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Beyond Lateral
Work

By Manolo Mendez - Copyright © 2005 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.   In his last article he discussed how and why lateral work and natural collection go hand in hand.  By now, we are starting to feel that the horse is becoming capable of much greater things. In this article Manolo cautions a “softly, softly” approach and explains why training at any stage is about not asking for too much of anything at one time so we do not create stiffness or resistance.

What comes after lateral work?

What comes after lateral work? It is all done.  But it is not finished.  Now it is time to get everything together, to purify the movements … to refine.  And to refine, we need to come back all the time to the basics, the foundations.  We continue to do only a few steps here and there of lateral work, looking for the horse to respond well.  We should not insist or abuse the system. 

Think of carving a wood sculpture.  The artist will do everything rough all over - a foundation - and then go back to refine.  A portrait painter, he will first do the rough outline of a face and only later start to give colours, shading, details.  

We should think of our young horse as an unfinished work of art. The horse schooled this way will feel very secure and enthusiastic.  He will have a lot of confidence.  And then he will be able to participate with the rider in a more open way.

As crude oil is taken from the ground and then refined in different ways to produce different products, so can dressage work be refined in many ways at this stage to produce many different products.  You want the oil, you know you need to refine it, but not every horse can be refined in the same way.  Some horses are very sensitive.  They know you are going to ask a question and they will anticipate the answer.  Some have less sensitivity; they don’t answer so quickly.  Some give the wrong answer because they don’t listen well enough to the question.  And some don’t hear the question at all.  People are just the same!

So you have established the basics and introduce shoulder-in, travers and simple half-pass.  Now you just refine, going backwards and forwards; a little shoulder-in here, a few steps of half-pass there, asking a little more only as the horse builds confidence and muscle.  It all becomes more established over time.   And as the horse’s understanding and suppleness increase, so does his ability to self-collect.

Collection means “self-collection”

In the last article I spoke of natural (self-) collection and how it is achieved through lateral work. At this stage it is too easy to think it is all right to force more collection.  But if we do that, we will destroy all the good work we have done till now.

Collection comes from the whole body, and true collection comes only with time. Elegance and balance – that is what we want. If we make a horse collected too early, he will not understand how to give us what we want, and we will make the neck too short. If the neck is too short, the body is too long.   The horse has to shorten his stride anyway as he builds up to the higher levels of dressage, and if he has been trained with too short a neck, his body will already be too long to “come under”.  (That’s how a horse shortens his stride – by shortening his body.)  And if he cannot bring his legs underneath, how can he ever attain the maximum suspension and spectacular action necessary for extended trot, piaffe and passage?

Even when a horse has learned to collect himself, we must never allow him to work collected for too long at one time.  If we do, he will get tired, and, once again, will become too short in the neck and too long in the body.   You will have the front end but not the back end - we see this all the time.  That is unbalanced.

When I ask a new student to show me what his horse can do, I see him shorten the reins to shorten the horse for collected canter.  I see the horse cantering in this shortened frame for five, sometimes eight, minutes at a time.  I see how the horse starts to get cross.  He has much better collection in the first few minutes and then he starts to lose it.

The other danger during all training, but even more so when we get to lateral work, is that we make the horse crooked. This is very common.  I have not ridden a nice, straight, soft horse for a very long time.

Crooked horses are made, not born

The horse can only move straight if there is even contact in the two reins.  If we don’t make sure of this with the young horse, he will always be stronger in one rein and therefore never straight.

Some people say that horses are born crooked, but I do not believe that. I have many times watched the young foal run round his mother in the paddock.  He passages, he canters, and he does flying changes – all so straight and soft and even.  When we put the bridle on the young horse, that’s when we start to change him.  That’s when we start to make him crooked. 

I see many riders working their horses to one side for too long.  They make one side of the muscles stronger than the other.   A racing car that has been in an accident and ended up with a bent chassis cannot be raced again unless it is given a new chassis.  But we cannot give a horse a new body, a new mouth. We must be careful not to make the chassis crooked in the first place. 

A crooked horse can often be fixed with the right training, but he must not and cannot be forced into changing.  To that horse, crooked is the correct way to go.  We have to tell him that’s okay because that’s what he thinks at the moment.  We will work with him over time to help him understand better and to fix his body.  For example, the right side may be easy and the left side is stiff, so we give him some exercises to help build up the left side.  But then the horse, when cantering to the right may want to change to the left because he has gone a little too soft and flexible to the left.  So we have to be very careful to improve the right side more, to make the work easier to the right side to create more confidence again. 

What NOT to ask for

So in our training we are always careful not to do anything to create stiffness or resistance.  But sometimes we can fall into this trap as we discover what the green horse  is good at, what he likes to do best.  A young child going to school for the first time can get very enthusiastic about something he really likes.  He might study and study and try and try at that one thing, forgetting about all the other subjects.  He might get “A” in that one subject and only “B” and “C” in all the others. But if you only get A’s in one subject you will never get into the hardest university courses, like law and medicine.  Grand Prix dressage is like the most difficult university course there is. 

