Dressage Horse Strength
Dressage is beautiful to watch when the horse appears to move effortlessly with imperceptible aids from his rider.
Cultivating this harmonious partnership takes years of patient training, during which time the horse’s muscles become much stronger. This makes it easier for him to carry his rider and perform smoothly.
In accordance with the Training Scale, the horse is first encouraged to relax under saddle and find his natural rhythm. This allows him to move with regularity in his steps and prepares him for the work which will strengthen certain muscles.
Hilary Clayton writes in Sustainable Dressage that in the early phases of his dressage education the emphasis is on “teaching the horse to move forward in rhythm and increasing the driving power of the hind limbs.”
But if the animal isn’t moving straight, this propulsive power is not being used efficiently.
Think of pushing a shopping cart with a wheel that turns outwards. A lot of energy is wasted combatting that sideways motion to move the cart forwards. On the other hand, pushing a cart with properly aligned wheels requires little effort.
It’s the same with horses. They are naturally crooked and need training to move straight with economy of effort.
In his book The Elements of Dressage: A Guide for Training the Young Horse Kurd Albrecht von Ziegnerexplains that straightness involves getting your horse to release the muscles on his ‘soft’ side.
As an example, a horse’s ‘soft’ side is on his right, if he bends more easily that way than to the left. The right muscles are more contracted than those on his left, and these must become relaxed to allow the horse to straighten out.
Herr von Ziegner suggests the following exercises to straighten the horse:
When the horse starts to move straight, the rider can feel a sudden surge of extra energy being released from the animal’s hindquarters. The previously wasted energy is now being used to propel him forwards.
Striking the Right Balance
Through traveling straight and using both hind legs equally for propulsion, the horse becomes balanced. Cynthia Hodges, M.A. explains: “As a result, the horse’s soundness is preserved and the gaits are more beautiful.”
The haunches are now being asked to bend more and need strengthening. These exercises help develop the muscles in the horse’s hind end:
- Half-halts, which shift the horse’s weight back onto the hind legs and “increase the engagement of the hindquarters” says von Ziegner.
- Transitions, i.e. the changes up and down between the gaits. Bonnie Walker in Five Ways to Engage Your Horse’s Hind Leg advocates them as “a gentle, low impact way to encourage your horse to rebalance himself and activate the hind.”
Von Ziegner suggests the following exercises to activate the hind feet and supple the horse:
As the horse’s center of balance shifts onto his hindquarters, weight is distributed evenly onto all four feet. This elevates his forehand and prepares the horse for collection.
Dressage horse strength is increased by correctly applying the fundamentals of rhythmic forward riding, straightness and balance, while developing trust and harmony within the partnership.