By: Jane Savoie
You read. You watch. You listen. And you’re still confused. Should you ride your horse “deep” or “up”? With a lot of leg or light leg aids? With a firm contact or a light contact? There’s so much conflicting information out there that you don’t know what to do.
I agree that sorting out all the different schools of thought can seem overwhelming. However, I have also found that when dealing with training issues, I can usually come up with a good solution if I use a philosophy of “benign antagonism” as my guide. I call this approach “benign” because my adjustments are done quietly and without force. It’s “antagonistic” because I simply do exactly the opposite of what my horse would do on his own.
Let’s look at some common training problems so you can see exactly how this idea of benign antagonism can be put into practice.
1. Lot of leg/light leg
I’m from the school of thought that says a horse should react promptly and eagerly to subtle leg aids. That is, you use your leg lightly and the horse responds immediately and enthusiastically. I think it’s exhausting and not very pretty to squeeze and grind with strong leg aids. Instead, I prefer to train my horses to react to featherlight aids.
When I’m not giving a leg aid, my legs just rest quietly on my horse’s sides like a wet towel draped around his barrel. When I choose to give an aid, I increase the pressure slightly and momentarily. I never adjust my aid by repeating it or making it stronger to allow for my horse’s dullness. Instead, I insist that he become more reactive to my refined aid by putting him in front of my leg.
I became a big believer in this system when I had my first FEI schoolmaster, Sacramento. Sacramento was a very sweet but extremely lazy, 17.3 hand, 1800 pound Holsteiner. When I was first getting to know him, I would close my legs and get practically no response. So I’d use more leg, and he’d react a bit better. I drew the mistaken conclusion that I just had to have stronger legs. After a few weeks of using “more leg”, Sacramento stopped giving me an answer to that aid and I had to use even more leg. It was like he was laughing at this neophyte on his back and saying, “Go ahead. Squeeeeeze. That’s right. Now squeeze harder. Pretty soon you’ll be so exhausted that we get to take a break!”
That’s when I decided to approach this training issue from a benignly antagonistic point of view. He wanted me to use a lot of leg so I decided to teach him to be “hot off” a light leg as a survival technique for my poor exhausted body. This approach was totally effective even though he was pretty set in his ways at age 12.
My first dressage horse, on the other hand, was a hot Thoroughbred off the racetrack. This horse, Happenstance, was a totally different personality from Sacramento. He was practically hysterical if you used your legs. He would threaten me with his tension and body language. I could almost hear him warn, “Don’t you dare touch me with those legs. I’m afraid of them and I’ll overreact by scooting or bolting if I feel them so much as start to touch my sides.”
So I did the opposite of what Happenstance wanted me to do. I used a hug-with-the-legs approach to help this insecure horse learn to react quietly and confidently to the leg aids. Rather than keeping my legs away and not using them, I wrapped them around his barrel. By doing so, I explained to him, “My legs are not going away. Not only will you get used to them but you’ll actually become more secure by their steady presence. You don’t have to be afraid of them. What’s more, they won’t startle you. Since they are in constant contact with your sides, you won’t be surprised when I close them to give an aid.”
You’ve probably heard lots of discussion about whether or not to work your horse “deep” or “long and low”. There are a variety of opinions on the matter. Some people warm-up and cool down their horses in a deep frame to stretch and loosen the muscles. Some riders always school in a balance and frame appropriate to the level they are working at and never stretch their horses. Some trainers school in a deep frame but with the horse stretching towards the bit during the movements where the horse is struggling to stay connected in order to confirm a solid connection over the horse’s back. Others do all their work “extremely deep” with the nose almost on the horse’s chest–only bringing their horses up when they are getting ready to compete.
I normally warm-up and cool down long and low and do the majority of training in a balance that is appropriate to the level at which the horse is schooling. But I often modify this basic system with a new horse or even with a familiar horse on a specific day. How do I decide whether or not to change things? First, I just ride around and see what my horse chooses to do. Then I determine whether his choice helps him in terms of balance and connection. If it doesn’t, I gently invite him to do the opposite.
