Training in the Right Way: A Picture Is Worth a 1000 Words…

This week’s article discusses what you can see in a still photo and explores how to begin sorting out what is “a moment in time” versus what is most likely a constant state (which is, of course, indicative of the training).

When I teach, especially a first lesson, I like to watch the new student and horse warm up in their usual way. I look for what the rider’s aids are like, what the horse’s reactions to the aids and its surroundings are like, and how well the rider’s stated intentions match their choices of exercises and corrections (adjustments). I also look at the horse’s balance under the rider and the rider’s balance on top of the horse.

Training my eye has been a life-long project. It has involved many hours standing next to my trainers and having them point out what to look for and quizzing me on what I see. But also, it has involved studying photos and videos. I have sat at the kitchen table with more than one Olympian studying pictures of competition and training, and discussing what the image tells us about what is happening in the moment of the photo and during the training that produced that moment. This sort of education has been priceless. In this article, I want to share some of that knowledge with you by diving into what you can see in a still photo and then exploring how to begin to sort out what is “a moment in time” versus what is most likely a constant state (which is, of course, indicative of the training).

First of all, absolutely every single rider in the history of riding being photographed has had some really awful, terrible moments put into perpetuity by photograph. And, depending on who gets a hold of that picture and shares it around, may have been dragged through the mud for it (I am looking at you, internet lynch mob). That said, there are some things that you can look for when you are flipping through your favorite dressage magazine or Facebook page that you can use to determine how well things are actually going in the photo. Or, you can even use it to make a constructive critique of your own riding/training.

Before we begin, it is important to note that while photographs can tell us a lot, the only way to be certain what you see in a picture is a consistent result of the training and/or that rider’s riding is to have watched the rider in person when the photo was taken, or to watch a video (not a clip, an actual full dressage test or lengthy training video) including that same moment.

The easiest qualities that you can look for in a picture include forwardness, uphill tendency, and quality of the connection. You can also deduce a great deal about the rider’s influence on the horse. The following three photographs are all of horses in a type of trot lengthening appropriate to their level of competition. You should compare them with each other as the quality of riding and level of training are not the same in all them. Note that the lower level horses should not be equal to the upper level horse, as the degree of collection should not be as great at First Level as at Prix St Georges. The basics to look for in the extended trot/trot lengthening to tell if the horse is in balance with enough forwardness and impulsion, in the right contact, and not on the forehand, are as follows:

  • There should be a straight plumb line from the horse’s poll to the tip of the leading front leg. The horse’s neck should be reaching forward into the contact.
  • If you draw a line through the rider’s seat, the leading hind leg and the trailing front leg should meet under the rider’s pelvis in the moment of suspension.
  • The leading front leg and hind leg canon bones should be parallel and equally on or off the ground.
  • The trailing hind leg and front leg canon bones should be close to parallel, and equally on or off the ground.
  • The trailing hind leg hock should not be much behind the dock of the tail.
  • The front legs and the hind legs should be showing the same size stride.
  • The neck of the horse should be rounded (not straight).
  • the poll should be the highest point.
  • The mouth of the horse should not be open (you should not see between his front teeth).

In order for the rider to be in balance and not inhibiting or against the horse’s movement, the following should be seen:

  • The rider’s torso should not be in front or behind the vertical.
  • There should be a straight line from the rider’s elbow through their hand to the bit.
  • The reins should be straight, not curved.
  • The rider’s knees and heels should be down.

Gwyneth McPherson and Jeremy. 1984 AHSA/USET Eastern Region First Level Jr/YR Championships. Photo (c) Susan Sexton. 

This is a photo of a junior rider (12 year old me) competing at First Level. This horse is performing a trot lengthening. He is at the very beginning of the moment of suspension (when all four feet leave the ground). Although it is overall a generally good representation of a trot lengthening, we can determine from this picture that the rider is somewhat against the motion and has too much pressure backward on the rein, which is causing the horse to be slightly behind the vertical and on the forehand.

The positive points in this photo are:

  • The front and hind legs are taking the same size stride and the leading legs and the trailing legs are roughly parallel. This shows that the horse is not grossly on the forehand or not without enough forwardness or impulsion, all of which would be illustrated by big strides in front and small strides behind.
  • The trailing front leg is not bearing significantly more weight than any of the other legs, and is not the only leg under the rider’s weight.
  • The leading hind leg is stepping under the rider’s weight which shows that the horse is distributing the rider’s weight on to the hind legs, and is not balanced only on the front legs.
  • The trailing hind leg is just behind the dock of the tail. So while it is clearly “pushing” the horse up and forward into the moment of suspension (impulsion), it is not behind the horse’s hindquarters and not “carrying” the weight.
  • The horse’s head and neck are extending out to the tip of the leading front toe. His mouth is not open and he is using his neck appropriately. He is balanced and reaching forward equally with his leading front and hind legs. This shows that the contact is not so strong that he is unable to stay through his back and neck as he reaches forward.

