A ‘frame’ is the Consequence, not the Foundation
How magnificent the posturing stallion is, floating around with neck arched and his tail high as he displays his power and athleticism to his equine observers! How inspiring to watch a group of horses leaping, bucking and spinning in unison, swirling around the paddock with faultless flying changes and collecting themselves for sudden stops, tight turns, to rear and to prance. The free horse, when excited, shows us collection and balance, suppleness and flexibility. We pay attention when horses become very expressive as these displays never last for long. Some of us dream of recreating this beauty at our request under saddle and hope that we can master the art of dressage in order to do so.
The horse moves with power and grace because its emotions are high and its body is unconstrained.
One of the most obvious features of the proud horse in self-carriage is the arched neck.
Many people do not see that the horse is flexing its poll and lifting its neck as part of moving its centre of gravity rearwards, freeing up its neck and shoulders for leaps, turns and strikes. The horse may toss his head and arch his neck, but he will not hold his head very low for long; he wants to see where he is going and to look tall and proud. His hindquarters carry his weight in rears, elevated steps, sudden stops and powerfully propel him forward.
Many riders are mistakenly putting their horses first into a ‘frame’, believing that this will set the horse up for the dressage movements and for creating the beauty of the horse at liberty. These riders use their reins to arch the horse’s neck and bring its nose down, usually behind the vertical.
Unfortunately, now that dressage often does not have a compelling end purpose (originally to create war horses) it has become prone to fashion and appearance rather than functional longevity. Riders and trainers do not realise that their horses are suffering under these disabling training methods and that they are sabotaging their chances of achieving their dream of riding the expressive horse in true harmony. Some of the physiological problems with putting a horse into an arched frame are:
- The horse can no longer see forward properly due to the angle of his pupils when his head is tilted backwards. The horse’s nose should tilt forward somewhat so that he can look ahead to where he is going. A horse was said to be ‘on the vertical’ when its eye was on a vertical line relative to the corner of its mouth (not when its face was vertical to the ground).
- A horse’s hoof will not land on the ground ahead of it muzzle. If a horse is held with it’s neck shortened the forelegs will take shorter strides, or be obliged to come backwards from their forward extension before touching the ground. This is a waste of energy and more concussive on the horse’s legs and up through its body.
- The low neck forces the horse’s weight more over his shoulders – totally in opposition to what dressage is hoping to achieve; he can no longer lower his hindquarters in order to elevate his shoulders.
- In order to lengthen stride (which appears as ‘stepping under’ or ‘stepping through’), the horse must lift its stomach muscles which lifts and gives ‘softness’ to the back, and have enough relaxation in the neck muscles to bring the shoulder forward so that the push form the hind legs is carried to its full capacity in forward movement. This creates elastic movement and builds the horse’s strength and suppleness so that over time it is able to ‘sit’ more on its hind legs and elevate it shoulders in high collection. An over-bent neck or tightly held in head creates too much tension in the horse’s shoulders and back to ever build a relaxed, supple, athletic body or a joyful, confident attitude.
- The tension in the horse’s neck due to the arched posture or tightly held head position inhibits the free movement of the horse. The horse is not unwilling, but is unable, to move forward easily yet riders use whips and spurs to try to drive the horse they have disabled forward.
- The tension in the horse’s muscles, the increased concussion on his joints, the pain at the poll and the extra load taken on the forehand does not increase the horse’s longevity but creates many aches and pains and often leads to the horse breaking down. Good training builds the horse’s confidence, the relationship with its rider, its capacity to perform without injury and its longevity. If a horse is getting sore, breaking down, or becoming uncooperative or difficult, it is up to the human to ask themselves how to change to improve themselves and their actions so that this no longer happens. You can’t bully a horse into true beauty and harmony any more than you can bully a person to love you.
A horse will bring himself into self-carriage when he is confident and the exercises help rather than hinder him. The outline of his body is a consequence of his movement; when the horse moves well his actions create an appealing shape. Forcing a horse into a shape first only creates tension which inhibits the fluid movement, athleticism and harmony we are seeking. A good rider will help the horse find an even tempo with a good energy and to correctly balance rather than lean to one side. The rider will use a light, delicate contact so that the horse does not push against the reins and become stiff and on the forehand. Over time, and with the help of the school exercises, among other things, the horse becomes more athletic, capable and trusting. As the horse gets stronger it is able to lower its hindquarters to raise its shoulders and in doing so will bring its poll higher, giving the neck an arched look. At each level of training the good relationship between horse and rider will be undeniable.
“You can’t bully a horse into true beauty and harmony”
Dressage is about making the horse strong, supple and long lasting as well as beautiful and harmonious with the rider. The work is not correct if the horse becomes unsound in mind or body. When a horse needs regular treatments such as massages or physiotherapy, or is often reliant on pharmaceuticals, the compassionate rider would carefully review all aspects of her treatment of the horse and take responsibility to find a better way. The horse can only communicate to us through his health and behaviour. It is up to the person to make the necessary changes to get the best from the partnership.
Footnote: Apologies to mares and males – pronouns are for convenience, no exclusion is intended
For more information and detail on this topic you might like to read, “Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage” by Philippe Karl
Copyright Kailie Nott 2017