Tag Archives: classical riding

12 Dressage Tips for Christmas 2014

In 2013 I bought you 12 tips over 12 days on The Dressage Tipster Facebook Page.  This year I have amalgamated all 12 into one post for those of you who had not discovered The Crystal System last year.
A bit of festive fun and some useful stuff in there too …dressage tips
On the 1st Day of Christmas the Dressage Tipster said to me

Guess“Above all else ensure that your horse is forward. As long as the horse goes forward, he will not have time to think of evasions. Whenever you get a problem of any description, think of my favourite ‘F’ word” 

 On the 2nd day of Christmas the Dressage Tipster said to me …

Psoas Release

PsoasMy blog post back in March 2014 entitled ‘Release Your Psoas Muscle to Discover Your Dressage Seat’ talked about the importance of these muscles to our riding and ability to absorb the movement of our horse effectively.

I have become a little obsessed with mine, largely due to the fact that I spend many hours sitting at a desk each week and constantly bemoan the disadvantage this gives me when I climb aboard my horse but also because, as you will know by now, when I get an idea into my head I have to follow it through!

So, I am delighted to advise that I have found you a psoas expert and some great information about how to release this important set of muscles.  I am so excited because it is THE most simple thing you will ever do to aid your ability to position yourself effectively for dressage and simplicity is another of my obsessions!

Liz Koch has been investigating, teaching and writing about the psoas for over thirty years.  Koch believes that the best release for most people, especially when they are beginning, is what she calls constructive rest, which is a relaxation technique.

“It’s a being (not doing) position. Before you exercise or at the end of the day, constructive rest changes the whole expression of the central nervous system.  There’s a lot going on in constructive rest but you’re not doing it. You just allow it to happen” – Liz Koch

Here goes … Koch’s method for releasing your psoas muscles

  • Lie on your back.
  • Bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor or alternatively up on a chair as in the diagram shown.
  •  You want your legs and feet to be parallel to each other and hip distance apart.
  • That means your knees will line up with the area just inside your hipbones and your middle toes will be in line with your knees.
  • Adjust the distance of your heels from your bottom so that you find a place where it takes the least amount of effort to have your legs in position.
  • You will know you have the right distance when you feel the weight is equal on the whole foot and the pelvis can move.
  • Let your spine lengthen along your mat.
  • You want a neutral spine position so there will be a slight curve under your low back. You can rock your pelvis back and forth a few times to find the middle place where your pubic bone and hip bones are flat along the same plane.
  • Relax your shoulders away from your ears and feel the weight of your shoulder girdle on your mat.
  • Keep your arms below shoulder height, letting them rest over the ribcage, to the sides of your body or on your pelvis
  • When the arms are kept below shoulder height, gravity releases tension in the psoas while in constructive rest. As this happens the pelvis rebalances and the spine elongates.
  • Relax your neck and jaw.
  • Do some deep breathing and relax.

Psoas Release 1 Psoas Release 2

In this simple position gravity releases the psoas! This is such a simple relaxation technique. You don’t have to do anything but allow release.  Don’t you just love it?  Simplicity – The key to brilliance.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster



StraightnessThe Law of Straightness says that everything must be straight or else the world will explode!  Whilst this is little tongue in cheek, for me getting a little obsessive compulsive about straightness is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to your riding!

Every horse is naturally asymmetrical, just like every human they are left or right handed.  Every horse has a natural tendency to bend left or right, just like every human will favour leaning on one leg or another.

Every horse will naturally carry more weight on the front legs than on the hind legs, causing uneven distribution of the weight over the four legs.  It is down to you, the rider to recognize and correct these imbalances with the goal of developing the horse symmetrically because a crooked horse is an unbalanced horse and an unbalanced horse becomes tense and resistant.

When the horse feels discomfort or pain, automatically he develops compensation in order to avoid that problem and to maintain optimal performance.  Here is where you will begin to see short choppy strides, behaviour resistance, and disobedience in your horse.  Why? because it hurts.  The muscles become irritated and may spasm, losing the ability to function effectively over time.  Compensation occurs with the issue being passed to other muscle groups.   

