Welcome to Solar Dressage and the first of many great articles to come on training methods and topics having to do with warm-blood training and showing in every level from Training to Grand Prix!

Margaret

4 Corners:
by Margaret Edwards Jones

Four Corners is a term I have used many times when teaching - connected riding is all very important but if you do not have all “four corners” of the horse working in harmony balance and relaxation, you cannot progress. Once you have attained the working “four corners” you can teach your horse any exercise be it an extended trot to Piaffe Passage and Half Pass easily and happily.

Four Corners means each leg with shoulders and hips of the horse - these are the legs of the table that allow it to stay upright…now through flexibility and movement these corners move in fluid ways.

In the basic level of dressage we want a horse that has balance 50/50 from front to back - so each corner carries the same weight - naturally the horse would carry 60% in the front end and 40% - through selective breeding developing a more naturally moving uphill horse they can move easily at 50% - asking more of them to load onto their hind end before correct development can lead to problems in maturing joints and muscles. And stressing the horse mentally to perform outside of their comfort level and ability.

So we have our horses balanced 50% front and 50% back end, allowing horses to stretch forward and down over their backs and lifting their underline to allow their back legs to come underneath them.  They become more of a ball feeling - all 4 legs are moving freely, and the horse is relaxed and happy to move.

Now, as we develop the horse through the exercises of strengthening the 4 corners and freedom of movement their balance through time will come more onto the hind end to 60% and the front end 40% - the uphill movement and lightness of the front end comes.  

Our goal is also to have the horse able to shift their weight onto each corner independently depending on what exercise you want you horse to achieve.  

Building strength and balance takes a long time to achieve where the horse can load onto each leg and maintain relaxation.
I found this great article by a man I truly respect, and wanted to share it.

Margaret

Renowned dressage trainer and German Olympic medal winner Klaus Balkenhol shares his views on why trainers push horses too fast and what the common mistakes are when horses are over-pushed or over-tracked.

Why trainers Push Horses Too Fast:

Although breeders have created a better horse, the market has created a demand for a stronger, healthier, more powerful horse. It's easier to sell a horse that looks like a carefully developed eight-year-old, and not like a three- or four-year-old just beginning his career. If you force it, you can get a three-year-old to physically look like a developed eight-year-old.

Too many colts remain stallions which, if approved, promise breeders higher prices as three-year-olds. Now 250 to 300 young stallions are presented each year, when only 40 or 50 will be approved. Few breeders have the sense to geld the yearling stallions and leave them on the pasture to mature naturally. Instead, yearling stallions are brought into a stall, fed too much grain, and at three, look like six- or seven-year-olds. They have muscle mass, but not enough bone structure to support it. They look mature from the outside but aren't...and when started to work, degeneration sets in. Competitions also create pressure to push horses too fast as competitions are now scheduled throughout the year without any breaks."

Common Mistakes In Pushing Too Fast:

Tightening the noseband: A horse resists by sticking out his tongue. Tightening the noseband too much puts pressure on the nose and on the poll. If it is necessary to tighten the noseband very tightly, then something has gone very wrong in the basic training of the horse. The horse cannot be relaxed, the first step on the training scale.

Specializing too early: Drilling every day in the indoor arena is too intense for the young horse. It's very important, especially in the first two years of training, not to specialize the young horse. Training should include a variety of activities, including trail riding, which is good for the mind as well as building strength with hill work. It should include jumping, either free or low jumps under saddle, including small natural obstacles on the trail, and cavaletti. A variety of work will allow the horse to stay mentally fresh and to enjoy his work. Only when the horse is happy can dressage become
art.

Not checking tack frequently: Saddle and tack need to be checked constantly for proper fit and adjusted as the horse's body changes with growth, and as his fitness improves with the  training. If the noseband gets too low, for example, and the skin between the noseband and the bit is rubbed and becomes sore, this causes the horse discomfort and loss of relaxation. Regularly check for sharp edges and bit problems in the horse's mouth and teeth.

Working too long: The goal of our training is to build the horse's mind and his muscles. Suppleness and relaxation require adequate muscle strength. strengthening requires both contraction and relaxation. Blood flow and oxygenation occur when the muscle relaxes. If the muscle is kept in a constant state of contraction, it loses power and strength, and actually becomes smaller.  Frequent rest periods, especially for a young horse at a free walk on a long rein, are necessary. The rest periods are not for a rider's fatigue, but to allow the horse to stretch and relax his muscles. The rest breaks will give you a completely new horse. This is the systematic gymnasticizing of the horse.

