Dressage Interviews &
Ask the Expert!
In the final part of our pole work series, Ben Franklin talks us through the remaining two scales of training which are Straightness and Collection. He provides us with pole work exercises to improve these areas.
Straightness seems quite a simple concept so why is straightness included in the scales of training?
As we are all aware, both horses and humans can be one sided and can favour one direction of travel or find it easier to bend or flex one particular way. It is important that the rider is aware of this and that both horse and rider work on their straightness together.
Is one sidedness in a horse the same as a person being right or left handed?
Horses do have two hemispheres to their brain so it is possible that like us they have a dominant side – it has also been suggested that it may relate to the way the foal is curled in the womb. Nobody really knows for sure. But it is true that many horses favour one rein and may be stiffer or stronger on one side and weaker and more hollow on the other and it is our job to improve this.
If a rider is also naturally very one sided can this make the horse even more crooked?
It is certainly true that a rider who sits crooked or to one side can exacerbate any problems and possibly cause long term damaging effects to both the horse’s way of going and their body makeup.
What kind of damage could this do?
Any lack of straightness increases the likelihood of lameness as the horse compensates through the body hence placing more stress and strain on joints, ligaments, tendons and the muscle
So it really is important then?
Yes it is a vitally important aspect of the scales of training and should be considered at all levels and in all exercises.
So how do I know that my horse is straight, especially if I don’t have mirrors or someone watching me ride?
When straightness is achieved, the rider should have an even feel through each rein contact due to the horses hind legs stepping into the tracks of the fore legs whether this be on a straight line or a circle.
So my horse has to be straight even when he is on a circle? I think I am confused.
It is a little confusing - but remember we are using the term “straightness” to mean that the horse’s hind feet follow the tracks of his front feet. Try to imagine the horse is moving on a train track - the shoulders follow the track without bulging out to the outside or collapsing to the inside and the quarters follow the shoulders without swinging out to either side.
I can see why if I am jumping I need to be able to come in straight to a fence, but will this really help me with dressage?
Definitely! Straightness will enable the horse to work to his full potential with regard to stride length, fluency and balance, something that is highly sought after in dressage and especially important for the medium and extended paces within the gaits to achieve a full range of motion. And even at the lower levels of dressage the horse will find it very hard to perform movements such as leg yield or shoulder in if he is not straight.
What level of training should my horse be at to benefit from your pole work exercises?
The exercises are designed to be useful to horses at all stages of training. Start with the simplest one and as you build up strength and confidence you can move on to the more demanding exercises.
DIRECTION OF TRAVEL
You will need up to 12 poles to carry out these exercises however you can use fewer if need be. Cavaletti blocks or similar will also be required for ‘raised pole work’ in the more demanding variations.
Place the poles using the centre line as your guide, Diagram 1a.
In walk travel down your pole exercise using the 2 poles at D, X and G to guide the horse in to the grid.
Repeat in walk and trot and from both directions.
Walk poles should be at a distance of 1m apart and trot poles 1.25m apart, adjust according to horses stride length. Any straightness or balance changes will be corrected due the ‘tunnelling’ effect created by the 2 poles .
Once your horse is confident with this exercise, increase the difficulty by increasing the number of poles in between each ‘tunnel’ of 2 poles so that you now have 3 poles to either walk or trot over.
For a more experienced horse a more demanding variation of the basic pole exercise can be used . Keeping the ‘tunnelling’ poles at D and G, place 5 poles on the centre line with the 3rd pole being placed over X. Place Cavaletti blocks or similar at the end of each of these 5 poles to raise them one at a time at one end (so pole 1, then pole 3 then pole 5) in order to further test the horses balance and straightness,
The final exercise provides the ultimate test of your horse’s straightness. Raise all 5 poles at alternate ends, and repeat the exercise on both reins. This exercise is the most demanding. It will require the horse to be fully focused on the rider and their aids as well as being able to work in a balanced, self sufficient way whilst maintaining straightness.
Place 3 poles starting at the K marker and 3 poles starting at the F Marker at a distance of 1.25m. You can alter the distances between the poles depending on the amount of collection required and depending on the horses's stage of training.
On a 20m circle from A, ride forward in an activated working trot. As you approach the poles, allow the trot balance and stride length to alter while maintaining the activity. The horse will naturally alter his stride length which will eneable him to have a moment of collection.