It follows then that crookedness should be addressed so that each hind leg bears equal weight if we wish to avoid muscular compensation.  You cannot sit straight on a crooked horse, nor can a horse move straight under a crooked rider.

Without doubt, straightness is a quality that distinguishes the skilled rider from the average rider.   The good news is that analysing yourself for straightness and addressing it are relatively easy things to do.  You can observe the level of straightness in every rider you watch and in every horse you ride.  If the front of the horse (shoulders) or back of the horse (haunches) deviate from a true line your horse will lose impulsion, suppleness, lightness and flexion.  Straighten again and the purity of the gait will be restored.  Of course, this presupposes that you as a rider have the necessary skills to recognise the deviation and deal with these fluctuations whilst aboard your horse.  It can demand a strong seat and leg aids to prevent you simply being pushed out of the way by the horse.

Straightness is the perfect ideal.  So in order to ensure that you have straightness you must have control over the front and the back of the horse, however, if riding a horse straight created a straight horse it would all be very simple.  It is not.  The best way to ensure that your horse is flexible enough to move on a straight line with the hind Rider Asymmtreylegs following the forelegs, is to use lateral work in the form of shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, travers and renvers, thereby gaining the necessary skills to manoeuvre the shoulders and quarters of the horse and ‘place’ them where you need them to be in order to correct the horse should he veer off the straight and narrow!

Image reproduced by kind permission of Anne Bondi BHSI – www.saddleresearchtrust.com

Straightness Check List

This list can serve as a checklist in determining the horse’s natural crookedness, i.e. his hollow and stiff sides.

  1. Falling over the outside shoulder and going against the rider’s outside knee and thigh.
  2. Falling onto the inside shoulder.
  3. Over-bending laterally, creating a bulge at the shoulder
  4. Counter-bending on a circle, sometimes locking the jaw on the inside.
  5. Cutting corners.
  6. When you are on the center line or on the quarter line, he will tend to drift with his entire body.
  7. In transitions to the halt one hind leg will tend to be out behind.
  8. He will tend to show a faulty haunches-in, because his croup will tend to fall in against the riders’s inside calf.
  9. In the shoulder-in it may be difficult to get his shoulder to leave the wall.
  10. In the shoulder-in it is easy to get the correct angle, but it is more difficult to achieve the correct bend.
  11. Haunches-in and half passes appear to be easier on one rein than the other.
  12. In severe cases, the horse may not want to canter on one lead initially.
  13. When you lengthen the strides in the trot, the horse may frequently break into the canter.

Achieving straightness is one of the most fundamental demands in training horses, because a crooked horse will never be able to develop impulsion or self carriage.  But what may be worse is that a crooked horse will not remain sound in the long run, as any imbalance creates stiffness and bracing which translate into unnecessary wear and tear on joints, tendons, and ligaments.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster



How to Achieve a Slow Canter

Slow Canter Swap the words slow canter for unhurried canter and we understand each other.

One thing that holds its elusiveness for the novice rider longer than any other is the ability to effectively control the canter.  Many, many times I have been asked “how do you get the horse to slow down the canter?”  It is a very, very common problem.  Of course my instinct says ‘you don’t want him slow, you want him forward’ which is absolutely right and so easy for me to say now.  But if I take myself back to the early days of my training one of my many issues was getting and sustaining a controlled and relaxed canter.  Just couldn’t do it, simple as!

I also know that you will never be able to encourage your horse forward in the canter until you have control and in order to have control, you have to slow the canter.  It’s a case of, which comes first? Chicken or Egg.  Well, the first consideration is the horse itself.  Your horse must be strong to lift his entire weight off the outside hind in the canter and carry you at the same time.  If it is a young horse there could be a strength issue.  He will have difficulty maintaining balance and a quiet tempo in the canter.  He will only be able to maintain a quiet tempo if he has natural athletic ability or the rider is skilful and does not interfere with the balance.  Also, if you are retraining an older horse, it will take time to build the physique that your horse needs to carry your weight with ease and therefore steadily.

