Dressage: Understanding Aiding Part II - Suppleness

Dressage: Understanding Aiding Part II - Suppleness


From the first two articles, we have a better understanding of both our and our horse’s balance in all three gaits. Now we want to understand how to have positive influence over that balance beyond simply changing gait and speed. Moving beyond lower level exercises into more advanced dressage work requires artistic feel and a relationship of trust with your horse. We’ve all seen horse and rider combos for whom performance looks effortless and of course we’ve seen the opposite as well. What makes a horse receptive to under saddle demands and a rider a good communicator of her requests? 

The Supple Rider

The rider sitting on top of her horse absorbs and flows with a lot of movement.  A common and easy mistake to make is to stiffen or hold still against this motion. Riders stiffen when there is too much to think about and they forget to swing. Riders stiffen when the horse’s actions surprise or scare them. Riders stiffen when their horse stiffens in tension, following their horse’s body pattern. The supple ability to swing or flow with the horse’s natural motion will make it easier to find the perfect rhythm, to get your horse on the bit, to bend your horse in both directions, to execute seamless transitions, and broadly to keep your horse supple as the work gets difficult.

The good news is, if you read and practiced the exercises in the first two articles, you are already well versed in how to center your pelvis, lower your center of gravity, and in how your hips and seat bones need to move to go with your horse in all three gaits. Most riders know that our legs are supposed to hang suppley from our hips and our arms are supposed to hang suppley from our shoulders. So shake your limbs out and let your arms go at your own sides and your legs go at your horse’s sides.

Now we just need to address our shoulders. When your shoulders and torso flow naturally with the movement of your horse, it looks like this: At the walk, in the same part of the stride as your seat bone on one side moves forward, your torso rotates towards that side and your shoulder on that same side falls back. Walk around the arena practicing this. Just as your seat bones alternate left, right, left, right, your torso/shoulder movement does as well. Notice that when you exaggerate the swing of your torso/shoulders (and your seat/hips too), your horse finds it easier to move more freely forward. Notice that when you minimize the movement of your torso/shoulders (and seat/hips too), your horse’s rhythm has a tendency to slow. You are already experiencing how the looseness or tension in your own body affects your horse!

It probably comes as no surprise that just as your horse’s hips and shoulders swing forward and and back every stride, your shoulders and hips need to swing freely too. Now that you are aware of the looseness required in your body, you can spend a little time while you are warming up each ride to check in and make sure your body is swinging suppley. If you are feeling stiff, it will help you to march your horse around on a loose rein at the walk and exaggerate the swing in your own shoulders and hips to get these joints moving. Once you are warmed up, your shoulders and hips should swing naturally with your horse. This is not something you should have to “make” happen every stride. If you notice yourself stiffening or becoming too still against your horse’s motion, remind yourself to swing! If you are relaxed and allowing your body to go with the motion of your horse’s body, this swing will happen without conscious effort.

Artful Contact

Quality of contact is indispensable in cultivating receptivity in your horse. Contact means taking the slack out of both reins equally and being able to ride all three gaits, steering, changing direction, and transitioning without losing this equal, steady feel. It is harder than it sounds. When first introducing contact we don’t expect the horse to be on the bit. Just accept an equal, steady feeling on both reins. He should be willing to hold his neck out as you gather the reins, without trying to drop, pull, or brace on either rein. In order for your horse to have a positive response to the contact at his end, you have to use positive tone to create the contact at your end.  Let’s start with the Golden Rule of contact – contact can never be backwards.  The difference between positive (connecting, steady, supple) contact and negative (rigid, pulling, backwards) contact is simply a matter of what muscles you use to pick up the reins and maintain your end of the contact. The muscles of the back, abdominals, shoulder blades (scapula), triceps, and chest can all be used to create a steady, supple connection. The muscles of the biceps and elbows create a rigid, backwards (pulling) connection that is uncomfortable for your horse.

