In a natural position, the horse carries 60% of its weight on the forehand and 40% on its hind legs. Because the muscles over the hind quarters are big and strong, we need to educate the horse to be able to carry more weight on these muscles. This will result in the horse carrying 40% on the forehand and 60% on the hind quarters.
The nerves through which we communicate with the horse are situated in the skin. These send messages to the brain via the spinal cord and back to the muscles, causing contraction of the relevant muscles. This nervous impulse is called a reflex, which causes a quicker reaction in the muscle. There are two types of reflex – natural reflex (fright, flight and moving away), and conditioned reflex (trained reflex). We use the natural reflexes to bring about reactions that enable us to teach the horse to respond in a certain way, becoming a conditioned reflex.
The elevation of the neck causes a reflex reaction to the positioning of the hind leg, while the flexion at the poll causes a parallel reflex reaction to the flexion of the hock and stifle. The back muscles are also involved in the active role of the hind legs. A tight back leads to a stiff hind leg and high croup so the hind leg doesn’t come as far forward under the horses centre of gravity. The flexor muscles in the hind quarters are weaker than the extensors, which provide the propulsion and control the flexion of the hind limb when the leg is loaded. The hind quarters, assisted by the abdominal muscles, cause the loin to round, allowing the hind leg to come further forward under the body.
There are 4 types of reflex relationships between the head, neck and hind quarters :
The ‘effect of the aids’ is the result of a positive response, brought about through education and training. The ‘engagement of the hind leg’ is the effect of a positive response to the riders leg aid, causing the hind leg to step forward and under the body. This is also the reason why dressage test sheets include marks for the rider on ‘effectiveness of the aids’, ‘position and seat of the rider’ and ‘correct application of the aids’.
Timing is everything!
In my last blog I went over what the 6 training scales are. In this one I want to delve a little deeper and look at the three groups – PRELIMINARY TRAINING, DEVELOPMENT OF PUSHING POWER and DEVELOPMENT OF CARRYING CAPACITY.
Preliminary training consists of familiarisation, natural balance, confidence, basic understanding of the aids and basis of communication. When horses are first broken in to ride, they are taught to go when the legs are applied and stop/turn with the use of the reins. Once the horse is familiar with these aids, we then need to look at how the horse is going. The first three scales are – Relaxation, Rhythm, and Contact.These three go hand in hand and you cannot have one without the other two. When a horse is moving freely forward in a relaxed state, it will find its natural balance (not rushing or behind the leg). With a natural balance, rhythm is created. The forward rhythm along with relaxation means the horse will be more into a light seeking contact. By contact I do not mean outline, and at this stage I wouldn’t be too concerned about getting a correct outline, that will come in time. Once the horse has found his relaxed rhythm and contact, his confidence will grow.
Using voice commands as you would on the lunge can help to reassure the horse and encourage concentration. Change direction frequently and lots of transitions will all help to build the basis of communication, and rest breaks on a long rein to encourage relaxation. As the horse gains strength, the use of smaller circles, serpentines and loops can be used. This is also a good time to introduce leg yield and steps of turn on the forehand.
The second group, Development of Pushing Power consists of 4 scales – Rhythm, Contact, Straightness, and Impulsion. These again cannot happen without the others being correct. Once rhythm and contact are achieved it will be easier to get the horse straighter (all horses are crooked to a certain degree and mostly to the left). When the horse is going straighter, more impulsion is achieved as the horse can step under and push from the hindquarters in an economical way. Exercises to help with this is shoulder fore and shoulder in, travers, renvers, moving on to half pass. The use of half halts to help balance and prepare the horse for a movement, encourages the hindlegs under more. Counter canter can help to strengthen and relax, with an introduction of walk to canter encouraging impulsion. Using trot poles or cavalletti help the horse to shorten and lengthen the stride as well as elevation.
Then we come to the third group, Development of Carrying Capacity. This is where we start to get to the pinnacle of training, and not all horses will achieve it to a high level. The scales in this group are – Impulsion and Collection. Provided the training done in the lower scales has been carried out correctly in a relaxed way, impulsion (not speed) should be readily available and the horse strong enough to introduce more collection. Although some degree of collection will have been achieved throughout the scales, this is where the horse really learns to sit on its haunches.
Exercises like turn on the haunches then straight into canter is great for freeing up the forehand and transferring more weight onto the hindlegs. (We aim for the horse to carry 60% of weight on the hindquarters and 40% on the forehand) Canter-to-walk transitions will also help this providing the horse is straight. This is also where spring and suspension come into play in the higher movements like pirouettes, piaffe, passage, flying changes and tempi changes are taught, and self carriage is achieved. It is also where true extension can be established as the horse needs the strength in his hindquarters to be able to push through to extend.
The final creation of all the scales is THROUGHNESS. This is the transference of the created power from the hindquarters over the back and into a soft contact and back to the hindlegs in a constant flow.