Tag Archives: rein contact

Consistent Contact

How many of you have had the comment “needs a more consistent contact” from the judges?

The dictionary definition of connect is to join, link or fasten together, to unite or to establish a sympathetic harmonious relationship.  In these days of social media we think of connecting as adding friends, or linking profiles, networking, whichever way you look at it making a connection with someone or something is about you putting in some effort so that you can come together.  When that something is a horse and you are thinking about Dressage riding, developing a clear, non-verbal language with your horse means making a connection and is where your dressage journey begins.

Those of you who subscribe to the blog know that one of the first questions I ask you is “What are you struggling with?”  The most frequent answer to this question is something that is absolutely fundamental to the success of your Dressage journey and that is ‘Contact’.  Without a useful and consistent contact you will be unable to communicate with your horse; you will be unable to ‘engage in any type of conversation’ or convey any message effectively.  It’s a really widespread problem.

consistent contact

Establishing the contact, maintaining the contact, making a connection, being above the bit, getting behind the bit, head tilting, head wobbling/shaking, strong contact, soft contact; there are a myriad of issues, so for those of you that need help let’s explore a little further and see if we can get you on track.

Continue reading Consistent Contact


In dressage we want the horse to go ‘on the bit’; to actually seek a contact and accept varying levels of pressure on the bars of the mouth, the tongue and lips, the poll and from this pressure (combined with other pressures and release signals or ‘aids’) we require a specific response in the body of the horse.

  • Dressage Newbie: What?
  • More experienced friend: Well it means you need to have your horse on the bit, seeking a contact and through use of coordinated aids you should get the correct response.
  • Newbie: I’m sorry, in English?
  • Friend: For your horse to be on the bit he needs to accept it and actively seek it forward and if you apply the correct aids, this will happen.
  • Newbie: Errrr, ok but how?
  • Friend: Well, like I said, get him to seek the bit by applying pressure and release of your co-ordinated aids.
  • Newbie: Zzzzzz! Fancy hacking today?

I know this feeling, techie talk, bores me rigid!  This type of talk raises more and more questions which in my experience never get properly answered.  But I do understand that there are occasions when you need to get a little technical to make a point.  Firstly there is the phenomenon that is ‘on the bit’.  What on earth does this actually mean?  Take a quick look at my article ‘6 common on the bit myths’ to help you with that one.

Then there’s ‘seek a contact’

seek a contactAnother dressage phrase that is utilised a great deal and ranks right up there in the ‘rider confuser’ stakes with ‘working through’ and ‘straight on a circle’.  Essentially, misunderstood and the essence of which is rarely explained to riders.  Try to forget the science, you simply cannot and will not be able to understand this until you feel it.  On this basis the very best thing you can do is go and experiment on your horse.  Nevertheless, here I go with my understanding of ‘seeking the contact’ and how to achieve it, in crystal system fashion.

Stretching forward, out and down to seek a contact

There are a number of key elements to ensuring that you are positioning your horse to ‘seek the bit’.  The primary focus needs to be on forwardness, rhythm and relaxation, not forgetting of course a secure and useable contact.  It is through this work that you begin to teach your horse to ‘seek the bit’.


You need to create energy that can be recycled through the contact back to the hind legs so it must be the energy creation that comes first (leg before rein).  Without the forward thrust your horse will arch his neck and make a shape as a result of your hand actions but he won’t be able work in a true outline, he will be offering you a false outline and he will develop a ‘hollow’ way of going.  So, first and foremost check that your horse is happily going forward without constant reminders from your leg.

Rhythm & Relaxation

Rhythm and relaxation go hand-in-hand because it is nearly impossible to have rhythm without relaxation.

Rhythm contributes significantly to work at the upper levels.  No exercise or movement can be considered good if the rhythm falters and to gain relaxation you have to consider your horse’s mental state; calmness, without anxiety or nervousness and his physical state; the absence of muscular tension (other than the contraction needed for optimal posture).  Relaxation of the horse’s emotional and physical state also go hand in hand, you simply can’t have one without the other.

Another essential element in ensuring that your horse remains relaxed is his current level of strength and his range and fluency of movement. Too much too soon will result in muscle and emotional tension.  Your training should be designed to gradually strengthen the horse to be able to do the movements you ask of him because later in the training he will require great physical strength.


Getting the idea of your horse ‘accepting the bit’ in the dressage sense, starts with the ‘long and low’ work where the young (or horse in re-training) learns the balance and rhythm required with the rider on his back.  It’s all about the level of contact you apply.   To initiate contact with your horse, you must shorten the reins (no pulling).  You should aim to achieve a ‘useful rein length’ that allows a secure feel of the bit in the horse’s mouth.  So, when you pick up the reins you need to give a number of aids to help your horse become round.  He can be relatively long and low, but he should always be round when working.

Long and Low

Begin by adjusting your seat. Place the legs in the correct position, and align your pelvis, shoulders and seat-bones.  Never throw the reins away, instead ask your horse to ‘take’ the reins forward and down gently.


Photo Credit : Equestrian How 2 

Clearly, he will not be able to do this if the reins are too long to begin with.  Contact must come first, then the stretch.  When you can see a ‘bulge’ in the middle of both sides of the horse’s neck, with the neck arched on a long rein and the head ideally lower than the wither then you know you’ve produced the correct result.

It is the head and neck that are low.  It is the back that rises up to meet your seat and it is the haunches that are lowered and stepping under the horse’s body.  As your horse’s strength and top line improve, so will his ability to reach down, out and forward.  To ask for the stretch, ride a 20m circle, ask the horse forward and vibrate the outside rein.  Ensure you have a contact with the horse’s mouth, if he softens, as he should, then allow the reins through your fingers, very, very slightly.  This is how you build the stretch, this is how you know that he is reaching out to the contact; this is the ‘seeking of the bit’ that you are looking for.

As indicated earlier in this article the seeking of the bit goes hand in hand with the forwardness.  It is the feeling that everything is moving forward, so no backwards thinking, no stalling, no slowing, no dropping behind the bit.  Once you have achieved this, you can try letting your horse out a little more rein each time.

Throughout this process you need to be able to feel the horse’s mouth in contact with the bit.  If your contact feels ‘light as a feather’ you do not have a contact, or worse you have an ‘on/off’ contact.  It is only in the trained horse that you are able to achieve such lightness.  If you relax your seat and gently give from the elbow (don’t throw the reins away) the horse should follow the rein down and stretch everything out. This will give you the lovely swinging back you are looking for.  The exercise can be done in all 3 paces. So, your horse will learn that his comfort spot is ‘on the bit’, that it is a place of comfort and communication. Consider two people holding hands, no pressure, merely a shared connection.

If the horse does not seek the bit to find the comfort spot or you do not allow the horse to find the comfort spot (which is more often the case) you will find that either

  • the horse will get stuck in front – too much contact
  • he will crash onto the forehand – not enough forward impulsion / contact
  • he will show resistance or worse, disobedience such as rearing or bolting – no comfort offered

Looking for a contactMany riders don’t manage to achieve a good concept of true roundness for a large proportion of their riding careers and it always amuses me how many riders believe that because their reins are long and loopy that they’re being soft and gentle on the mouth.  When I see loopy reins at lower level riding, I generally see a horse with some level of discomfort.  Yes, we see the classical masters working in harmony with their horses with loopy reins, in collection but 90% of you are not at this level, you have not trained the horse for many, many years with patience, understanding and dedication, so you should admire these people for their mastery of the art of dressage, but you should also understand that in the beginning they too had to shorten the reins whilst keeping their hands soft; a far more gentle and sensitive way to progress than loopy reins with an on/off contact.

The horse will only seek contact with the bit when using his hind quarters effectively with a rounded back.  In your horse’s education, now is where you start to take a contact and teach him to round up and encourage him to stretch and work in the longer frame.  This is where he begins to ‘seek’ the bit.

 Patricia – The Dressage Tipster



Making a Connection with your Horse

Hey everyone,

Hope you are enjoying the sun in the U.K.  As promised my article on ‘making a connection with your horse – In The Stirrups’ has been published in the very first edition of In The Stirrups Magazine OCTOBER 2014 (Page 17).

Here’s a couple of quotes to whet your appetite!

