Story and Diagrams by Sylvana Smith
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.4
My first car after college was a sultry ‘72 Bonneville that stood on more real estate than my first apartment and had a 455 V8 under the hood—“the kind the police drive,” as the song goes.
No one ever beat me off the line at a stoplight. Unlike Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “455 Rocket,” though, mine didn’t get wrecked. It fell victim to 10 years of Pennsylvania road salt. One day, on the bumpy drive up to the barn, an 18-inch chunk of the frame simply fell off.
Thereafter, the back half of the car functioned quite independently of the front end. Sadly, no matter how much awe- some capacity for impulsion I possessed under the hood, I couldn’t do much with it unless I could get that hind end working with me. I traded the car for an ‘82 Chevette with 1.4 chipmunks under the hood. Yet, when I had dominion over all four quarters of the car, I could get farther, faster, with the little chipmunks than with all the Detroit muscle power in the world controlled only from the steering wheel forward.
I thought about that Bonneville, years later when I started riding my squiggly homebred in dressage. We were getting some redundant comments from show to show, so I had to lis- ten. At Training Level, we heard: “Haunches in on long side.” “Evades inside-hind engagement with haunches-in at canter.” “Canter depart not straight.” At First Level, we heard: “Haunches trailing in leg yield.” “Halt slightly crooked.” “Needs more ‘through’ in lengthenings.” Early in our career, one judge complimented my youngster on his lateral flexibility, then noted wryly that USDF Intro Test 1 doesn’t actually call for any lateral work.
I had a Bonneville with a missing connection. I had a powerful, eager animal with a lot of horsepower under the hood, yet I only truly had connection and control from the saddle forward.
Sure, I knew enough not to be a so-called “hand rider,” and to use seat and leg aids in my riding. But using seat-and- leg aids does not necessarily ensure a whole-horse response. Having a lot of energy isn’t the same as having a lot of impulsion if some of that energy is leaking out the sides. And being able to shove the haunches one way or the other isn’t the same as operating the hindquarter with precision or partnership.
As we progressed to more difficult tests, I was struck by how much I needed free and easy lateral control of the hindquarters in order to achieve straightness and to harness all that horsepower for greater impulsion. If I was shoving, rather than signaling, to get those moderate leg yields at First Level, how was I going to get half-passes at Second Level? If the haunches weren’t precisely on track on 20-meter circles, what would our 10-meter circles look like?
“The rider needs to get to the point where he realizes how important the hindquarters are,” wrote Tom Dorrance in True Unity. “If they aren’t working just right, he may notice it more in the front end, but they both have to work, and each one has to complement the other.”
At Buck’s horsemanship clinics, my horses and I explored ways to build that complementary connection and develop better lateral control of the hindquarters. By now I knew I needed it for lateral movements and for the fundamental straightness that relies on it. We rode one-rein stops, backing in circles, and serpentines and small circles on leg aids. We rode without bridles, clarifying our whole-horse connection or lack of it.
Yet in spite of these exposures, I still accepted being halfway connected as good enough, probably because I didn’t know what I was missing. I finally thought to reduce the concept to its simplest form, just to see where I stood. Ask the horse the simplest question: “Say buddy, what does it mean to you when I move my leg back a few inches and apply a light but perceptible pressure?” The answer: “Nothing.” I tried the other side. Nothing.
I didn’t have a reliable, automatic, light response to this one foundation skill, yet somehow I expected to combine this skill with others for a dozen different movements. I had been asking him to combine (A) forward energy with (B) lateral bend with (C) hindquarter displacement, when I just proved that I didn’t have “C” alone going for me. The missing foundation now seemed so obvious, I was amazed I hadn’t thought to ask this question before all those years of pushing my horse through lagging leg yields and haunches- in canters.
“Yielding away from leg pressure is contrary to the horse’s instinctually coded responses,” wrote Charles de Kunffy in The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse. “Horses are instinctively claustrophobic animals and when enclosed, confined, tied down, or in any way hemmed in they instinctively want to break out. They respond, usually and most naturally, by pushing or pulling against pressure… To teach the horse an entire language of controls based on his moving away from leg pressure, rather than leaning into the pressure against the rider’s leg, is a difficult and often delicate matter.”
