Q:I ride a high-strung Thoroughbred that I currently am training for dressage. She is happy and learning quickly, however, the longer I ride her, the more she rushes. She is best during the first 10 to 15 minutes. After that, she rushes and starts to pull and fall on her forehand. I realize this may be because she has little muscle, but if I let the reins loose, she takes off in a quick, uncomfortable trot. Will you give me some exercises to keep her submissive?
A:Your mare needs to learn to connect over her topline so that you can half halt her effectively. At this point, she sounds as if she is bracing against you as you attempt to apply your aids. She needs to learn to listen to your aids and accept them. As she begins to accept gentle and consistent leg pressure, you can begin developing a fundamental tool for dressage training--the half halt. Here is a checklist of steps that will help, and as you go through them, remember to be patient with her.
The first step is to make sure the saddle is comfortable for your mare and fits her properly. Next, check the following points in your position: To be effective, your seat must be relaxed with your weight evenly distributed on both seat bones. Your back is straight, and your shoulders are over your hips without tension. Your arms hang from your shoulders in a relaxed manner with your elbows bent so that you have a straight line between your elbows, your hands and the mouth of the horse. Your legs hang down and rest calmly against your mare's sides. One good way to help you gain an effective, relaxed seat is to have your instructor longe you on a quiet horse. On the longe line, you can practice relaxing and concentrate on improving your seat.
Once you are sure that your position is secure, you must help your mare to accept gentle, consistent leg contact without rushing off. Begin by riding her on a 20-meter circle at a walk. As you pick up your reins to establish contact with her mouth, place both your legs (calf muscles) flat against her sides. Rest them there quietly with only enough pressure to keep them from moving away. As you do all this, your mare should remain relaxed. If she rushes off as she feels your legs on her sides, don't let her pull you forward. Sit straight and keep your leg steady as you ask her to come back to the walk with steady rein contact. Repeat this exercise as many times as necessary until your mare understands that your leg in this fashion doesn't mean go--it simply is resting against her sides.
If you remain steady and consistent with your position and aids, your mare will learn what to expect from you. As your training progresses, your steadiness will allay her fears, and she will become steadier herself.
To create the connection you are looking for, your mare first must be straight and accept contact evenly on both sides. Even though you are on a circle, do not ask her to bend to the inside. Keep her head and neck straight in front of you. Later, when your mare accepts contact and the tempo and frame stay consistent, you can add bending and suppling exercises. For now, you have basic work to do.
After your mare has accepted your legs at a walk, gently ask her for a posting trot on a 20-meter circle. You can increase leg pressure slightly, but a small push with your seat might be all you'll need to do to accomplish a trot. Make sure that your legs are passively against her sides--nondriving--and that you have a consistent contact with her mouth.
Find a tempo at the trot where she feels balanced, comfortable and mentally relaxed. Once you have found that tempo, count out loud as she is trotting "one, two, one, two, one, two." This will help you to remember the tempo, and also you will be aware when she speeds up. When she does rush, check your position, maintain your nondriving leg contact, resist being pulled forward and keep the rein contact as you bring her back to a walk.
Ask for the trot again and be careful not to make your aids too strong. Your legs should stay quietly against her sides during the transitions as well as at the walk. Repeat the downward transition to a walk if she tries to rush, until you feel not resistance as you softly apply your aids. To start with, you may have to do three or four transitions within one circle.
As you do your trot work, remember to keep your legs steadily on her, keep a consistent contact with her mouth and keep an unwavering, even tempo. Once she is able to maintain the tempo on the circle, go staight ahead and, if she remains steady, add serpentines, using the entire arena. Come back to the circle and repeat the exercises, at any time, if she begins rushing.
When all is going well, try the canter. You may find that after cantering you'll have to revert back to the circle and do your walk-trot transitions again. Never hesitate to go back to the circle and do this, if you need to. Always remember to keep checking the correctness of your seat, even before problems arise.
Once the transitions go through without resistance, you can correct any rushing with a half halt. The half halt is an important building block in your training because it allows your aids to become subtler, and you become more skillful in communicating with your horse. It says to her, "Pay attention." The half halt lets her know that something different is coming, such as when you prepare for a transition. To do a half halt, use your aids for the downward transition from trot to walk or from walk to halt. But as she starts the transition, release your restraining aids and push her forward again. The half halt can be used several times in a row as a correction. In your case, use the half halt to ask your mare for steadiness. Applying several half halts means, "Wait for me. Don't rush off. Keep the tempo."
When your mare responds well, be quick to praise her. Don't wait for perfection. It may take time for her to accept this leg pressure and your steady position and contact with her mouth. When she does this and you can walk freely on a loose rein while she accepts your legs, you'll know you've achieved your goal.
Hania Curjel is a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level. She trained in Switzerland with Georg Wahl and Christine St?ckelberger and competed in Europe. She lives with her husband, Bob, in Walla, Washington, where they own a small dressage facility.