Rafael Soto arrived from Madrid for our clinic in the early afternoon of a Palm Beach, Florida, Spring day. At the first moment of our introduction, I knew that the next two days were going to be a gratifying experience.
From the onset of his clinic, he linked the highly methodical techniques of good riding and training with the constant philosophy of “let the horse teach you”.He quoted mentors, such as Harry Boldt and Jean Bemelmans, saying that to achieve success, a rider must comprehend his partner’s athleticism. He must ride with a soft hand but then be able to quicken the hind legs while controlling the bend and straightness. The horse that respects the leg aid gives the rider impulsion and straightness. It is through the confidence ofthe rider that the horse becomes calm and relaxed. The first day, we worked on basic exercises that promote even rein contact. This is key ! As a Grand Prix rider and trainer and U.S. Dressage Federation gold medalist , I have always been toldto ride my horses straight as part of the Training Pyramid. I thought I had accomplished this to some degree until that day. I now realize that only through even rein contact am I able to make a horse truly straight. I must also be able to release the aids and maintain straightness.
All horses are to some degree one-sided – strongeror more flexible to one side than the other. In the past, I tried to determine which sideof a horse was weaker and fix the uneveness by using a stronger inside or outside leg and or rein aid to help maintain a straight alignment. Sometimes riders feel 20 pounds of tension inone rein and barely twp in the other. Much more leg pressure must be applied to the 20-pound side than the two-pound side to maintain a straight alignment. Often you hear trainers say “more right rein” or “more left leg” in an attempt to accomplish this. The problem arises when the rider softens the rein or leg aids and the horse quickly reverts back to his original crooked posture. These horses become more and more difficult to ride, because they develop stronger muscles to one side and utimately become strongerthanthe rider. Horse held straight with a lot of tension are just that -tense. Relaxation of the back or swinging of the hips will not occur. The gaits of the horse innevitably suffer, and execution of the mouvements will not be accomplished with ease and harmony. When asked which comes first, Rafael answered, “Neither !”. Both evolved together. The same is true with straightness and impulsion. You cannot accomplish one without the other. Only when riders have equal contact on the reins cantrue straightness and impulsion occur.
Rafael’s preferred exercise is a simple combination of positioning the horse’s shoulders out as you ride on a circle., followed by true bend and stretch to reward the horse that is able to accomplis this. The exercise can prove difficult and somewhat unnatural from the horse’s normal way of going. The rider must stimulatethe horseto step under his center of gravity with the outside hind leg and carry the croup inside the line of the circle, while holding the shoulder to the outside of the circle by maintaining an open, outside rein and a strong inside rein on the neck and wither.
As soon as your horse submits to the inside rein pressure and outside leg, you should bein “shoulder-out”. Once this is accomplished, immediatly soften the aids to allow the horse to return to true bend and stretch on the circle as reward for executing this difficult posture.
Change direction through leg yielding across the diagonal line of the ring, and repeat the exercise in the opposite direction. Your horse will accomplish shoulder-out on the circle much easier in one direction than the other.
This exercise reinforces the concept that the horse is to step up and submit to the opposite hand of the rider, when the rider applies pressure to his side with his leg. If I apply both legs evenly, the horselearns to step into both reins evenly with straightness and impulsion. The horse trusts (because of the exercise) that the rider will soften and reward, allowing the relaxation of the back to enhance the beauty of the gaits.
When I return my mount tothe track, I am able to keep this contact and relax at all three gaits. I can sofyen, stretch, collect and “up the neck”, making transitions with ease. Most importantly, I have the tools to get this back again if I lose it. Every rider must make this the goal of his work every day, and it will become easier for the horses and create a balance in the development of thier muscles. Rafael, with his skilled eye and constand reassurance, walked me through each and every stride, when I was discouraged momentarily by the horse’s resistance. Every horse can do this,and every rider should work to accomplish this in order to achieve success.
On the second day, I had fun trying my newly learnt technique while executing the mouvements ofthe Grand Prix test. We returned to our basic exercises whever myhorse lost the even contact. harmonyand beuty were accomplished with ease in the piaffe, passage, extensions and the canter work. Oh, how my horses learned to relax and step through at walk. The results were great.
These are the pillars of knowledge that are the true gifts of life.
By Dr. Michael Kohl, USDF Gold Medalist & Trainer