THE FRAME AND ROUNDNESS OF THE HORSE IN TRAINING (part 1)
By Gerhard Ablinger
In this article I would like to address the often debated question of the correct frame and roundness of the dressage horse in the training process, including the warm up at shows.
This article is based on my German education as well as my own practical experience in training with horses of all levels.
In finding the correct frame for your specific horse you need to consider, that this is just a general guideline and that the correct frame at different ages and levels always need to be based on an individual basis.
THE GREEN HORSE
This would be a horse, which is use to the saddle and has accepted the rider backing him.
(3 to 4 years of age)
The main focus at that age should be to have the horse stretch into the contact. This will be achieved by having the horse find a steady rhythm, and by having the horse accept the rider’s forward driving leg aids.
At this point the contact should be very light and as quiet as possible to give the horse the basic understanding of a contact, which the horse can trust and accept at all times.
The ideal frame is long with a low neck set. This allows the horse to relax in his body and mind.
A: The horse is rushing and too forward.
If the rider is not able to quiet the horse down, then the horse should be going back on the lunge line until he settles down more. One of the reasons for a too forward horse is tension. But sometimes the rider might ask for too much pace in which the horse will have problems to relax and understand the basic training the right way. (Please see the training tree on my home page)
B: The horse is not enough forward.
More forward driving leg aids. Using a short whip as an extra cue. The horse needs to go into the right pace so the horse is seeking the contact.
THE YOUNG HORSE
This would be a horse between 4 to 6 years of age. The horse has a good understanding of stretching into the contact, can keep its rhythm, is relaxed and is moving active forward in all three gaits.
The frame is shorter. The horse needs to be ridden in a deep enough frame to keep its back up. It is very important to keep the contact light but steady. At this time a sitting trot as well as transitions are being introduced.
A: The contact is getting too heavy
Solution: More leg aid and more activity in the horse’s hind quarters. As soon as the horse is not moving enough from behind, the contact can be heavy. Then the horse will tense up in his back and the horse is ridden from the front to the back. Meaning that the focus is too much on the contact instead of on the hind legs.
B: The contact is too light
If the horse is backing off the contact, the rider has to push the horse back into the contact with the forward driving leg aids. Also trying to lengthen the neck in the process.
C: the horse is too tight in his neck
This problem often shows if the rider is getting too strong with the reins. This can be seen with either contact problem (point A or B)
Go back to the basic frame. More stretching with a long and low neck set.
D: Horse comes above the bit
Get the horse more round to assure he is moving through his back. RIDING THE HORSE FROM THE BACK TO THE FRONT AT ALL TIMES! Often times a more active hind leg is taking care of the problem. A very affective exercise is trot canter transitions on a circle as well as leg yields in the trot. But sometimes it starts already at the walk, that the rider is not able to keep the horse round enough. Again leg yields or walk halt transitions will be a helpful tool to get the horse to move through his back again and accept the contact.
THE MEDIUM AND UPPER LEVEL HORSE
This would be a horse at about 6 years of age and older. The horse has a solid foundation (the 6 points of the training tree are confirmed). Due to the stronger hindquarters and back, the horse is well balanced on his haunches and can be ridden in a show frame. (The first vertebrae is the highest point). But the horse might only be able to hold this frame for a short period of time due to the heavy workout on the back and haunches. The rider has to make sure that the suppleness through the back is not being lost. One way for this to happen is if the horse is getting tired. The natural response of the horse will be to tense up in his back to give a break to the back and hindquarters.
The warm up as well as most of the regular work and advancement in the training will be ridden in a rounder frame to keep the suppleness at all times and especially introduce the horse to new movements in a very supple and elastic way.
Rather than focusing on movements and the show frame, the main focus in dressage should be to have a supple, elastic, well responding, well muscled healthy horse. Again, the show frame can only be asked, if the horse has gotten strong enough in his back as
well as his haunches through consistent, correct collected work.
It also depends on the conformation of the horse how long the horse can be ridden in the show frame. Horses which are naturally built “uphill”, are more likely to stay steadier and longer in the upper frame.
Problems with the show frame:
The horse is being forced into the show frame with the reins and ridden up with out having the hind quarters step enough underneath his body and staying active enough.
This would be called an “absolute self carriage” Meaning the rider is asking for the self carriage regardless if the horses body and mind is ready or not.
Keep a rounder frame and more active hindquarters. As soon as the horse is getting tense and possibly resistant in the contact, the focus needs to be on a more active hind quarters as well as a rounder frame to confirm a supple back which is always the only way to keep access to the horse’s hind quarters.
The goal needs to be a “relative self carriage” where the horse’s hind quarters are ready to balance the main weight of the horse himself as well as the riders weight without loosing the activity which is the only way to keep the horse working from the back to the front.