always talk about gaining more engagement from the horse. Most competition
minded people will fequently read in the collective box at the bottom
of their sheet - 'needs more from behind'. We know that the aim of dressage
is to promote well being, enhance the beauty of the gaits and to prolong
the working life of the horse. This involves encouraging the horse to
take more weight onto the hind legs by correct, systematic and gymnastic
training of the horse.
So how do we transfer the weight onto the hindlegs? There are obviously two parts to this - the rider and the horse. The rider needs a good mental approach, the correct seat and body alignment and the understanding of what they expect from the horse. Without this correct training of the horse will not happen.
Terminology regarding the training. 'On the bit', 'engagement', 'throughness', 'over the back' are all expressions that are used, personally I feel sometimes they are used without the real understanding of what they mean and how to achieve them. I know that Colonel Podhajsky wrote that he frowned upon the emphasising of too much theory without the practical ability to back it up, but we have to start somewhere.
My aim in training the horse is to encourage the equal loading of the hindlegs. This process will take time - it cannot and should not happen overnight. There is a system and structure to be followed - but what are the steps to this structure.
Working from the end result back to the beginning. To carry more weight on the hindlegs, in equal proportion the horse must have the ability to bend and lower the hindquarters - the three main joints being the hock, stiffle and pelvis. To achieve this the rider needs a true connection to each individual hind leg.
To gain this connection to the hind leg the horse needs to bend through the entirety of his body, not just through the neck. Without the presence of true bend the horse will never be totally 'through'.
He must be able to bend as equally as possible to the left or the right. This means lateral flexion of the poll (i.e. the horse should be able to look left/right at the poll without resistance) all the way uniformly through the lateral aspect ( along the side through the ribcage) to the tail. To be able to bend the horse must be supple and he MUST be straight - that is to say the horse must not have a hollow or stiff side.
To be straight the horse must be longitudinally supple, i.e. supple from ears to tail over the topline. He must be very responsive to the riders aids, with a calm and obedient attitude to the requests of the rider. This is the most important area of the horses training.
For the horse to be straight the rider must be straight. The rider must be clear with their objectives and have a good feel for what is happening underneath them. The straightening process is a continual assessment - it is not a detail to work on part time.
So we take the green or young horse. We stretch him over the topline to encourage suppleness from ears to tail. The rider is correct through their seat and bodily alignment. The horse is forwards, calm and soft. We then place a contact out in front and encourage the horse to move forwards in good rhythm into this and he will naturally soften at the poll. Then he must be made straight through riding turns, straight lines, positioning and counter positioning. He should not be asked for shoulder in etc at this stage - this will make the crookedness more confirmed. When he is straight he will not fall out, in, load a shoulder or leave a hind leg to the inner track.
Then and only then is the horse ready to be bent. Through the use of volte's, lateral work and rider thought the horse will be bent around the horses inside leg and thus the door will open to the rider to gain individual control of each hindleg and the horse will start to become through.