The negative points are as follows:

  • The trailing front leg is a little more under the rider’s weight than the leading hind leg which shows us that the horse is more on the forehand than he ought to be, although it is not extreme.
  • The trailing front leg is more on the ground than the trailing hind leg, which also denotes that the horse’s balance is a little too much on the forehand.
  • The horse is slightly behind the vertical (his nose should line up with his poll).

The rider’s position, and therefore the effect of the aids, is the main reason that the horse is out of balance. The reason is because the rider’s seat is not developed enough. She is struggling (in her very flat, all purpose saddle — it was the 80s…. we kids rode in what we had) to sit the lengthening. She is compensating for what the horse’s motion is doing to her body by lifting her knees and heels and falling slightly behind the vertical with her torso. This is causing too much backward pressure on the reins, which is keeping the horse behind the vertical just enough that he is inhibited from reaching fully forward with his neck and shoulders and therefore tipping on his forehand.

What needs to happen for this rider to do a better job? Longe lessons. This rider needs to develop her seat and develop more independent aids. She also could really use a better saddle for the job too. Fortunately, she did get both of these things soon after this photograph was taken.

Gwyneth McPherson and Flyer (5 yr old Westfalian gelding by Florestan I) competing at First Level in 2012. Photo (c) Icon Studios 2012

Now that we have reviewed the first photograph, we can all take moment to analyze the similarities and differences in the second photo. I chose these two pictures because the horses are at the same level but the rider has many years of training between the first picture and the second one. She has a much better saddle and a much better seat but, being human, she still has some of the same tendencies in her balance. This is where we must always remind ourselves that riding well is hard, it takes great dedication to consistent practice and fitness to do it really well.

  • The front and hind legs are taking equal sized strides.
  • The leading hind leg and the trailing front leg are meeting under the rider’s pelvis.
  • The trailing hind leg hock is not far from the dock of the tail.
  • The leading front leg is well off the ground, a little more than the leading hind, which shows an uphill tendency.
  • The neck is round, but a little short. The poll is not quite the highest point and the nose is slightly behind the vertical.

The main take-away from this photo is that this First Level horse is pretty well-balanced in the moment of suspension. He shows an uphill tendency (not collection, but a greater degree of off the forehand appropriate to First Level). And although the rider is slightly behind the motion and leaning back a bit too much, causing the rein contact to be a bit too strong and causing him to be slightly behind the vertical, his neck is able to reach enough for him to lengthen well, his poll is the almost highest point, and is mouth is quiet.

This is a classic illustration of how much of what is wrong in this picture is the moment versus the training. Did the rider just get slightly caught behind the motion when the photo was snapped and that’s why the horse’s neck is a little short and he is a little behind the vertical while demonstrating good balance and an uphill tendency? Or is the horse’s talent compensating for the rider’s position 100% of the time? You cannot tell from this single photo. You would have to watch the whole test to know for certain.

Gwyneth McPherson and Flair (11 yr old Westfalian mare by Florestan I) competing at Prix St Georges, 2012. Photo (c) Jennifer Dillon.

I added this last picture to illustrate how the trot lengthening evolves into the extended trot and why we can use the same criteria while having higher expectations of the FEI horse. You should be noticing in this picture that the horse is in the same moment of suspension and is in a very similar balance as the other two horses, but better. This horse is showing an uphill tendency when you compare the leading front and hind feet height from the ground. The leading hind leg and the trailing front leg meet under the rider’s pelvis, but the bending joints of the lower legs show greater articulation than in the First Level horses. Also, the horse is suspended higher off the ground than the First Level horses. The poll is the highest point and the neck and head are pretty close to lining up with the toe of the leading front leg. These points all denote more impulsion (more strength, pushing, and carrying power from the hind leg) and  more self-carriage and collection. Also, the rider is not influencing the horse in a negative way (finally)….

While looking at photos of horses and riders can be an excellent way to train your eye, it is very important to remind yourself that while a picture is worth a thousand words, watching the horse and rider while actually in motion is what really tells the quality of training. A photo is a moment in time and though it can be very accurate, it can also be misleading. Use photos to educate your eye and help you understand the biomechanics of good dressage but remind yourself that just because the rider is responsible for what happens underneath them, the moment in the photo is not always their “fault.”

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.