December 13, 2010

Correct?....or not?

The debate around dressage lately is good, but sometimes also a bit black and white. Or blurred.
We get a lopsided view if the discussion only relates to the position of the horse's head - which is one part of the picture, but not the whole.
We also have to discuss how the horse is using his entire body, and in particulary his back and hind legs. 
The position of the head should be a consequence of educational level and correct training. 
If you look at the correct body posture and neck position of a young horse, and compare it to that of a Grand Prix horse, it differs quite a lot.

Jan Brink/Björsells Briar

Within the training, you might also need to position the horse's head and neck differently.
To loosen up the back you often work the horse in a lower outline in the beginning and end of a training session.
It is also important that you vary the form throughout the training.
The horse's individual preference and body conformation also comes into play; a horse that wants to work deep often tends to be on the forehand and needs some more "up" work, and a horse who wants to work high often gets tense and needs some deeper work to loosen up.

A correctly educated dressage horse will get stronger over the years, and will be able to collect more.
The forward energy that the young horse shows will become more expressive as the older horse develops collection and "schwung".
Collection in a dressage context means stronger in the hindlegs which again creates more upwards movements and posture - including a higher neck and head position.
This is not something you can achieve with your hands, it is something the horse offers when he is getting stronger.

During the time it takes to educate the horse, we will experience periods where the horse is not working correctly.
All of us are working towards an ideal; a soft and agile horse, strong and straight - but sadly we will not get it from day one!
The horse needs to learn how to balance the rider, and the work towards the ideal is not always that easy.
A horse that works with the head behind the vertical is not working correct, but a horse that works with the head in front of the vertical, or aligned with it, does not necessarily work correct either.
(And by the way - behind the vertical does not equal rollkur. Rollkur is an extreme, forced position of the head. Behind the vertical can happen due to a number of reasons, and is an overall indicator of incorrect work.)

I managed to lure my daughter the Photographer out to take some pictures of Fame and me, to get some illustrations from a normal rider's daily struggles.
I will use our shortcomings to show what I mean, because this is definetely work in progress.
Please chime in with your thoughts and comments, if you want to - I am happy to get some feedback and discussion here, whether you agree with me or not.
I will present the photos first, without any comments.
Look at them, and compare your own thoughts with mine at the end.

Picture 1

Picture 2

Picture 3

Picture 4

Picture 5

What are your thoughts?

Here are mine:

Picture 1: Position of the neck and head is correct, isn't it?
But what about hind leg activity?
My horse happily plods along here, if allowed, saving her energy for another day.
As you can see, she is not tracking up - so this is not good enough. We are starting to work here, and I have to get her back and hind legs into action. We need some more energy!

Picture 2:  Time to start with some canter work.
We are not working correct here either.
I am asking for some more activity, and Fame gets a bit strong and is pushing into the sidepull, closing the angle under her chin and coming slightly behind the vertical.
Her strong contact is a result of having slightly too much weight on the forehand.
I try to fix my body position so she is not pulling me out of balance, while I soften slightly in the contact to avoid her taking too much weight there. Then we start with some transistions within the gait to improve balance and get the hind legs working better.
A more correct form would show a more open angle under her throat/chin, more like an inverted U instead of a V, and a more even curve from the poll to the top of the neck.
When it gets better I'll get a feeling that the poll is rising up, and the contact in my hands softens. What I am looking for is a more uphill canter, without her losing the activity or tensing up in the neck.

Picture 3. Compare the trot here with the trot in picture 1.
She is a bit open in form, but as you can see there is much more activity in her body.
See how the legs are moving compared to pic 1.

Picture 4. I am trying to get her to work in a slightly rounder form here, while keeping the activity. She gets a bit strong, and pushes into the sidepull again. I am trying to fix my position (a bit more difficult when riding without a saddle) and balance her through a halfhalt.

Picture 5: Better!
Far from perfect, but she is working actively in a rounder form and with a nice contact in my hands.
Now we can get some work done.
We still need to work more on building strength so Fame can carry herself in a more collected form.
It takes time as she often gets a bit tense, too high in form and tightening in the back - which is not correct.
The blame is above the saddle for sure, but we are working on it.
Transistions, shoulder-in and half-pass are good tools to use..

Picture 6

And - picture 6: 
Half-pass. They are finally starting to come along, yippeeee!

We have also played around with flying changes lately. 
It seems as if she understands the aids a bit more so we are starting to place them also on straight lines, unrelated to changes in direction.
It is faaar from perfect, but great fun!

You might also be interested in: The crooked horse and The wiggly horse

(It was good to get the photos as I can see that the cheekpieces are getting too close to her eyes when riding. I have changed the browband.)


The Odyssey Farm said...

Where's the "like" button? :) great photos, I agree with your presentation. And I like #6 best, you are beginning to dance!

Annette said...

I am impressed that you are doing such good work bareback in the snow! Beautiful pictures - beautiful horse and rider.

Di said...

I agree with your comments. Your horse is lovely and you are doing very well riding bareback. No.6 is a lovely pic.

juliette said...

All your photos look really wonderful to me. I understand that #5 and #6 shows your mare with a rounder energy - more power under her and from the hindquarters, but to be honest it is difficult to see anything but the lovely snow and you bareback and her bitless(?) and the incredible beauty of the whole experience. Every photo shows your mare working through the process and that seems "correct" to me!

Net said...

THANK YOU! Thank you thank you thank you for this post!

