By Manolo Mendez Copyright © 2003 Manolo Mendez
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. Here he tells us how to establish lateral work, beginning with the shoulder-in and working up to half pass.
When we teach the higher movements, we only ask the horses for a little here and there, for only a short time, and only a few times. Then we leave the horse alone and go back to the basic things, the fundamental training. The horse will then develop a very relaxed attitude about his work, and he will enjoy it.
To start the shoulder-in the horse must have reached the stage where he is well-balanced under the rider’s weight. He should be finding it very easy to do eight, ten and twenty metres circles, also loops and serpentines. He should clearly understand all leg aids and by this stage these must be subtle and refined. When we have all that, we know we are ready to start lateral work with a little shoulder-in.
In the beginning there was the shoulder-in …
The shoulder-in is the foundation for all higher movements. It is also the most useful training exercise because it produces suppleness and collection, encouraging the horse to take more weight on his hindquarters, thus freeing up the shoulders. The shoulder-in also helps the rider to develop a feel for fine-tuning the aids to get more refined responses from the horse.
The horse has fifty-four vertebrae from the poll to the end of the tail, and all have to be bent equally in the shoulder-in. With a young horse, we start by asking for a slight bend around the inside leg, and school up to the movement on three tracks.
Introducing the shoulder-in on a 20 metre circle
We begin teaching the shoulder-in on a twenty metre circle because this is the easiest way for a young horse to understand what we want from him, which is that he bends his body evenly to the inside from his poll to his tail. We want him to go both forwards and sideways and to bring his inside hind leg under him as best he can as an individual at this early stage of his training. We ask for only a little angle to begin with and just a few steps. We are careful not to allow the quarters to fall out: this is a sign that we aredemanding too much bend. It can happen more easily on a circle, and we must be aware of this and not allow it to develop into a habit
When we get a little try from the horse, no matter how small, we reward him by asking him to return to a single track. We build up to a few steps, and then reward again the same way. We ask for a few steps here and there, and that is enough for each training session at this stage.
When the horse understands what we want on the circle, we practise the movement down the long side of the arena. We can begin by asking for an eight to ten metre half-circle on the short side, after the centre line, and asking him to do a few steps of shoulder-in back to the long side, then to go straight. Later we can do an eight to ten metre circle in the corner, and, as we come out of the circle, we ask him to do a few steps of shoulder-in down the long side. Then we ask him to go straight. We can repeat the circle along the long side and again ask for a few steps of shoulder-in as we return to the track. This will help create suppleness and reinforce the understanding of the leg aid.
When the horse understands the shoulder-in exercise, we are ready to introduce the travers. Travers is good because it supples the quarters and hip joints. But we must be careful not to execute this movement with too much angle because the risk is that the horse will find it too hard and will "open" his body – ie., evade bending of the spine by straightening out the head, neck and shoulders. The movement will end up on four tracks instead of three.
We start by asking the horse for an eight to ten metre half circle in the corner, coming back to the long side in a little travers – only four to five steps, then we let him travel straight again. We repeat the exercise, asking again for another few steps of travers, then letting him travel straight again. As with the shoulder-in, we ask only for a little, and just here and there, not too many repetitions.
We do it this way for a little while till the travers is established, just like the shoulder-in.
Establishing shoulder-in and travers makes half pass easy
At this stage we do not ask for too much angle in either the shoulder-in or travers. By asking for just a little effort here and there, we do not make it too hard, and the horse will enjoy trying for us. We gradually increase the angle over time, aiming eventually for complete synchronicity and co-ordination of all four legs.
When the horse is well able to do these simple exercises, we shouldn’t have any problems introducing the half pass. But we should not be greedy when we get to the half pass and ask for too much angle because the horse must always travel forward and keep learning to travel forward, as well as maintaining balance and rhythm. The half pass is a movement where many green horses often lose balance and rhythm. If we keep it clear and simple, the legs under the horse have plenty of freedom, and the horse is not blocked in travelling forward. With half pass the angle is about forty-five degrees, but we should start about halfway with the angle and work up gradually.
In half pass, the horse has to be bent to the side he’s going, but we should always make sure we do not ask for more bend on one side than the other. We have to keep the bend in a very soft, simple way.
When we introduce half pass we start with the ten metre half circle in the corner and ask the horse to half pass back to the track. We are careful to keep the impulsion, and to make sure the quarters do not fall out, and we keep the horse on the correct bend, not letting the neck bend too much. We make sure our weight moves into the direction of the movement – ie., we do not allow ourselves to slide to the outside of the horse.
As the horse gains confidence and suppleness, we can ask for the half pass from the centre line. We must always go straight for a few metres before asking for the half pass because we do not want him to anticipate and fall into the movement as he turns onto the centre line.
Conformation may affect lateral work
It is possible to establish shoulder-in and travers in three to five months – if the horse is not finding it difficult physically and if the training is gentle and sympathetic. But it can take longer, especially if the horse has to overcome disadvantages of conformation, or needs to adjust the way it travels naturally – eg., head too high.
Conformation may affect the degree of angle and the degree of ease with which a horse executes different movements. A narrow horse often finds it much easier to travel in half-pass than a horse with a wider chest. Long legged horses find it easier than those with short legs and a big body. Horses that find it harder may need more time to develop the shoulder-in, travers and half pass, and should be brought on slowly and carefully.
A horse with more angle in the stifle area, ie., from the stifle to the hock, will often find it much easier to do dressage, especially the higher movements. A horse who is straighter in the hocks will need more time to develop through basic training. We must also watch and feel, and decide where the horse needs special work to help him; how to help him in areas where he is lacking in muscle and strength.
But conformation is not everything, and in fact a horse who finds some things hard may be better at other things. Temperament and the nature of the individual horse will also affect how easy he finds it to learn to execute the various movements.
The most important thing, the crucial thing, when we start to do all these exercises is that we have to be very careful with the position of the neck, and the angle of the nose and the amount of contact. The head must be in front of the vertical, so that the poll is not stiff or bent too much. If we force the outline, and the horse goes behind the vertical, we will make the contact weak. If the horse tries to evade the forced outline by pulling, ourcontact will become too strong. With a forced outline the horse will get hollow in the spine and thus lose the connection between his poll and his tail, and this will create even more problems with contact.
If we get the horse behind the vertical in the early training we will have difficulty later when we are training to the higher levels - piaffe, passage, pirouette. With these, you need plenty of room to go into and out of collection in order to build the horse's confidence for collection and to create harmony of the transitions. If we insist on ignoring the importance of length of neck and building up to strength and confidence, we will create a horse of short neck and long body with a hollowed back, and the movements will become forced and stiff. True collection is soft, light and balanced.
If we shorten the neck and put the horse too much behind the vertical, we are blocking the freedom and regularity of movement, and this will cause bigger problems later on. Whatever the front legs do, so do the back legs. We have to be so careful how we start all these exercises with a young horse.
Training should improve horses, not damage them
We can damage him by working him too high, and we can also cause damage by working him too low – as in low, deep and round. This low, deep and round is one of the worst things we can do to a young horse because we stop the shoulder of the horse moving out. He will start shortening his body, and this will block the stifle, and the hock will not come under. After that, there is nothing left but to force him under with whip and spur, and this we never want to do to our horse.
If we do the right thing by the horse by not making him stiff and inflexible through incorrect training, then he will be able to perform the higher movements with true freedom and fluidity. And this is the point of training; to teach the horse to work in such a way that improves his body, not causes it to break down. . The horse should be better physically at Grand Prix, and he should have a lot of confidence because he understands his job properly and knows he can do it without hardship.
This is the real test in training: can we get the horse to Grand Prix level without expecting him to sacrifice his body and mind?
To teach all the high movements, we should try not to use the spurs and whip at all. We should use these only to remind him not to go to sleep if he gets a little lazy. We remind him and he tries, and then we should reward him. That way he understands the meaning.
In teaching lateral work – shoulder-in, travers and half-pass – we are aiming all the time to develop the horse so he can carry himself in an increasingly better position, becoming more proud, more elegant, and more beautiful with every passing year. In dressage training we are working towards the ultimate, which is riding the Grand Prix movements in true lightness. Every training exercise we do with our horse should bring us a step closer to true lightness, not take us further away.