Repeat this exercise as many times as necessary on both reins until the horse is comfortable and confident with the difference in stride length and will allow you to use a half halt throughout the excercise where required.
Once your horse is comfortable with this exercise you are ready to develop it further. Place another 3 poles at both H and M.
Using the same approach and going large around the arena, ride your active working trot in between each set of 3 poles. The horse may now find it more difficult to alter his balance and collect over the poles due to the fact that he is not on a continuous circle. Be aware of the speed of his pace and also the bend throughout his body.
The previous scales of training should still remain in place; rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion and straightness to enable this exercise to be successful.
Once you can perform the exercise with ease add another 3 poles at both A and C in the arena and repeat the exercise both ways. Allow the poles to do the work by enabling the horse to collect his pace himself, then quietly and positively move forwards to the working trot pace again between repetitions.
Once again remember that this work may be much harder than he is used to so you may have to build it up over several sessions
What do you mean by collection? Isn’t it just doing everything a bit more slowly?
No - I am afraid it isn’t! Collection is the ultimate aim of dressage and is mastered through years of time, patience and correct training. Through this training the horse becomes more reactive and responsive to the riders aids, his balance changes and this allows him to carry the rider in the most efficient way.
So in terms of dressage what am I aiming for in terms of changing my horse’s balance?
Put simply the transfer of weight allows the horse to alter from working on the forehand where he is more likely to run when asked to lengthen, to taking more of his weight on the hind legs. Collection should be demonstrated through the horse stepping under his body more with the hind legs, allowing him to lighten the forehand and transfer more weight on to the hindquarters as the horse shortens his step.
OK so if my horse is heavy in my hand does that mean he is out of balance and not able to collect?
Yes your horse may well feel heavy in the hand until he has the strength, balance and capability to really lighten the forehand. This in turn allows him to be more athletic and powerful as a result of having more movement through the shoulders and not relying on the riders hand for support.
What else will suggest that my horse is unbalanced and not moving correctly towards collection?
You may find that it is difficult to stop and steer easily and your horse will struggle when he starts to learn the higher movements in the more advanced dressage tests.
And what about my show jumper? Does he need to learn to collect?
Yes - the same things apply. If he is on his forehand, leaning on the rider and out of balance it will be much more difficult to achieve the accuracy, power and athleticism required for jumping.
I think my horse is probably not in balance so how can I start to get him more collected? Is it something I am doing wrong?
No - its not as simple as doing something wrong and there is no quick fix for this. Moving towards working in collection is only possible by developing the necessary muscles to produce this new way of working and this takes time.
So when can I start developing the strength for collection? And what flat work movements test for collection?
You are probably doing much of the work already but maybe not thinking of it as working towards collection. Work towards collection is tested throughout the horses training career. When he is a young horse it may be tested when coming into a halt transition; naturally his weight will travel onto the forehand however when the rider uses the correct leg to rein aid, the half halt comes into play and the horse will be encouraged to take slightly more weight onto his hind end in order to execute the transition with an improved balance. Over time this feeling will encourage the horse to engage his hindquarters and collect his stride before the transition.
And when my horse is truly able to collect what will he be able to do?
By then you will hopefully have a horse who can start to do the most difficult movements, because he will be balanced, powerful and athletic. You may well be on the road to Grand Prix level where the piaffe, passage and canter pirouettes are a true test of the horses level and ability of collection. Good luck!
By Oivia Towers
Finding the right coach is like finding the perfect partner. You have to have mutual respect for each other and good communication. This is fundamental for getting the most out of your training sessions. You need to both be able to agree on short term and long term goals and go after them as a team.
What makes a good coach?
Now obviously a good coach needs to have the knowledge but in this blog I am more interested at looking into the mentality of a good coach. Here are some important aspects you need to watch out for.
We need to be given time to process and develop. Its very easy to be ‘overloaded’ with information but this isn’t constructive. Research shows we can only keep a small amount of information in focus at any given time. Another point is we learn better with spaced practice. We perform better if we learn something in chunks with breaks in between than if we work without breaks for hours. Our brains need some time to consolidate the information that comes in before we can use it effectively.