I think we dressage riders often make it difficult by asking the horse to understand a combination of cues before asking if he understands any one of those cues used alone— in this case, (C), what it means to have a whisper of leg behind the girth, nothing else.
Now, when the ground is too icy or hard for jumping, too slippery and sloppy for fast work, this is the perfect time to establish, rebuild or refine that connection with the hindquarter. With very simple exercises, a step-by-step plan, a little attention to detail, and only a few hours of riding time, we build basics that improve everything else we want to do when the snow melts and mud dries up.
A step-by-step plan for success Here’s a snapshot view of the little program I use, now that I actually acknowledge what I was missing and that I want it:
Exercise 1. One-rein stop.
Purpose: Soften and supple the horse, introduce the concept of stepping the hindquarter over (disengaging) with the help of the rein
Technique: While walking on a loose rein, reach down the inside rein and draw it smoothly toward the rider’s hip on the same side while applying light leg behind the girth on the same side. When the horse disengages the hindquarters (steps sideways behind), release the leg and allow the horse to settle to a halt with his head softly drawn around toward the rider’s knee. If the horse is softly yielding to the rein, release the rein, maybe after stroking him on the forehead.
Tips: When reaching for the rein, be sure to draw smoothly instead of bump or pick. Remove the leg aid imme- diately when the horse starts to step over. Don’t release the rein if the horse is leaning or rooting.
Exercise 2. One step over behind.
Purpose: To isolate the leg aid from other aids and ascer- tain that the horse understands the meaning of light leg behind the girth
Technique: At a halt and on a loose rein, reach one leg a few inches behind the girth and apply a whisper of a signal, a 1 on a scale of 1-10. If nothing happens in a few seconds, increase the leg aid to a 3. If a change isn’t happening or brewing, reach for the rein on that side and draw it toward your hip until the horse takes a step over behind. Release. Let it soak a few seconds. Repeat. With placid horses that seem stuck, doing this at a walk can sometimes work better, or wave a hand at the horse’s hip as a follow-up.
Tips: This exercise is so basic and self-evident that it’s tempting to skip it or move on to Exercise 3 before this is light and 100 percent reliable. But this is a good place to “go slow to go fast.” Getting this one simple thing right eliminates a lot of heavy leg aids later, when the pace and expectations are higher.
Exercise 3. Multiple steps over behind.
Purpose: To extend Exercise 2 into a turn on the fore- hand
Technique: On loose reins, reach one leg behind the girth and apply a signal at a 1 or 2 (just a presence). When the horse initiates a lateral step behind, release immediately. Repeat signal-and-release in rhythm with his steps to pro- duce a turn on the forehand in which the forequarters stay in place and the hindquarters pivot 90 or 180 degrees. By sitting “on your pockets,” your body tells him not to march forward, so the reins can be idle. If the horse tries to walk
forward, check lightly with the reins and release. Have faith he won’t do it again. Resist the temptation to hold the forequarter in place, because the value of this exercise is in isolating the leg aid from other aids.
Tips: Be sure to give a momentary release with each lateral step, or the horse will get duller as you work. Expect a clear sideways step behind. If the response is not happening, or getting slower and duller, follow up with directing rein as necessary.
Exercise 4. Wiggly lines.
Purpose: To build on Exercise 3 by combining forward motion with lateral steps
Technique: Walking on a loose rein, reach one leg a few inches behind the girth and signal with a whisper, a 1 or 2. When the horse steps sideways with his hindquarter, release and walk on a loose rein. Repeat, changing sides every five or six repetitions at first, or whenever things start to improve on one side. Any time the horse ignores the leg aid, come in promptly but smoothly with directing rein (drawing the inside rein toward you). When you chart this exercise on a map, it should look like a drunken wiggly line. The beauty of this haphazard track is that the horse gets released and rewarded every time he earns it, not just when he reaches some geometric point.
