There is a moment in dressage in which the horse is carrying himself, in which the rider is balanced, in which the horse is reaching forward, and the rider can feel an elastic gentle pressure from the hand to the horse's mouth; a moment in which the horse's hind leg is coming under and his back is round and the energy is lifting the shoulder up and out, flowing out the top of his ears. The rider is quiet and the horse is moving forward off a light aid.
I have spoken in many different ways about this feeling: the extremely delicate and technical balance between having the horse on the forehand and strong in the mouth, to having no contact at all; the difference between a horse that is running and a horse that is engaged and pushing from back to front; the art of being able to allow with the rein, without losing the impulsion, nor letting the horse run away, nor allowing too much so that the horse doesn’t carry the rein out but sucks back into himself.
This balance cannot be taught in one ride, but must be felt and learnt and then reapplied and rechecked constantly.
Typically today in dressage, we see one of these main scenarios:
Scenario 1: a horse that is too strong in the contact, with a rider that is constantly holding back on the rein with use of physical strength from both body and hand. In this example we see the horse closed in the gullet, with a rider coming at times behind the vertical. The rider uses the horse's mouth to balance himself, and then pushes the horse into that strong contact to achieve a sort of forced activity that basically comes from pushing him together like a closed spring.
Scenario 2: the “look how loose the contact is”: the rider gives the rein so much that they drop the horse, the horse is not in balance but running forward on the forehand, and the rider seems to have a giving hand, when actually they have not established a connection to the horse's mouth. The horse is just plopping around enjoying the view.
Scenario 3: the rider has a good half halt, but after the half halt there is not yet that properly achieved moment of balance, in which you give the rein only enough so that the horse can reach. In this scenario the horse can seem engaged, but at times he will come above the bit, or behind the vertical. He will seem to come and go from cadence to running, very subtly, however, as the rider is searching for that illustrious moment of perfection, but can never quite reach it.
Scenario 4: of course the most difficult to achieve. Horse and rider have perfected that balance. The rider can half halt and allow, without letting the horse change the rhythm or run away. The horse can balance and move forward with ease and engagement, trusting that his rider will dance the tight rope of elastic rein aid and subtle half halts in order to allow him to move without resistance. The rider's position will be stable enough to keep himself balanced, but soft and open enough to allow the horse to move freely. The rein will feel the horse's mouth constantly, never dropping him, nor holding him. The seat of the rider will then be what commands the horse and the rest of the rider will simply act to filter the energy that is being directed by the riders open, yet stable position.
It’s easy to guess which is the more difficult to achieve.
A great many riders think they have achieved lightness, self carriage, and contact, while keeping the horse engaged and with impulsion. My question is have they? Do we know how to detect it? Do we know how to feel it? Do we know how to achieve it?
I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I do love to imagine ways of describing it, teaching it, and applying it, as I am sure do many of us who just love to strive for dressage perfection, knowing that the more we know about it the further we feel from it.
Top trainers often stress the importance of transitions in training. I see riders doing transitions all the time, walk to canter, canter to walk, without thinking about their importance, and what information they give to the rider. Transitions are where everything begins and ends, and so to in dressage, because it’s the ability to balance the horse without altering his posture or contact.
Can you come to halt from walk without the horse A pulling the rein, or B sucking his neck back into his chest? If you answered no, then you are one of scenarios A, B or C.
Can you come to halt from walk while maintaining an elastic contact, with the horses neck remaining open as if he is reaching out but without pulling your hand forward? Does he also step up underneath him with his back feet to show that he is engaged?
It seems so simple doesn’t it? And yet, we see Grand Prix tests where the rider canters in in what seems a relatively nice collected canter, and goes plop into the halt and the left back leg goes out to one side, or the horse does a nose dive, or the rider has to haul on the rein to stop him, or he stops perfectly square with his head on his chest, and you think “good start”.
This is not to be criticial, dressage is not easy, the greats make it looks easy and for the rest of us we have to learn this delicate art through years of transitions, and lessons, and feel, and thought, and revision and evaluation, and above all, patience.
Sometimes we have it, we can see in photos we have it, then we train for two months and someone comes to watch it, and somehow we have lost it without realising it.
What does it feel like when you get it? This is a hard one. Most people think they have it, or they have felt it, and perhaps they have, but how can you ever be sure?
First by answering yes to the above questions. By teaching the horse to come back off a light rein aid without running through the bridle or curling up his neck. By being able to trot around in a big bold trot and half halt using your seat and back and feel the horse balance and then lift for a split second while you almost in the same instant allow ever so slightly with both your hands and your body while still balancing and engaging him with your upper body and lower leg.
It’s a dance. It’s a technical and tactical form of equestrian gymnastics that allows horse and rider to balance and float along together. It’s subtle, you cannot allow even the slightest bit too much, nor can you take too much and the timing has to be almost seamless and inseparable.
Once you feel it, you know it, and then you strive for it, in every single exercise, of every single training, until, I guess, it becomes so well practiced that neither horse nor rider feel right when it is not in play.
by Sarah Warne - Photo © Astrid Appels