There are few things more satisfying than the moment when your horse gets what you’re asking him to do. When you’ve been putting in the hard work from the beginning, it’s a great reward for your efforts to realise that you’re now sitting on a bonafide dressage horse. But it’s at this point that many riders feel as though they’ve hit a wall – they’ve developed their horse to the point where he’s a solid campaigner in the ring, but they’re not sure how to take him to the next level and add sparkle to his work.
Aiming for expression
It’s important to focus on working with your horse’s natural stride rather than trying to ride for a big, expressive trot, especially if he’s still green. An inexperienced horse has to learn how to balance and carry himself, so asking for a big gait too soon makes that difficult for him and can affect his confidence. Many riders think their horse must have a lofty trot to be successful in the dressage ring, but this is actually the gait that’s the easiest to improve.
Once you’ve developed a correct, balanced way of going, start to add expression using transitions within the pace. When your horse can lengthen his stride, you can teach him to collect it, then use that lift to create the impressive movement that everyone covets. Collection isn’t just a shortening of the stride, but rather a gathering of energy that, when tempered and released, creates suspension. Use the short side of the arena to ask for more collected steps, then let your horse move forward down the long side or across the long diagonal, making a clear transition back to working or collected trot just before you reach the next short side. This will help him to navigate the short side in balance, and will also stop him from falling onto his forehand and losing the energy from behind as he lengthens his stride.
Flex it out
Many riders use flexion exercises and stretches with their horses to encourage loose back muscles, a longer, relaxed stride and a basic understanding of independent movement. Far too often, though, riders stop incorporating these exercises once their horses are more established in their work.
It’s important to continue to encourage your horse to stretch and work over his back in a way that may be counter intuitive to how he’s built. A horse who’s built uphill will be more cautious about bringing his frame down, while a downhill horse will struggle to come up. Spend time riding the opposite of the horse that you’re on – this will not only stretch all his muscle groups, but it will also give you a more malleable horse to work with.
Be as consistent about working your horse out at the end of a session as you are about working him in. Spend a few minutes changing the rein and riding figures-of-eight and serpentines while encouraging him to stretch out along his topline without becoming unbalanced. One circle won’t do – he needs to be given enough time to get comfortable and confident with maintaining his own balance without being held in place. Use a little bit of movement through your inside rein to encourage him to seek the bit and work around your inside leg, but don’t be tempted to create an artificial stretch by see-sawing your reins. This will only encourage him to drop down in front of his withers, rather than work over his back.
Flying changes are an essential skill to have in your arsenal if you want to compete at Advanced Medium or above, but if your sights are set on a lower level or if you also jump, they’re equally useful. There’s a bit of a stigma surrounding changes, as many riders don’t understand the mechanics of how to ride them, so they find them intimidating. However, they needn’t be scary.
The most common problem I see is a lack of forward motion in the change, which makes it impossible for your horse to perform it cleanly and evenly. This is expensive in a test – a change that’s late behind might score a 2, but with a bit more forward motion there would be more jump and a quicker response, then it could score an 8. Be bold when you ride into the change, be it simple or flying. Create an active, rhythmical canter and think about straightness rather than forcing your horse to shorten endlessly. Ride forward into the change, then collect afterwards, focusing on keeping the activity of the gait.
You can use your whip to encourage your horse forward out of the change, but it’s important to get the timing right. Give with your hand and touch him with the whip at the same moment that you use your new outside leg to ask for the change.
Carl Hester shares even more of his flatwork secrets in the July issue of Horse&Rider, on sale 1 June 2017.