As Liam and I work to move from Training to First Level, one of the biggest challenges we face is creating more engagement from behind and lift in the shoulders. Because of his conformation, this does not come as naturally or easily for him as it does for horses built more suited to dressage. However, when he is set up correctly, he is capable of carrying himself correctly, which enables him to more easily perform all the movements in the tests.
For example, I usually start him in a stretchy frame to let him get warmed up, first at the walk, then at the trot. After we’ve had a chance to move around and get the muscles working, I gather up the reins to put him in a working frame. But as I do it, I have to remember to gather up his whole body into the working frame, not just his head and neck. This means that instead of just shortening the reins and bringing his head up, I do a series of half-halts to engage his hindquarters as I’m gathering the reins. On a horse more built for dressage (or perhaps, for the future Liam that finds this work easier), this may be enough. But where he is at right now, I mix in a series of exercises to help him stay over his back and keep his “withers up” as I change from the stretchy frame to the working frame. Where he gets stuck is in his shoulders, and in the piece of his neck right in front of the withers. When he gets stuck, he gets on the forehand, and although he can stay soft in his poll and feel soft in my hand, as the neck comes up it does not stay connected to the back, which drops and disengages the haunches. The key to keeping the back round and haunches engaged is to keep the withers up, which in turn comes from keeping him off of his shoulders and light on his front end.
To accomplish this, I keep the front end moving. Half-halt (engage back end) and then shoulder-fore (shift front end weight and connect him from inside hind leg to outside rein over his back, and gather a little rein. Then half-halt again and switch to leg-yield, and gather a little rein. Then half-halt again and straighten (moving the shoulders back in front of his hind legs), and gather rein. Then half-halt again and move into a gentle counter bend, then leg-yield again in the opposite direction as before. This continues for as much or as little time as needed. As we are just getting warmed up, especially on a Monday, lots of gentle lateral work helps keep all the muscles loose and connected. Once we are working, it may take little or none at all, but then all of the sudden if he becomes resistant or ignores a halt-halt, I have lots of tools to put him right back together.
As I’m sitting on his back, I try to keep myself feeling if the “withers are up” or if the “shoulders have grown roots” and riding accordingly. The more we work on this, the more consistently we are able to keep the withers up, but this piece seems to be our key to this next step in training.