Building Blocks

Marcia Sapp

Today I had a great ride on a 3 year old gelding named Helio that I am backing. As a trainer, I am very fortunate to sit on all types, breeds, and temperments of horses. It is a special treat for me to sit on some with very good bloodlines, bred to be top athletes! This gelding is a super balanced, super athletic, super well bred youngster. He reminded me what it takes to make a great horse. To make a great horse takes two things:

 1. Quality breeding.

 2. Quality training.

  While not everyone may be able to obtain world class bloodlines, everyone can obtain good training. Regardless if you are backing a green 3yo, or riding your horse in any discipline, by following the training scale, your horse can have quality training.

   In the German Training Scale, also known as the Training Pyramid, there are six elements that create the solid foundation, a base that our horses need to be successful. These elements are, in order of importance and development;

1. Rhythm

2. Suppleness

3. Contact

4. Impulsion

5. Straightness

6. Collection

  When we look at the Training Scale, we look at it like a pyramid, with rhythm being the base, and the rest making layers on top of it.

 When working with the young horses, it is important to feel and develop the rhythm. How do we achieve rhythm? Relaxation of the body and mind. When the body and mind is relaxed, the walk can hold true four beats, the trot can hold the steady two beats, the canter can hold a steady three beats. When the back of the horse is not relaxed, the walk can become stiff or lateral, with tension clearly being felt by the rider. Relaxation of the mind and body readies the horse for suppleness. Flexion and balance, while not in the training scale itself, and integral parts of achieving these elements. Balance is connected to rhythm and straightness. Without straightness, there is no relaxation. Flexion is an important element in straightness. If you can not bend a horse, you cannot straighten him. Balance is enter twined to rhythm and straightness, and without straightness there cannot be relaxation, without relaxation the horse cannot travel in self-carriage or balance, nor can there be impulsion unless the moves moves forward in a relaxed, straight, rhythmic manner.

  When riding Helio today ( Elio/Torino/ Balta C'zar) I had to remind myself of the training scale, and what the objective was for my ride. Sometimes when we ride horses with great talent, we forget how the basics still need to be focused on. When we train our horses, we train not "until it is right", but instead, "train and practice until it cannot be wrong." By developing a sound foundation on which to build on, we give our horses tools on which to be successful for a lifetime. 

    (Helio has only been under saddle for about a week, so this session started with round pen work first.)  When I first settle into the saddle, I take up gently on the reins. First, I check flexion right and left. Is he bending correctly at the poll? Does the neck and jaw feel relaxed? I continue to test both sides a few times until I feel nice relaxation both directions. So, there is lateral flexion? Check!

 OK- now vertical flexion. Does he soften at the poll and give to the bit with minimal contact from the reins? Do I feel the back lift and neck stretch down and forward slightly as the poll flexes? Check!

 Now we can walk forward.  Walking forward, I ask for lateral flexion, asking the gelding to bend to the left, I shorten the left (inside) rein, and begin applying soft, vibrating pressure with my inside leg. The active inside leg asks the horse to bend, or give through the ribcage, and then the inside rein asks softly for flexion to to the inside. Leg first, hand second. The leg asks for bend through the body, the rein tips the nose in and helps stand up the inside shoulder. Lateral flexion is the key to good vertical flexion. After bend is established, I ask Helio for vertical flexion. Relaxation through the poll will soften the jaw, which will relax and lower the neck, which will free up the shoulders, which will in turn free up the ribcage, lift and relax the back, and allow the hips to swing and hind legs to step under, further lifting and relaxing the back. After Helio was relaxed and swinging in the walk, I began asking for downward transitions. Not every transition was perfect. Some were abrupt, needing more leg in the transition to keep the hind legs stepping under. Some were unbalanced, needing more leg hand connection, some lacked bend and relaxation in the back, requiring more inside leg to outside hand connection. Most of the time, Helio looses the looseness in the back in the downward transitions. So, lots of transitions until the back feels good! Then circles at the walk, maintaining flexion, bend in the body, and balance. Lots of circles! With the young horses, they tend to fall in or out during a portion of the circles. The circles help to connect the hind end, improve balance, and co-ordinataion. After the transitions up and down, circles, and developing the relaxation in the back, we do the same at the trot. Balance, transitions, but most importantly, relaxation!!!! Rhythm comes from relaxation. Suppleness comes from relaxation! With the young horses, we do not stress the contact. Contact will come with the rhythm and suppleness. As Helio gets more relaxed, the rhythm gets better. As the rhythm gets better, the suppleness increases. As the suppleness and rhythm become more established as the ride progresses, Helio starts to stretch down and forward for the contact. More lift in the back creates reach for contact. More reach for the contact creates better push and swing from behind. Each ride his rhythm gets better, and the suppleness improves. The contact comes next, and as it become more confirmed, I bet the impulsion and straightness will be super with this guy! :cool: