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Bending the Driving Horse

18 August 2011 No Comment

Bending the Driving Horse
By: Hardy Zantke

Driving training all needs to go according to the dressage training scale, all of which is inter-related. Here is what works for me: First I have to have a RELAXED horse, for without relaxation, there is no teaching and no learning dressage. To me this is the basis, and this first step is already quite a difficult one for many to achieve. As long as my horse is tense and nervous I won’t be able to make much progress. For most horses, a lot of work at the walk helps, but not for all. With some easy trot work goes better, but if that’s the case, I try to get to a slow trot, and try to do long straight stretches, not too many turns. So road work, but slow, not arena work. Turns and speed will not get me relaxation. If I can work to relax at the walk, that I can do in an arena, but I make sure the footing isn’t too deep and the vehicle isn’t too heavy, because again, hard work doesn’t give relaxation. Only once the horse is relaxed can I get to the next step.

Try this mental image: I want the horse to understand that the bit in his mouth is HIS FRIEND. I can only achieve this with a GIVING hand (and not with a bitting rig), like a helping hand of a friend that’s always there to support you. If we come to something which is difficult (or scary for the horse) my helping hand of support takes a hold of the reins a little bit more, not with a death grip which would signal fear, but with a sympathetic hand, like I would going with a child through the dark forest, when the child is afraid and grabs my hand, and I hold his, giving him a little re-assuring hold, or like taking my arm around a friend in need of a hug, here buddy, I’m here to support you, nothing to be afraid of, and afterwards giving, e.g. relaxing the hand again a little. So constant communication through the reins with the horse’s mouth, taking and giving.

Under saddle I have it much easier, there I can communicate with my horse as much through my seat and my legs and my balance, but when driving I don’t have that, so there my hands are much more important. Next image: This friendly helping hand which I need to create, let’s think of a friend’s hand scratching my back, uhhh, that feels so good. Now my friend takes his hand away, hey, wait a minute, where is your hand, that felt so good, keep doing it, so I stretch my back to him, follow with my back to get the contact to his nice hand again. Or the other image, I take my hand away from my child on our walk through the woods, child hands reaches for mine again, where are you dad, keep holding my hand. That’s the feeling I want to create in the horse’s mouth.

Hardy and Jutta Zantke driving their pairs as seen on the cover of “The Whip,” the driving magazine of the American Driving Society.

You ask, but HOW do I do that? Well, first by always THINKING into this direction, they can’t read our minds, but if our mind is in the right direction, chances are, we are also going with our aids into the right direction, then secondly by always being sympathetic with my hand, taking and GIVING, without throwing away the reins, always keeping light contact. Back to the image: When I GIVE with my hand, I want my horse to FOLLOW, as I did with my back following the back scratching hand of my friend when he took it away. So then my horse needs to stretch his top line, lengthen his frame and reach down with his neck as far as I give. ( Have you seen Randy McFarland’s Camille on a long rein walking, her head almost to the ground? Or an upper level rider giving his horse the buckle after a dressage or jumping ride when he leaves the arena?) That is important! That’s why they have the lengthened walk or the free walk on the long rein already in the training level dressage tests. That’s why I want my horse to stretch down! In Germany they introduced last year the same requirement also at the trot in their driven dressage tests, giving the rein at the trot, stretching down at the trot without increasing the speed! To our more advanced readers: Try that in your training program. It’s another challenge, but I think a good one. So then, when I have achieved this, that my horse follows my hand and stretches down when I want him to, and I can pick up his head again, when I want to, then of course I can put his head where ever I want it! Of course all of this takes time! Mr.Miles and Mr. Hours, no shortcuts!

So then, when he understands this and follows my hand up and down with his head, then I can also take his head left and right a little, starting our turns, or first just getting him STRAIGHT. Now, then at this stage he will only give me his neck first, that’s not yet true bending, as it is not yet the spine, but only the neck, but it’s the start, and on the lower levels I am happy if I see at least the neck in the right direction, rather than having the horse counterbend and falling over the shoulder. For the true bend I need to get the inside hind leg pushed under his body. Again, under saddle I have it easier, as I can use my leg, so of course it helps tremendously if we can teach the horse under saddle or also in longe lines, but in driving all I can do is using the whip and tapping him either at the barrel where the riders leg would be to encourage him to bend his body, or also at the inside hindquarter to encourage that leg to move underneath his body.

It goes without saying that for both things of course the horse needs to be used to the whip and accept it as an aid calmly and relaxed without getting upset or tense. So I don’t hit him, I just tap him, or if that’s still too much, I just scratch him a little with the stick. Now some words of caution: It is important that after driving him STRAIGHT when I want to start bending a little I do LARGE circles (40 meters diameter), starting very carefully to ask to get the head into the right direction a little and then getting that hind leg perhaps just a little underneath. I am satisfied with very little in the beginning. This is hard for the horse, he needs time to learn this. A bad mistake which I see quite often is to try to get that head to the inside, the neck to bend and when the horse doesn’t do it, then cranking more on that inside rein and with that making the circle smaller and smaller. Let’s not do that! It only upsets the horse, much better to just make the circle larger and be satisfied with less and spend more time. Otherwise the horse will start to get upset with it, will get afraid of the turn, will realize that he can’t do it good enough, that we are not satisfied, and before we know it, he will throw himself into each turn as he is really afraid of not being able to do it. So I try not to give him that experience! The same happens, if the pulling is too hard, the arena footing is too deep as well as when I go too fast. So when preparing for the turn, I help him with a little more contact, remember from above, that helping hand, a little more support now where it gets difficult for the horse, in each corner of the dressage arena! Also, when that inside hind leg does not reach underneath the body (the goal!) and does not even at least just track straight (acceptable to me in the beginning) but instead goes even to the inside of the turn, this indicates that the horse is not balanced in the turn and I made the turn too narrow. (I haven’t seen it on a 40 meter circle, unless the horse travels crooked to start out with). He needed to put that leg there to balance himself and not fall over. So I need to ask for less of a turn, I need to make LARGER circles, and ask for it more carefully. Only when he does the large circles nicely can I work on smaller circles. There is a reason why at Training level we are asked for 40 meter circles and only at Advanced for 15 meter circles! It takes even the experts years to get there!

Oh, there is more, where to stop? Let’s save Lightness, Regularity, Rhythm, Suppleness, Engagement, Impulsion and ultimately Collection for another day, but with above, I think we have a good start on the basics, and actually already some of the groundwork of these other ideas. I need to go out and drive now and practice a little of what I just preached!

About the Author:

Hardy Zantke started driving as a boy at his Grandfather’s home in East Germany, where his grandfather had a local drayage company which was still operated with horse teams shortly after World War II. Later in life, after immigrating to the U.S. Hardy picked up driving again now as a competitive sport and is now with his wife Jutta and their pair of 17 hand bay Holsteiner Geldings among the top competitors in Combined Driving in the U.S.. They have competed throughout the West and have traveled with their pairs to the East Coast many times to compete at advanced level there. They were first alternate of the U.S. Team at the 1993 World Pair Driving Championship in Gladstone with their old pair. The Zantkes’ import their horses from Germany as three-year-olds and as Hardy does the driving, Jutta trains the horses under saddle.

They now compete with their young pair of 8-year-olds on Advanced level and are long listed by the United States Equestrian Team again with the new pair. Although the old pair is retired from CDE’s, they do put both pairs together to drive four-in-hand regularly and present them once a year to the public at the Pacific Dressage Festival and recently competed with them at the Ram Tap CDE in Fresno, CA successfully with their scores qualified them for the USET Developing Drivers List with Four-in-Hands.

Hardy is a retired transportation executive and now Western Representative and importer of Kuehnle Carriages from Germany as well as an importer of Holsteiner driving horses. Hardy & Jutta are also active on the organizational level of driving, as they are co-organizers of the California Classic Combined Driving Event for 12 years.

Hardy is a member of the American Driving Society Combined Driving & Dressage Committees, the American Horse Show Association Driving Committee, the United States Equestrian Team Driving Committee and Active Drivers Committee and served as Chef d’Equipe for the U.S. Team at the Four In-Hand World Championship in Waregem, Belgium in 1996. He is an American Driving Society & American Horse Show Association licensed Combined Driving Judge and judges all over the country. He writes a popular column in “Driving West Magazine” as well as another one in a German driving magazine and gives driving clinics as well as private driving instructions. He was recipient of the American Driving Society’s President’s award last year for his contributions to the sport.

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