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The Push & Pull of Classical Dressage

It's a chilly -15 F out today and not ideal riding weather. I look with zero envy at our students booting up readying for their morning clinic with Greta and I. Our " Speaking French think Philippe Karl " clinic will soon be officially underway. And I should give a shout out to, The International Equestrian Shop, for their ongoing sponsorship. Everyone appreciated the hot breakfast they provided this morning, fried egg on a roll with starbucks coffee and a freshly squeezed orange juice certainly hit the spot. Later they are presenting a catered lunch, a trunk sale and an equine art for charity silent auction and their welcome baskets went down a treat. But I digress.

The question of the day is the push and pull of classical dressage.  The nemesis of every rider. Following German teaching, we have all seen the big moving warmbloods hounded by the riders forceful seat and leg aids slamming into unrelenting hands at the Elite auctions in Verden and Vechta. If you have ever ridden or bought one of these horses home, you know that when you first sit aboard these talented beasts your arms are pulled out of your sockets. Brace your back. No joke. Not that all German riding is this way, but it is a shame to see young riders on young horses starting them out in this manner. Kalman de Jurenak where are you? I think this past Director of the Vhw would have something to say.

Yesterday our students demonstrated the suppleness of their horses through lateral and longitudinal works. They thought. Riders with brilliant seats used reins to re-balance, not their horse, but themselves. Habits die hard and the bigger moving horses are a class act at causing mayhem through transitions for the rider used to a smaller gaited horse.

Today the one, two, three rule will be rigorously applied. The soft release of the inside rein will be timed exactly to the inside hind leg forward footfall and the left seat bone will hop from left to right with no 'unihip' sitting to the trot. Especially in the upward and downward transitions. The riders will close their fingers softly ( Sally Swift bird like hold), and ride with pressure on the thumb and forefinger only. Most importantly their wrists will not be turned. The outside frame will run from elbow to flat back of the hand to rein to bit and their elbows will be resting at a right angle almost touching their waists. Their hands will be following the movement, not holding it. The horse must hold himself.

One of my favorite expressions when teaching is to tell the student, "We are not carrying tea on a tray to the Queen." Are you a butler in the saddle? Relax. Put your shoulders back, let your arms hang in their natural position at your side and with your elbows just there, adjust your rein length. Of course the vertical line is basic, the heel, the hip, the elbow, the ear. Can you maintain it during transitions? Can you follow the horse's back with a left/right hip movement in the sitting trot and remember to breathe or do you bump up and down with a unihip?

This is harder to do than you think. Have a friend take a video of you in action. What are you doing with your hands when you give the forward leg aid? Are you guilty of pushing the horse with your legs and seat and then bracing your hands in a fixed 'wall' for him to collide with as soon as he answers your request and springs forward. Do you inadvertently pull on his mouth when he bounces forward in response to your forward aid request? Are you prepared in your core to absorb the forward movement by releasing your breath in time with the aid request. In your pre -canter pirouette do you have a bouncy energetic forward canter with lots of pop and soft following hands?  Or have you pulled your horse into a tight back with your tense seat and effort to turn your head to your forthcoming movement with a stiff neck and braced back? Our serious faces and unsmiling mouths tense our jaw and you will find this results in your horse's tensing his jaw. Smile a little. Smile a lot. Can you see him smiling yet?

Amazingly students who make this repair to their riding habit and address their deficiencies are surprised with the immediate improvement in all their 'work'. Be it piaffe, half passes or counter canter. The quality of any transition, within the gait and between gaits, determines the outcome of the next movement.

This horse and rider shown in the photo below showcase great suppleness and the horse exhibits great trust in the hand. I know the rider has previously broken both arms. One at the shoulder and one at the wrist (that was not set properly), so we can forgive the elbows not being completely at the waist. This is a suppling exercise recheck to show the horse is over his back and soft in his jaw. Note the expressive front leg of the horse and nice track on the circle. Notice the listening ears and relaxed tail of the horse and a slight waist turn to the right for the rider with the rider's chin up and inside leg perfectly placed. This horse has also been blessed by never having been ridden by anyone without an truly independent seat. Not all horses have been this fortunate.

Students are also surprised to find they have fallen prey to the habit of 'holding'. The worst offenders will find their horse may fall to his forehand in the first few tries. Remedy is go to circle work, come down a gait. Repeat exercise. Just before the horse 'drops' make a downward transition and repeat. You can also take your horse's head to the outside and repeat. This works better on the full arena for a young unbalanced horse. Never ride your horse with his head entirely straight. I'm not talking about tipping his head. That won't do. But you should just see his eye. I prefer to work my horses with their eye to the outside more of the time than inside. But it depends on a number of factors; your horse and his balance; his conformation; what you are schooling; which side, his stiff or hollow side; which side, your stiff or hollow side. Repeat the work until your horse says, "Aah, yes, I see, this is my job and I am happy to do it." Praise him.

When trainers like Klaus Balkenhol tell their students, we go back to basics and then the rest will follow, they are not kidding. How many Grand Prix riders would agree that their most improved tests came after such basic corrective reasoning from a ground person that was not shy to say just what they saw. Working with the Rehbein threshold with no tolerance for the push and pull, certainly weeded out this rider trying to correctly absorb the big forward movement. Humiliating at first. But once I realized I needed to just make three good strides then bring the horse down a gait or collect the gait, before I lost my position and good feelings, it became quite easy. You don't need to visit Grunwoldhof to learn this, any friend with a decent eye can be your ground person. Get religious about it, your horse will love it.

We shall address this basic first and then of course to the fine tuning. The refining half halt. What are those little fingers for after all. More on that later. I'm being called to the floor.

Suggested reading/study: Check out:-
Philippe Karl's new DVD School Of Legerete 1 & 2
Classical Dressage DVD Vol 1,2,3,4 Philippe Karl
L'Hotte Quest for Lightness Book ( hard to find try
Just for enjoyment and watching superior riding ( good visualization for the rider):-
Donnerhall Portrait DVD
The Magic of Classical Dressage Pas de Deux/Trois DVD Includes Klimke and Ahlerich

All the above titles are available at at discount pricing. Want to give them a plug here, after all, they are supporting this clinic series amongst other stuff they do for horse rescues etc.


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