Tips: Resist the temptation to describe a specific figure or navigate around a specific obstacle. That will come next. Release for getting a soft, willing response, not for reaching a specific location.
Exercise 5. Navigating through tangible, visible turns.
Purpose: To build on Exercise 4 by using leg aids alone to move the hindquarter with precision
Technique: In Exercise 4, we changed the horse’s direc- tion by having him step the hindquarters laterally in response to one leg signal on one side, but we weren’t too picky about how much turn we achieved. Left leg moved his hindquarters right, so he ended up traveling more left. Right leg moved hindquarters left, so he ended up pointing more right. We were making the response lighter and more reliable but not worrying much about precision. Exercise 5 builds on that skill by putting it to the test on a specific path that is obvious to both you and the horse. Cones, muck buckets, water pails, jump rails, barrels, snowmen… anything can serve as visual aids to define a tangible path to weave through and around on leg aids alone.
Tips: It’s easy to accidentally signal with reins. I like to test my progress by tying the reins into the mane or looping them around the horn. Taking away the reins is quite different from having them in hand but thinking you’re not using them.
Exercise 6. Riding circles, figure eights, and serpentines.
Purpose: To build on Exercises 1-5 by riding an inten- tional, visualized path on leg aids alone
Technique: Exercise 5 added the element of precision— we’re really going somewhere specific—but made it easier by helping the horse with visual cues. Exercise 6 asks for precision on a path visualized by the rider. I like to start with 20- meter circles (about the diameter of a typical round pen), “S” curves through the center of the circle to change direction, then 10-meter circles and “S” changes, then serpentines. Reins are loose, inside leg signals behind the girth and releases as soon as the horse starts to step laterally behind. Follow up with a touch of leading inside rein only when necessary.
Tips: Set the horse up for success by visualizing the change of bend and giving him fair notice before you need the new direction.
Exercise 7. Sidepass.
Purpose: To direct hindquarter and forequarter together; set the stage for leg yield
Technique: Everything I read and hear suggests teaching the leg yield before sidepass, but I find I get much better results teaching sidepass first. Granted, I’m not talking about the collected exercise that takes the dressage half-pass to its gymnastic extreme. I’m talking about the uncollected side- stepping movement you see in show trail classes. To sidepass left, signal with the right leg at or slightly behind the girth, and open the left rein and leg to invite the horse to move left, stepping parallel. To sidepass right, have left leg at the girth and open the right rein and leg. One step and release at first, multiple steps later.
Tips: Start teaching this facing a fence or jump to pre- vent forward movement without having to check with the reins. Be ready to rebalance/lighten/increase leg and rein as necessary to keep the hind- and forequarters moving side- ways the same amount.
Exercise 8. Leg yield.
Purpose: To build on Exercise 7 to combine sideways and forward movement
Technique: “Unlike more advanced lateral exercises, the leg-yield may be performed without collection,” writes Major- General Jonathan Burton in How to Ride a Winning Dressage Test. “Therefore, it is a suitable exercise for a young or green horse, as it helps teach him to move away from your leg. When the horse has reached a higher degree of balance through training, the leg yield improves the horse’s supple- ness and makes him more responsive to the aids.”
To leg-yield right at the walk, apply left leg slightly behind the girth, and open up the right leg and right rein; this invites the horse to move right while moving forward as
well. To leg-yield left, signal the horse with your right leg slightly behind the girth and open the left rein and left leg. The horse will move away from the leg pressure and toward the open space created on his left while traveling forward. For schooling purposes, you can define the angle you want, maybe starting with a minimal angle and increasing difficulty as he gets better.
Tips: If it feels like hard work, and your legs are getting tired from moving the horse sideways, stop what you’re doing and go back to a previous exercise. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of pushing them over rather than signaling them over. Go back to the sidepass and make sure that’s really light and floating, not sticky and slow.
Tips for success
- Do start in baby steps. These simple exercises work so well, so fast, because they disassemble the skill into its simplest components and ensure the basics are there before attempting skills that build on those basics.
