In this excerpt from her book Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse, FEI 5* dressage judge Janet Foy provides practical advice for dealing with three problems she often sees when riders are warming up their horses prior to schooling or competition.
Problem 1: My horse is hot.
This horse wants to be “on the go” right from start of a workout. This will be a desirable trait in the long run, but in the beginning of the training session, it is necessary to tone down the tension. Speed control is a priority. It is a terrible mistake to warm up this horse with no contact. He will just “run” out of balance and become more and more tense.
Put the horse into the roundest frame you can and work with a lot of transitions to help improve the half-halt. A lot of lateral bending also helps the muscles to relax and stretch. Increase and decrease the circle while using your lateral bending. When you prepare for trot-to-walk transitions, sit a few strides in the trot and think of making three half-halts. It is easier if you shorten the stride a little prior to the transitions, especially for a horse with a long trot stride who has more difficulty balancing in the transitions.
You may find voice aids helpful here, and when you ask for the walk, remember to use alternating seat bones and alternating legs as aids to influence the walk. To get the rhythm of this, allow your horse to walk and don’t use any leg. Feel how the motion of the walk will put you first on one seat bone and then the other. Keep this motion going. You cannot drive the horse more forward with your seat, as walk has no impulsion—that is, no suspension. (You can, however, slow the tempo down with your seat by following more slowly.) Feel the horse’s rib cage swing into your calf: first one leg, and then the other, as the belly swings back and forth in the walk. As you feel the belly move into your leg, this is when you squeeze back. First one leg, and then the other. This correctly influences the hind leg that is coming under the body.
Mental relaxation and physical suppleness are the goals here. Using smaller circles or some of the collecting movements such as shoulder-in, travers, renvers, half-pass or counter-canter can help in the warm-up just to “slow” the horse down a bit.
Problem 2: My horse is lazy.
Too often riders ride around and around, trying to make the horse want to go “forward.” This type of horse will never “think” forward from this type of riding. The rider needs to concentrate on getting the horse’s brain to connect more quickly to the legs. The process of your aids to the horse’s brain to his legs is too slow.
When the lack of energy is mental, keep the horse more in a working frame, and make lots of quick transitions. Reactions are important. Change the gaits—and paces within the gaits—frequently. Don’t be boring. Your goal is to get the horse to react quickly off the lightest possible aid and do more of the work on his own. If he doesn’t react to a light aid, ask more insistently and get a quick response. Then try again with a light aid until the horse responds to that.
Whenever I hear someone say that her horse is “dead to the aids,” I know her training has gone off track. It’s your job to make your horse responsive. In addition, make sure there are no “blockages” in the topline. Sometimes, the horse could think more forward but there is a stiffness preventing this from happening. When your horse is stiff and “locked up,” work on suppling him by flexing him briefly to the outside, then to the inside. This does not mean “wagging” his neck back and forth (like a dog’s tail). The process should be done over a few strides, allowing the horse time to respond to your aids.
Avoid doing a lot of movements in the beginning that slow the horse down. In other words, use lots of straight lines; do not do small circles or too many collecting movements in a row. Ask for transitions and look for reactions!
Problem 3: My horse is “spooky.”
This horse will spend an entire lesson spooking and trying to get out of work if you let him. Take a lot of time warming up this one! If you are in a hurry, don’t ride. Time is your best friend. Before you mount, walk the horse around the full arena in both directions. This will give you an idea prior to mounting where the horse is going to spook.
You can try kicking and spanking the horse each time he spooks, but in my opinion you will get nowhere. The horse will just be more afraid of the object or area in question, and you will teach him to fight rather than work. Then the behavior becomes learned and a way for the horse to avoid work altogether. This reaction can be dangerous for the rider, too.
This horse must learn that the line of travel is sacred. When you can keep the horse on the line of travel, you will win. It doesn’t matter right now what gait you are in. This is where you must take away impulsion in order to gain submission.
Once you have mounted, walk around the arena both ways again. No doubt the horse will spook at something. Quietly halt and allow the horse to look. Pat and encourage him rather than punish him. You will feel the “brain return to the body.” Often he will audibly breathe. At this point you are able to influence the horse again. Put your leg on and encourage a step or two forward. It may take a while in order to get past the “ghost.” But he must go past on your line of travel, even if it takes 10 minutes with two steps of walk and halts in between.
When you have gone around the arena both directions at walk, start on a circle at either end— or perhaps in the middle of the arena. Pick the place where the horse has the most confidence. Using your lateral bending, work to get the horse stretching longitudinally over the back as well. By using the inside bend, you will help get the horse more obedient to the inside leg. Once your circle is relaxed and obedient, start making it a bit larger at each end. Slowly work the circle until the horse is quietly going around the entire arena.
Using a shoulder-in will help immensely, as horses usually do not spook about something in the interior of the arena, and by taking his vision away from the rail in shoulder-in, you are taking the horse’s line of sight away from the spooky objects. This also gives you more control with your inside leg for the line of travel. The horse needs to think your aids are more interesting than anything he might see outside of the arena. When he is busy thinking about your requests, he is not focused on spooking.
If you have a place where the horse still spooks, quietly walk past that point, reward him, and then trot on. Eventually you will be able to trot by that spot. Allowing the horse to spin and twirl, with you kicking and spanking, will only increase the frequency of the naughty behavior. Repeat the same circle exercise the other direction. Don’t forget the horse usually spooks more on his stiff, long side than on his supple, short side. Just because the left eyeball thought all was okay doesn’t mean the right eyeball feels the same way!
Repeat the circle exercise at canter. You will note that after a month, the horse will still be looking but will now allow you to keep the line of travel. You may not always have the same degree of impulsion, but this, in time, will get better also.