Back to Basics: Center Line FUNdamentals
Biz Stamm’s weekly “Back to Basics” column is back! Today, she’s kicking off her series on dressage fundamentals with some tips for rocking that center line.
First impressions mean a lot. When you ride down that first center line, you frequently set the tone for your entire test for both the judge, and yourself, so today we’re going to talk about three fundamental skills that will not only help you rock your center lines, but help you be a better partner to your horse as well.
It doesn’t matter how straight your center line is, or how square your halt is if you can’t get your horse near the judge’s booth. I’ve seen many “C – track left”‘s turn into “between X and G – bolt left”‘s. While you can never fully predict how a horse will react in its first time experiencing something new and different, a little bit of work on building trust can help make the process much less stressful for everyone involved. Helix’s favorite trust-building exercise centers around the “touch” command where I point at an object that he might be a little unsure about and give him the command “touch.” Upon successfully touching the “scary” object with his nose, he gets a cookie. We do this in hand as well as under saddle. The treat is not 100% necessary and can be replaced with a generous praising or petting for horses who get overly mouthy. The main objective is to demonstrate to the horse that you will never expose him or her to anything dangerous.
In addition to the “touch” command, hauling to new places, trail riding, and essentially providing positive experiences where they see new things will go a long way in creating a spook-free center line.
The easiest way to ride a straight line is to create and then utilize forward energy. To demonstrate this I’d like you to do a bit of an experiment: go out to the wash stall and place the the hose on the ground. Now turn the hose on, but just barely, so the water pressure is very low. What does the stream look like? Probably a bit on the squiggly side, huh? Now turn the water pressure up, and voila! We have a straight stream.
Your horse is very similar to the stream of water, but instead of turning a valve to create water pressure, you use your seat and leg to create forward energy. Crookedness averted! Your can practice using forward energy to generate straightness by riding straight lines off the rail. Quarter lines and long diagonals are great for testing straightness.
In a training level test, the center line is where the most abrupt changes in the horse’s way of going take place. You go from trot to halt, halt to trot, and from a straight line to a square turn all over the course of 40 (or 60) meters. All too often we get to X and then think “Oh crap! I need to halt!” Or we get to C and think “Ahh!!! Must turn!” With how responsive and forgiving horses can be, it’s easy to forget that their brains need a moment to process our request before they can actually do the thing we them to do! So a few strides before X, take a second to let your horse know that something is about to change. Ask for bend well before you get to C so your horse is ready to make a balanced turn when you get to C.
So there you have it. Instead of practicing center lines until you’re blue in the face, work on building trust, utilizing forward energy to generate straightness, and get in the mindset of prepare, then do. You’ll be looking fine on center line in no time!
Biz is the author of Horse Nation’s “Back to Basics” series, which follow the journey of a “somewhat ordinary” horse and rider pair as they strive for greatness. Catch up on her past columns by clicking the #BACK TO BASICS at the top of the page.
Biz Stamm is a part-time seed scientist and full-time trainer/riding instructor specializing in starting young horses for sport horse disciplines. She brings the analytical mind she developed while working in a lab to her riding and teaching, emphasizing a thorough understanding of how the horse’s body works. She currently owns two horses: the Kalvin Cycle (Kalvin), a 9-year-old half-Arabian gelding, and DB’s Alpha Helix (Helix), a 4-year-old Kiger mustang gelding. While she is currently pursuing competitive goals, her main goal is to enjoy her horses, and for her horses to enjoy her.
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