“The horse that is ‘round’ and on the bit is adjusted to take the riders weight easily to comfortably carry you and use his body effortlessly”

“The judge in a test is looking for the horse to maintain the head carriage, if you throw the reins forward your horse may think you are a rodeo rider and react accordingly”

“Sit up tall and utilise your lower back and abdominals to keep your torso upright.  If you go limp or collapse your midsection, you will find that your horse starts leaning on your hand, because he loses self carriage in his efforts to rebalance where you have put him out of balance, especially if you collapse forward”

Go take a look, there’s something for every equestrian, whatever your discipline of choice …


Note to self: Add some piccies next edition! lol

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


Great Seat, Terrific Legs & Soft Hands …


You may have a great seat, terrific legs and soft hands but does the one who really matters think so … your horse?

Stop for a minute and think about what you are doing with your hands.  The reins are an extension of your arms, the bit runs through the horse’s MOUTH! From the moment you pick up the reins you become responsible for being kind and consistent with your hands.  Be aware of the power that your hands have over the horse’s mouth, and be conscious to avoid being harsh.  Ensure your hands are closed in a soft but firm fist to avoid unnecessary communications.

The irony is that if you have to think too much about what to do with your hands they can be reactive and behind the motion. Developing non-thinking hands that instinctively do what they need to do will take a lot of effort, but it is really, really worth it.  Almost everyone, will have difficulty with how to use their hands at some point.

Learning to give in a way that is valuable to your riding is a real skill. Done correctly an onlooker would never be able to see you give.  However, they would clearly see the horse’s reaction to the give as he becomes rounder and softer and strides out.

All too often riders think that a give is a ‘throw away’ of the rein contact.  It is not, it is a softening of the hand.  Known as the ‘Descente de main’ in classical riding, the give is essentially to stop actively using the hand.

“Descente de main: the rider opens his fingers and the horse has to maintain the same gait, the same posture, and the same cadence.”  N.Oliveira (1998, 30).

Consider also whether your hands are ‘tuned-in’ to the rest of your body.  You are asking to extend, collect, turn – are your hands working in conjunction with the rest of your body and offering him a truly connected question and response?

Addressing the issues …

  • HandsIt is not just about the hands, it is the action of the arms that allow the hands to be ‘good’.
  • Thumbs should be on top to keep the wrists straight. Notice on the picture how straight wrists means hands that are angled towards each other and give the appearance of being slightly rounded, because the back of the hand is on the same straight line as the arm.
  • As humans we depend greatly on our hands.  Our arms and hands are our first line of defence for balancing ourselves in everyday life.  Instinct can take over and force you to use your hands for balance.
  • Often using your arms and hands to fix a problem or to accomplish your goal is so instinctive that you don’t even realise that this is the very thing that is the cause of the problem.  Instinct is very powerful, as is habit – the combination of instinct and habit will result in the over-use of the hands.  You need to make the habit a good one … INSTALL A NEW HABIT
  • Sometimes it is the overly aggressive use of the reins that is the problem and once a rider understands that they cannot force a horse to do something with excessive rein aids the problem is halfway solved.
  • Hanging onto the reins for balance is not entirely the fault of the hands.  The hands only come into play as other balance mechanisms fail.  The problem is elsewhere. You will not be able to develop good hands if you are still having problems elsewhere.
    • If you are having issues with heels coming up and ankles being tense, you will also be having problems with your hands.
    • If your lower back is stiff and unable to flex the movement has to come out somewhere, usually the hands.
    • If your shoulders are rigid, guess what … problems with hands.

handsAnd just as an aside, good riding gloves allow for a subtler, finer grip on the reins.

Unfortunately, I am unable give you any useful exercises to help you with your hands.  What you need to do is look at the overall picture, find the ‘root cause’ of the problem and address it.  You as a rider will never be able to develop good hands if you are unable to support them with a great seat and terrific legs and be in complete harmony with the horse, which in turns leaves the hands completely independent.

Try not to be frustrated if your hands have a mind of their own!  Quite often it is a mental problem, you may not even realise that you have set your hands and arms, simply making a conscious effort to soften the arms and keep the joints supple and flexible can correct this.

The goal is to maintain a smooth, elastic and quiet communication regardless of what your horse is doing.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster



Those of you who have subscribed to this blog know that one of the first questions I ask you is “What are you struggling with?”  The most frequent answer to this question is something that is absolutely fundamental to the success of your Dressage journey and that is ‘Contact’.

So, having already written a number of posts on the subject I thought I would attempt to help you to dispel those myths that are hindering you in your progress towards understanding the real meaning of what it is to have a contact and as such engage in ‘conversation’ with your horse.

myth#1 – I can put my horse on the bit

Unfortunately, on the bit is a much used and abused term.  The phrase is somewhat misunderstood and many riders are confused as to the correct meaning.

On the bit

A better terminology is ‘on the aids’, because what we are describing is a horse that is listening, willingly going forward, using the energy being created from your forward thrusting aid from the hind quarters; submitting to these aids and comfortable in the mouth and as such is accepting of the bit.

The rider does not put the horse on the bit.  The horse is said to be on the bit – a term that so inadequately describes what you are really putting your effort into training towards – when he seeks and accepts the contact with the bit as offered by you, the rider.

myth#2 – My horse should feel light in the hand when he’s ‘on the bit’

Riders often mistakenly look for lightness at the beginning of their training.  Whilst it is, strictly speaking, very true that we are looking for lightness unfortunately, not all lightness is good, there is such a thing as ‘false’ lightness.

At the training levels, what I have described as ‘false’ lightness should actually be described as a ‘lack of connection’. At the beginning of your training you must ensure that you can feel some weight in your hands, you need to be able to feel the connection of the hind legs.  Think about it … You can have total lightness if you ride around with loops in the reins. But there’s no connection from back to front.

Only really when you start collection does true lightness begin. International Dressage Rider from the USA, Jane Savoie said … “Your horse has to be correctly heavy above before he can be correctly light or in other words your horse has to be connected before he can be collected”.

So how do you know if you have made the connection?

  • You will really feel like you and your horse are one unit.
  • He will be ‘in front of the leg’ (so will not need continual reminders from you to keep going).
  • His back will be up and swinging.
  • You will feel the power as the horse takes you forward, carrying weight on his hindquarters.
  • You will feel like you can work your horse through transitions, smoothly and promptly.
  • There will be no resistance in the mouth and the horse’s entire body
  •  will be submissive.
  • The head will be steady without pulling or leaning.
  • The mouth will be moist and frothy.How many of you are allowing the energy your horse is creating to seep out of the ‘front door’ by giving too much with your hand and body?

myth#3 – My hands are the most important aid when it comes to rein contact

No – your legs and seat are the most important aids when it comes to rein contact.

Your horse must be forward, we all know this, yes?  So it follows that if you only use your hands when trying to make a connection you are simply getting the head down and creating an artificial head-set and this is because you are riding from ‘front to back’ – see “a back to front problem”

Your focus should NOT be on the front end of the horse but it should be on ensuring that he is forward thinking and ‘hot off the leg’.

DrivingYou should always use your driving aids before you use your reins, you are looking to capture the energy of the forward thrust and recycle that power back to the hind legs.  If you use your hands before your horse is moving forward you have nothing to work with.  If your horse is slow to react or reacts half-heartedly to your legs, you need to work hard to get him to give you the right reaction to your subtle aids.  A horse can feel a fly on his side so it’s logical that he can feel a light aid.  So it is the connecting leg aids that you need to work on and they need to be light.

The point is to get a clearly forward, clean off the leg answer to your requests.  Your only goal when you start this process is to get some kind of enthusiastic answer that shows your horse is paying attention to you.

Only then can you give the rein aids to begin recycling the created energy.

myth #4 – When we talk of outline we are referring to the shape made by the head and neck of the horse


Physically, outline is a round silhouette that occurs when you ride your horse from behind, over his back, through his neck, and into your hands.  And at that point the energy can be recycled back to the hind legs.

So a ‘round outline’ is the frame that is seen from hocks to nose.  It is the flexion of the hind limbs that has a direct effect upon the horse’s ability to flex his jaw and lower his nose.  It is the stepping further forward with the hind legs and thus the transference of weight from the forehand to the quarters that ‘lightens’ the forehand.

