Passing the Corner & Bending
A Passion for Dressage
Dressage and bending are almost synonymous. It is through bending that the horse can increase the engagement of the inside hindquarter. By working to both directions, this engagement becomes even, the horse becomes straight and light, as the center of gravity is transferred toward the hindquarters. The dressage rider has corners, and part or full circles, as well as other exercises composed of parts of circles, to accomplish this most important work.. When we talk about circles, below, we will assume that the same message is true of part circles, including the corner. A rider who truly understands circles will be able to bring out the best in his dressage horse.
Connected with the problem of crookedness, is that of stiffness to one side or the other. This is perhaps much like being right or left handed. One of the dressage objectives is to make the horse equally flexible to both sides, or ambidextrous. A horse is said to have a stiff and a hollow side. On the hollow side horses avoid the action of the rein passing through the body and on the stiff side they lean on the rein and resist action in that manner. Regardless, the horse does not have correct action in either rein until it can achieve flexibility. Riders should avoid the temptation to ride circles to the side that the horse prefers. Instead, riders should either ride to both sides the same, or even emphasize the difficult side. This work of straightening the horse is not something that is achieved and forgotten, but rather, it is a continuous process that never ends and is perhaps the most important part of a solid dressage foundation.
A proper circle, we have said, is ridden when the horse moves fluidly, bending to the inside with correct hock action. The hocks, when the circle is correct, look as if they float once they leave the ground and there is a considerable moment of suspension. The action of the hindquarters is springy but cadenced. The action of the hindquarters is not a quick up and down type movement. But before we begin to describe how to achieve this bending, let us return to our green horse. Our definition of green horse will include any horse who has not mastered this exercise below. We will introduce him to the corners through an unusual exercise that at first glance seems to contradict some of what we have said so far. This exercise helps us achieve some very important balance and after a few days the rider will see a marked improvement. But let me explain before I get too excited about the benefits of the exercise.
Passing the corner with a green horse
The passing the corner exercise is based on the idea that we want the horse to achieve some natural rhythm and balance without the excessive use of the reins. The first step will be to give the horse totally loose reins (Figure 4-1a) as we post the trot around the arena. The trot must have impulsion and be forward, yet not rushing. Not just long reins, but completely loose reins where the rider cannot feel the horse's mouth. With some rider-horse combinations this will take an in-between step, where he may want to hold one long rein and one loose rein (Figure 4-1b). This step might be necessary for a more difficult or nervous horse or for a rider that needs the confidence. As long as the horse moves forward with impulsion the likelihood of his spooking decreases.
Figure 4-1. Moving the horse forward at the trot with loose reins
The rider, through the use of loose reins, permits the horse to find his own balance at first. One such benefit, is that the horse is less likely to want to lean on the reins for balance. With so much importance placed on putting the horse on the bit, it is no wonder that riders may want to overdo the effect of the reins before the horse is ready.
The rider will use the reins, but only as he passes the corner. Corners are passed by gently and slowly picking up and holding the outside rein (the rein closest to the rail or outside of the arena) a few meters below arriving at the corner. This outside rein acts as a holding rein, being pulled gently in the same direction as the rider’s outside hip. The rider will feel the mouth of the horse gently in his hand. This is followed by the dual action of (1) obtaining contact with the inside rein as well as (2) by the inside leg. The inside rein acts slightly toward the horse’s opposite (or outside) hip. The inside leg acts behind the girth. If the horse is moving forward with enough impulsion, then the hindquarter will be engaged rather than fall out of the circle, as one would suppose.
As we begin to speak of different actions of the reins, the following diagram (Figure 4-2) has often been used by others to differentiate between the various effects of the reins. While I prefer not to use the traditional terms, I feel the diagram in nevertheless instructive. A rider put pressure on a rein directly toward his own hip on that same side of the horse (c), or toward the horse's hip (b). The rider can also use a more lateral pressure, which increases from the most slight, toward the horse's tail (d), the opposite hip of the horse (e), or the opposite hip of the rider (f). The two other rein actions include the opening rein (a) and the contrary rein (g). Of course, none of these rein positions are as stable as gears on a car when using a clutch, but rather, there are infinite degrees between one position and another.
Figure 4-2. Various actions of the reins
Likewise, a few words need to be said in connection to the position of the rider's legs. While we talk of the leg being either on the girth or behind the girth, it is not the actual position of the girth that determines the leg position. It is only a matter of speech, as far as the girth is concerned. Rather, on the girth signifies that the leg lines up with an imaginary line that would go down from ear, shoulder, and hip to the leg. Behind the girth signifies the rider moves the whole leg a bit further back so that the leg is behind that same imaginary line (Figure 4-3).
