Training the horse should always be started from the ground with in-hand work and lunging. Once the horse becomes strong enough, meaning that he has started to use his topline and stretches well during in-hand and lunging work, then it is appropriate to start riding. If the horse cannot work well from the ground without the rider’s weight on him, he surely cannot work efficiently and build up his topline muscles with the added weight of a rider on his back. If you hesitate on whether your horse is strong enough with his topline muscles for riding, the simplest thing is to get on him, ride and see what happens. If he cannot move in a meaningful way under saddle within a reasonable time, then it is too early and you should return back to working from the ground.
Make sure that the horse is pain free before getting on his back, especially if there has been any chronic pain related issues such as KS, SI problems or such. You should also check that the saddle fits properly and is not going to cause discomfort or prevent him from using his back. If your saddle has fitted him before you started extensive ground work, be sure to check the saddle fit carefully, because muscle development may well have already changed your horse’s back enough for the saddle to be unfitting – even within a couple months. You should learn enough of basic saddle fitting so that you can at least detect an ill-fitting saddle before it becomes a problem.
Riding sessions should follow these basic principles:
1. Start the riding session with a relaxed horse.
2. Ask only what the horse can do in relaxation.
3. Concentrate firstly in obtaining a good long and low stretch with relaxation and good forward activity.
4. Only gradually increase the difficulty of the ridden work.
5. Return to the stretch after any harder work you may be doing in either working frame or collection.
6. The horse should be asked to do only what he can do with his back and the rest of the topline activated in a relaxed forward rhythm.
7. If the horse struggles with something, return to easier work.
8. If the horse is reluctant to move, there is usually a good reason for it; check tack and him, if nothing is wrong, then return to easier task.
9. Finish the session in a relaxed manner in long and low.
10. Finish the session before he gets tired.
11. Finish the session if he gives you something excellent that he has not given before, no matter how short your session would become.
12. Don’t forget to give praise when it is due.
The basic foundation work schooling starts with concentrating on the stretch down and out as low as possible with good activity from the hind quarters. The stretch cannot be too low, and especially in the beginning the lower the stretch the better. This is because when the horse has little or no topline muscling, the lower he puts his head and stretches forward, the easier it is for him to start stepping better under himself from behind and thus activating and working the muscles along his topline.
You should start by doing a lot of walk work in the stretch, keeping to as big a circle or an oval as possible. Avoid going deep into corners, because in the beginning the horse cannot bend laterally properly through a tight corner while still working through his topline. The turns should be as wide and big as possible to keep the horse going forward in a positive and relaxed manner. Taking sharper turns is a more advanced task, which should be done only when the horse is connected through his topline and can maintain the level of the work bending laterally while going through a tighter corner.
Leg yield and shoulder-in aid in the process by further activating the back and core muscles, just like during in-hand work. You would start by asking for leg yield a few times and then shoulder-in for a few times. Then change of rein and the same on the other side. There is no need to do a huge amount of laterals and you would start by asking only a little of them, paying attention to the horse’s abilities; how much can he do at this time and this particular session. You should start with easier work and gradually increase the difficulty level as the horse’s skills, suppleness and muscling levels rise. Never assume that since the horse could do something nicely in the last session, he can do it this session as well. You must always observe the horse’s physical condition and suppleness on the day and adjust your work load to that.
Once you feel that the walk work is proceeding well, your horse is stretching nicely down and out and walking forward with a good rhythm and you have improved his going by the lateral exercises, you can ask for trot. Same goes with the trot work as with the walk. Aim at nice long and low forward stretch. In the beginning the lower the better. Always rise to the trot. After some trotting around in a big circle or oval, you can do the lateral exercises similarly to how you did them in walk. Start easy and ask little, only gradually increasing the difficulty level.