It is worth noting that the novice or untrained horse (whatever the age) needs time to develop strength and flexibility to execute the desired ‘roundness’.

myth#5 – My hands should be ‘still’

This is what is known as a paradox (a statement that apparently contradicts itself and yet might be true!).  Quiet or still hands are something every rider aspires to.  However, it is impossible to attain without a good, independent seat. The problem is that riders often worry that their hands are not steady enough so they stiffen their arms an effort to keep their hands still. For a horse to have complete acceptance of the bit he must have total trust and be relaxed with the rider’s hands (via the reins) in the mouth.

So, what does ‘still hands’ really mean?  Still hands start at the shoulders.  The shoulders should be ‘back and down’.  Elbows should rest against the torso.  Now is the time for you to make a conscious recognition that your horse is moving!  Therefore, if you are in harmony with your horse, you will be moving too.

The horse moves his head forward and back in walk.  In trot the head and neck move up and down and in canter the head moves up and down as well as forward and back.  In all of these paces it is best if the rider ‘allows’ this movement with the hands.  It takes time and practice to synchronise one’s hands to the movement of the horse, but once mastered it is a technique which becomes second nature.

All parts of your body that are in contact with your horse should move. So if your seat and hands are not flexible, supple, and mobile enough to move with your horse, his movement will have to leak out some place.  Usually the movement comes out in your extremities, resulting in unsteady hands or nodding head or rocking body at every stride. Any of that type of motion usually indicates that your lower back is stiff or your hips are not loose and following enough to absorb the movement.  So rather than forcing yourself to keep your hands steady, focus on absorbing the movement through your seat and hips. The more your seat and hips absorb the movement of your horse, the less your extremities will bounce.

The paradox is that for your hands to be still you need to employ a ‘following’ hand, which essentially is a hand that moves.  But it is not the hand that moves it is the elbows, which should open and close in the same rhythm and to the same degree as the hips in order for the rider’s hand to follow the horse’s motion and remain steady. If you use your hands to keep your balance you are essentially tightening your elbow joints.  Tension here makes it impossible for you to follow your horse’s motion correctly.

Your first port of call when trying to correct your hands is your seat!

myth#6 – My horse should be in ‘self carriage’

Just a small point here … Yes, ultimately, the horse should be able to move in self-carriage with minimal touch from the rider’s hands, however, this takes a long time to achieve.  Don’t beat yourself up about it whilst you are on the journey to Dressage success.  Those of us lesser mortals who are training young horses or working at the training levels up to advanced must be practical and give the horse the support he needs.  This means making adjustments when necessary, giving, softening when as well as firmness and sufficient weight in the hand to make a connection.


Ok, I hear you cry, myths dispelled, Thanks! … How do I actually get my horse connected?  There are three key ingredients to this particular recipe.

  1. Firstly, your driving aids … seat and legs
  2. Secondly, your bending aids … inside leg on girth, outside leg behind the girth, seat bone weight to the inside.
  3. Third and final ingredient, your outside rein … the rein that controls the speed; the rein that controls the bend; the rein that stops ‘too much’ happening.

Employ these three ingredients and you have the ‘connecting aids’.  Clearly, given that a key ingredient is the bending aids, the best place to begin the connecting aids is on a circle.

Give it all a go, and chill out about all the myths!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster





GeometryGeometry is all about shapes and their properties.

You will, without doubt, be heavily penalised by the judges if you do not execute the shapes within your test accurately.  Accuracy of the shapes you make in the arena is essential if you are not going to drop marks that you could easily hold onto.  Accuracy is a basic requirement of dressage and never the fault of the horse!

So, how do you get those all important circles, turns, diagonals and loops into your work routine as second nature?  A simple yet effective method is to never do any shape in the arena that you would not find in a dressage test.

Condition yourself to be true, so for example ride a true circle be that 8m 10m 15m or 20m – (never 9m), even when you are relaxing your horse and taking a break, you should ensure that when you give the horse a loose rein and are meandering around the arena it is in a shape that you would see in the dressage test.

Change the rein across the diagonal or with a loop – it is all part of the conditioning of you and your horse to the shapes required in a test and teaching your horse to listen and be in-tune with you whatever you are doing – even when you are having a break.

If you are walking around the outside track, you are making a square and should use your corners, even though you are not actively in training mode, if you are relaxing you are still training, basically if you are in the arena – you are training!

Little bit of Dressage Trivia for you here. Where do the letters of the arena originate from?