Riding when the rider is tense: Horses are particularly sensitive to the rider's mood. A rider shouldn't ride if she is under undue stress or doesn't have the time to ride. If the rider has a bad day, give the horse a rest day or go for a relaxing trail ride; don't work in the arena. The horse mirrors the rider's mood.

Not praising the horse enough: The horse must perform from joy, not subservience. Praising a horse frequently with voice, a gentle pat, or relaxing the reins is very important to keep the horse interested and willing. If the horse offers piaffe, for instance, because he's excited, praise him for it. You shouldn't stop the lesson at that point nor make a big deal out of it. If you don't want piaffe, quietly urge him forward into trot, but you should NEVER punish him for offering the piaffe.
18 Tips that are a Must Do:

1 Dressage is not just for competition. It is gymnastics for horses and all horses can benefit from it, as they are more likely to stay sound with a long, stretchy neck, soft body and easy movement.

2 You don't have to spend a fortune on a horse for dressage - as long as the basic paces are there, the rest can be acheived through training. The main paces to look at are walk and canter, as with a bit of work a horse with a very normal trot can trot beautifully.

In walk, the horse should use the whole of his body and have a good over-track, where the hind foot lands in front of the print left by the front foot. A good canter has a bounding stride, with the hind-leg jumping right underneath the horse and the front end lifted. Above all, though a good, natural rhythm is essential and is always more important than big movement.

3 When a horse is tired, he’ll try to stretch down. Let him do it for a while as it’s something you want to encourage. To stretch your horse, lengthen the rein, lower your hand and massage his mouth with the bit by gently squeezing and releasing each rein. Stretch him regularly throughout your training sessions to relax him and reduce the risk of tension.

4 In canter always ride forward – imagine there’s a big jump at the end of the long side that you’re going to take on!

5 Dressage is about repetition, repeating exercises over and over again until it becomes part of the horse’s way of going. It takes dedication, but is simply about producing a well-schooled horse – something we’d all like to have!

6 Even if your thing is dressage, mix your horse’s schooling up with hacking and jumping as it will keep him relaxed and interested. 

7 Always compete at the level below the one you are working on at home, so that you are able to cope at the competition where there are many more distractions.

8 Mirrors are a huge help in training as they enable you to see what your horse is doing – for example, how do you know whether he is straight without being able to see him?

9 Working-in is one of the most important aspects of dressage. You want your horse to be long, round and stretching before you start more taxing work, to get the muscles in front of and behind the saddle soft and working – gymnasts don’t hop straight onto the top bar! Ideally, walk for 10 minutes to start with, but if your horse is fresh, it is best to trot on to settle him down. 

10 Your horse must work in front of the leg. This means that he should move forward of his own accord and not expect you to keep motivating him – for example, if you ask for canter, he must learn to stay in canter without any leg pressure, until you tell him otherwise.  

11 If your horse is not responsive to your leg, ask for halt and with a loose rein, give him sharp quick taps with your leg until he moves forward – it doesn’t matter what pace he goes into, just let him move forward.

12 Create a work station on your yard, where everything to do with work happens – for example, tacking up and washing off – and keep his stable for relaxation only. Then your horse knows he can totally relax when he’s in his stable and won’t be expected to work.

13 If your horse is too sensitive to the leg, work on lots of downward transitions. 

14 Lots of transitions between canter and trot will help to improve the trot by getting him to carry more weight on his back end.

15 To maintain balance while you’re working your horse, use lots of 
half-halts. Think about using one before you ask your horse to 
do anything.

16 Give your horse sugar during training sessions as a reward and to help him mouth the bit, which will encourage him to salivate and make him lighter in the hand.

17 Riding your horse ‘on and back’ involves asking him for a few lengthened strides before asking him to come back to his working pace, then repeating it several times. This will help you to get him to carry his head and neck, and achieve self-carriage. 

18 When doing tempi changes – a series of flying changes – with more advanced horses, we ride along the wall of the arena to help keep the horse straight.