I find it fascinating how well you can see when her back is and isn't lifted without the saddle!

I had pretty much the impression you had of the photos. I recently took some photos of my trainer on my horse (since I don't have anyone to take pics of me - but I'm the one who rides him daily, so his progress reflects the work I'm doing with him!) and was thrilled to see an uphill balance and bending/lowering/use of his hind legs. I also noticed he was actually allowing contact - he tends to want to duck behind instead of accepting it. That was a lot of what I have felt riding, but watching I couldn't look away from how he was using his back legs!

It drives me CRAZY reading one person after another talking about head position, and forgetting the rest of the body. If you're going to claim you want correct work, you should be focused on what the body is doing, not just focused on "the head's behind the vertical, the head's behind the vertical!"

Right now, I'm working on getting my typically stiff horse to lengthen his frame and his stride, and move through the back. He'll happily compress himself any day, any time, any level of warmup - so we end up doing long and low type work to get his back moving-just as you say in your post. When I ask him to be more collected with my seat and by restricting a little in front, he finds it EASY to round and shorten. He may be 8, but he's just learning to use his body for the first time in his life - so I rarely ask for that at all.

A negative example. One of the pics shows my horse dropping his head behind the vertical, but what I notice is that his back end is higher and legs are less bent. He also appears to have done a bit of a toe flip instead of a more active knee-first then reach trot stride. The head position is a symptom, not the problem!

HorseOfCourse said...

Thanks for your comments all, and for the kind words!

Net, thanks for sharing your pictures. They were very good illustrations of the same issues, and I agree with you in your conclusions.
You often need to put the horse in a long and low position, but the tricky part is to avoid them getting on the forehand.
I believe your pictures shows in a nice way the difference of the horse being in balance, and slightly on the forehand.
Your horse is lovely!

jme said...

i agree with your post wholeheartedly, and i actually found your critiques of your pics were very similar to my own (and i use the word 'critiques' in the positive sense - i think the photos show some great work and correct progress!)

if i had to add any training comment of my own, it would be that i am seeing a lack of lateral flexion - and even some counterbending - in these photos, though maybe you are simply riding in the other direction and we are seeing the outside angle...?

i'm a big fan of developing the lateral flexibility of the horse well before asking for any kind of longitudinal flexion - in fact, i find once the horse knows how to position and balance correctly laterally, he automatically adopts the approprate level of longitudinal flexion (eg, 'head position', etc.) for the job! (but that's an opinion i am sure some might like to debate ;-)

working a gentle inside flexion and release of the neck with a leading rein can really help loosen the frame, and the slight head-to-tail flexion of an indirect rein of opposition behind the wither can really help position the horse correctly on curved lines, shift the balance off the inside shoulder and to the outside legs, and engage the hind legs well under the body.

but again, i can't be sure what direction you are travelling in the pics, so none of that may apply! it was just a thought :-) all in all, i think you should be congratulated on making such good progress with her, and taking your time to do it the right way!

HorseOfCourse said...

Thanks jme!

I have saved my pictures from riding on circles to a later blogpost; the one about bending that I have planned for so long. The problem is that it is so much I want to say that I really have difficulties on where to start and how to condense it, so I kind of leave it for tomorrow - and have been for a long time, lol!

I am only riding on curved lines in pic 1 and 2, the rest are short diagonals or on the track.

On pic 1 she is a bit tense in the neck, and I am using an opening rein to encourage her to losen up a bit and relax.

I would look forward to have a discussion on lateral bend.
A correct bend in the body is as you say a good tool to encourage also longitudinal flexion as the horse has to step under with an active hind leg.

jme said...

ahh, now i see! i was wondering what directon you were going in... i'd love to see the next series on bending! i have the same concern about knowing where to begin and what to include in a post, which is probably why my posts are so boring and ramble on and on forever - i'm always trying to fit it all in! ;-)

Grey Horse Matters said...

I like your pictures and comments on them. You do such a wonderful job of riding bareback in the snow. Since I'm not a trainer I'm not much good at critiquing other riders, I can only feel what I'm doing as I ride. I leave the comments to my daughter/trainer.

Shanster said...

Very nice post! I like the pictures and explanations. I totally agree - a picture is a moment in time and there are so many things going on as you work. Adjustments, corrections, responses to the partner as we work. This goes for both horse and rider who are working together as a team.

Absolutely. It is the whole picture of the dance, from front to back - the circle of energy and not just one piece...all the pieces form the picture of correct work. I love this sport...

I know it can have a bad rap and reputation but when done correctly and studied well, it is lovely and can be enjoyed by anyone.

Thank-you for sharing!

HorseOfCourse said...

Thank you all!

jme - your posts are always interesting, so keep them coming!

GHM, you don't have to be a trainer to comment. I am happy for any observations and I love to discuss things.

Shanster, that is what is worrying me.
You see incorrect riding in all equestrian sports, but suddenly the dressage sport in general is criticized because of incorrect riding by some.
It makes me sad, and I don't believe it is fair.
When out watching regional shows I see far more incorrect riding at show jumping arrangements, but I would not criticize the entire sport just because of some individuals?

trudi said...

She's looking really good!

mugwump said...

Great post! I am borrowing one of your sentences and starting a post of my own from it...such a thief I am.

HorseOfCourse said...

Thanks Trudi!

Mugs, it is not stealing, just sharing ;-)
Looking forward to read your post!