Q: My 5-year-old gelding’s introduction to dressage is going well, but I can’t figure out how to keep him from collapsing his shoulder inward when we do circles or bend in the corners. How do I help him stay upright on a bend? — Julie Riley, Florida
Practicing the turn on the forehand can help him. Begin on the ground, teaching your horse to move quietly away from the light use of your dressage whip behind the girth, or even in the stifle area of the hind leg.
Starting on his left side, hold the inside rein in your left hand and stand a little in front of your horse’s left shoulder. Stroke him with the whip gently over his back behind the saddle and slowly down his rump.
When your horse lets you do this a few times, praise him and start again the same way, but tap lightly, asking him simply to move away from you with his hindquarters. Ideally, you want him to cross his inside hind leg in front of his outside hind leg. After one or two such steps, praise him and let him stop.
The next step is to do the exact same process on the right side of your horse. When this is going well, mount up and walk a bit, and then try the turn on the forehand under saddle. The aids should mimic what you did on the ground, with the addition of pressure from your inside calf a little behind the girth. Your outside leg should stay in the correct riding position (aligned with ear, shoulder, hip and heel). Be careful not to let your outside leg swing forward or away from your horse’s body.
If he resists by moving his hindquarters into your leg instead of away from it, repeat the exercise from the halt or a controlled walk. Use the aids of left rein pressure, a little added weight on your left seatbone, left leg behind the girth, and light use of the whip in the same way you used them in the groundwork exercise. If he moves his hind legs a few steps, let him halt and praise him a lot. Eventually, try to turn 180 degrees, which will face you in the opposite direction.
If your horse resists again by moving into the pressure and is irritated by your aids and the whip, quietly dismount and repeat the groundwork exercise. Then remount and try again. Remember to practice this in both directions.
In addition to the turn on the forehand, you can do this exercise at the walk and trot: On a 20-meter circle, ask your horse to move away from your inside leg by slightly enlarging the circle. Or, decrease the circle first and then enlarge it. Use as much indirect inside rein as necessary and a steady, fairly taut outside rein together with the active inside leg. When he understands and moves willingly away from the rein and leg pressure, he will move off his inside shoulder.
The aids are used in the same way when riding on a straight line; they are just a little subtler. And they can be reinforced in every corner, because horses love to fall in through corners. Prepare at least two horse lengths before the corner by bending your horse slightly to the inside and applying your inside calf a little behind the girth. You want your horse to move out very slightly as he goes through the corner instead of falling in, his more natural instinct.
CINDY SYDNOR has been an examiner for the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) instructor/trainer program for 20 years and spent 35 years as a United States Equestrian Federation “R” dressage judge. She has competed through Grand Prix level.
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.