While your horse is still on a loose rein, practice this posture. Expand or open thru your chest until you feel as broad as you can be, drop your collarbone, then push your scapula out (away from your spine). Tuck your elbows at your sides and wiggle both your elbows and your shoulders slightly. They should be connected to the body but not stiff. Rotate your wrists inwards, outwards, and then turn them out (turning a door knob motion). Make note of the different ways you can use your wrist without stiffening your arms and also notice how you can move your forearm away from the body while keeping your elbow connected. It is every rider’s responsibility to be able to maintain her own self carriage regardless of what the horse underneath her is doing. The more that the correct muscles are engaged (chest, shoulders, abdominals), the more your end of the contact will connect stably and suppley to your body, and the less likely the pulling muscles of the biceps and elbows are to get involved.  Position your torso at the beginning of your ride and practice it throughout the whole ride as you work on whatever you would otherwise be doing with your horse. Make a mental checklist for positive torso carriage. Mine goes 1) collarbone down 2) shoulders (scapula) out 3) tuck and wiggle. Practice it until you are catching yourself maintaining it more than you catch yourself not.

Now that we are confident with the carriage and swing of the torso and seat, we can start to gather the reins. First, keep your hands out in front of you when gathering the reins. At the walk, check to be sure your shoulders and hips/seat bones are swinging. Maintain the same rhythm in your seat as you gradually shorten your reins one at a time. Focus on maintaining rhythm and swing as you find contact - some horse’s habitually stiffen against contact, thus reducing their own swing. By keeping your swing, you will minimize their mistake and therefore how much they can stiffen against you. If slack creeps into one rein or both, you can widen one or both hands sideways away from your horse’s neck to pick up the slack, or just shorten the rein(s). If you find your hands lowering, raise them slightly instead. Do so by picking your shoulders (scapula) up and out, not by tensioning your arms. Contact that pulls down and or backward is uncomfortable for your horse and will teach him to pull on the contact in a negative way as well. At this point, we just want the horse to accept the slack being taken out of the reins without it negatively impacting his way of going. Do your best to create even, consistent contact on both reins by maintaining positive torso carriage, rhythm in your seat, and swing in your whole body. Think of your arms like bungee cords – always maintaining a taught, elastic connection all the way from your horse’s mouth to your swinging shoulders and hips.

Bending and Balancing Between

Your horse can mentally relax enough to be physically supple only if he is balanced. We’ve all heard of “inside leg, outside rein” to improve balance and bend. But what does “inside leg to outside rein” mean and how do we make it work? Let me start by explaining the building blocks that turn basic contact into a back to front connection?

The two main mistakes your horse makes that lead to loss of balance are 1) lack of engagement and 2) falling on either shoulder. You know how to fix lack of engagement by establishing an industrious rhythm, described in last quarter’s article. Now that we’ve discussed how to stay supple in the saddle and maintain steady, elastic contact, you will be able to feel when your horse falls on either shoulder. Feeling it is the first step to fixing it!

First, establish an industrious walk that you and your horse can maintain consistently. Second, gather your reins to establish a steady, elastic connection. Third, the inside positioning of your own body will encourage inside bend in your horse’s body. Start by weighting your inside seat bone more than your outside. As you sit heavier on your inside seat bone, you should feel your weight fall from your seat bone down the inside of your leg. Next, rotate your torso to the inside (inside shoulder falls back, outside shoulder advances – yes, while your collarbone is still down and your scapula still out). Your torso pivots on the top of your pelvis, so that’s where you should feel your inside positioning originating from.  Your hips should stay oriented squarely ahead (not rotated to the inside) and your walk seat still setting the rhythm. As your arms follow your shoulders inside position, you can look down at your hands to see your outside hand is slightly more away from your body and the rein against your horse’s neck. Your inside hand is positioned closer to your body and the rein slightly away (towards the inside) of your horse’s neck.

As you establish your inside positioning, your horse is likely doing one of two things – 1) resisting the inside positioning by trying to pull his head straight ahead or towards the outside of the arena, or 2) turning to the inside. First, fix any changes in rhythm with your seat and leg. Second, if your horse is resisting inside positioning, you’re going to add outside leg. If your horse is turning to the inside, you’re going to add inside leg. The rider’s legs can communicate more than just “move forward” to the horse and in this situation they are aiding him to engage his self-carriage muscles and step through with the hind leg on the side of the rider’s leg used. If your horse is resisting bending to the inside, he is likely falling on his outside shoulder. If he is turning to the inside, he is likely falling on his inside shoulder. In effect, your leg is telling him to pick himself up on whatever side he’s falling towards. In order to communicate this with your leg, lengthen it very forward at the girth, trying to get your heel all the way down under his belly (even though we know this isn’t physically possible). Then engage your leg upward while thinking “pick up.” If no response, lengthen and apply again. If still no response on second application, keep leg in “pick up” position and tap with whip. Once you get any forward response from whjp tap, lengthen your leg and reassess. When your horse responded to your leg or whip, did he move towards his inside shoulder or outside shoulder? The answer to this question tells you which leg to use next.

Before balancing the horse with the reins will work, he must be willing to equally engage both hind legs in both directions of travel and bend. When your horse falls on his outside shoulder, your outside leg will help his outside hind engage to carry himself. You may need to repeat the aid more than once until his outside hind engages enough to pick himself up off that shoulder. At that point, the inexperienced horse often falls onto the opposite (inside) shoulder. Now the rider’s leg on the inside engages the horse’s inside hind leg to pick himself up off the inside shoulder. As you make your way around the arena practicing this, do many changes of direction, changing your inside positioning each time. Every time you want to use your outside rein, to steer or prevent falling out, use it secondarily to your outside leg. Every time you want to use your inside rein to prevent your horse from falling in, use your inside leg instead. Watching your horse’s shoulders can help you to know which he is falling on. Feeling the weight in your reins will also help you know which shoulder he is falling on (the side of the heavier rein).  Still, always fix it with your leg. The balance has to come from your horse’s hind leg, so therefore you must ride from your seat and legs. To me it feels a bit like a pinball machine, the horse being the pinball and my legs being the bumpers. Try to get down to feeling and correcting every stride.

As your horse’s engagement improves, one hind leg at a time, he will come more on the bit and you can shorten your reins. But still, the reins provide only the framework, the legs do all the “heavy lifting” work of rebalancing. When your horse steps through both reins with carrying hind legs, rather than pushing himself onto the rein/shoulder, then you are ready to start building inside leg to the outside rein. Stepping through and carrying himself to the outside rein is very different than falling off the inside leg onto the outside rein/shoulder. By riding your horse from back to front, leg and seat to receiving hand, you will be able to feel when he is carrying and when he is falling. By correcting with your leg every time he is falling, your horse will learn to carry. And then the inside leg can influence his carriage into the outside rein. And then you will feel a true back to front connection, which we will look at in more detail next article.

Self-Carriage, Mindfully

Self-carriage for both yourself and your horse is a feeling. You are learning the feeling every time you make a positive position correction. Your horse is learning the feeling every time you positively correct him with your aids. Be a mindful teacher for both yourself and your horse by maintaining a realistic expectation. Be a forgiving teacher for both yourself and your horse, appreciating honest daily efforts. Constantly seek knowledge and experience to make yourself a better teacher for you both. Finally, don’t hesitate to ask for help from others around you. Whether that help be trading lunge-line lessons with a friend, having a family member video your ride so you can see what you’re feeling, or seeking the advice of a local professional. Above all, have compassion for your horse and yourself in this most difficult work of learning to feel.

Works Cited:
Gryson, Natalya V. “Dressage: A Biomechanically Founded and Artistically Cultivated System of Training.” Terry Naturally Animal Health Expert Advice, Terry Naturally Animal Health, 1 Jan. 2020, https://www.tnanimalhealth.com/blog/author/?author_id=13
Wynmalen, Henry. Dressage: A Study of the Finer Points of Riding. A.S. Barnes and Company, 1952.

Next time: Understanding aiding –science and art interwoven: Part III - Connection


Natalya is a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medalist and operates Still Hill Dressage with her husband Ben Larsen. Natalya is currently developing two FEI Grand Prix prospects, several young horses, and a few amateur rider/horse combos. In training and coaching Natalya focuses on developing a connection that allows horse and rider reach their goals, and above all, take joy in the work! Still Hill Dressage is located in Western North Carolina.