Of course, the other major issue is that many riders don’t ride well enough to give clear aids. If the rider’s seat, legs and hands are not correct, the communication cannot be clear.  To the horse, it’s chaotic and he may have learned to put up with the chaos and thus tune you out and that means one thing – he’ll ignore your aids when you think you are giving them.

Before you can begin to control the tempo of the canter there must be relaxation in your horse both mentally and physically.
A horse that rushes isn’t relaxed. The horse must be supple and swinging through his back.  He must have clear acceptance of the bit and the aids. Once you have these elements, you’re on the right path.

What’s to be done?  I want to look first at what is NOT to be done.

  • Stop thinking in terms of putting on the brakes
  • Don’t give your horse mixed messages
  • Don’t program your horse to ignore your aids
  • Stop holding onto the reins
  • Don’t get a more severe bit
  • Don’t push your horse through movement in your seat
  • Don’t grip with your legs and knees

Because the hindquarters provide the impulsion for a horse’s movement, we want to actually use the hindquarters to control, or slow, the horse’s forward thrust. It is the horse’s ability to carry more weight on his haunches and not to run on his forehand that needs development and understanding.  To aid your horse’s balance concentrate on keeping his neck straight at the base, in front of the shoulders and the rest of the body will follow.  Thoroughly practice this in the walk and trot, in straight lines and on circles. Include many transitions and changes of rein in walk and trot and suppling exercises before you try the canter.  You should genuinely feel improvement in the rhythm and tempo of the trot before you attempt to slow the canter and this is because you are working to help the horse carry more weight behind and balance himself, as the trot improves so will his ability to steady the canter.

Quick Tip: If you want to build your horse’s hindquarters you could do some walking up and down hills/inclines in a controlled manner. Straight Circle

NOTE: Being straight on a circle is one of those horsey idioms that, in my view, are just designed to confuse.  Keeping the neck straight on a circle means following the line of the curve of the circle, so we say that the horse is ‘nicely straight’ if he has executed a good bend and the hind legs are following the line of the front legs.  What it does not mean is that the horse’s neck should be ‘straight’ as a board.

You need to establish exactly what is happening in order to fix it.

  • Does your horse ignore your aids and resist downward transitions?
  • Is he on the forehand, heavy and pulling on the reins?
  • Is his tempo faster than you are comfortable with, even though it may be right for him?
  • Are his strides bigger and more powerful than you can comfortably sit?
  • Or is he running in a tempo that is faster than he should?

Then experiment with the following:

  • Have horse on the aids before the depart, self carriage is important
  • Use your seat to hold him quiet and steady
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles
  • Practice lots of transitions
  • Ride many canter departs and always bringing him back to a walk when he starts to rush, you will increase his strength. Canter to walk, walk to canter are invaluable for helping with tempo.
  • Ensure your shoulder’s are parallel to the horses
  • Accept only a few strides of the slower tempo if your horse offers them and build gradually to longer periods.

A horse may run from a tight, unyielding hand.  Even if your horse learns to accept unforgiving hands, you are teaching him a bad habit.  You have nowhere to go, if you have ‘pulled’ your horse together and he is not carrying himself, you will be restricting the horse’s motion, his back will be hollow and his neck short and with a short neck comes a short stride.  This is a horse that rushes.  Like not having the ability to half-halt and balance a horse that has no energy in its paces, how can you ‘check’ a horse that is already heavy in the hand.

Use the Half-Halt

I can’t really do an article on slowing anything without tipping a mention to the half-halt.  The half-halt is the balancing aid and should be used before you ask your horse to do anything.  It is a very important influence in making your horse obedient, balanced and up in his way of going.  I have already stated that the horse must be supple and swinging through his back.  The half-halt will check that swing momentarily and thus slow the tempo.  Once you have mastered the half-halt, you will have all you need to slow the canter.

To summarise you might want to ask yourself …

  1. Is the horse strong enough to carry you? Do you need to do some strengthening exercises?
  2. Are your aids clear? Are you ‘making’ your horse rush?
  3. Have you got your horse relaxed and on the aids in the trot before the depart?
  4. Is your horse straight?
  5. Are you using too much hand?
  6. Are you able to use your seat to influence the paces?
  7. Can you employ the half-halt effectively?