Let’s say you’re riding a “dirt sucker”. You know what I mean. A horse that leans so heavily on the forehand that you feel like you’re somersaulting around the arena. In a case like this, you’re wise to ride him more “up”. That’s because this version of long and low is not a good long and low. Yes, the head and neck is stretching down and out. But my concern is with the hindquarters. If his hind legs are trailing out behind his body and he is pushing himself heavily onto his forehand, he’s not in good balance. By shortening the reins and riding him a little more up, you can clear the way for his hind legs to come more underneath his body so he can carry himself better.
On the other hand, you might have a “star gazer” who goes around so inverted that you can almost look at him eyeball to eyeball. He travels with short steps, a low back and his head and neck up in the air. The solution is obvious. Do the opposite and send his hind legs further underneath his body, put his back up and his head and neck low for most if not all of the schooling session to retrain and strengthen his topline muscles. Use a connecting half halt to change his shape and after giving the half halt allow the reins to get a bit longer so he can seek the contact forward and down.
Then again, lots of horses don’t fit into a neat category. Genaldon was one of those. When I first started training him, I warmed him up long and low. However, I soon found that when we cantered to the right, he wanted to plow along on his forehand. As a result, the quality of the right lead canter suffered. So in warm-up I walked, trotted and rode left lead canter long and low. But when it came time to canter on the right lead, I warmed him up in a more horizontal balance. This horse, in particular, showed me how important it is to avoid black and white thinking. It’s essential to do what each horse needs on a given day–not to be a slave to a rigid system.
3. Tempo (fast/slow)
Regularity of rhythm– the even spacing between the steps of each beat in a stride– is a priority for all work and movements and exercises should never be done at the expense of rhythm. Tempo, however, is a different story. Tempo, which is the rate of repetition of the rhythm, can be adjusted depending on what your horse needs.
Think of rhythm and tempo this way. A waltz is always done in 3/4 time. That is the rhythm of a waltz. But a waltz can be played faster or slower. That is, the tempo can vary.
So when do you decide to ride at a different tempo than the one your horse adopts? Let’s take an overly fresh event horse as an example. You ask this horse to start warming up in the trot and he’s so fit and excited that he picks up a trot that is too quick. The longer you let him go at this clip, the more his tension builds. Left alone, he probably isn’t going to slow down on his own. He’s like an over-tired child who is so wound up that he can’t quiet his mind or his body. So help him to calm down by asking him to trot much slower than the tempo of a normal working trot.
Do this by asking him to do a transition to the walk. Then, just as he’s about to step into the walk, don’t complete the transition. Instead, allow him to to jog on very slowly. If he accelerates after a few strides, repeat the “incomplete downward transition” until he’s happy to stay in the slower trot.
Ride him in this lazy tempo–the opposite of what he wants to do– until his tension dissipates. When you feel him take a deep breath and relax, gradually allow the tempo to become more normal.
Then again, let’s say you have a horse that tends to get too slow and labored in his tempo in a movement such as a half pass, a pirouette, or even piaffe. Ask that horse to do the movement in a tempo that is too fast. Quicken the tempo by speeding up the action of your seat. Train him to go “over” his chosen tempo during the movement until it becomes a habit. Then eventually you can allow him to settle into the right tempo.
4. Lateral stiffness
I know few horses that are completely ambidextrous. Most have a hollow side towards which they bend more easily and a stiff side which is harder to bend. Yet one of our goals in dressage is to gymnasticize the horse so that he appears equally laterally supple to the left and to the right.
When a one-sided horse is ridden with his hollow or soft side on the inside, he tends to describe circles, turns and even straight lines with his neck too bent to the inside, his shoulder popping out and his hindquarters drifting to the inside. He might feel easier to bend in this direction, but the truth is that the bend is not uniform from poll to tail and, therefore, he is not straight. His spine does not overlap his line of travel and his hind feet do not step into the tracks made by the front feet.
When this same horse tracks with his stiff side on the inside, he often flexes at the poll to the outside, leans on the rider’s inside leg, and swings his hindquarters out. He navigates circles and turns like a bus going around a corner. Once again, he is not straight. This is merely the flip side of the same coin that I described when tracking with the hollow side on the inside.
