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Dressage - Achieving the Correct Outline
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Dressage - Achieving the Correct Outline

When describing the ideal outline for the dressage horse, the FEI Book of Directives states that: "... the neck should be raised and arched according to the stage of training ... accepting the bridle with a light and consistent soft submissive contact. The head should remain in a steady position ... slightly in front of the vertical, with a supple point as the highest point of the neck, and no resistance should be offered to the rider."

This positioning of the horse's head and neck is specified thus as it is directly indicative of the correct training of the horse through the scales of training. This outline is achieved because the horse is working in balance and in self-carriage; the rider may ease the rein at will to allow the horse to draw the contact forward in order to arch his neck or to stretch round, down and forwards voluntarily. All too often, horses are seen ridden with too strong and restrictive a contact in order to fix and hold them into the "correct outline". Consequently, the muscles of the neck are rigid and tense and the horse remains fixed in this shape when the contact is eased with no discernable attempt at stretching being made. Such a way of going should always be marked down, regardless of the level at which the horse is competing.

The neck muscles are directly attached to the muscles of the back and thus to the hind quarters. These muscles should be loose, elastic and swinging beneath the rider as the horse moves freely forward with his hind legs coming underneath him. If the neck is fixed, rigid and compressed backward; this cannot be achieved and very often the rhythm is also disrupted.

Dressage tests have always included the "free walk on a long rein" where the horse is asked to take the rein forward, round and down as he lengthens his stride and frame and seeks the bit and in recent years exercises have been introduced at the lower levels in trot and canter during which the rider is required to "allow the horse to take the rein and stretch." These exercises demonstrate very clearly whether the horse is being trained correctly or not.

It is very important not to ask too much of the horse during the early stages of his training. He should be allowed to use his neck for balance and should be encouraged (through riding forward from the leg to the bit) to stretch forward and down so that the nuchal ligament becomes active, pulling the spinal processes of the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae forward to lift the back beneath the rider. It is important that the rider maintains a light and consistent contact on the horse's mouth. An inconsistent contact will be confusing for the horse; too strong a contact and the horse may be encouraged to lean of the bit from balance. It's also very important to keep the horse active and moving forward. Over time, the horse will become stronger and his muscles will develop. Eventually, true self-carriage and collection may be demanded of him but only if the rider does not resort to short cuts at any stage during the horse's formative training. Draw reins and Rollkur have no place in the correct training of the dressage horse. Riders should also beware of using too much inside rein when asking for bend. This not only causes the neck to become too short but does not produce true supple lateral bend through the horse's body, merely a hinged bend from the withers. The problem is easily solved by easing the inside rein, making the neck straighter and using the rider's inside leg and weight aids to ask the horse for the correct bend.

Sometimes if a horse is inclined to be strong and hurried, the neck may become shortened as the rider uses too strong a hand in an effort to moderate the tempo. A more correct solution is to ride plenty of transitions within and between the paces and to use half halts. Remember too that the neck muscles of the more novice horse will become tired quite quickly so don't be tempted to work in for too long before a test and always allow plenty of opportunity during working in for the horse to stretch and relax.

Finally, judges see many riders demanding an outline that is too advanced for their horse's stage of training. The muscles are not sufficiently developed to achieve this and the result is usually that the horse drops behind the vertical. Whilst there is no harm in working towards a higher level and using the exercises contained within it to advance the horse's training, you will achieve higher marks in the arena if you present a horse whose training is clearly progressing along the correct lines, even if he is not quite "there" yet.

Thank you for reading my article. Please do feel free to comment and don't forget to vote if you enjoyed it!

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  1. PonyGirl
    Excellent article! I think this should be required reading for all dressage riders. It should also be helpful to any other rider, no matter what discipline they're in. While some things are different in western- the more advanced the horse, the less actual contact with the bit you should have to take- the basic principles are the same. Collection comes from the hindquarters, not from the set of a horse's head.
    1. autumnap
      Thank you kindly! x
  2. spirithorserider
    Very well done article. Keep up the good work. Posted to FB to share with my friends. Had a trainer in Holland who always said "Training is in the transitions, not in the mileage. A thousand transitions around the arena." We do it within the gaits and between the gaits. Look forward to your next article.
    1. autumnap
      Many thanks. I'm so glad folk out there like my articles and find them helpful. x
  3. Rene Wright
    Rene Wright
    Voted. I just love these "lessons". I continue to learn so much about control, movement and balance. Cookie is going to begin learning how to balance herself rather than lean on the lunge to find her balance. She has a tendency to be more forward and less collected especially in turns. The details in your articles give me an opportunity to see where I can go with Cookie and how to achieve each step. :) lol We won't be doing dressage, but I can apply the techniques for added training and bonus.
  4. arabobsession
    love your article, my one stipulation to my mares trainer, is keep her mouth soft, and to her credit she is, and her words to me are transition, transition, transition

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