When I get asked ‘how do you get the horse to slow down the canter?’ most riders expect me to say, just do this or do that.  Sorry guys.  Controlling the tempo in canter is a long and diligent process and there is no ‘quick-fix’ button for you to install.  You have to start by assessing the horse’s general way of going and build the fix(es) from there. In my view once you have mastered the ability to control the canter strides you have developed a good many skills and you are well on your way to becoming a competent rider.  So worth the effort, yes?

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


dressage lessons

Good Balanced Position

Having issues establishing and keeping a good balanced position?

I had a comment from my good friend Johanne Picken which might help you all …“I remember a blog you wrote regarding it most often being the rider that is unknowingly at fault, rather than the horse but I just didn’t realise just how much the rider’s body and position affects how the horse goes!” 

balanced positionHere’s the blog Johanne is referring to …Is it me or is it my horse?

Give this some thought yourself. What are you doing to influence the horse?  If when you ask correctly you get the correct response, doesn’t it follow that if you are not getting the correct response you may  not be asking correctly?   Step back, take a look at yourself. What could you be doing wrong?  Self analysis of your position from head to toe each time you climb aboard your horse will reap benefits.  Give it a go.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


Struggling with Travers / Haunches In

Haunches In HandsI am constantly amazed at how the very, very small things make such a huge, huge difference.  Here’s one of those such things.

If you are struggling to get a soft flowing travers (Haunches In), turn your inside hand over slightly (like turning a key).  It must be very subtle so as not to draw the horse to the inside or bend the horse’s neck … but OMG! What a difference it makes.

Other essential elements are forwardness and ensuring that you are not crooked with your upper body, but try the hand thing.  It’s a gem!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


Other Eureka moments include :

Eureka – Open your Hips

All Together Now – Eureka moment

Why I want to feel the Force of my horses hind legs in my Ass


The Thorny Problem that is Leg Yield

Seems whenever I explain to anyone that I do not do leg yield, I get furrowed brows and protestations and have to go into my full spiel about why not.  Well mostly, sometimes it’s all I can do to muster up … “I just don’t find it helpful”.

leg YieldClearly the reason why you should hassle yourself and your horse with the exercise is because you need to for the Elementary Test and as such it seems impossible to grasp how the ‘all knowing dressage superpowers’ can possibly include an exercise in the progressive test process that will do anything other than aid your progression!  And, yes, I know, I understand why you would think this; I am not telling you what to do; I am advising that in my current enlightened state, having followed many methods for many years which ended in me becoming a frustrated dribbling wreck, with all of my horses potentially for sale and the very real prospect of taking up cross-stitch as my primary hobby, I have found that I agree with the classical purists who sit firmly on the side of the fence that says leg yield has no benefits to the scale of training and may even hinder progress.  Cross StitchFor me, it simply does not help.

Often quoted as being a pre-cursor to more advanced lateral work, leg yielding is controversial because its biomechanics are often not understood.  Clearly, there is a benefit to teaching your horse to move forwards and sideways, however, in leg yield the hind quarters do not take more weight and your horse will struggle to remain light in the forehand, often the very act of leg yielding will put the horse onto the forehand.  In leg yield your horse will be bent in the opposite direction to how he bends in the more advanced lateral movements so for me it is counter-productive to spend time on the exercise, much better to skip leg yield and move straight onto two-track exercises to develop suppleness than to incorporate an exercise that actually (in my view!) produces stiffness in the horse. Continue reading The Thorny Problem that is Leg Yield


Imagine your horse ambling along in walk, jogging instead of trotting, stumbling through a test constantly breaking the three beat canter.  Not often do you see all of these faults in one horse but sure as night follows day you will experience these faults, at least to some extent, if you have not focussed your training on rhythm.  Because in this small, rather oddly spelled word (should be ritham, right?) you have wrapped up a whole host of skills you and your horse must master; energy, even tempo, clear and regular paces, balance, rein contact … the list goes on!