Figure 4-3: Leg on the girth vs. behind the girth
Now, returning to our exercise, the action of the outside rein tends to collect the horse a bit while the action of the inside rein and leg act together to move the hindquarters into the corner to pass the circle (see Figure 4-2). As soon as the corner is so passed, the reins are immediately dropped and the rider continues with loose reins until the next corner. If the horse is moving forward with enough impulsion, the rider will feel the beginning of an engagement of the inside hindquarter. This will be noticeable in that the horse will feel more rhythmic as he comes out of each corner. Once again, the benefit of this preparatory exercise is helping the horse obtain his own balance with a rider on his back, before introducing more aids and beginning to demand the correct bending.
Figure 4-4: Preparatory exercise of passing the corner
Bending the horse
Earlier we used the word straight. When a horse moves along a fence or rail, the side of the shoulder and the side of the hindquarters tend to be at an equal distance from the wall. Because the shoulders of the horse are narrower than the hindquarters (Figure 4-5b), the horse is moving crookedly. This, in turn, means that the horse is not engaging his inside hindquarter. For the horse to move straight along a fence or rail, the spine of the horse must be parallel to the wall (Figure 4-5a). The rider asks for a slight bend to the inside even on straight lines to help the horse go "straight." The achievement of straightness, however, can mostly be achieved by the correct use of circles.
Figure 4-5: Straight (A) vs. bent (B) horse
In an arena where riders ride over and over until a track develops there are some advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the horse tends to say in the grove and thus the rider can loosen the reins sooner, perhaps. The disadvantage is that the rider might have more difficulty correcting a horse’s natural crookedness, and passing through the corners without cutting them off.
After the horse has been moving on a straight line and passing corners as mentioned above, the time has come to begin teaching the horse correct bending with the standard aids. In Chapter 2 we saw the difference between correct circle (Figure 2-11) and one where the hindquarters have fallen off (Figures 2-10).
The standard aids for a rider on the circle are: inside leg on the girth providing impulsion and a point around which the horse is bent; outside leg behind the girth preventing the hindquarters from falling out of the circle; outside rein determining the size of the circle and degree of the bend; and inside rein either showing the horse the way, supporting the outside hand, or yielding to lighten the forehand (more to be said about this later).
The inside is the side of the horse to the center of a circle and the outside is the side of the horse to the outside of the circle (see Figure 4-6). Most of the time, but not always, the inside of the horse and the inside of the arena are the same, and the outside of the horse corresponds to the outside of the arena. The horse is bent equally from head to tail, and the degree of bending increases as the size of the circle diminishes.
Figure 4-6: Aids for bending the horse properly through a circle
Correct circles improve the cadence of a horse as the horse takes longer, more engaged strides. In other words, the horse takes fewer steps to cover the same distance. This lengthening of the stride in circles is the reason why the extended trot almost comes naturally when the horse leaves a circle or part thereof.
The rider should work on large circles and, if at all possible, circles "supported" by two or more walls (see Figure 4-7). A supported circle is one where the rider goes from a given point in one wall of the ring to another wall of the ring. Small circles should be avoided as the horse needs to build up the necessary strength and correct engagement to be able to move correctly in a small circle (or volte). The wonderful thing about passing corners correctly, is that the rider has the opportunity to bend the horse and take advantage of the support of two sides every single corner.
Figure 4-7: Circle A is supported (or touches) three sides of the arena while Circle B touches two sides
Besides circles, the rider can work on figure eights and serpentines. As in anything else, they also have different degrees of difficulty. The size of the circumference and the type of transition from one direction to the other affect difficulty. The easiest figure 8 consists of partial circles connected by a straight line, where the horse does not have to change the position of the bend very quickly (see Figure 4-8).
Figure 4-8: A simple figure eight where the horse does not have to change from one bend to another in an instant
The true figure eight, however, where the horse obtains the maximum from the exercise, consists of two equal sized circumferences joined at one point, where no straight line exists at any point (see Figure 4-9). The figure eight we shall describe in this chapter can be performed with a green horse at a lower level of demands, all the way to the most difficult levels, and still benefit the horse accordingly. Full instructions are included for a more advanced figure eight where the horse is assumed to be on the bit, and the rider can prepare the horse to enter a circle through the half-halt, concepts we will cover in later chapters.
There are few movements so rewarding and exquisite, if done right, as the transition from one circle to another. The smaller the circle, the more difficult and yet more exciting the transition becomes. The rest of the figure eight is also important. Just as in a circle it is important to keep it round, each circle in the figure eight demands the same precision. A rider can predetermine by looking the arena carefully, where the circles touch any point of the arena, or if they do not touch any handy "landmarks" the rider should still visualize how the circles fit into the arena.
Figure 4-9: The true figure eight, where the horse only has an instant to change from one bend to the opposite one
There are a number of problems that can occur in the figure eight. Often riders leave one circumference at different points every time they change from one circle to another (Figure 4-10). Perhaps the more typical is the totally wandering figure eight where the rider loses perspective and leaves both circles at different locations every time (fig. 4-11).
