Essential Equipment: Side Reins

One of the first things I do with a young horse or one who needs to make progress in their ability to bend and balance is to work extensively on the lunge line, utilizing the side reins as a tool for progress. The side reins have many benefits- they begin to get the horse familiar with contact leading them to begin to “give” to the bit (what later will be scored as submission once they are in the competitive dressage arena). The side reins also begin to introduce the idea of correct bend to the horse, which is building on the basic concept of balance.

What we have to watch out for is that the horse does not begin to use the side reins to lean on the bit or to get behind the bit while still throwing their body around with little to no correct balance. Belle, an OTTB, is very clever in how she uses her body to get out of working correctly. She is just learning how to carry weight on her hind end while stretching over the top line and using her hind end constructively. All this is particularly difficult for her in her canter transitions when tracking left. She is clever enough to know that she can still give the wrong lead if she goes behind the bit to bend herself the wrong way, giving me the right lead instead of the left lead.

So, to remedy this little trick of hers, I moved the side reins from the lower rings of the surcingle to the upper rings. I did this so when she attempting to bear down and hide behind the bit, she would be “bumped up” off the bit, having to transfer the weight back to her hindquarters and maintain the correct bend. She was annoyed at first that she had to work harder but quickly caught on to the fact that she had fewer transitions to do if she did a few well. What came as a bit of a surprise to me was how difficult it seemed to be for her at the trot. She was chewing the bit more than I would have liked, so to get her mind off of it I sent her forward on a large circle, almost to the end of the line. With more impulsion and space, she was driving off the hind end, traveling through her topline and slightly up hill. Her mouth became very quiet, with the occasional content chew on the bit. It became more difficult on a smaller circle, but her effort was spectacular as she is a very willing mare and loves to hear praise and to be told “good girl”.

Thinking about it now and after watching some videos online and reading some materials, I think people are slightly confused about how the horse should carry themselves. So, I’m going to come right out and say it: A lower head does not mean a rounder topline. I think there is a lot of confusion around the subject. Roundness comes from the hind end, not from the top of the horse. A horse with a low, rounded looking neck can be trailing their hind end and lacking impulsion, as Belle was trying to with the lower side reins. She needed them lower at first to realize she could accept the bit and reach for it, but once beyond that she took advantage and was trying to lean instead of reach for the contact and give in the bridle. Once I changed the rings and she had to push off her hind end, her head and neck did raise but they had to in order to accommodate the impulsion from the hind end, as the added impulsion resulted in an ideal and “up-hill” gait. Had she not lifted, she could have ended up being heavy on the forehand, creating a whole other issue.

This work on the lunge line translated to a lighter contact and increased acceptance of the bit under saddle. Since she had figured out so much about her balance and use of the hind end on the lunge line, she was able to be more engaged and impulsive under saddle as well. Our next ride after that session was brilliant! Her lateral work was improved, and she was traveling up hill with impulsion and balance. Getting an eye for what a horse’s body is doing and what stage they are at on the lunge line is essential in being able to see what needs improvement for a better ride.

Hot horse, Cold temps.

If a horse is not given the opportunity to learn before force is used, then it will not be able to learn either with or without force. I have a mare who is small, powerful, and extremely hot. She has gorgeous lengthenings and is already developing her extensions, but collection is difficult for her to achieve. All of the energy just tries to escape every which way. So it was time to back track a bit… I took her out on the lunge line in side reins as usual. As she relaxed and began to bend, which comes much quicker than it used to, she became supple and round- the “correct” example in all the books, videos, articles, and other media that tries to show you what it looks like when a horse is working correctly. Basically perfection. However, she was able to move forward without being asked to collect. Now, when ask for collection, this mare will do what’s fairly typical of a hot little horse, and she will push against the bridle, losing her balance, resulting in loss of bend, roundness, and relaxation.

Unfortunately, what I see too many trainers/riders do with a horse like that is go directly to the draw reins. They crank that nose in and force the horse through corners. This gives them a false sense of bend and collection because impulsion is nearly impossible, and the horse is too uncomfortable crammed into that frame to find correct balance and impulsion- forget entirely about relaxation. So the resulting picture is a horse with chin to chest and hind end five miles behind- YUCK!

So, what did I do with my little hot rod? We went back to work in hand, and then long lines, and back to work in hand. I started at the walk with her, simply asking for softness in the transitions and for her to gradually slow down the steps until I was in control of each and every foot fall- not because I was forcing her but because she chose to let me guide her. It was complete cooperation. I then guided her out in the long lines, to a 20 meter circle where she gave me a solid tempo, relaxing into the reins and responding when asked to shorten strides. She was round in the back, not hollowing through transitions. We then revisited work in hand to end the session, where she gave me shoulder in and renvers (haunches out).

I am not a patient person, but I very much strive for success. Others would have gone to the use of the draw reins, their impatience leading to the use of a tool that is forceful and unforgiving to the horse. Ultimately, this route gets you nowhere- as success has not been achieved when discomfort is brought and force is used. I have learned better, through observation and experience, than to get into a fight like that. By taking a day to revisit the basics, I know the next ride will be more successful and that my little mare will have more confidence in me. That’s a win-win!

Keeping the Classic in Classical Dressage

“Nothing has changed in the past fifty years, it’s just when people get stupid ideas and try to re-invent the wheel. Classic never changes, stupidity changes!” –George Morris
Most recently, I have seen trainers and riders attempting to re-invent the wheel by coining the term “Classical Dressage” as a new and revolutionary training system. Their flaw here, though, is that the term classical implies that it is meant to follow the techniques created by the originators, the masters. The only thing we can hope to do is recreate to some extent, the artistry of these masters. A similar line of thought can be found when we think of the writers of timeless classics in literature. Such writers as Twain, for example. One may strive to match the quality, however the classics are not to be exceeded. Only that more classics may be written. The same holds true in dressage. We may attempt to match the quality of those who originated Classical Dressage, the masters of yesterday, but we will not exceed them and we only stain their work by using the term as a marketing and promotional scheme.
Striving towards the classical arts is an attempt to reflect the works, not to reinvent the techniques.

Thoughts of a Young Equestrian Professional