If your horse is not able to stretch down and out within a reasonable time (some minutes), return to walk and work more in that to strengthen his muscles before attempting the trot again in another session. It is no use in trotting, if your horse cannot do it in such a way that it is beneficial for him. You should in effect minimize the work with head up and back down, and maximize the work with head down and back up. The more you get him working well over his topline, the faster and better your progress. If this means that you will ride only in walk for some weeks or even months, it is well worth it, because then you will have a firm base to build the trot and it will certainly come much easier. If you rush into the trot work before your horse is ready, very often you will have to return back to concentrating only on the walk work later on. The more careful and thorough you do this base work, the easier and more trouble-free the rest of your training will be afterwards. Don’t be disheartened to take a step or two back, if the horse needs it, it just means that the horse was not ready for the level of work you asked of him.
When your trot work is going well, your horse is stretching nicely and maintains good rhythm, you can ask for canter. Similar attitude applies in ridden canter as in lunging; start with just a circle or two, then come back to trot. When the trot is again working well, ask for another transition. Again, don’t be tempted to ask too much of this within a session, it will only be counterproductive if your horse gets tired.
If and when your horse can canter well using his topline and starts to stretch into it, you can do longer periods and more of the canter work. You can also add lateral exercises to the canter work when your horse has established good canter over his topline. Again, increasing the difficulty level in canter exercises gradually is vital. You need to observe how much your horse can do and adjust your training to that.
Thus the basic schooling consists of work on a big circle or oval without tight turns. Leg yield and shoulder-in are mixed in in moderate amounts. The work should start in walk, and progress to trot once walk work is going well. Once trot is going well, then canter work. The work load should be gradual both within and between the gaits.
At this stage of training, do not worry about the quality of the transitions. Also do not be tempted to make lots of transitions but stay instead first in walk, then in trot and come back to walk in the end of the session. Doing lots of transitions will not help in the training, this will just interrupt the flow of the work when all the horse needs to build up topline muscling is uninterrupted, flowing and steady pace with good rhythm.
More advanced schooling
When your horse is coping well with the basic schooling exercises and he performs them in good rhythm with consistent stretch, and you have felt his back coming up under you, you can start to increase the difficulty level in your ridden work.
You can start to experiment how he copes with slightly tighter turns by doing figures of 8 across the arena. When that seems to go well, you can add in three-loop serpentines. And then taking the corners of the arena a little bit deeper and starting to use the whole arena track instead of staying on a big circle or oval.
Once leg yield is starting to flow well from the quarter line, it can be started from the center line or even the opposite quarter line (thus leg yielding across the center line). When the horse finds both leg yield and shoulder-in easy to do, you can proceed to start working on travers and half pass.
Pole work and cavaletti.
Work with poles should be started under saddle similarly to how you work with them on the lunge. That is, start with one ground pole, once he walks and trots over it well in nice stretch using his topline, then add a second pole and so on.
Once your horse has come into balance with his hind and front ends (he is connecting through his entire topline) both on the lunge and while you ride him in the stretch, you can begin to ask him to start coming upward with his head. Thus, at this stage he should not anymore be on his forehand while working in the stretch down and out, but has started to lift his rib cage through his shoulders. This happens when the horse’s core muscles as well as the rest of the topline muscles are strong enough for him to be able to do this. When your horse is still on his forehand, he will not be able to maintain work through his topline while lifting his head into a higher frame. Thus it is imperative to recognize when your horse has come into balance before you start asking him to come upward with his head. Once your horse is at this stage of his development, the saddle may have very likely become too tight; when the strengthening muscles around the chest and core lift the rib cage upward, the shoulders widen to allow this to happen and hence the horse will become wider. Check your saddle in very regular intervals (every couple months at least) and be sensitive to any messages of uncomfort from your horse.
You can test how your horse copes with working frame on the lunge line, if your horse is ok with side rein work. After you have established that your horse can cope with the work with slightly shorter side reins coming from the top of your lunging surcingle or saddle’s D-rings and he starts to bring his head towards the working frame, you can then confidently start to ask for the same thing during ridden work. Your horse should also seek the contact with the bit forward with the lunging work in side reins, if this is not the case and he curls continuously backwards, you should lengthen your side reins and return back to easier work with more time in the basic muscle building.
If your horse doesn’t work well in side reins, you can start at first with in-hand work in working frame and when this goes well, start asking for it during riding.
