to Prix St George. And yet this is really only halfway to the top, because to properly develop all the movements required for Grand Prix can take another twelve months or more. If the horse has to struggle to get to Prix St George, how difficult will he find it to get all the way to Grand Prix?
No horse can perform Grand Prix movements with grace and ease if he has not been properly and thoroughly prepared through lateral work. This is like asking a human who has only ever run forwards to suddenly start moving sideways or backwards. He does not have the coordination; he needs different muscles that he has not yet developed. He has to build these slowly, slowly, step by step. We do not expect him to achieve perfection overnight, and neither should we ever rush our horse through any stage of his development.
Anticipation leads to resistance
When we start lateral work we are trying to teach the horse so much. We have to be very careful because the horse can become over-sensitive to our leg, and then he can escape quickly to one side or another, to left or right. His brain will work faster, he will get quicker to coordinate, and therefore he will respond faster to very light aids from the rider. When he is learning, he also may misunderstand these aids. He may be so eager to please that he will respond to what he thinks we are asking for, and he will then make mistakes.
Anticipation from a horse occurs when we make him over-sensitive in this way. Think of some of those school contests we see on television, where the children have to “beat the buzzer”. Often there will be a very intelligent child who presses the button too quickly – before he has all the information to give the correct answer. Just as a child who “fails” in this way may feel disappointed in himself and lose confidence, so can a horse. And that is a shame, because a young horse who is “difficult” like this is often one who has the potential to be very good.
Anticipation can also lead to resistance because the horse, in trying to please, does more than he is physically ready to do. For instance, when practising travers and half-pass, one simple exercise is to do a ten-metre half circle from F and ask the horse to move back to B (or from M to B). Sometimes, because the horse knows what is coming, he will take his hindquarters to the inside too soon - as he comes round the circle. Then he will travel back to the track with his hindquarter in too far, which will affect his balance, and he will feel that he is in trouble. Next time we ask for this exercise he will feel that it is too hard.
When a horse starts to think negatively about an exercise, we start to build resistance. So we have to be careful not only not to ask him for too much too soon, and to avoid letting him giving us more than he is ready for, but we also have to make sure we present each exercise in a way that will build his confidence. An example of this is when we introduce half pass. We should always do this by going from the middle of the arena to the track, not vice versa. We do a half ten-metre circle in the corner and ask the horse to half pass to the track. The horse knows when he reaches the track he has finished, and the track pulls him like a magnet. But if you ask him to go from the track to the middle of the arena before he is comfortable doing it the other way, he may think you want him to half pass the whole length of the diagonal. He knows very well how long the diagonal is, and he may feel it is too hard. And so he will resist.
If a horse does anticipate, we must never, never punish him. We must reward him and then ask for the exercise in a different way. And we also look for ways to slow down the training, to take the pressure off, to change the way we are working. This may mean not only finding a different way to do the exercise, but perhaps not doing that exercise at all for a few days. And so we will encourage the continued development of suppleness and coordination by avoiding resistance and anticipation.
Lateral work and collection go hand-in-hand
But building suppleness and coordination is only part of the big picture. The other very important purpose of lateral work is to achieve natural collection. We know when we are ready to move on from lateral work because our horse will understand what natural collection is - and know when and how to use it.
Lateral work and natural collection are two aspects of training that cannot and should not be separated. Just as lateral work leads to more advanced movements such as flying changes, pirouette, piaffe, passage, so natural collection leads to refined collection which gives us the necessary lightness and elevation needed to perform these movements. As the horse learns lateral work and as his body develops, he also learns about collection. And if he learns this for himself, we will never need to force it out of him.
So what is natural collection? What is a natural anything? It is when the horse gives you something with fluidity, to the best of his ability, when he understands clearly what you are asking for and he knows how to use his own body to best achieve that.
Natural collection comes from the horse when he prepares himself for certain movements. He cannot achieve good lateral work without this self-preparation. And although this comes naturally to a horse playing or posturing in the paddock, it is a much harder thing for him to learn how to use it when he is also carrying a rider. Not only does a rider change his own natural balance, he must also learn to think in harmony with his rider, to perform the movements not at will, but as a discipline.
Just as forcing lateral movements too soon can lead to resistance, so can forcing collection destroy the horse’s confidence to collect naturally. Natural collection will come just as fluidity through the lateral movements must come … little by little, step by step.
But this does not necessarily mean that the rider never asks for a little more collection. Because the horse is only learning, there are times when the rider must, through the contact and the use of his body and by pushing the horse on just a little at the right time, encourage the horse to find the level of natural collection he needs for the movement he is performing, without asking for more than the horse is ready and able to give.
This requires a very fine feel from the rider. And even more important than knowing when to ask for more is to know when to stop asking.
So collection is a combined effort; it is the rider and horse working in perfect understanding and harmony, each helping the other to such a degree that the two blend into one.
It’s like a pair of ice-skaters who have practised and polished their performance to such a high degree of refinement that when they work together they are no longer two separate people. Their partnership has become so finely integrated that they appear as one entity. They come to the part of their act where the man must lift the woman above his head and skate around the ring with her. From the moment she takes a foot off the ice, he has prepared himself and is already in the best position to lift her and hold her. But her own position is vital, too. If her balance is not quite right, it will affect his balance. If she is a good skater, she will adjust her own body to help her partner. Maybe she will need to move one arm back or forward a little to adjust her weight distribution, or hold her neck and head a little higher or lower. She will be able to feel by the way he is balancing which way she needs to balance herself to maintain total harmony between them.
We have to strive to find this same balance and feeling with our horses. Collection is a partnership where horse and rider become so dependant on one another that they perform as one being. The rider who makes his horse short in the neck with a tight, short contact, then uses the spurs to make him piaffe is therefore not achieving true collection. Execution of the movements with technical correctness is not dressage. Dressage is gracefulness, lightness, beauty and harmony.