Figure 4-10: The rider leaves circle A at different spots when going into circle B
Figure 4-11: The rider leaves both circles at different spots as the attempts the figure eight
Whether the rider is practicing the figure eight where he would go back and forth from one circle to another several times (Figure 4-9), or he is riding a dressage test (Figure 4-12) where it is more likely he will be required to perform only one transition from a circle to another, here are some suggestions for riding a correct figure eight: (1) set a point to draw a perpendicular to, as for instance, the letter "C" in a dressage arena; (2) in the same perpendicular line set the point for the intersection of the two circles where you will bend the horse from one direction to the next (this point will be where both circles will touch, or the point of intersection between the center line and the line that would connect the center of both circles); and (3) remember not to start into the second circle until the rider faces the set point (here, C).
As the rider comes down center line, he must ride fully into the point of union between both circles before moving into the first circle. The rider prepares the horse to bend and move into the first circle an instant before, with a half-halt with the outside hand. The same is true after the first circle is completed, the rider prepares the horse for changing bends mostly with the legs, and supported by the hands. The rider must not enter the second circle, once again, until he is fully into the intersection between the two circles. It is the moment just before, during, and after the intersection that constitute the most exciting part of the figure eight.
Figure 4-12: The true figure eight arriving from center line
Let us ride through it together in our minds. Say the rider has come down center line at the trot. and will first go into circle A. He prepares the horse to do so with a half-halt with the outside hand (left hand), and moves into circle A so the horse is bent to the right. The aids within circle A are: inside leg (right) on the girth providing impulsion and position, outside leg (left) behind the girth helping bend the horse around the inside leg, outside rein (left) determining the size of the circle with the help of the inside rein (right). As the rider approaches the moment of the intersection—or transition from a circle to the right (A) to a circle to the left (B)—he must allow the aids to act on the horse so that they gently switch from one bend to the other. As the horse arrives into the area of transition the rider must keep the horse bent to the right and moving with impulsion and the left leg will start moving from behind the girth to on the girth while the opposite is true for the right leg. The transition should mostly come from behind, that is, from the legs, and be supported by the hands. When working the green horse, the rider will post through and sit two steps at the trot to change posting legs.
The figure eight can be ridden anywhere in the arena, once the rider has determined where he wants—or has to in the case of a standard test—to perform the figure in relation to the dressage arena, regardless of the size of the circle. A rider designing a Kur ride should set the perpendicular against a letter because the rider can easily focus on a letter, and ride with more precision.
Just as there are different degrees of difficulty in the circle, so it is with the serpentine. The true serpentine, the hardest and best exercise is the serpentine, requires a point of transition between each arc and the next, as did the true figure eight. The center of each circle is joined by a straight line (Figure 4-13). The true serpentine will require twice as many transitions from one bend to the other than the true figure eight did.
Figure 4-13: The true serpentine
When the line between circle centers is no longer straight, the degree of difficulty is smaller. On the left and right side of Figure 4-14, two such serpentines are represented. The three circles are equal in position in both diagrams, but the serpentine is ridden on different parts of the circle. The circle to the right allows the rider more time to prepare the horse while the circle to the left does not require as much bend at the transition, and are both good preparatory exercises.
Figure 4-14: Less demanding serpentines
One of the best things about both the figure eight and the serpentine is that the rider can repeat a circle in preparation for transition from one bend to another (Figure 4-15). For instance, here, a horse is shown moving through loop "A" and making the bend into loop "B," or in other words changing the bend from right to left. When it is time to move into loop "C," or make a bend transition from left to the right the horse might not be ready for it an rather than asking the horse to move crookedly into the new loop, the rider can continue the circle to the left, all the time preparing the horse for the transition from "B" to "C" (from bend to the left to bend to the right).
Figure 4-15: Taking more time to prepare for the transition on a weak side of the serpentine
It is through bending that the horse can increase the engagement of the inside hindquarter, thus making the horse straight and transferring the center of gravity toward the hindquarters. A horse has a stiff and a hollow side. On the hollow side horses avoid the action of the rein passing through the body and on the stiff side they lean on the rein and resist action in that manner. In a proper circle, the rider can further engage the inside hindquarter. The hocks, when the circle is correct, look as if they float once they leave the ground. The amount of suspension at the trot increases, helping the hindquarters become springy and cadenced as the horse takes longer, more engaged strides.
We first pass the corners using an introductory exercise where the horse finds his balance on the straight lines with no rein contact. Rein and leg contact are introduced right before and during the circle. The trot must have impulsion and be forward for the exercise to have a positive effect and begin to help the horse to engage the inside hindquarter.
After the horse has been moving on a straight line and has found his balance passing the corners, it is time to introduce the standard aids for the circle: inside leg on the girth providing impulsion and a point around which the horse is bent; outside leg behind the girth preventing the hindquarters from falling out of the circle; outside rein determining the size of the circle and degree of the bend; and inside rein either showing the horse the way, supporting the outside hand, or yielding to lighten the forehand.
The true figure eight consists of two equal sized circles joined at one point. In such a figure eight, the rider must not enter the transition between the present circle and the next until he is fully into the intersection between the two circles.
© 1999-2010 Gregorio Billikopf
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19 May 2010