We all spend most of our time training the horse, not competing. Training can either be a repetition of what we have always done or we can be diligently trying to improve the work all the time. I find the thing that keeps riding interesting year after year is the training, finding better ways to explain to the horse, finding ways to make the work more expressive, how to preserve the basic paces of the horse and even improve them. We have all seen plenty of talented young horses that actually become less expressive as they go through the grades. This article is about how to train with the idea in mind to improve the scores.
I am going to presume in this article that you can already perform the movements described for a 5 (sufficient) or a 6 (satisfactory), but that you want to obtain a higher mark. A7 is fairly good, and an 8 is good. That is what we all hope to be. Of course you will not get a higher mark in the ring than the quality of the work that you are training at home, so you must have the higher goal in mind in your training.
Did you watch the Olympics? The most striking thing about the top tests with the scores of 8 was the energy in the paces and the horse’s ability to stay balanced with so much energy in the movements and in the transitions between movements.
If a movement is performed accurately and correctly the mark will reflect the quality of the pace within the movement and the balance. So once a movement is understood and correctly executed you can start to work to improve it. When you are starting to train a new movement do not make it too complicated for your horse by insisting on expression as well. Just be content with an approximation of what you want and keep rewarding better attempts. As he gets more confident you can ask for more expression and cadence. Essentially expression is the height of the steps and cadence is a combination of expression and rhythm. Expression is a result of the horse reacting to your leg to make a higher more energetic step, rather than a longer more energetic step, or worse a faster more energetic step. He must maintain the correctness of the movement, and maintain the correct balance, with more energy. The energy comes from his response to your leg. The response to the leg must be quick. The leg must be applied quickly and the horse must keep the energy without continually being. reminded or nagged with the leg. Leg on, response, leg off, keep going. Allow him to make a little mistake and slow down and be quick to correct him with the leg, so he learns to not slow down when the leg is off. He must only slow down when he is asked with the rein or the seat/back. Remember that you can only collect whatever energy you have in the first place.
So let’s look at circles as the first example, as there are circles are frequently required up to Prix st George. A well executed circle is a thing of beauty, demonstrating the horse’s suppleness and athleticness. The circles of course get smaller as the levels go up and the requirement for collection and a higher frame increase.
Make sure you know the appropriate landmarks for the size circle you need to do. Always prepare you circle before you get to the marker where it starts. In training start by getting the best trot you can. Put in the energy with your leg, determine the rhythm with your seat, ensuring that even at sitting trot you are on the correct diagonal so that the aids are timed correctly to influence the inside hind leg to push. When you sit a tiny bit heavier as the inside hind leg pushes you leg aid will be timed correctly, and as you seat is a tiny bit lighter as this diagonal pair (inside hind leg and outside front leg) are moving forward you encourage a little more reach forward.
So get you best energetic trot and make a large circle. Keep the energy and allow the horse to find his balance in it. Find the opportunity to relax your hand to ensure that he is in self carriage and insist that he keep the energy (expression and cadence). Ride from the back to the front e.g. leg into a soft hand.
As he finds his balance more easily just make the circle a little smaller say 18 meters. Keep the energy expression and balance. Your leg reminds him to stay energetic. Give the rein a little to test self carriage. His body must remain vertical, not leaning in. The hind legs must follow the front legs so he is straight (with bend). He must have appropriate bend. Do not allow him to make slower or shorter steps. Try to make each step the same all the way around the circle.
When he finds his balance make the circle smaller, 15m. And so forth until you find his current limit. You have found his limit when he pushes down on your hands to balance, or he can’t keep his rhythm, or he leans in, or swings his quarters in or bulges his shoulders out, and you can no longer correct these evasions. When he can’t find a way to keep his balance and impulsion together you must allow the circle a little bigger and insist on quality. With systematic training he will learn to keep his balance in a smaller and smaller circle and become more advanced. Remember that you cannot force him to find his balance. He must balance and be in self carriage. Don’t allow him to balance on the rein. Be patient and have integrity.
One of the most important movements to train for an 8 is the halt. Every test has at least two. The entry must be straight. practise going up the centre line with your best expressive trot. Steady over the X and keep going. Practise halting on the wall and all over the arena. balance the trot, as you use the reins the neck must not shorten. His head must just travel forward in space smoothly. As you half halt with your back dont bear down too hard. His hind legs must step up under your seat, and his back comes up as his pelvis rotates a little. This won't happen if you sit down too hard and push his back down. He must step up and forwards into the halt. Stay still only as long as he is prepared to do at the beginning, go forward and straight, look up, and repeat it until he knows to wait. The halt must be straight. Always correct straightness by moving the shoulder across to be in front of the hind leg. The depart must be straight and immediately into trot. No walk steps. Easy but if you don't ask you wont get it. Always halt at X at the end of a work session, so he learns that X is a bit like home base and is conditioned to relax at X.
The principles of keeping the energy in the pace with rhythm, continually improving the balance with transitions and ensuring straightness, and bend when needed will see your marks improve. I will tell you more about training the other movements later.
You will find it is really interesting to see what he is capable of and to see how he improves if you are diligent about rhythm, energy, balance and self carriage. And you will find the score improves.