One of the toughest things for a rider to learn is to make the switch from being a graceful passenger, moving with the horse’s every movement and staying quietly balanced in a way that gives the horse freedom to move, to becoming an active rider influencing the horse’s every movement. The first step is for the rider to become strong enough to be a beautiful passenger, developing a seat that follows the horse in all gaits and in unexpected movements, and developing independent hands that move separate from the body. Then the rider starts learning to use his body to change the way the horse is going, instead of adjusting the rider’s body based on what the horse is doing. This takes a certain amount of strength, and then, like everything else, lots of practice.
One skill the horse learns early on in dressage is to become adjustable in his gaits, and to adjust his own body when he feels his rider make small adjustments. Of course, the horse can only do this if the rider is good enough to only make adjustments when wanting to influence the horse (otherwise the horse is left thinking, “Did the rider mean to shift? Or did she just lose her balance again?”), but assuming the rider is balanced enough, the horse should find this natural, as the horse and rider as a pair are in a fine balance moving over the ground, and the horse will feel any movement the rider makes that upsets that fine balance. This natural desire for balance can then be honed into all sorts of cues, and practicing small adjustments can be used to build muscle in the horse.
With Remy, from day one I have used my seat for my walk-halt transitions and for my trot-walk transitions. He does them very reliably now from my seat alone, which frees up my hands to give him a soft, comfortable contact to reach out into. In the last few rides, I have started incorporating transitions within the gait as well as between gaits. So as we are trotting along at a nice, forward trot, I “hold” my post as if I was going to do a walk transition, but then right before he actually walks I close my leg and ask him to keep trotting instead. To explain to my students how to ride this for the first time I will tell them to do an “Almost Walk” transition: ride like they are going to do a walk transition, then as the horse goes to do it say “I changed my mind, lets keep trotting” with their body. This is what will become a half halt as Remy’s training progresses. Once that response is understood, then I hold my post a little more so that he adjusts from the big trot to a little trot and stays in that little trot for a few steps before returning to the big trot.
The key here is that it all comes from the seat. If you have done your transitions and then your “Almost Walk” transition correctly, the horse is anticipating going forward again (ahem, the horse is “forward”… like when you take your foot off the brake in your car it rolls forward, the horse should feel the same way). So when your seat holds your post smaller, the horse trots smaller, then the seat releases the “hold” feel and the hips swing more in the post and the post gets bigger, and the horse, since he is no longer being held by the small post, trots forward taking a bigger stride. If you are having the pull the reins to slow the trot, and then kick the horse for the bigger trot, go back a step.
Now that we have the horse responding this way, we are able to build the muscles that will one day allow the horse to collect and lengthen at the trot. We also have a horse very tuned to every small adjustment of our seat, which means we can make imperceptible shifts and keep our horse’s attention focused on us when his attention starts to wander. As the horse gets stronger and steadier on the bit, this same set of aids develops into a half halt and can be used to rebalance the horse. This also improves the trot-walk transition because the horse has not only learned to step under himself with the back legs, but he has also strengthened these muscles to do so easily, and in his head he knows he may have to trot off again right away so he will not want to drop onto his forehand in the walk transition.
So, here is Remy demonstrating. I trot one lap all the way around the arena, then on the short ends of the arena I have Remy do just a few steps of little trot, then return to big trot all the way down the long side and back to little trot on the short side. You can see that he is getting the idea of reaching to the bit, but I do not hold him in an “On the bit” frame, I instead encourage him to reach to the bit but allow him to do it of his own accord and to find his own balance there. As he is getting stronger, he is reaching for the bit more steadily. As he makes the big trot – little trot adjustments, when he uses his body correctly and steps under with his hind legs, his body gets rounder and he gives me more contact. When he loses his balance and falls on the forehand, his head comes up until he finds his balance again. I have somewhere between 20 and 25 rides on him now.
I want to make a note about stretching a horse to the bit…. I am encouraging Remy to reach over his whole topline to the bit, not just asking him to break at the poll to make the face vertical, as I see so many people want to do to put a horse “on the bit”. Here is a picture of him from my first ride on him (and I can only now share this picture because he no longer looks like this!), and you can see the upside down neck and where he wanted to carry his head as he trotted along on the forehand and I did what I could to move with this unbalanced horse. Just bringing his nose into the vertical would not have worked him over his back correctly, and would not have put him in a position he could comfortably carry. By instead asking him to stretch out and down more and using exercises like little leg yields and transitions, he is building up the muscle over his back and the top of his neck to carry himself correctly on the bit. Here’s the Remy-Camel from 6 weeks ago:
And him trotting now: