By Visconte Simon Cocozza, Dressage Examiner for the Fédération Française d’Equitation (FFE)
This article originally appeared on the New Zealand ‘Horsetalk’ website.
Riding your horse in a light and round outline should be easy, yet in real life it is often very tricky to get right.
Fortunately, there is a way to help every horse and pony become soft and supple in your hand that is both easy and natural. In this article, I will explain what we are looking for, what the challenges are, and what you can do about it.
The Rules of The Game
When we ride a horse in a more advanced shape, the underlying goal is to help him/her find their most agile and beautiful posture. This is ‘Roundness’, and as well as helping the horse to be more athletic, it gives us a supple and gentle connection with the horse’s mouth, jaw and neck. This is known as ‘On the Bit’, which is also quite useful in preventing the horse from wandering off.
The governing body of horse sports, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), explains what ‘On the Bit’ should be.
‘In all the work, even at the halt, the Horse must be “on the bit”. A Horse is said to be “on the bit” when the neck is more or less raised and arched according to the stage of training and the extension or collection of the pace, accepting the bridle with a light and consistent soft submissive contact. The head should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the vertical, with a supple poll as the highest point of the neck, and no resistance should be offered to the (human) Athlete’.
So this is what we should see and feel in front of us, and a super way of assessing the correctness of our horse’s training.
‘Roundness’ can be interpreted as the overall ‘bouncing ball’ dynamic of the horse’s whole body when in good balance and condition. The FEI explains its signs:
• The freedom and regularity of the paces.
• The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements.
• The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, originating from
a lively impulsion.
• The acceptance of the bit, with submissiveness/throughness (Durchlässigkeit) without
any tension or resistance.
•The Horse thus gives the impression of doing, of its own accord, what is required.
A fine definition, and a goal for us all. Yet how on Earth do we get there?
In an Ideal World
Traditional methods of achieving a round and on the bit riding partner are very, very well documented in literature and are of course, extremely effective.
We must remind ourselves that even though the classical approach is the foundation of the amazing works of Classical Masters and modern superstars, these purists have always relied upon one crucial ingredient well before training even begins – this is the careful selection of highly talented young horses.
The wonderful Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria carefully tests and selects only the five most exceptional young Lipizzaner stallions deemed worthy of training each year, to ensure their High School standards are maintained.
Similarly, in the highly competitive world of modern Grand Prix Dressage, top professionals take great care when selecting only the most gifted young warmbloods that naturally show very trainable and athletic qualities before anyone has even sat on them.
With considerable expertise, these natural athletes are carefully trained into advanced roundness and fine communication using classical methods and traditional equipment, including side-reins and double bridles, allowing their expert riders to apply driving aids and restraining aids so the horse can be sent forwards into exceptional movements.
So what happens when we take a purely classical approach when riding our horses? Often we can find the results disappointing, as they won’t get Twinkletoes the Percheron into canter, nor Lightningpants, the off-the-track racehorse, to slow down and be any less suicidal. You may as well be talking to them in Japanese.
The Core of the Matter
Elite horses have passed the stringent requirements of their breed tests thanks to their natural and visible athleticism, yet they all have something in common that the eye cannot easily see. This is the magic ingredient that allows him to be ridden forward, ‘round’ and ‘on the bit’ with physical ease from a young age: they are by definition naturally strong and fluid through their core.
Most horses are not born with such a high level of core strength and as a result do not so easily show the spectacular movement of the selected specimens, and consequently have slightly less ability to maintain good posture when carrying us on their back.
When we do sit on them, we alter their posture ever so slightly and this changes the shape of the spinal column and how it functions when in motion. As the spine is the foundation of the horse’s movement, even a small mis-alignment of this precise and sensitive mechanism will have a dramatic effect upon his overall stability.
So if we use a training method that will ‘shape’ the outside of a talented horse on one that has a slightly weaker core, his body can and will resist being placed on the bit. Internally, he simply can’t do it.
If we insist, these horses can quickly become tense and stressed while pressure points gradually develop at key areas around the body. From that point forward, the horse becomes blocked and defensive, and this is the road to nowhere. To find the answer, we must go deep into his core, and fix it there.
What You Seek is Seeking You
Thankfully, all horses and ponies have a natural ability to be round and on the bit, it is already within them. We see it when they are excited in the paddock, where the body can freely express it’s most athletic posture. This natural ability is accessible to us all, but not from the outside. It must be encouraged into being expressed from the inside.
It is important to remember that under the skin, a horse’s physiology is a highly complex system of thousands of moving parts, and the head and neck are really just the part of the spine that hangs out of the front. So the best approach for solving symptoms such as lack of roundness and tricky head and contact issues, is to improve the condition of the deep structures that control and power the spinal column. Only this will realign and condition the horse’s internal geometry, and as a result the back, head and neck become round and light, all on their own.
Conditioning the Core: Release, Coordinate, then Tone
Core conditioning techniques are a very particular kind of exercise. These deep and sensitive parts of the body do not develop when under pressure or speed, as do the exterior muscles. They tend to ‘lock-up’ when put under pressure, and we lose their magic, whereas they flourish under gentle and slow movement. As with our own bodies, careful core work is the foundation of mobility and eventual ability. Yoga is an excellent example of this principle, and gives us a wonderful template for how to best help our horses develop their core.
Yoga based exercises are very good at individually isolating each section of the spine and unlocking their properties, one by one. This method gradually restores alignment, strength, and the full three dimensional ranges of motion to the entire back and spinal column, encouraging the horse’s natural abilities into play.
The first step of ‘Release’ is the most important, as it gives the body a chance to let go of any defensive tension by using a series of low impact stretches. Then we develop the horse’s ability to ‘Coordinate’ his new-found suppleness, before ‘Toning’ the entire core musculature to be able to hold the whole horse together as one, while in motion and under the rider.
The end result is a horse that is free in the back and soft in the mouth, making it much easier for him to be ridden round, on the bit and forward.
This approach gives a horse access to his three ‘Core Powers’ of thoracic lift, nuchal lift, and pelvic tilt, which radically improve ridability in these important ways:
Thoracic lift raises the torso between the shoulders giving front end lift and elevation to the paces
Nuchal lift aligns the thoracic vertebrae, restoring elasticity and freedom through the back so he is easier to turn, bend and sit on and
Pelvic tilt from a rounding of the lumbar area allows the pelvis to tuck under, engaging the hocks.
The Happiest Athlete
As this type of training is low-impact, tension and stress are kept to an absolute minimum. As his mobility improves, he can gradually discover his own unique balance and body confidence while in motion, making learning and performing easier for the horse.
In this spirit, The FEI adds:
The object of Dressage is the development of the Horse into a happy Athlete through
harmonious education. As a result, it makes the Horse calm, supple, loose, and flexible, but
also confident, attentive, and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the Athlete.
If we can consider rounding and riding on the bit as an end result, rather than the starting point, training your horse can be a pleasure for you both. Sometimes our innocent and generous four-legged friends just need a little more help to get there.
As always, may your horse be with you.
The bestselling book ‘Core Conditioning for Horses’ contains a full program of personalised core conditioning exercises and assessment tools, and can be ordered from HorseandRiderBooks.com or from Amazon and all good bookshops.