If the horse continues to do this, the muscles on his hollow side get more and more shortened making it that much more difficult for them to stretch enough for him to be able to bend around the inside leg when it’s on his stiff side. Benign antagonism suggests that you do the opposite of what the horse with markedly stiff and hollow sides wants to do. In schooling, when you ride with his hollow side on the inside, keep this horse as straight as an arrow–no bend. That goes for straight lines as well as circles, turns and corners. Then when you change direction and his stiff side is on the inside, always ride him bent and flexed to the inside–even if you’re on a straight line. Once he becomes straighter and less one-sided, go back to riding him like a normal horse–straight on lines and bent and flexed to the inside along the arc of curves.
5. Weak hind leg
Another way that a horse can express crookedness is when he doesn’t step directly underneath his body with both hind legs. In both directions the same hind leg steps “out” or “wide” because it is weaker than the other and finds it difficult to bear it’s fair share of the load.
This type of evasion can be very subtle. Often the displacement is only an inch or so to the side. An observant ground person can tell you if your horse is “unloading” one hind leg. Walk and trot straight away from her. Then change direction and do the same. Check to see if the deviation shows up more on a circle in each direction.
For example, if your horse’s left hind leg is weaker than his right hind leg, he’ll carry it slightly to the left regardless of which way you’re traveling in the ring. By doing so, he allows his stronger right leg to do more work and carry more weight. If he continues to evade using his left hind leg, it will get progressively weaker while the right hind leg continues to get stronger. All sorts of problems including unevenness in the reins to unlevelness in the paces can develop if this issue isn’t addressed.
Since this evasion can be subtle, your benignly antagonistic correction can be discreet as well. The solution is to ask his left hind leg to do a little “weight-lifting”. Do this by moving his hindquarters an inch or so to the right so his left hind leg has to step under his body. Ask for this position in both directions on all lines and curves. This will give the weaker hind leg an opportunity to get stronger. One word of caution here. Since you know this leg is weaker, be sure you give your horse lots of breaks where he can relax his muscles. There’s a fine line between strengthening muscles and making them sore.
If your horse is a bit more educated, you can do the same sort of exercise by always placing him in a very slight shoulder-fore or renvers position when tracking to the left. When you track to the right, put him in a very slight haunches-in position. Every position should place his left hind leg a hair to the inside of his left front leg. Once again, a displacement of an inch or two is more than enough to do the job.
6. Firm/light contact
Let’s consider the issue of contact. You’re riding a horse that likes to lie in your hands and use them for a fifth leg. Not only is this dead contact uncomfortable for you but it makes it nearly impossible for your rein aids to travel through the horse’s body and affect the hind legs. The signals just seem to stop at his mouth.
Obviously, this horse needs to be lighter and more alive in your hands. Ask him to carry himself more by driving his hind legs further underneath his body and then almost dropping him in front. (Remember, it takes two to pull.) Basically, your aids are saying, “I’m not going to hold you up but I’m also not going to unfairly drop you flat on your face. First, I’ll put your hind legs in a position where they can take over the job that you want my hands to do. Then I’ll let go.”
Then again, you might have a horse that is too light in the hand. I’m not talking about the desirable kind of lightness that comes from self-carriage. I’m talking about the lightness that comes from a lack of connection from the hind legs into your hands. A horse often expresses this by dropping the contact and coming behind the bit.
If you ride a horse who avoids contact like this, train him to step into your hands. Do this in two steps. Start in the trot and teach him to react correctly to your driving aids by closing both legs and asking him to lengthen for a few strides. By doing this you’re explaining to him that he’s to go forward over the ground when you use your legs. Once he understands to lengthen when you close your legs, close them again but this time don’t allow him to lengthen. Rather than asking him to go forward over the ground, you’re now asking him to go forward through his body. Pay close attention to the feeling in your hands when you do this. As your horse goes forward through his body, he should lengthen his neck, raise his head, and step into the contact more firmly. Praise him immediately when you feel him touch your hands. Repeat this process over and over until you confirm in his mind that he’s to go forward from your legs into a solid contact.
Ride him for several weeks with too firm of a contact until he feels that accepting and stepping into contact is normal. Just as with the hot horse who overreacts to the leg, you’re explaining to him that contact is not going away. He has to accept that it’s a part of life, but he’ll also quickly learn that it’s a comfortable, elastic means of communication.
Use this philosophy of benign antagonism and you’ll rarely get stuck solving training issues. Simply invite your horse to do the opposite of what he chooses until it becomes easy for him. Then, in time, settle into a happy medium.