Learning Center Archives

With Dr. Gail Hoff-Carmona

December 2006

The three cardinal principles of riding are Forward, Calm and Straight.

"Forward" means that the horse moves actively in the correct rhythm (four beat walk, two beat trot and three beat canter). The movement should be unconstrained and fluid. It should not be rushing or lazy. "Rushing" means that the rhythm is too fast so that the horse appears to be chased by the rider and the horse becomes unbalanced on the forehand. On the other hand, a "lazy" horse might have the correct rhythm, but it is not active from behind and the steps become shorter.

Which do you think is the more "forward" horse at the trot?

1. Trot steps quick and horse moving forward.

No, that's not correct!

People often confuse "forward" with "fast", but a horse that is moving too rapidly gets on the forehand and it needs to maintain speed in order to balance it's weight. Think of a trotter race horse who moves it's legs rapidly and who generates speed but the gait appears rushed and the moment of suspension (air time) is short.

2. Trot of moderate speed with each stride covering considerable ground.

That's right!

When a horse is "forward" at the trot, the gait appears to be energetic and ground covering, but there is a clear moment of suspension (air time) and the horse will be bearing more weight on the hindquarters than on the forehand.

3. Trot steps short, slow and relaxed.

No, that's not the right answer!

This is a description of a horse that is not going well forward. Although it might be in balance, the trot does not cover ground and has very little moment of suspension (air time). Examples can be seen in Western Pleasure horses that are trained to create a very comfortable, but not very energetic ride.


January 2007

The three cardinal principles of riding are Forward, Calm and Straight.

"Calm" means that a horse is psychologically at ease, cooperative and not agitated. When a horse is not calm it could be because it is a nervous horse by nature or it may be adversely affected by outside stimuli (including the rider). Such a horse might also be high from being in a stall for a long time or over fed and under worked.

If you notice that your horse is not calm when being ridden what are some things you can do to determine why?

1. Double check that all of your tack is fitted correctly.

That's one of the things you can do.

Tack that does not fit well or is not put on the horse correctly can cause physical discomfort and distress. For instance, a saddle that pinches the withers or whose tree is broken so that it does not sit correctly on the horse's back can cause back and shoulder pain which might affect how your horse responds to your aids. Even the mane or forelock which might be pulled tight under the crown of the bridle can cause discomfort. Be sure that all your tack is placed on the horse correctly and fits properly.

2. Be sure that you are communicating clearly with your aids and not just demanding some response using punishing aids.

Yes, this is one thing you can do.

Clear and appropriate aids used with correct timing are very important and when not used correctly your horse could get tense and/or seemingly uncooperative. For instance, pulling on the reins while also driving your horse forward are conflicting aids that communicate "stop" and "go" at the same time. You might need the help of a professional trainer to determine if you are using clear and appropriate aids.

3. Get off and lunge your horse for a few minutes before riding.

Yes, you might want to try this.

Sometimes a horse might have difficulty focusing on being ridden because it is too full of energy from lack of exercise or perhaps an especially cool day has helped him to feel overly energetic. In such a case, a few minutes of lungeing to allow your horse to play on the lunge line could make him calm again for riding.

4. All of the above.

You're right!

This is the correct answer, however, there could be reasons other than those listed as well. If your horse is not calm when being ridden, it is up to you to try to determine why and then address the issue(s) in a rational way so that you can better proceed with your riding and training.

February 2007

The three cardinal principles of riding are Forward, Calm and Straight.

We have discussed "Forward and Calm". This month we'll discuss "Straight".

Straightening The Horse

"Straight" means that the hind feet of the horse travel in the same path as the front feet on straight and curved lines.

Since the hindquarters of the horse are wider than the shoulders, if a horse is traveling, for instance, with the right hind leg in the same track as the right front leg, then the left hind leg will, by nature, be further to the left than the left front leg and the spine will not be straight.

