Acquired Natural Carriage in Dressage
As dressage riders, we want the horse to carry us as if unburdened, the back not concaving under our weight, but rounding, filling out our seat elastically with every stride. Developing in the horse's back and neck muscles the ability to stretch down and out will help to establish this acquired natural carriage with a rider. This stretching down and out is one of the major suppling exercises to develop a pulsating back with an elastic strength coordinating the activated muscles to reach for the bit, soften at the poll, and consequently chew the bit.
The only requirement before beginning is that the horse allow itself to be driven forward. The horse must basically move quietly off your leg, so you can activate the hindquarters into your hand. We want to harness the energy, not by constraining the gait, but by displaying its elastic elegance between our legs, seat, and hands.
No attempt should ever be made to slow the horse by framing it unnaturally, or by forcing it onto the bit, for these actions stifle the freedom of movement in the gait. The horse must always be allowed to stretch and seek contact with the bit. If the hindquarters are not activated, and the back is not allowed to pulsate and stretch through the neck to the poll, the horse will never arrive naturally with acceptance of the bit.
Basically what happens with down-and-out is that the hind end is activated into the receiving hand, which resists until the horse nods (gives at the poll). At this moment, the hands give, encouraging the horse to stretch its neck and back muscles forward and down. However, the flexion that occurs at the poll from the nod relaxes the muscles, which reflex forward and start the process of forward and down only as far as the back is supple.
The nod will bring the nose momentarily behind the poll, or behind the bit, but only slightly miniscule, for immediately the reflex will return the nose forward. With the hands given already, the muscles will continue to move forward with the neck, following the stretching down.
If the horse lowers its head only six inches to a foot, you must ask it again from whichever point it stopped stretching. However, more than likely, before you have the chance to adjust the reins and get a steady contact to ask again, the horse has already raised its head back to normal.
Here is where tact and skill come into play: driving, resisting, giving, and receiving must work together in one harmonious flow.
The rider must acquire the feel for lengthening the reins and shortening them practically all at once. One suggestion is to widen the hands to take up the slack in the rein when the horse has suddenly raised its head, and bring them to center again. The independent action of the riders hand, arms, and shoulders is as vital to the down-and-out as the nod. The rider must be able to bring the elbows back behind the hip to absorb the instant slack and forward again while maintaining balance. Many riders find this difficult, because their shoulders are stiff, or they lack the stability of balance.
We have to understand that during the process of developing these muscles to stretch elastically, it is natural for the horse to raise its head suddenly. Therefore, it should not be punished for doing so. This stretching must be a gradual process. Eventually, the regular stimulation of stretching will give way to the muscles developing a lengthened resting place.
A good way to discover the feel of the horse's nodding is to practice this sequence at a halt. Feeling the nod is vital for knowing when the horse is submissive and ready to stretch down-and-out, or even just willingly come to the bit and accept being on the aids.
Establish a halt with the horse on the aids seat, legs, and hands. The hands remain closed, telling the horse to stand still. The legs hold the horse into the bit and are ready to ask the horse to move forward when necessary.
When the nod comes, it is miniscule, an inch or less toward the chest. After the nod, give slightly with the reins. As the horse begins to seek contact again, ask it again to soften at the poll by resisting slightly until the neck gradually lowers and the nose stretches forward pointing down-and-out. Consequently, the horse will begin to chew the bit out of your hands.
Practicing these subtle tactics at a walk is more effective, since there will be slightly more impulsion, provided the horse walks freely forward. However, the trot is the foundation gait upon which to base the real work of down-and-out. The rhythmic impulsions established in the pulsating diagonal stride create a better atmosphere for the horse to elasticized, since the muscles are naturally activated. Nevertheless, one must first learn the sequence described above of what to feel and how to ask before beginning this work at a trot.
Even so, the goal will still be difficult to achieve. At first, some horses, as they begin to stretch forward and down, will lose momentum as muscles of the back become tensed from the unaccustomed forward stretching. The pulsations created in the trot, however, help to loosen the tight muscles. When the gait slows, be patient with the horse and keep trotting, though do not force the gait if discomfort persists. Let the muscles relax before pursuing the down-and-out at a trot once again.
Work over Cavaletti
Tight and constricted muscle fibers can be relaxed with work over cavaletti, and soft and undeveloped muscles can acquire supple strength, with their use.
