British dressage instructor Sally Amsterdamer specializes in flat training show jumpers.
Judging by her client roster she’s rather good at her job. Irish team members Andrew Bournes and Richie Moloney, Australian Olympian Matt Williams, Saudi Olympian HRH Prince Abdullah Al Saud, and USET member Alison Firestone are but a few of the riders she’s worked with.
But whether it’s jumping or dressage, she says, the root issues of riding remain the same.
“The most common problem in all riding is using too much inside rein,” says Amsterdamer. “When you pull the horse’s head in too much, the shoulders actually pull out; they don’t turn.”
In the jumper ring, this fatal flaw can cost precious seconds that may mean the difference between placings. Or winning a ribbon at all.
“With show jumping results depending, not just on one-tenth but one-hundredth of a second, it is imperative that turns are the best they can be. There can be a difference of just two hundredths of a second between first and third place,” she says.
Here the Netherlands-based trainer shares a flat exercise for improving speed and precision on turns: The Square.
Step 1: Start at the walk
“First, the horse should be well warmed up and have done some circles and changes of rein in trot and canter,” says Amsterdamer.
“Most exercises I start in walk. At first, the square should be large—20m or bigger if you’re first attempting the exercise. It should not be ridden on the fence or wall of the arena. It is the rider’s aids that should be turning the horse.”
Step 2: Focus on the weight and leg aids
“Before the turn, put a little more weight down on the inside seat bone to prepare the horse for the turn. Then ask for the turn by closing the outside leg, increasing pressure if the horse is not turning quickly enough. In walk, the corners of the square can be quite small and sharp,” she says.
“Later, when the horse follows well the weight aids of the rider, the leg pressure can be less.”
Step 3: Turn with two hands
“At the same time as the leg aid, use two reins evenly to turn the shoulders,” continues Amsterdamer.
“It’s really about turning the horse with that inside weight and the outside leg aid. Your hands are, of course, helping. But they are not the predominant aid.
“If you look at a Grand Prix dressage rider riding a canter pirouette, which is literally turning on the spot in canter, they are not pulling the inside rein. It’s all from your weight aids, your body, riding the horse from your pelvis. Your arms are kind of together doing the same thing.
“That corner in the square reflects the turn in the canter pirouette.”
Step 4: Do not use bend
“This exercise is ridden without bend. It’s not like riding a circle. It’s purely for getting those shoulders to turn quicker and getting the horse to respond really well to your weight aid and the closing of your outside leg,” she reiterates.
Step 5: Repeat at the trot
Once the horse understands the aids in the walk, repeat the exercise at the trot. (Note: If doing it in the rising trot, the weight aid is to the inside stirrup opposed to the inside seat bone.)
“It can be a slow trot,” says Amsterdamer. “Normally, I’m always training according to the training scale and there has to be a good active rhythm and good impulsion. But when you’re teaching the horse certain exercises, you can slow it down a bit. Get the horse to listen to those specific aids to do that turn.”
The corners can be less sharp than in walk too, she adds. “But they must be corners, not a curved line resembling a quarter of a circle.”
Step 6: Proceed to the canter
“When the exercise is easy in the trot, and the horse is strong enough, then you do it in the canter,” she says.
“The rider has to collect the canter a bit three strides before the actual turn. So, it’s also a great exercise for collection. It’s freeing up the shoulder and putting weight on the back end. So the horse is lighter and turning the shoulders quicker.”
Step 7: Make it more challenging
“Ultimately, it is the canter square that is the most important exercise for the show jumper. When the large square is easy to ride in canter, then the horse can be ridden on a smaller 15m square,” says Amsterdamer.
Step 8: Trouble shooting
“If you have a horse that is stiff one side in the shoulders and not turning so well, you can have a small bend to the outside. Not too much, you don’t want them falling in; you want them turning in.”
Step 9: Master Class
“When the horse is strong enough behind I change the square to a triangle. So then the angle is actually smaller and the horse has to put more weight on the back legs and really engage that inside hind leg,” says Amsterdamer.
She does not advocate attempting the triangle on a young horse.
“It all depends on the horse’s strength and level [of training]. You can have a weak 10-year old and a strong six-year old with a natural ability to collect. Generally, I’d say not to do the triangle on a horse under six. Again, it’s all to do with strength.
“Ultimately, both exercises always improve your circle riding as well, because you are able to keep the shoulders turning every canter stride and are not doing too much with the inside rein.”
Enjoyed this exercise? Check out Amsterdamer’s “Master Rhythm and Balance with the Mercedes.“