Training

Improving Balance in the ‘Non-Traditional’ Dressage Horse

A ride with equestrian life coach Jen Verharen

My Connemara cross, Anna, is not known for being the most forward thinking of mounts. While she is pretty willing to do whatever is asked, she does not naturally possess a high degree of “forward intention”. I showed her lightly at Second Level last season with decent scores, and she currently schools most of the Third Level movements. But impulsion is always the variable which seems to be lacking, and coming up with new ways to inspire and motivate her is a real challenge.

I don’t frequently get the opportunity for feedback from ‘eyes on the ground’, either, so when fellow Connemara lover, USDF certified instructor and equestrian life coach Jen Verharen came to clinic at our barn this winter, I signed up. I was interested in Jen’s honest opinion in regards to where Anna stood against the expectations for Third Level.

Jen has a lot of experience with Connemaras and Connemara crosses, having owned several during her career. While the breed is known for being quite versatile and athletic, they are not typically big movers. Despite being half Trakehner, Anna seems to primarily display the traits of her Irish ancestors. Most principles of dressage training come from the German school, which favors warmblood type horses; the German training philosophy emphasizes riding the horse actively forward into the hand. This is an excellent approach, and it works really well on horses which either naturally go forward or who are easily able to be motivated forward. It does not work so well when you have a horse whose response to nearly any driving aid is…meh.

Jen Verharen

I will sidebar here to note that Anna has been this way since the get-go. She isn’t desensitized. She was never sensitized to begin with. The very first time I carried a dressage whip with her, she didn’t respond in any way. Not negative, not positive…just non responsive. You can really wallop her to no effect. So louder or harder leg or whip aids just do not work. I have never met a horse like her in that regard.

The rider needs to do exercises which encourage the horse to better use the loin area just behind the saddle until the horse feels that they are moving within their own balance. Only then can the rider expect greater forward energy.

Jen told me that in working with her Connemaras she took a lot of inspiration from the techniques of the French school. This training philosophy favors Baroque and Thoroughbred type horses. While these two varieties of horse might not seem similar at first, they both are types which seem to develop more correct forward activity when they are ridden first into a steady balance. Baroque type horses tend to be better at collected movement than they are at moving with ground covering strides, whereas Thoroughbreds can cover ground but tend to be heavily downhill. Asking either of these types of horse to go more forward, without first establishing better balance, is usually an exercise in frustration for all involved. Specifically, the rider needs to do exercises which encourage the horse to better use the loin area just behind the saddle until the horse feels that they are moving within their own balance. Only then can the rider expect greater forward energy.

Jen coaching up members of the UNH Equestrian Team.

Jen introduced me to a series of exercises geared towards loosening Anna’s body, as well as lateral movements specifically to improve the softness of her loin area. After a basic walk/trot/canter warm up, I returned to an active medium walk and put Anna into a shoulder in, then shortened stride and rode a turn on the forehand. We then did a variation on this, where I put Anna into renvers (haunches out), and then rode turn on the forehand again from this position. While it felt a bit ‘backwards’ at first, this exercise helped increase Anna’s suppleness pretty quickly.

From there, we moved onto the trot and began working on a series of transitions between trot and walk on a twenty meter circle. During the trot strides the focus was on keeping the trot bouncy; rather than just moving more forward, it was about creating more spring. Once Anna’s trot started to develop a more consistent degree of spring and energy, I began to go large. We then rode a sequence of movements, starting with a ten meter circle at the top of the long side, into shoulder fore going straight ahead, then establishing counter flexion and leg yielding in from the rail, finishing in shoulder fore. This exercise was completed all down one long side, and it was super at keeping Anna focused. The frequent transitions helped to keep the trot lively and the connection clear.

Jen suggested that I ride Anna with minimal to no bend, especially in the canter, because of her tendency to bend more in the neck than in the body. Anna is super compact, and like most horses, her neck is her most flexible area. But when the neck overbends to the inside, the opposite shoulder pops out. By riding her in a straighter alignment from poll to tail, it is easier to narrow the space between the inside hind and outside fore. This further allowed me to adjust the position of her head at the poll. I noticed the benefit of riding this way most clearly at the canter, which is the gait at which we have had the greatest degree of challenge in terms of keeping steady connection. As I practiced this over the next few months, I have seen a huge improvement in the quality of the canter in general. (It also was a theme which came up during a clinic I took with Jan Ebeling in April).

By thinking of her as a Third Level horse, I will come to each training session with a different attitude and set of expectations, which will more than likely help Anna to continue to step into the role.

Jen told me that she wanted to throw as many exercises at me as possible so that I would have several new tools to use to improve the quality of Anna’s movement and connection. I was impressed by how much softer, rounder and steadier Anna became through the course of our ride (did I mention that it was maybe 18 degrees?), and she developed both lipstick and soft eyes and ears. Without ever doing a single “forward” transition, Anna had become much more willing and supple off the leg, and had developed a much increased ‘hot’ response to the forward aids.

Jen recommended that I continue to play with the exercises which she offered for the next month or so, and if they seemed solid at that point, it would be time to add greater adjustability within the movements and gaits. The goal of the work is to continue to improve her balance, so that she is able to engage the hind leg better and develop connection with a soft lower back.

I asked Jen if she thought that introducing the double bridle would be appropriate, and she encouraged me to go ahead and try it; some horses do simply go better in the double, even with a light curb contact (as it turns out, Anna seems to be one of those horses, too…more on this later as well!).

Anna in the double

Finally, she encouraged me to change my mind set about Anna; instead of thinking, “she will go Third level”, Jen told me to start saying to myself and others that Anna is “working at Third Level”. By thinking of her as a Third Level horse, I will come to each training session with a different attitude and set of expectations, which will more than likely help Anna to continue to step into the role.

Jen’s lesson was a perfect bridge between some of the concepts and techniques which we have worked on with other instructors. It is always nice to see the pieces connect together!

 


About the Author

Christina Keim is an avid equestrian with competitive results in eventing, dressage, and show jumping. She is a former area eventing champion and has had horses finish in the top ten for national year end rankings with the USEA. Most recently, she has been concentrating on the sport of competitive dressage, where she has earned her USDF Bronze Medal. Additionally, she currently sits on the Board of Directors for the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association and holds a Masters in Education from the University of New Hampshire.

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