Installing Self esteem
A good coach inspires you to believe in your ability and potential. They get you to dream big! Part of this involves building you up rather than knocking you down. Good coaches always build self-esteem rather than undermine it. This self-esteem building is not a gimmick nor is it done artificially. In other words the coach doesn’t praise a mediocre effort. They simply make it a practice to catch you doing things RIGHT.
Teaching self sufficiency
Your coaches job is to fill your ‘Tool box’ with useful exercises that you can work on by yourself. You should come away from a lesson with a clear idea of how you achieved what you did and the exercises you worked on. This way you don’t get left in a ‘grey’ area whilst working alone and do not come dependent on your coach.
Everyone is different in attitude, personality, response-ability, sensitivity and how they handle criticism and adversity. To help you in the best way possible the coach needs to pay attention to all of these and be willing to explain something different or take another approach. They have to not be stubborn in their methods. Something that I would like to touch upon to finish is that when you do find ‘the one’ don't feel you can’t use other trainers. A fresh pair of eyes can help you look at it from a new angle and can also help your trainer do the same. For example I have David as my Mentor (main trainer) but also love to train with his wife Serena. They both share the same core belief and structure about training but explain things differently. So these are a few things to look for in a good coach. Next blog I will be talking about the characteristics of a good student. As I said at the start this is a partnership.
Tracy Wyngard Gill
A horse is a horse is a horse
..and this is what we love about them, but it never ceases to amaze me that people are surprised when horses act like horses.
It’s really important to remember that horses have basic requirements (that are not the same as ours) to keep them physiologically and psychologically healthy.
I want to take a quick look at “one” of the psychological requirements of our horses….and that is horses have a requirement to “move”. To exercise, to run and buck. This is all very natural.
A lot of pent up tension can be removed simply through correct exercise and mental stimulation. You know that feeling of sedated satisfaction after a good workout… this is also very similar to how a horse feels after a good gallop and buck in the field or a good satisfying work out!
Have you ever noticed how much more relaxed a horse living in a field will be as apposed to a horse that is permanently stabled? Don't be surprised if the new horse you bought that was “so quiet” at home in his own stable (where he was most likely turned out most of the time) gets a little sharper and a bit more electric in the fully stabled environment we have here.
Ways to compensate for this, is to adequately exercise him and give him enough stimulation. Some horses are happy and more relaxed with routine, and some (as I’ve found) need to be faced with new challenges all the time to keep them stimulated, especially young horses. Another consideration is your feed. If you feed your stabled sport horse like a racehorse don't be surprised if he starts to act like one! Ensure the energy that you feed him is relative to the exercise he is receiving. Consider suitability of your experience and ability when taking on a horse. ie: Don’t take on an ex-race horse if you are afraid to canter & gallop.
Thoroughbreds, as one of the ultimate equine athletes have a need to canter and gallop, stifling this (from personal experience) only ends in certain explosive tendencies.
If your horse has an enormous natural gait (one of the reasons you bought him perhaps), please don't smother his movements for weeks and be surprised when he explodes. If he is a little too forward or big moving for your comfort and you know youaren't able to work him in the way he needs, don't be afraid to ask for help or advice from educated experienced riders/trainers that you respect to ensure that you get the “right” useful opinion and support (we all know that everyone in the barn has an opinion). You may actually need your trainer to help out with support and perhaps sit on him every once in a while. Perhaps give him a good work out on the lunge (and by this I don't mean letting him go nuts and hurt himself), a good solid work out to the point of relaxation.
It is much more effective than having a bad ride or a bad experience when he's feeling like there is a cracker under his tail! Burn off the energy and try again tomorrow or ride after the lunge with a short and effective correct piece of work (it’s still positive training). If you feel he's getting a bit of pent up energy and you aren't confident to take him for a good canter or gallop, ask a rider you trust (who’s training methods you respect) to take him for a good long steady canter until he starts to relax (even around your largest arena may be enough). I have a couple of horses that need this regularly or they can’t contain themselves. It's lovely to have your horse feeling so well, but use the energy as a positive, rather than bottle it up…. leading to the inevitable. In summary, don’t compromise on the work, exercise and stimulation your horse needs if you don't want there to be repercussions on his sanity and/or comfort……. A horse, is a horse, is a horse. We cant be surprised when they act like one.
Equestrian UAE magazine