Training Through the Grades

By: Horse Deals

Training Through the Grades
Training Through the Grades

Barbara Young attends an exclusive day for riders and judges at international dressage trainers Michel and Mette Assouline’s Essex home. Horse Deals strongly recommends that all riders wear a hat

With the emphasis on test riding and way of going, Michel Assouline began by explaining how to develop the paces to help improve marks."Many riders become preoccupied by specific movements, but it’s more important to teach the horse collection and balance. Concentrate on rhythm and cadence so the horse remains with you. Transitions within the paces are also important, as this will help regain balance and ‘refresh’ the paces," he said. "At competitions, you see a lot of riders warming up on an endless circle, which encourages the horse to become numb to the aids. It’s better to work on transitions even if it’s simply walk, trot, walk."

Michel outlined how lateral work can help all levels of training, but if you feel the horse is losing bend or impulsion, don’t be tempted to ignore the problem.

"In lateral movements, it’s important that you set up correctly — don’t be tempted to rescue the horse once it goes wrong. For example, in half-pass, use a 10m circle before you go into the movement so the horse learns to accept the correct aids.

"In training, canter half-passes can be improved by using travers, which you can introduce by riding quarters in on a circle and build up from that before riding down the long side.

"This exercise particularly helps horses who are short and tight in the back because it encourages them to become more supple and looser behind the saddle.

"Shortening and lengthening the canter can help improve cadence. As the horse takes more weight behind and slows down, make sure he stays deep to prevent him from hollowing."
Michel also explained how a rider can influence the horse’s way of going.

"If your horse is tight, ask yourself if you’re tight too. If you’re tight in the back, the horse won’t feel encouraged to work forwards. Allow yourself to swing with your back, then the horse will follow and you can start using your seat more.

"Similarly, in the canter make sure you aren’t blocking the horse and if you can swing and push with your seat, he’ll find it easier to collect and become lighter. Also make sure you ride forward in downward transitions so that the horse gets ‘bigger’ in front and ‘shorter’ behind. If a horse is on the aids, he’ll become more supple."

Lateral work

Michel explained that most horses are crooked to the right: "If you feel your horse isn’t straight, you need to correct this and lateral work can help. Travers is a good introduction. On the crooked side, you may need to ride the horse more forwards and it’s important that the exercise is repeated on both reins. If the horse is crooked to the right, then it’s likely his left bend isn’t good enough and you need to tackle this too.

"Horses at novice and elementary level can start with shoulder fore, shoulder in and travers. Even at prelim level, horses can do a little bit of lateral work so they begin to learn that when the rider’s leg’s back, they need to move away from it."
A common problem when first tackling lateral work is that the horse starts to lose forward momentum and "dries up" on the rider.

"You might find that your horse loses impulsion and forwardness in the lateral work in which case you can refresh the pace with some medium trot." "Establish the trot and ask for collection before you give the aids for medium strides or the horse won’t be able to push off his hindlegs. He has to accept collection and become more balanced and rounder before he can push on with bigger paces.

"To help improve the half-pass, sit on your inside seat bone, so the central fugal force encourages the correct reflex and takes away the temptation to use your hands.

"If you think about putting your weight where you want the horse to go, the horse is more likely to go with you. Then when he’s going well, sit quietly and let him carry himself."

Moving on to advanced work

Michel explained how each horse should be treated as an individual: "Some work better in a snaffle, it just depends on their mouths".
Mette demonstrated training Forest Gump, an eight-year-old Westphalian breeding stallion by Florestan, who was the 2007 Young Horse International reserve champion and is competing at small tour level (prix st georges and intermediaire I). In training, she prefers to ride him in a snaffle, but she introduced him to a double using a short shank for the bridoon, which suited him well.

Michel said that when preparing a horse for piaffe/ passage, the rider starts in collected walk.

"The horse needs to learn to accept the aids for collection first, but be careful not to hold him back and overcollect. It’s quite normal for the horse to come up in his frame because he’s still learning engagement. Just do two or three steps of shortened walk, then come out of it, and make sure the horse isn’t using his neck as an evasion.

"If the horse tenses, don’t bully him. Let him think forward in piaffe and don’t restrict him. Think about doing half steps in trot rather than on the spot and then gradually ask for shorter steps. The horse needs the security of your hand in a nice way — if you give with your hand too much he doesn’t know what to do with his head, so will come up in an effort to search for your hand. Piaffe/passage is all about balance. You have to make sure you have a gentle, nice contact, as he needs support."

Michel went on to discuss riding pirouettes, ably demonstrated by 18-year-old European junior team member Rebecca Drane and her British-bred Hanoverian Half Moon Bardolino. The combination started their preparation with leg yield and then half-pass in trot.

"If you’re at risk of losing cadence in half-pass, sacrifice the bend and ride forwards. If you have too much bend, you’ll lose the quality of the pace. You can then use flying changes to help refresh the pace.

"In pirouettes, you must make sure you have engagement first because the horse has to take the weight on his hindlegs. The rider must be precise in what’s being asked and make sure the preparation is correct. If it starts to go wrong, it’s better to come out of it and try again."

Mette also demonstrated how useful working in-hand could be, especially for movements such as piaffe. But she stressed that this should be performed by those confident and knowledgeable about what they’re asking.

Young talent

Michel talked about riding Streisand, a seven-year-old Westphalian mare by Showstar, who was reserve champion in Hickstead’s Medium Masters League this year.

"She’s very sweet and talented, but she can be bossy! She’s still quite green and independent. She’s mentally and physically strong and doesn’t want to be told what to do. It doesn’t work to bully her because it creates tension and she gets more feisty. You need to make sure there are no grey areas and if you reprimand her, she has to understand why. She’s very willing, it’s just that she’s not yet sure what to do with all that power!

"We start by doing lots of transitions so she’s moving off the leg nicely. You have to adjust your technique to whatever suits the individual. In half-halt I pull her up, as she wants to pull down and forward, which is very common in young horses. They like to hollow and you have to teach them to bring their back up.

"Very often, young horses learning collection go wide behind to help with their balance, so you have to make sure this doesn’t become a habit.
"Counter-canter’s a good exercise to help with straightness, but sometimes it’s easier for horses to go straight into learning changes because it’s more natural."

Michel pointed out the importance of a partnership that comes from working together and understanding your horse’s temperament and ability, as well as taking its personality into account.

"With a powerful, talented horse like Streisand who’s already offering natural exuberance, you have to play along. We’ve got a good bond. She’s sensitive and you want her on your side, so we’re careful not to put her under too much pressure too soon. With talent like this, you have to be patient!"