In order to straighten a horse, one must gain more control of the hindquarters and create engagement so that the hind legs can step closer to each other and into the same tracks as the front feet. One way to do this is for a rider to first create some lateral (side to side) bend in the back bone by moving the shoulders of the horse a little to the left in the case of the above horse. If the hind legs are not allowed to deviate sideways, then the horse is positioned in a "shoulder fore" and must engage it's hindquarters (bend longitudinally at the sacro lumber joint and bring the pelvis lower) which then allows the left hind leg to step closer to the right hind leg and the horse will be able to travel with the hind feet in the same track as the front feet.

Which of the following characteristics will a "straight" horse display?

1. The head of horse is tilted a little to one side so that it will not be looking exactly straight ahead. The back is relaxed and swinging. The hind leg on the same side of the horse to which the head is tilted will step up and between the two front legs. The other hind leg will be in the same track as the front leg on the same side.

This answer describes the "shoulder fore" position of the horse and can be used to create straightness through engagement of the hindquarters. However, once they are engaged, the horse must then be allowed to bring the shoulders back to the track while maintaining engagement in order to create straightness. Once straightness is created, the horse will look straight ahead and the head will not be tilted to one side or the other. The hind legs will track in the same tracks as the front legs.

2. The horse will be looking straight ahead with even contact on both sides of the mouth. The back is relaxed and swinging and the hind legs are tracking in the same lines as the front legs. The neck is raised and arched at the poll.

This is the correct answer. Such a horse will appear "round" when viewed from the side. The degree to which the neck is raised must, however, be determined by the degree of engagement of the hindquarters. Therefore, a lower level dressage horse will have a lower head carriage than a Grand Prix horse because the lower level horse is not as engaged nor straight as a Grand Prix horse.

3. The horse will be looking straight ahead with even contact on both sides of the mouth and with neck raised. The back is hollowed.

When the back is hollowed, it is because the hindquarters are not engaged well and the back then becomes stiffer. Engagement is a result of straightening the horse so when the back is hollow, even if the horse is looking straight ahead, with even contact on both sides of the mouth, it is not straight.

March 2007

"Dressage" is a French word that means "training". It was developed down through the ages by the cavalry in order to teach horses to carry weight more effectively and to make the horses easier to ride and handle, especially in battle.

Dressage is a rational way of training a horse based on biomechanics. As a science, art and sport all rolled into one, it has been preserved through the ages in classical riding schools, such as the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, and further developed by several great riding masters around the world to culminate in the Grand Prix de Dressage at the Olympic Games. When done correctly, the results are reflected in a calm and supple horse who is confident, keen and attentive to the rider and whose gaits show freedom and regularity together with engagement of the hindquarters (collection) which originates from lively impulsion and straightness. The horse performs willingly and gives the impression of doing of his own accord whatever is requested of him. Horse and rider become as if they are one being instead of two separate beings. Each is "in tune" with the other and in perfect communication. Punishment techniques have no place in the correct training and riding of any horse. There is an old saying: "When art ends violence begins".

Dressage could be a valuable tool in which of the following disciplines? (Check all that you agree with then click on the submit button)

1. Show Jumpers

Sorry, but that's not totally correct. Dressage can be a valuable tool in all three disciplines.

Although the primary goal of show jumping is to get clearly over the jumps, often as rapidly as possible, the rideability of the horse often determines the winner. Horse and rider need to "find" the correct distance for take off at a jump in order for the horse to be able to jump well. To do that the most basic principle of dressage - rhythm and regularity of gaits - becomes paramount. In addition, more collection is required of the higher level jumpers.

2. Western Cutting Horses

Cutting horses need to be able to put their heads down and look a cow in the eye. They must also be well balanced and collected enough so they can turn quickly and easily on their hind quarters with little help from their riders. As in dressage, they need to be keen and alert and yet calm and attentive in order to do their jobs.

3. Hunters

Although a hunter moves in a more horizontal balance (not very collected) than a dressage horse, again, the most basic principle of dressage, rhythm and regularity of gaits, is extremely important for these horses to maintain balance and jump fences with ease while remaining calm and in self carriage.

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