The working frame should come easy and cannot be forced with harder contact. When the horse has enough muscles along his topline, he should not have any difficulties in keeping his head higher and stay engaged through his topline. If you feel that your horse drops his back and looses the quality of work, return to a lower stretch. You should ask for the lifting of the head in a gradual manner, a little bit at a time observing how your horse copes with it. Only gradually ask for higher and higher frame keeping in mind that this is much harder work for him.
Sessions with the working frame would follow similar patterns to the basic schooling work. At first you would just do some big circles in the working frame asking for nice rhythm and movement through his topline. Once you have established that this is going well, you can then add in lateral work as you have done with the basic schooling in stretch. And similarly with increasing the difficulty level of the work going from the basic schooling to advanced schooling with bending through corners, tighter turns, change of bends, lateral work, adding pirouette work, pole and cavaletti work etc. Canter work can be advanced into working counter canter and simple changes.
Halts, transitions and backing up exercises would also belong to the more advanced work at this stage. Halts should in fact become square all by themselves as the horse gains strength.
You should always return to the stretch in between harder exercises. And always return to the stretch when you notice that your horse is starting to tire with the harder work. The stretch is there to relax and give a break to the horse in between the harder exercises. Always end with a nice long and low stretch work.
Collection is the final piece in the horse’s muscle development. It is very demanding for the horse to start shifting more of his weight on his hind quarters, hence the collective work should be started gradually and you should return back to working frame and stretch in regular intervals. Same as with working frame, the collection should become relatively easily through the stronger topline muscles. Start again easy with basic schooling in collection and then gradually move into more advanced work just as with working frame work. Ridden piaffe work can be added in when it is working well in-hand.
Jumping should be started only when the horse is capable of working consistently in the working frame. If you would jump a horse earlier than that, you would run the risk of him jumping hollow when he needs to lift his head higher when approaching the jump. Thus the horse needs to be strong enough to keep his topline muscles activated in the working frame.
Jumping should be considered as dressage with obstacles along the way. Meaning that especially in the beginning you should concentrate on relaxation, rhythm and stretch between the jumps. If you feel that the horse looses his back and the rhythm between jumps, you should stop jumping and do more flat schooling to strengthen him more.
Jumping should be started with small obstacles and with only a few jumps. Start first with trot, once this works well, proceed to cantering. Same thing applies with jumping as with flat work; start easy and proceed gradually.
Cross country exercises would follow when the jumping is functioning well in the arena and when you have been hacking out extensively in all gaits and your horse can maintain good level of work with active topline. Again starting gradually with small obstacles, initially from trot, and concentrating on relaxation between the jumps.
Thus your horse should be working well and regularly in working frame and having done some jumping in the arena.
Hacking out brings a good variety to the training schedule. With a young horse you would start by just taking him out for a walk from the ground to make sure he can cope with all the environmental factors and that you have more control over him, if you run into trouble. When walks from the ground go well, you could consider either hacking out with an older and more experienced horse or riding out on your own with a walker along to help in case there is any trouble. Aim at minimizing risks and maximising relaxedness.
When you go hacking out, the same rule applies as with any other work: ride with the horse’s back up and topline engaged so that he is balanced on his feet and can deal with any surface. Stretching down and out is just as good and useful exercise out there during a hack or trail ride as it is in the arena.
Do not hack out on a youngster before he has been extensively schooled and ridden in the arena so you have established that he can trust you and follow your directions.
In general it is advisable to seek the help of a good trainer when starting the more advanced ridden work. You should be picky when you select your trainer and make sure that you can train your horse in your terms while at the same time being able to trust your trainer and listen to their advice.
Your trainer should be able to modify the training to fit your and your horse’s level, detect when your horse cannot maintain good work and give you easier tasks when noticing that your horse needs a break. They should also be able to look at your seat, advice you on how to correct it, and tell you how your aids are influencing your horse. As you advance with the ridden training, you may well find that issues with your seat will become just as important as f.ex. saddle fitting, and hence a good trainer with a keen eye on your position and balance in the saddle will become the next vital ingredients in your training.
During walk pirouette January 2020