Well, it is believed that the markings found on the walls of the Royal Manstall (Stables) of the Imperial German Court in Berlin suggest that the letters indicated where each courtier or rider’s horse was to stand and wait for their riders.

The markings found on the wall of the Hof (stable yard) at the Royal Manstall were:

A – Ausgang (Exit)
K – Kaiser (Emperor)
F – Furst (Prince)
P – Pferknecht (Ostler or Groom)
V – Vassal (Servant/Squire/Equerry)
E – Edeling/Ehrengast (Chieftan or Honoured Guest)
B – Bannertrager (Standard Bearer)
S – Schzkanzler (Chancellor of the Exchequer)
R – Ritter (Knight)
M – Meier (Steward)
H – Hofmarshall (Lord Chancellor)

Quick Tip for Geometric Circles … To aid your accuracy before your schooling session use a rake in the arena to draw a straight line from A to C and the again from B to E.  This will help you to work out if your circles and shapes are accurate.  It will also show you if your straight lines are straight!

Dressage, like geometry is also all about shapes and their properties.

Here’s what to do … concentrate on the shapes you make, whether you are working or relaxing, try to get into the habit of using the arena in a way that reinforces accuracy in your riding … at all times.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster




on the bitHello there Dressage enthusiasts …

I have received a message from a ‘Real Life Rider’ who is “struggling with a green horse curling at any contact and getting anxious and rushy when asked to rebalance and slow the tempo”.

My Advice: 

Maintenance of the contact or for your horse to ‘accept the bit’ she must have total trust and be relaxed with your hands (via the reins) in the mouth.  To truly have a horse on the bit or to have your horse accept the bit will take many months of hard and sometimes frustrating work.

Curling, or over-bending is the lesser of the evils associate with bad contact.  You must keep your horse going forward and as you say work on the tempo. However, don’t be tempted to slow too much with a horse that over-bends; much better that you stay forward, even TOO forward initially until the curling is sorted.  Slowing will just settle the horse into a false sense of security and will be more difficult to deal with.

So, send her forward and give forward slightly with the rein from the elbow.  If she leans or pulls – work on transitions.  You should, as soon as possible, take a light but positive contact with the reins.

You should work on short bursts of hard work.  Take up the contact, send her forward, be real steady in your hands, hold her in position, work the arena to keep her thinking and then, back to walk and drop the contact to the buckle end allowing her to stretch.

If she has worked hard enough her nose will hit the floor!  This will start to build the top line and musculature she needs to hold herself in the contact.

If your horse pulls on the reins in an effort to go faster, then you should do many (and I really mean many) downward transitions and repeatedly give and re-take the reins.  This will encourage balance and rhythm on a lighter contact.

Use the exercise of spiralling in and out of a circle laterally. i.e. Making the circle smaller, say 10 meters, with the outside leg, then make the circle bigger, say 20 meters, from the inside leg and a soft or giving inside rein.

on the bit

Change the rein often.

When you feel your horse has stopped pulling on the inside rein, use your inside hand with the inside rein to stroke your horse’s neck. This has two benefits.

  • Firstly it rewards the horse for not pulling on the inside rein.
  • Secondly it will prove to you that you do not need the inside rein to bend or turn your horse.

If you are struggling with contact issues, enter the word ‘contact’ into the search at the top of the page and you will get all my posts relating to this issue.

Here to help!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster



Another of our Real Life Rider series, where our rider wrote to say she is currently training her 3-year-old Warmblood and is having difficulty with getting her ‘forward’.  The horse is always behind the leg and when she loses the forward the horse then becomes crooked and starts to rear and protest.

A rider may struggle to properly apply and coordinate their aids without fully knowing or understanding that they may be the root cause of the horses lack of forwardness. As a rider you should constantly ask and answer a persistent question when the horse does not respond as you intend.

Whether you are training at the very highest level or a beginner ask yourself …Is it me or is it my horse?


This basic question never goes away, even for the most experienced rider. To answer this ever present question you should automatically run through a check list related to your basic position.

So, in sequential order … check out the following Continue reading IS IT ME OR IS IT MY HORSE?


Dressage is about training and developing your horse’s natural athleticism.  Creating a willing and gymnastic way of going is just as important as achieving the technical requirements.

