Tonja Dausend ©
The horse's weight is
distributed over its haunches and
forehand. Because of
the heavy head and neck, the horse carries a
greater amount of weight on its forehand. When
in motion, the horse
uses its head and neck to influence its
One of the
elements of dressage is improving the
horse’s balance. By
teaching the horse to carry more of the
cumbersome weight of the forehand with its
haunches the forehand lightens and makes the
The Horse’s Posture in Relation to Balance
In order for a horse to carry itself gracefully and most efficiently, it must
be permitted to carry itself in a posture that allows
for balance to improve. The rider must tactfully help
the horse find the posture where the haunches are best
able to help lift and carry the mass of the rider and
the forehand. As the horse engages (lowers and takes
weight) onto its haunches it must be free to bring its
poll to the highest point and its nose slightly in front
of the vertical. The horse uses this position to help
distribute the weight rearward.
offers correct posture as a result of balance and relaxation.
The appearance of a “correct
frame” can be created by force but the horse's posture
not be an honest reflection of its state of balance and
Air of Effortlessness
Tranquility is a hallmark of classical work. The horse
is vigorously active, yet the work has an obvious
resting quality. This freedom from tension allows the
muscles to work most efficiently.
It is possible for a horse to lighten its forehand while
its nose is behind the vertical but the imbalance this
position creates causes stiffness and tension. Because
the horse is out of
it is impossible for it to rest into its work.
Because this horse is balanced, he is
able to hold this position and rest into
this posture for a brief period of time.
Because this horse is unbalanced,
quickly - and is unable to hold this
position for any length of time. She
certainly cannot rest into this
each other. The horse can find its balance most
efficiently when free of tension. Yet, as the horse’s
tension diminishes. This is why rhythm and relaxation
are the first two
the training scale – the very
foundation on which the
remainder of the work is built.
Johann Meixner, Richard Watjen, Col Handler, Nuno
Oliveira and Egon Von Neindorff, are a few of the riders
who have left us wonderful examples of balanced harmony
that are well worth studying.
Working the Horse Behind the Vertical
When the horse’s nose is behind the
the thrusting energy of the hind legs does not travel through to
the poll. It only makes it to the spot in the neck where the
vertebra are ‘broken’, at which point the energy is
stifled by the heavy head and remaining neck that are hanging
downward off the front.
of the already overburdened forehand is
increased. Lifting of
the forehand becomes more
difficult and the imbalance creates tension,
Additionally, tension is required for the horse to keep
its head behind the vertical. Either the horse must use
incorrect neck muscles in order to hold the position or
the rider must actively hold the horse behind the
vertical. Either way, working with the face behind the
vertical is an unnatural way of going for the horse
that creates imbalance
Imbalance and tension are the opposite of what we
are trying to achieve in dressage.
The Lifting vs. Pushing
Action of the Haunches
Bringing the head and neck of the horse downward and
inward adds significant weight to the forehand. The
horse finds it impossible to use its haunches to carry
its mass with ease. As a result, the hid legs trail
behind the horse, pushing the mass along.
Out Behind: The stifle of the red horse’s hind
leg has already fully extended. Very little
energy can be used for lightening the forehand.
If the haunches are out behind when the horse is pushing
off with its hind leg, the majority of the energy is
sent forward and downward.
Engaged: The stifle of the black horse’s
hind leg has yet to extend, storing plenty
of energy for lifting.
the horse is relaxed, aligned and reaching for the bit,
his spine stabilizes and can become essentially a
projectile, launched by its haunches. The thrust travels
from the horse’s hind hoof, through the back, withers,
neck and poll. The poll has to be carried
out in front (as the
leading tip of the projectile),
propelled by the haunches, through the spine, in line
with the flow of energy.
When jumping, the horse raises his center of
to the point where his haunches can propel
him over the obstacle. The horse must be
free to raise his head and neck to
facilitate the displacement of his center of
Lightening the Forehand
As stated earlier, the
horse’s weight is distributed over its haunches and
forehand. However, because of the heavy head and neck, the
horse carries a greater amount of its weight on its
forehand. The horse’s center of gravity is located
slightly above and behind its elbow (blue dot).
(There is a belief that the
front feet push against the ground in order to push
the forehand upward and the body weight backward
but by watching correctly ridden horses and horse
playing in nature, it becomes clear that this is not
To improve the horse's balance we need to encourage
the horse to carry more of its weight with its
haunches or, in other words, engage its haunches.
