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A Stronger Topline = Better Self-Carriage for Dressage

Olympian Sue Blinks discusses developing your horse's topline so it serves as a suspension bridge of musculature, making self-carriage possible.

In my riding and training, I concentrate on "building a bridge" to improve my horse's topline and self-carriage. To do this, I have to teach my horse to use his back to connect his hind legs to his front end and to my hands.

© Sandy Rabinowitz
Successful dressage riders are able to develop the horse's topline so it serves as a bridge of musculature from the hindquarters through the back and the base of the neck to the horse's poll.
© Sandy Rabinowitz

When I've created a back-to-front bridge, my horse's topline looks round and his back looks relaxed, swinging and lifted just behind the saddle. His hind legs step well under his body, and the muscles from the base of his neck to his poll bulge. His neck is long, and there is a straight-line contact from my hand through the reins to the bit, allowing him to take a firm yet elastic contact with my hand. A horse correctly connected looks as though he is looking into a bucket, with the arch continuous from withers to ears. Overall, he looks and feels as if he's carrying himself with ease. Then, at least for a short period of time, he feels as if he can do his job without a significant amount of physical help or pressure from me.

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When the bridge is missing, the tube of muscle on top of the neck stops bulging from the base of the neck to about a foot in front of the withers. From the saddle, you see that the widest point of the neck is closer to the middle, rather than at the base, of the neck. If you were to look at your horse's neck from the side, you would see a dip in front of the withers. You would also see his head either too far in front of or behind the vertical. There is no feeling of ease to the movements, and your horse frequently needs help from you to balance.

© Sandy Rabinowitz
Left, a horse with a correctly developed topline will have muscles in front of the withers that are as wide or wider than the muscles closer to the poll. The muscles under the neck are soft and loose. Right, oftentimes when the development of the horse is wrong, the muscles in front of the withers are narrow and become wider halfway up. If the width at the base of the neck is not there, it's difficult for a bridge to exist.
© Sandy Rabinowitz

Step-by-Step Building
I'll walk you through the process of creating the bridge when riding by using a specific set of aids:

1. Your driving aids, which include your seat and both legs. To keep the technique simple in this article, you'll only use your legs for now.

2. Your bending aids, which are your legs and inside rein.

3. The rein of opposition, which is your outside rein.

You'll work to place your horse's neck at least as low and as straight as you did when longeing so that you can create a bridge, and he can carry you with a relaxed, swinging back. Think of placing his neck low enough so that he is at least in "horizontal balance," where his topline is fairly parallel to the ground. Keep in mind, however, that there will be many times when your horse will need you to place his neck even lower than the horizontal balance so that it's in a more comfortable position to allow the development of the bridge. It's fine if his poll is below the height of the withers as long as he still stretches toward the contact.

Step 1: Start to create a round silhouette by riding on a 20-meter circle in the working trot, rising. The first thing you want to do is check your horse's reaction to your driving aids. He needs to go forward from leg pressure immediately and learn that his reaction is greater than the pressure from the leg--that is, you whisper with your leg, and he shouts his answer.

Close your legs lightly, and ask him to trot more briskly forward for half of the circle. If he immediately trots forward more energetically, praise him. If he's slow to react to your light leg aid or responds halfheartedly or not at all, tap him with the whip or give a couple of sharp kicks to remind him to listen to you. Return to the working trot, then ask for the forward strides again with your light leg aid. You must get this prompt and enthusiastic response to your legs before you can go to the next step. Once your horse shouts his answer to your whispering leg aid, bring him back from the brisk trot to your normal working trot.

Step 2: Check your bending aids as you trot around the circle: weight in your inside iron, inside leg on the girth, outside leg slightly behind the girth, vibrating inside rein, supporting outside rein. Since you're on a circle, you're already using your bending aids, so for the most part all you'll need to do is simply maintain the bend as you trot around the circle. To check to see if your horse correctly connects to the outside rein, give your inside hand forward while the outside hand remains steady in order to receive the contact. If nothing changes and the bend stays for a few strides, then he is correctly bent. If he immediately loses the bend, then he is not connected to the outside rein.

Step 3: Put your forward leg aids and bending aids together: While maintaining the bend, pick a particular moment to ask for the more forward strides as you did in Step 1. As soon as your horse takes that first step into the brisker forward trot, and you feel the power from the hind legs surge into your hand, close your outside hand in a fist to capture it. Your closed hand prevents your horse from speeding up and, as a result, recycles the power back to the hind legs rather than letting it go out to the front end into strides that go more forward over the ground. This makes your horse rounder.

Step 4: Immediately glance at your horse's neck. Does it bend at all to the outside when you close your outside hand? If it does, your horse isn't staying correctly bent along the arc of the circle. In that case, while your legs and outside hand are closed, reinforce the bending aids by softly taking and giving on the inside rein to help keep your horse flexed to the inside along the arc of the circle.

Step 5: As you look at your horse's neck muscles, see if they're starting to bulge at the base and the half of the neck closest to the withers. Does the neck stay long? Does your horse keep searching for and going toward the contact by feeling as if he'd stretch his neck forward and down to chew the reins out of your hands if you opened your fingers? When you see and feel these things, relax your aids back to a light contact on his sides and with his mouth. The length of time you'll have to hold the aids will depend on the particular horse you're riding, his training and his reaction to your aids.

Step 6: If you're not getting the results described in Step 5, the energy most likely is stopping at your hand rather than being recycled back to the hind legs. You'll know for sure that this is happening if your horse shortens his neck, feels dead or strong in your hand, puts his head up or even ducks behind the contact. From the saddle, you'll notice that the widest point of the neck is somewhere in the middle, rather than at the base, of the neck.

To correct the problem, increase the intensity of all the connecting aids in Steps 1 through 3. Keep applying all of your aids, but increase the pressure of your legs until you succeed in connecting him by sending him "beyond" the boundary of your hand. The moment you see his neck get longer--bloom right in front of the withers--and you feel him take a solid contact with your hand, soften your aids back to maintenance pressure to reward him. You've built your bridge and, at least for a few moments, your horse will feel as if he's in self-carriage for his particular stage of training.

A USEF "R" judge since 1979, Sue Blinks was a member of the U.S. silver-medal team at the 2002 World Equestrian Games, where she placed 10th individually, riding Fritz Kundrun's Hanoverian gelding Flim Flam. The two were also part of the bronze medal team at the 2000 Olympics, where they finished eighth individually. That year she also was named the U.S. Olympic Committee's Female Equestrian Athlete of the Year. In 1998, she and Flim Flam were on the U.S. team that placed fourth at the World Equestrian Games, and they placed 12th individually. Her second horse, Delano, was named a team alternate. In 1997, she and Flim Flam were also on the gold medal Nations' Cup team, which was sent to Hickstead by the U.S. Equestrian Team.

This article first appeared in the October 2003 issue of Dressage Today magazine.

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