The importance of how you understand and focus on the collective marks cannot be emphasised enough.  If you pay lip service to this you will not have a full appreciation of the aims of your test.

Since the Rollkur debates began raging, more and more emphasis is being put on the horse’s ‘way of going’.  It is no longer sufficient to simply do the movements, you must demonstrate relaxation and willingness from the horse.

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.

The first post in this series – Collective marks – Scoring, explained the way the collectives are scored by the judges.  Moving on, we now turn to paces, regularity and freedom, the first of the collectives to be given marks.

Your score will be either an individual score for each of the 3 paces (walk, trot and canter) or an overall score for all of them, depending on your training level.


The Walk

The walk should at all times be consistent, like a march – a regular, four-time beat with equal intervals between each beat, relaxed.  There are currently 4 walks within the full range of Dressage Tests.

  • Medium Walk
  • Collected Walk
  • Extended walk
  • Free walk

Medium Walk

The rules state: A clear regular and unconstrained walk of moderate lengthening. 

For maximum points you should demonstrate an energetic, purposeful walk which is relaxed.  The horse should ‘overtrack’ (the hind feet touching the ground in front of the hoof prints of the forefeet) with even and determined steps.  The rider should allow the natural movement of the horses head and neck.

Collected Walk

The rules state: The horse moves resolutely forward with its neck raised and arched and showing a clear self carriage. 

The collected walk must remain marching and vigorous and in regular sequence.  The steps cover less ground and are higher than at the medium walk, because all the joints bend more markedly.  The collected walk is shorter than the medium walk although showing greater activity.

Extended Walk

The rules state: The horse covers as much ground as possible, without haste and without losing the regularity of the steps.

Overtrack becomes even more of a focus on the extended walk.  It is all too easy to have the horse strung out with appearance that the steps are longer, without overtrack the horse is not truly engaged and active.

However, the rider should allow the horse to stretch out the head and neck (forward and downwards) without losing contact and control of the poll.  The nose must be clearly in front of the vertical.

Free Walk

The rules state: The free walk is a pace of relaxation in which the horse is allowed complete freedom to lower and stretch out his head and neck. 

The degree of ground cover and length of strides with overtrack are essential to the quality of the free walk.  You are looking to show that the horse is balanced, supple, obedient and relaxed.  You should allow the reins to lengthen as the horse stretches gradually forward and downward.

As the neck stretches forwards and downwards the mouth should reach more or less to the horizontal line corresponding with the point of the shoulder.  How many of you have had the judges comment “should show more stretch or could stretch a little more”.  I see it all the time.  Work in a long and low frame at home and really get this, it is an essential element of your success.  An elastic and consistent contact with the riders hands must be maintained.

The most important element of this exercise is that the walk must maintain its rhythm.  He should stay light in the shoulders and not drop onto the forehand.  The hind legs should remain well engaged.  During the retake of the reins the horse must accept the contact without resistance in the mouth or poll.

Common Faults

Often the horse becomes irregular in the walk and the foreleg and hind leg on the same side move almost on the same beat so that the walk tends to become an almost lateral in its movement.  This ambling irregularity is a serious deterioration of the pace and will cost you dearly in a test situation.

Try this exercise to improve your control of the walk…

Experiment with the tempo of the walk by using your abdominal muscles to slow the pace.  Whilst in medium walk, with the horse ‘on the bit’ bear down (push of the guts against the skin, which we do naturally when we clear our throats and which good riders do all the time).

This is not easy for most riders, most bear down and give too much with the hand, or bring the hand back and suck in the stomach (which is not a bear down).  Riders also find it nearly impossible to bear down and breathe at the same time.  This comes with practice.  Remind yourself to breathe.  It is not easy to utilise the bear down to regulate the tempo of the walk, but as with everything, practice makes perfect.