A good down-and-out is acquired when the head remains lower than the withers with the nose leading the way until you ask the horse to raise its pulsating back up and into your hands for a harnessing of its elastic slack. The day the horse's nose is practically rototilling the arena (the German's saying is translated as plowing potatoes) is the day it has acquired maximum stretch of forward and down. This stage of elasticity is usually only obtained after months of loosening exercises. Remember, the goal is not to harvest the potatoes the first time out in the field, but to prepare for the coming harvest.
Work on the Longe
One can also supplement the horses development of down-and-out with work on the longe. The advantage to longeing is that having no rider enables the back to elasticized more easily. Side-reins are obviously not attached, since we want to encourage a self-carriage sought through a long neck not a constrained one. A bridle without reins is most effective for longeing, since the reins if tied over the neck or even looped under the throat latch seem to hinder the horses freedom and willingness to stretch forward and down. The advantage to longeing with the bridle is the effectiveness of the half-halts, helping to determine the rhythm and cadence of the horse. Fastening the longe line under the chin and clipping it to the outside ring of the bit is effective for this control. It acts like a curb chain, though beware of chain longe lines.
Note overstride and full stretch through topline. (In subsequent years, Kristin has learned that the longe line would be better positioned over the horse's poll.)
Allow the horse the advantage when longeing; do not demand a perfect circle. You will acquire more respect and trust from the animal if constant pulls and tugs on it head are not endured to keep it on the prescribed arc. Remember, the goal of dressage is to harness the energy, not to stifle it, so when the horse bucks, most usually out of happiness, it should not be punished, but driven forward into the buck, capturing this energy back into its gait.
One should work slowly with a green horse, so the muscles will gradually become accustomed to the constant curve. Relaxed trots help to loosen the muscles because of the rhythm in the stride. Any new training techniques should be introduced gradually, allowing time for muscles, ligaments, and tendons to adjust, lest they become stressed. Also, allow the animal a large enough circle.
As the horse increases in flexibility, a small circle (10 metres) in between the larger circles is advisable, as when riding. More bend is created between tail and poll, creating a more fluent and flexible horse, provided its forwardness is not hampered.
On the longe line, the process for training the down-and-out is the same driving the activated back into the hands. You will not feel the nod, you will have to depend more on your eyes and the understanding of the horse's responses when driven into the hands. Half-halts are applied as needed, encouraging self-carriage, and the rhythmic drive forward is maintained. Spirals when longeing are the best techniques of getting the horse to step under itself and consequently lighten the shoulders (a frequent area of tension) and, thus, stretch forward and down. When this happens, you gradually spiral out. If the horse does not soften in the shoulder and lower its neck, do not remain on the smaller circle; let it spiral out. You cannot force the muscle to change.
Once down-and-out has been achieved in the horse's muscle, it should be practiced constantly in order to maintain the elasticity in the muscles as initial training for young horses; as retraining for stiff, older horses; and for maintaining elasticity in advanced level horses. Down-and-out is best practiced as warm-up to loosen the back and in between sessions of on the bit. Also, ending a riding hour with down-and-out is a relaxing way to return the horse to the stable.
While mastering the down-and-out is not easy, the rewards are most pleasurable, for what riders would deny the chance to have their seats massaged by horses' backs swinging elastically underneath them while being carried lightly with much spring through corners, across diagonals, and into transitions?
Down and Out
Acquired Natural Carriage in Dressage
by Kristin Hermann
Kristin Hermann has been involved with horses since childhood. She came to Pittsburgh, Pa. from New England in 1978 to study with an FEI dressage trainer. She has taken lessons/clinics from over 20 international trainers, ranging from Olympic rider Michelle Gibson to Centered Riding instructor Sally Swift. She currently owns, manages, teaches and trains at Coventry Equestrian Center in Washington, Pa. She has been learning ”dressage” for over 25 years, and has spent many of those years writing articles about what she has learned. (See web site...) Her articles have been published in The Chronicle of the Horse, Dressage Today, and the USDF Bulletin.
Kristin utilizes basic dressage in all the training at Coventry whether for jumping or flat work. The word dressage simply means “training” so all riders learn “dressage,” or good basic riding skills. Emphasize is placed on all riders’ working harmoniously with the horse's biomechanics. A lot of pride is taken in the fact that most of her champion riders have trained themselves by taking only weekly lessons. Students learn how to train their own horses.
Kristin does not compete anymore, but has successfully shown through 2nd Level. Her passion is teaching and training, and watching her students and horses succeed as a harmonious team.
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