At the weekend, I judged several dressage classes at a local riding club show. One thing that really stood out at all the levels I judged was the lack of energy and impulsion shown. It's a common fault; riders pulling or fiddling the horse into an outline whilst allowing the engine at the back to idle in neutral. So many horses appeared to be wading through treacle as they crawled around the arena, heads neatly tucked into their chests like little old ladies driving with the handbrake still on!
It was a warm, muggy day and many of the equine competitors appeared less than enthusiastic about the job. I heard several people grumbling that their horses were always really lazy. So what can you do to encourage your horse to think and work more forward into your hand?
With a lazy horse there's always a temptation to perpetually nag away at him with your leg. This is not only tiring but looks awful and is a dead giveaway to the judge that your horse is behind your leg! Constant nagging will also eventually make your horse dead to the leg. Your leg should remain still and passive on his sides, supporting him and keeping him moving forward. But how do you teach your horse to go from a whisper, rather than a scream?!
Sit still and keep your leg quietly on his sides. As soon as he begins to slow down and lose forward impetus, turn your heel in and give him a sharp kick on the girth, then sit still and allow him forward with your hand. Forget about asking him for an outline at this stage; all you want is the reaction and the forward thought. If he ignores your leg, repeat the kick and accompany it with a flick from a schooling whip behind your leg. The whip is not there for punishment but merely to emphasise and back-up your leg aid. Don't resort to using spurs. Spurs are there to help you with lateral exercises and are intended to be used as a discreet enhancement to your leg aid; not as a set of rocket launchers! Nagging legs with spurs always leave marks on the horse's skin which are not only very unattractive but are another dead giveaway to the judge that your horse does not work forward off your leg. Any horse with broken skin beneath spurs entering the dressage arena will be eliminated on welfare grounds; and rightly so.
Lazy horses need something to keep their minds occupied and busy. Trotting around in endless circles will merely serve to switch them off even more. Introduce lots and lots of transitions. This will help to make him think forward. You can ride transitions within the same pace; working trot-medium trot-working trot for example. Put in a ten metre circle, ride into shoulder in and after a couple of steps, ask for collected canter then away into medium canter. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination! Make sure that you change the rein frequently too. This will not only keep the horse thinking but will also ensure his muscular development is equal.
Once the horse has started to work forwards you can think about taking up a firmer contact and asking him to work into it. Remember the Scales of Training we discussed in an earlier article: Rhythm, Suppleness (i.e. forward, swinging through the back), Contact, Impulsion, Straightness and finally Collection.
Keep the lazy horse interested by introducing more challenging work. It doesn't matter if you're not competing at that level or that the exercises aren't executed technically perfectly as long as he starts to think more forward. You could also try introducing some pole work or even a small fence or two just randomly dropped into the schooling session when he's least expecting it.
You will suddenly find that your horse enters "The Zone". From out of nowhere he will just start to take you forward into that lovely, elastic rein contact; his back swinging underneath you like a great big rubber band, propelling himself forward from his hocks through his topline to the bridle. And all you have to do is sit still, control and channel the energy. Your horse is now truly connected and genuinely "on the bit".
All you have to do now is reproduce that feeling in the dressage arena and you've cracked it! Enjoy!
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