  • Slow the walk to the very slowest you can achieve (using bear down – not reins) … then try to slow a little more.  You will be surprised at how slow your horse can walk! But you must maintain purpose.  This is not a slow amble, it’s a slow march.
  • Release the bear down and with swinging hip movements that follow the horses natural rhythm encourage the horse to walk forwards – not fast, just marching forwards.
  • When you have achieved a good forward walk, allow the reins through your hands and go for the free walk.  Remember to keep a contact.
  • Re-take the reins by ensuring that you are following the horses head movement with your arms – exaggerate if you have to.  Don’t bother vibrating or tweaking just follow the head movement and gradually take up the reins.  Your horse should come back up to you without resistance.  Once he’s there – do nothing, just hold.
  • In the early days the re-take might take a length of the school.
  • You can judge your improvement by aiming for shortening the time it takes to achieve the re-take with a goal of one-horse’s length.
  • Use the bear down again to slow the horse and repeat the exercise.

By repeating this exercise or taking part of it and practising you will begin to take control of the tempo, rhythm and balance of the horse.  You will begin to feel what it is like to regulate the pace.

So, back where we started, regularity, rhythm, balance, freedom, tempo – get this right and you have the basis for a good transition into trot, a great transition into canter and maximum points in the collectives for your walk.


Footfalls of the walk

Quick Quote: “It is a mistake to keep the horse on the bit for too long. He must be relaxed at the walk on the long rein regularly and afterwards he must be carefully put back together again.”  N.Oliveira (1998, 42)

The next post in the series will be the trot and what you need to look out for to improve your collective marks for the trot work.

Until next time, have fun!

Patricia, The Dressage Tipster



Real Life Rider Question #4.

Here we have a Crystal System subscriber who struggling to keep a consistent outline with her horse coming behind the vertical or poking his nose slightly, another very familiar problem which raises its ugly head, time and time again!  (no pun intended – well, it was intended actually, lol!)

Thing is, when our real life rider gets the magic spot … keeping it is a problem.


I have had a number of questions about consistent contact.  It’s a problem.  It is what is known as a back to front problem and can escalate and create more issues such as gait changes (working to medium trot) becoming difficult, movements are downhill instead of uphill and the horse begins to lean or back off the leg.

Too much focus on the reins makes you a ‘front to back’ rider.  Swapping your thinking will solve a multitude of problems.

Want to eliminate 80% of your problems?

If there were a one size fits all solution and I could just pinpoint one thing that would assist every rider it would be forwardness.

Having your horse forward quite simply erases 80% of all issues! fact! (bold I know, but I need you to understand this)

To achieve a consistent contact, we should shift our focus to forwardness and do everything we can to drive the horse’s engine (which is in the hind quarters).  Remaining focussed on this and removing the focus from the front is the starting point for consistency in the outline.

Keep the reins soft, following and steady, do not pull back.

Quick Tip: On a circle, if you drive your horse forward with determination, maintain the bend with the inside leg, but at the same time hold the outside rein, your horse has no choice but to become round.  If he drops behind the vertical push him forward, up into the contact and give, very slightly with the fingers and then DO NOTHING!

You must resist fiddling, vibrating, tweaking.  You must simply hold the reins in place and allow the horse to find the contact.  This will take practice.  Only make adjustments if things change, then go back to doing nothing.

A word of caution – you should have a contact, you should be able to feel the bit, do not think you have a light contact if you can’t feel anything – you don’t – what you have is NO contact, which frankly is a bad thing.

Want to eliminate 80% of your horse’s problems?

If there were one size fits all solution and I could pinpoint one thing that would assist every horse it would be transitions.

Incorporating countless transitions into your work will benefit you and your horse in many, many ways.  So, check that you are in a  back to front mindset and begin the use of the transitions to start the horses engine.

For example, in the walk to trot transition, when you ask the horse to trot, you should feel the horse respond easily to the leg aid by engaging his hind, accepting your seat by lifting his back and continuing to step under his belly towards the hand and UP into trot.

If the horse keeps his neck round (his nose can be slightly in front of the vertical) the energy created will flow, allowing you to feel as though there is a support behind your back and seat and lightness in your hand.

Remember …

To summarise, work on getting your horse forward, be still in your hand and use many transitions to engage the engine.

For a horse that is not used to being round, moving from his hind end through his back will cause him to use completely different muscles than he is used to.  After the exercise, give the horse the buckle end of the reins and allow him to stretch.  Like us, he will most likely be a bit sore the next day and will need time to build up the correct muscles.  Be patient.

For more great posts about contact you can select ‘contact’ from the sidebar section “Topics I’m interested in …”


Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


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