Equilibrium is maintained by controlling
the body's center of gravity over its
base of support.
KEY FACTORS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO ENGAGEMENT OF THE HAUNCHES
of the hind legs
- When the
horse is working in a relaxed manner and his
back is elastically pulsating, the driving
aids can be used to encourage pure impulsive
ground covering strides, which in turn cause
deeper bending of the joints of the hind
shortening of the base of support
- In the
beginning of the horse’s training, gymnastic
exercises are used that increase the bending
of the horse’s spine and the bending of one
hind leg at a time. These exercises would
include work on a single track such as
circles, serpentines and other bent lines.
Later, greater bending is developed with the
use of shoulder fore and shoulder in. In
more advanced training, exercises that bend
both hind legs (halts, transitions,
rein-backs) are used. These gymnastic
exercises encourage the more deeply bending
hind legs to work further forward toward the
horse’s center of gravity and shorten the
horse’s base of support. This causes the
forward impulse of the hind legs to travel
through the horse's body and act on the
forehand in a more forward/upward direction.
In addition, the shortening of the horse's
base of support shifts more weight to the
of the spine posteriorly
- As the
horse’s strength develops, the deeper
bending of the hind legs causes the spine,
which naturally slopes downward from the hips to
base of the neck, to lower posteriorly. In
exceptionally strong and well-conformed
horses the point of the hip (green dot) can
eventually lower to a point below the joint
between the first thoracic vertebra (back)
and last cervical (neck) vertebra (yellow
dot). Because the horse’s spine is somewhat
rigid, the horse’s haunches do not ‘sit’
independently from the forehand. Instead,
this rearward spinal tilt shifts more weight
onto the haunches. Bending of the haunches
to this degree requires an extraordinary
amount of strength and suppleness.
tension of the lifter muscles
- As the
horse's muscles alternately flex and relax
more deeply, the bending of the hind legs
and shortening of the base of support
create an elastic tension (not to be
confused with tightness or constriction) in
the muscles and ligaments that connect the
haunches to the forehand. This elastic
tension helps to lighten the forehand in a
kind of cantilever action.
raising of the neck
elastic tension of the muscles and ligaments
bring the horse’s neck up into a graceful
arch, with the poll balancing as the highest
point and the head hanging naturally by gravity from an elegant
upward/forward reaching neck. The horse
naturally raises its mouth to a point
approximately level with its hip and its
face approaches the vertical. This naturally
offered posture allows the rein aids to
travel freely through each vertebra, through
the pelvis, down to the hind pastern
joints. With the neck stretched upward and
the poll carried poised like a ballet
dancer, the heavy weight of the head and
neck is shifted toward the haunches, making
it easier for the back to lift the forehand
and the hind legs to carry the weight.
the key factor that enables the hind legs to bend more
deeply under the increased weight. Engagement becomes
easier for the horse as it gets stronger and
its balance is refined. As the horse
willingly relaxes into the work it will
naturally offer to bend its hind legs as
much as it is able. As the horse relaxes and
settles onto its hind legs, the hips and
stifles bend even further. Again, this
shortens the base of support and further
lowers the spine posteriorly and naturally
continues to draw the head and neck into a
position that enhances the horse's balance.
The haunches are methodically strengthened
until the forehand can be easily
lifted completely off of the ground and the
horse can momentarily settle onto its hind
Essentially, the horse's spine rotates
longitudinally around the horse's center of gravity.
piaffe, the combined center of gravity
of the horse and rider is directly over
the center of the horse’s base of
sensitivity of the
horse’s balance can be compared to a
scale for weighing gold, which is so
precise that its balance can be
disturbed by the mere weight of a hair.
Train Your Eye to Recognize
||Free, open frame
Compare the trots of a horse in a free, open working
frame and a horse is an artificially collected
frame. Both of these horses are in the push-off
phase of their stride. At first glance, the
artificially collected horse appears to be working
more up hill but if you take a closer look you will
see that the horse in the more open frame is
swinging through and pushing off from behind far
hind legs of the horse in the free open frame still
have some bend, giving them upward spring power as
the horse pushes off, while the hind leg of the
horse in the artificially collected frame has fully
extended – the spring has sprung – and has no more
upward thrust to contribute. Moreover, the
constrained neck blocks the full forward swing of
the hind legs.
The Imbalanced Horse
and Rider in Motion
Here, the hind leg lands and begins to compress a
fraction of a second before the fore foot.