- Do be consistent. The horse will listen to leg aids more precisely than we’re using them if we’re not careful. We don’t want to accidentally tell him, “My leg has meaning, no it doesn’t, yes it does, no it doesn’t.”
- Do mix it up. For each exercise, work on left side and right side, switch exercises often, break up lateral work with forward work, and offer frequent short breaks. Leaving off an exercise for a while can sometimes be the fastest way to master it.
- Do capitalize on day-to-day opportunities to reinforce this lateral connection, such as when indicating which fork in the trail to take or trotting around the jumps or barrels during warm-up.
- Do be careful not to let aids get heavier. “The first time you ask, ask with a ‘1’ on a scale of 1-10,” said FEI dressage rider Hokan Thorn. “You might have to grow that to a ‘4’ or ‘6’ to get the response, but the next time, every time, ask with a ‘1’.”
- Do release the leg aid when his mind has formulated the answer, not after the hindquarter has finished stepping across. • Do look for proper lateral bend. Exercises 1 and 2 show the horse that left leg back means volunteer left bend; right leg back means volunteer right bend. Follow up with a touch of inside rein if you’re getting shallow, flat turns.
- Do recognize when to allow it to happen, when to help it happen. Visualize, invite and allow the response, rather than forcing it—yet recognize when the horse needs help. “Sometimes the horse needs a little more support, a little more direction to follow through,” wrote Tom Dorrance in True Unity, “like a wheelbarrow coming up against a high spot needing just a little more help to get it over.”
- Do consider variable response time. When do you start to ask for the movement? How long do you wait before adding reinforcing aids? That depends. A green horse should get a few more steps/seconds to consider your request; an educated horse can be expected to respond more precisely. When you ask and when you reinforce will therefore change from moment to moment, somewhere along that line between expecting too little and demanding too much.
- Do make sure to get a response for every request. If it seems like the horse isn’t searching for the right response, or is searching fruitlessly, help him with a “warmer-colder” rou- tine. That might mean a semi-release when he’s getting warmer, firming up when he’s getting colder or not searching.
Coming up through the showering hunter tradition, I grew up viewing lateral work as an academic exercise only. It was something they made you do in equitation classes for no practical purpose. I was a follower of Captain Vladimir Littauer, father of the English forward seat, who wrote: “Two tracks is one of those classic exercises which can be skipped in schooling hunters and jumpers. Its contribution to jumping, galloping, and the ability of the horse in fast riding over a rough terrain are negligible.”
Capt. Littauer gave a nod to the usefulness of lateral con- trol for opening gates and avoiding cars when riding along the road, but noted that “all these and similar difficulties can be solved by simpler means.” To Capt. Littauer, exercises with the hindquarters and forequarters on separate tracks are useful only “to give pleasure to the sophisticated rider who enjoys achievements beyond the utilitarian.”
I foxhunted, evented and showed hunters for decades on that belief. My horses and I had jobs that required traveling straight, so we didn’t think much about purposefully traveling crooked, as it were. Once I raised my expectations and experimented with the possibilities, I came to side more with Charles de Kunffy: “No horse can be kept straight merely by being kept straight on a path. Riders cannot through precision of influence alone make a horse strong and supple enough to move straight. Only by suppling, strengthening, and elasticizing with lateral exercises can we then [cause] horses to move straight through our influence.”
“The control of the haunches is synonymous with all the goals of dressage,” de Kunffy writes. And the goals of dressage are largely synonymous with the goals of foxhunting, event- ing, and show hunters—just implemented to different degrees for different performance qualities.
The first time I followed this step-by-step plan—diligently and systematically—I sampled what I had been missing. After only three rides and these extremely simple exercises, I savored the feeling of having connection through the whole horse by having control of the hindquarters.
Shoulder collapsing into the turns, crooked canters, unre- liable leads, circles that looked like eggs, ziggy centerlines… all these issues and more just disappeared. It was like having a
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.4