As your horse’s training progresses, it’s important to start to look for a more advanced understanding of the work he’s doing and a change in his outline. Whereas with a five-year-old I keep it simple and work on creating engagement through the use of transitions, I want to see a six-year-old using himself, starting to understand the fundamentals of self-carriage and developing enough maturity in his balance that he can execute lateral movements.
I recommend carrying a schooling whip, but with a caveat – it should be used as a corrective aid or a refinement of your aids, rather than as a tool to make your horse move forwards. Also, it’s important to put your whip down sometimes to ensure that your horse is truly in front of your leg. It’s not uncommon to see riders get great marks in qualifying tests, but when they get to a championship where whips aren’t allowed, their scores drop by 10% and they practically have to be carried out of the arena on a stretcher while their horse trots back to the lorry having not even broken a sweat. If you rely too heavily on a whip for forward motion, your horse will know when you don’t have it and react accordingly.
For me, it’s important that horses are sensitive to the whip rather than numb to continuous tapping. This is because the whip is crucial for developing Grand Prix movements such as piaffe, as it helps to single out each leg. If I hold the whip against my horse’s leg, he should lift that leg, but if he’s spent his ridden life being desensitised to it, then he’ll switch off and those reactions will be gone. Whatever your ambitions, selectively using your whip allows it to remain an effective tool.
Something many riders find difficult, but that’s on every dressage test you’ll tackle, is the square halt. For your horse to be able to consistently execute a square halt, he first has to know what it is. When I rode for Dr Bechtolsheimer, square halts were something that every horse on the yard had to do whenever they were being handled, when they were being groomed and when we got on. As a result, they understood that they had to have a leg at each corner.
Once your horse has learnt that it’s possible to stand in this way, the focus must shift to the way you ride the transition to halt. Many riders try to keep their horses’ trot as forward as possible into halt, which isn’t necessarily incorrect, but this has to be done intuitively. If you ride forward on a long stride and ask for an immediate halt, your horse’s legs will stop wherever they’ve landed. A shorter, active step creates a balanced, symmetrical halt.
When riding into a downward transition, it should feel as though your horse’s neck comes up higher, his stride shortens and his hindlegs step underneath him. Think about putting one tiny walk step in before you halt. If your horse starts to drop behind your leg or you lose the feeling of being able to move one leg at a time, correct it by riding forwards, asking for transitions within the gait, then reapproaching the problem.
For more schooling solutions from Carl, including developing lateral work and self-carriage, pick up the June issue of Horse&Rider, available 4 May.