With a young horse we have to work the first couple of years with a lot of enthusiasm and patience, to cultivate his interest in everything we ask him to do.  We open his mind and make him think, okay, that’s not so bad.  Later, we have to be careful how we improve his lateral work and his collection.  We don’t say “Today, we’re going to teach you half-pass,” and do nothing else.  The young horse will start to resist because it is too hard, and then we insist and the horse starts to get stiff in one side, and we force with the whip and spurs.

If we make everything too quick, we confuse the horse; make him nervous.  And the thing I find all the time is that nerves create tension and resistance.  The horse struggles, hesitates or even refuses.  His posture gets bad, he gets short through the neck.  Or he may respond too quickly because he is nervous and confused.

A horse who does not respond in the right way or who hesitates is often called lazy.  I call him lacking in understanding.  We need to ask again, and we need to ask in the right way, clearly showing him how we want him to be – calm and relaxed.

What we CAN ask for

In training we have to change all the time, do many different things and allow for the horse as an individual.  Not only may he find some things easier than others because of body type and personality, he will, like humans, have days when things seem easier or harder.

Everything should be easy in the early stages – walk, trot, canter with no collection or interference. In this way we can increase power and softness to the joints and muscles. It’s like a dancer.  If the neck is stiff and squashed up, so is the whole spine and therefore the limbs.  The body cannot move fluidly so the dancing is expressionless. 

If a horse wants to give collection at this stage of the training, you take advantage, but you must not keep that collection for too long.  

For example, on a 20-metre circle, you can ask for a few strides of collected canter.  You slow down and slow down very smoothly and carefully in canter then you go forward again, asking the horse to lengthen his stride, before he gets uncomfortable or finds it too difficult.  You ask for the horse to lengthen just as smoothly and carefully as you ask for him to shorten. If it is too abrupt, the horse may lose his balance and posture, and this can lead to resistance and tension. 

The flying change

As well as taking advantage of natural collection to ask for a little more, we can also introduce the flying change after the lateral movements are well established.  For flying change the horse has to change beat diagonally, from one side to the other  – that is therefore also lateral work. 

Some riders want their horses to change on a very straight line, through the diagonal, but to start the flying change this way is to do it with too many restrictions for the horse. We should ask the horse for one flying change here and there, on the circle, or after changing rein on the diagonal and only after asking the horse to change the bend of his body to the new rein.  We must get him to understand that what we want is just one flying change here and there.  We should not worry if the change isn’t perfect, as long as the change comes from him.  If we put too much pressure on the horse it will start to do harm in other areas of training.  Body position, hesitation, too much pressure through the bridle …  We must have patience when the horse starts to do the flying change. 

In my experience, the rider asks for too much in general when the horse is too young and too inexperienced.  In jumping, a good trainer will do lots of cavaletti, a little jump here and there, not too much.  He knows the horse can jump higher but at this stage it’s about confidence-building.  He doesn’t want to risk giving a horse a fright over a bigger jump because every five to six jumps a green horse might get it wrong, be a bit uncoordinated and get put off.  This can put the training back for months.  In dressage we can make a lot of mistakes like that – asking too much, too soon. 

But how do we know when the horse is ready to be asked for a flying change – or any other new exercise?  That’s about feel, something the rider must develop as he works with the horse.  If we develop this, we will know when the time is right because everything will feel effortless.  The horse will feel soft and balanced, and will have no trouble with correct flexion, balance and holding a rhythm.   Correct timing is about the ability to feel.

When teaching a horse fly change (or piaffe or anything) the horse can do something wrong – change different left to right, right to left – on one diagonal he may change too late or too quick.  As with any exercise, we have to give the horse time to develop gymnastically before we can expect perfection.

When a horse starts to develop some hesitation or tension through the half-pass or flying change, we should back off very quickly or we create anger, frustration.   So only when we get the opportunity, when we see some potential for the flying change, where the horse wants to give it to us, we ask and then he will respond with more enthusiasm.  When he hesitates or starts to get a little confused, we go back to the basics or to other exercises.  Walk, half-pass, a little traverse.  Then we come back again later and do maybe one or two flying changes, and he will respond well, and we can finish on a good note.

Blossom before fruit

So - a little collection here and there, one flying change here and there, a little shoulder-in, traverse, half-pass. When we have trouble or the horse is confused, we can start again by restoring the correct flexion and the body position, changing the rein, giving a little break.  This will make it much clearer to the horse what we want from him. And when the horse knows the aids, the position, the language, he becomes soft and his rhythm is even.  He is relaxed and clear-headed.  He is balanced in body and mind.  And balance is the main, the most fundamental principle of good training.

 Then you can say, “Well, I have a good roots, now I will have a good tree and then I can have the blossom and then the fruit.”  You can start to put it all together.  You can connect all the different exercises, refine the movements and begin the piaffe.  In the next article I will tell you how.

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