The following articles include training exercises and topics aimed at helping to clarify some of the finer points of dressage.
Turn on the Forehand. It's very difficult to bend your horse through his body (not just his neck) and to stop him falling in or out if he does not respect your legs and move away from them when you ask. The best way to teach your horse this lesson is with a turn on the forehand.
Prior to teaching the turn on the forehand under saddle, spend a little time on the ground getting your horse to move away from your hand placed where your leg would be. It's not helpful to push him on the rump as your leg will not reach that far! You can also add in a word such as "over" whilst you do this, and then use the same word when back in the saddle to help your horse understand what you want.
The key points to remember with the turn on the forehand are that you want the forehand to stay in place (i.e. the horse does not walk forwards) which you control with your outside rein, and you want the hindquarters to move in the opposite direction to where the head is looking - in other words, a turn on the forehand from your right leg would mean your right leg is behind the girth and pushing the quarters to your left, whilst your left hand is stopping the forehand from moving forwards or sideways. You can help the horse to move his quarters to the left by asking for a bit more bend to the right.
A Perfect 20m Circle. The first point to remember is that a circle should be ROUND and should have no straight lines in it! If the 20m circle is ridden at E or B, you should only be on the track for one stride at E and B, and not for any longer otherwise your circle will not be round. If the circle is ridden at A or C, you should be on the track for one stride only halfway between the corner and E (or B).
The inside rein should indicate the bend, while the outside rein controls the amount of bend and the speed. The inside leg stops the horse falling in (and gives it something to bend around) while the outside leg stops the horse swinging its quarters out in order to avoid bending. The horse should make two tracks only with its feet - in other words, the back legs follow the same tracks as the front legs.
In addition to maintaining bend throughout the circle, it is vital to maintain the correct rhythm, and it's a good idea to count (1-2, 1-2 for trot, for example) in your head.
An additional tip for a perfect 20m circle is to count the number of steps on each quarter of the circle (i.e. E to centre line, then centre line to B, etc) and ensure each one has the same number of steps.
Serpentines. This is a good exercise to help supple your horse and encourage equal bending on each rein. It consists of 3 or more (depending on the size of the school) half circles joined together with straight lines, giving you plenty of time to change bend from one side to the other as you cross the centre of the school.
It is also an opportunity for you the rider to think clearly about your bending aids as they need to change for each new loop (i.e. your outside aids become your inside aids and vice versa for each new loop). Take care to maintain energy and rhythm and prevent any falling in or out on the half circles. Change your diagonal each time you cross the centre line.
If you want to make this exercise a bit more challenging (and interesting), you can add a 10m circle onto each loop - making the serpentine into a series of 10m circles joined with straight lines.
Shoulder In. Start with "shoulder-fore", which is an easier, shallower version of shoulder in. Firstly, ride a small circle with correct bend, thinking about the application of your aids, then go large around the outside of the arena. Once you have straightened your horse to go large, imagine that you are going to either ride across the diagonal, or ride another small circle, and start to bring your horse's shoulders off the track in preparation for the diagonal line/circle but BEFORE your horse starts to comply with his shoulders, you must use your inside leg to keep his body on the track.
So, in fact, you firstly put your inside leg on your horse at the girth and you then guide the shoulders slightly inwards off the track. When your horse is straight, going large, he will be making two tracks with his back feet stepping along the same line as his front feet, so in the shoulder in, his outside front foot should be creating a track in line with his inside hind foot. In the shoulder-fore, his outside front foot will step on a line inbetween his two back feet.
Freelance Horse Riding Instructor and Dressage Trainer for Dressage Lessons
in and around Rugby, Warwickshire and the Midlands