The forehand continues to travel forward, drawing the
horse’s center of gravity forward with it. And as the
center of gravity continues forward the haunches are no
longer in a position to help carry the forehand.
horse is also struggling against the imbalance of the
rider. This rider has collapsed his front line and is
absorbing the horses movement in his upper body, which
in turn diminishes the horse's movement. If the rider
were poised and carrying himself in balance the horse
would have a much easier job.
the hind leg compresses, it begins to extend, sending
the mass of the haunches forward and upward.
At this point the
is unable to take advantage of the energy from the
haunches because the forehand is out of sync with the
haunches. The forehand is essentially compressing as the
haunches are extending.
rider's position looks a little better in this frame
because the horse's body lowers in this phase of the
stride, but the riders straight position is deceiving
because the rider is still loose in his upper body. As
the horse's body rises upward, the rider again collapses
in his upper body to absorb the motion. This ricochet
motion of the rider works against the motion of the
horse, diminishing the horse's gaits even further.
the haunches trailing behind. The hind leg has extended
completely and the base of support is so far out behind
the top of the limb that the thrust can only push the
body forward as the croup alone is lifted. Because the
haunches are not engaged, the horse is hollow behind the
The forelegs now must carry their own weight in addition
to the weight of the horse’s head and neck and the
Because the haunches are pushing the mass forward, the
hoof (the base of support) slips backward and upward.
Instead, the hind hoof should provide a solid foundation
for the haunches to spring off from and then recoil
forward and upward.
Hind leg recoiling forward and upward.
When the horse’s stifle extends before the shoulder is
ready to catch the lift, the shoulders miss the lifting
wave of energy created by the haunches (throughness),
granted if only by a fraction of a second but they still
miss the wave. The forelegs will be doing all of the
lifting of the front end on their own. The horse is on
The ‘Forward and
‘forward and down’ exercise is important because it
helps the horse learn to
step through its
spine as it reaches for contact. Additionally, this
lengthening, reaching quality steadies
giving it the stability to be propelled efficiently.
Bringing the horse behind the vertical shortens and
destabilizes the neck. If the neck becomes more bent
than the natural arc, or becomes too flexible, the arc
basically gets jackknifed and the spine looses its
stability. Trying to drive the horse forward with a
crooked and/or over bent spine becomes like trying to
push a soggy spaghetti noodle forward from the end. The
horse cannot be through.
Asking a horse to carry from behind while its face is
behind the vertical creates an undue burden on the
horse. This is why, when ridden with its face behind the
vertical, the horse will almost always travel with its
haunches out behind.
the Neck/"Softening" the Mouth
recent years a number of training systems have surfaced
with exercises that claim to "supple the neck" or
"soften the mouth" by bending the horse's neck
various positions. This practice actually destabilizes
the base of the horse's neck, taking away his ability to
use his neck to assist in the lightening of his forehand
and the engagement of his haunches.
But by nature, the horse’s neck is sufficiently
flexible for ridden work. The horse can easily reach
around with its head and bite at a fly on its hip.
Stiffness and resistance in the ridden horse is most
often caused by imbalance and anxiety.
Riders owe it to their
horses to ask the following questions:
“Why is my horse stiff?"
"Is my own stiffness and imbalance
contributing to my horse’s stiffness?”
"Am I giving the appropriate aids?"
"Are my aids correctly timed?"
“Is my horse in the appropriate tempo?”
“Is the contact friendly and consistent?”
“Is my horse crooked?”
“Does my horse trust me?”
“Am I pushing my horse beyond his
“Does my horse have any painful physical
Once these questions are sufficiently
by improvements in the rider and by progressively
strengthening and balancing the horse, the horse automatically regains its natural
flexibility. The neck does not need to be manually
cranked around in order to make the horse more "supple".
The rider is
usually the greatest contributor to the horse’s
stiffness and resistance. It’s up to the rider to find out
what, within himself, is causing the horse’s stiffness
and resistance and to sufficiently address those issues.
Only then is it possible for the rider to help the horse
restore its natural balance and freedom of movement.
Then, from there, the rider can continue to strengthen
the horse with the appropriate exercises that further
improve the horse’s trust, balance and gaits.
suppleness is only possible when
the horse is free from mental and physical tension and
is in a state where he allows his energy to travel from
his hind legs through his whole spine toward the bit.
How do you achieve this? Where do you start? At the beginning of the training
on the training pyramid for more information)