RhythmIf you consider that impurities or irregularities in the rhythm, tempo and stride length are serious flaws in your horse’s ability to perform you can begin to appreciate that not only should you begin to focus on rhythm, but you should remain focussed on rhythm throughout your riding career.

The walk is the gait that is most prone to impurities.  You can have considerable influence on the way your horse walks which means that you can induce faults too.  So, if you over ride the walk and push your horse into a faster, bigger walk than he is capable of, he will fall onto the forehand and tighten his back.  Likewise if you attempt to collect more than your horse is capable of, his back will tighten and the walk will become irregular.

Consider your ‘free walk on a long rein’.  Your horse needs to show a clear, pure, four-beat walk and most likely is able to – as long as the rider is not touching reins.  Then immediately the rider picks up the reins, the horse responds with unequal strides. This happens as a result of the rider using too much rein; not enough leg support and usually too heavy a seat. Go figure!  Relaxing more and reducing the demands will in most cases restore the clear four beat rhythm.

The safest way out of jigging is to start the working trot afresh, if it is a walk push the horse up into a working trot, establish the rhythm and relaxation and when the hind legs have started thrusting and the back has started swinging again, the walk will most likely be improved as well.  The important point I would like to make here is, as with many, many other issues, you will not be able to regulate your horse’s paces without a good forward thrust, so first of all check that you have a forward thinking and willing horse, otherwise you will not have anything to work with.

The majority of young horses and horses that are being retrained need to be reminded periodically not to slack off the forward propulsion; left to their own devices they will gradually fade after a few strides with good effort and that means the power with which their hind legs propel decreases, the gait loses its intensity and becomes dull.  The result?  the horse’s back stops swinging and the trot deteriorates into a jog, loses its gymnastic value and the horse’s musculature development over his haunches, back and top line is hindered.

RhythmThis, coupled with the potential issue of losing forwardness on the corners if the horse is not strong enough or trying to avoid the flexing of his joints  (see Slowing Down and Speeding Up – Check the Flex) you may have to go back to basics and that means rhythm.

Most untrained horses assume that the leg aid means ‘speed up’, so they increase the tempo as soon as the rider asks, thus losing rhythm.  It is up to you to ‘clarify’ with your horse that the leg aid means ‘put more effort into your work, but keep your tempo’.  This is achieved using an effective half-halt. (see Heavy on the Forehand for more tips about the half halt).  So it is through systematic training that the horse should learn to adjust the tempo, adjust the stride length and adjust his energy levels independently of each other.

Loss of impulsion and slowing of the tempo often happens because keeping the impulsion and tempo requires more strength from the horse.  Pay really close attention to the regularity of the tempo, stride length and energy level throughout all exercises, patterns, and movements in order to develop the purity of the gaits to the highest level and to develop the horse’s strength and suppleness to its fullest potential in the process.

You have to be progressive in your training.  Your horse will respond with little and often.  It will take six weeks for him to build the muscle power and stamina required to be able to efficiently execute new and demanding exercises.  Too much too soon could result in injury.

Here’s some food for thought, like your heartbeat is the ‘rhythm of life’ so rhythm is to your horse’s gymnastic development.  Without it … not gonna happen!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster






collective#Are your collective marks letting you down?

You may have honed every move in your dressage test, completing the movements in the right place, at the right time but the performance adds up to MORE than just the sum of each movement.

Very few trainers give real emphasis to their pupils’ understanding and focus on the collective marks, thinking that the collectives purely reflect your ability, factors that only improve as your standard of training improves.  My view is that if you pay lip service to this area of your training you will not have a full understanding of the aims of your test and you must WORK to maximise the marks in this section.

The collective marks allow the judge to give an overall score for their perception of how you and your horse performed THROUGHOUT THE TEST.  It is their opinion as to how you as a combination conducted yourselves and the overall impression you left them with as the test progressed.  Classes can be won and lost on collectives as in the event of a tie, the overall winner will be decided on the collective marks.

In this, the fifth post in the series on the subject of The Collective Marks, I will attempt to address how you can gain those invaluable extra points at the bottom of your score sheet.

So far in the series we have looked at … Continue reading THE COLLECTIVE MARKS – IMPULSION