Ask the Experts: Horse Anticipates Flying Changes

Q: My horse anticipates the flying change every time I cross the diagonal. While I first thought it’s a great thing, I now find it more annoying as my horse doesn’t change from my aids. How can I solve this problem?

A: Congratulations on having such a clever horse! Your problem is common, as many horses delight in executing this newly-learned exercise, even when you don’t ask for it!
The solution is simple, and requires going back a few steps before moving forward again. This will help you find the underlying cause of the problem, and will clarify your aids and teach your horse to wait and listen.
It is important that for now, you refrain from riding flying changes for a bit, until you have re-established the security of your basic work which led up to teaching him the changes initially. When you can perform the exercises below smoothly and without resistance, you may begin to introduce the changes again.

Before you begin, be sure that you have a high-quality canter. This means that your horse is collected with good activity of the hind quarters, reliable straightness, and is free from tension or resistance. He should be in a good carriage and should not lean on the reins for support. Your half halts must be well-established, and the transitions within the canter and between canter and walk/trot should be smooth and free from resistance.

Spend a few days (or weeks, depending on your progress) making sure you can calmly and reliably perform these exercises. Then, simply replace some of the simple changes with flying changes. If you encounter tension from anticipation, simply return to one or more of the exercises until calmness and confidence are restored, then try a change again.
Our goal is not to take away your horse’s desire to perform a change, but only to ask him to wait for your aid and perform it when you ask.
The Exercises:

First, test your horse’s balance and the effectiveness of your aids by riding canter-trot-canter transitions and canter-walk-canter transitions on a 20m circle. Make sure each transition is balanced, supple and straight, with no resistance. When this goes smoothly, you are ready for work on the diagonals.

1) Canter-trot-canter: Proceed in collected canter across a diagonal with a transition to trot at x, then at the end of the diagonal, strike off again on the new canter lead. Repeat from the other direction. Next, ride a change of lead through the trot over x, also from both directions. Ask yourself: “Is my horse balanced and straight in both transitions? Is there any resistance?” If so, go back to the work on the circle, or try adding a 10m circle in the trot at x, before striking off into the new canter. This re-directs the horse’s attention and asks him to wait, balance and focus.

2) Simple change on the diagonal: In collected canter tracking right, head across the diagonal, and ride a 10m volte to the right at x, followed by a simple change, continuing across the diagonal on the left lead. Repeat from the left lead. Variation: canter on the right lead across the diagonal. At x, ride a 10m volte right, followed by a simple change, the immediately a 10m volte left, then canter the remainder of the diagonal.
When this goes well, try a collected canter on the diagonal and a simple change at x, without the 10m circles.

3) Counter-canter followed by simple change: Ride across the diagonal in collected canter, and continue in counter-canter through the corner. Ride a simple change in the middle of the short side. Variation: continue in counter-canter through the second corner as well, and ride the simple change in the middle of the long side.
4) Transitions within the canter on a diagonal: Ride across the diagonal in collected canter. Ride a few steps of medium canter over x, then collect again and ride counter-canter through the corner. Ask for a simple change in the middle of the short side, or continue in counter-canter through both corners and ride the simple change on the long side.

Once your horse is more attentive and on your aids from these exercises, you can begin to replace some of the simple changes with flying changes. Praise him profusely when he waits for your aids and performs a nice, balanced change. Be prepared to go immediately back to some of the exercises if he begins anticipating again. It is useful to alternate or combine the exercises, so that your horse does not know in advance whether he will be asked for a simple change, a flying change, or a transition.
Once you have attained a successful result, leave the changes for the day and move on to something else entirely, or better yet, reward your horse by ending the day’s session. Before long, you will have a calm, attentive horse who waits for your aids.
Happy Riding!

“How do I get a more elastic trot?” (Dressage Today, April 2015)

Reader Question: Could you give me some exercises that make my horse’s trot strides slower and more elastic, with more depth to the gait? I do get slowness, but feel the elasticity isn’t there. What should I work on?

Before addressing the elasticity, let’s look at possible reasons why you feel the need to slow your horse’s trot. Generally, a hurried trot tempo has many sources, most commonly: tension, over-active driving aids, or faulty balance. In the first scenario, tension could be caused by factors such as reaction to environmental stimuli, fear, pain, or confusion by the rider’s aids. Or you simply have a horse who is genetically “hot” and sensitive, tending to hurry when pressured. Once you can identify and help your horse through his source of tension, the more likely he will relax his mind, body, and tempo.
In the second case, the rider hurries the horse out of his natural tempo by aggressive or unceasing driving aids. This often happens when the rider feels the horse is not in front of her leg, and can cause a vicious-circle: The rider feels insufficient reaction to the leg, therefore drives with every stride. The horse thus becomes even more dull, which perpetuates the cycle. In this case, first make sure the horse is round and supple over his back, and that you are inviting him to seek a contact out toward the bit, keeping your wrists and hands soft. (see more on “throughness”, below).
Check that you are sitting in balance, with proper shoulder, hip and heel alignment, with relaxed seat and legs. Use your legs only when asking the horse for something, such as to move off more energetically in the trot. In-between, keep your aids neutral. To “test”, try going from a passive, “neutral” leg to an activating leg and then be alert: you must immediately react. Either reward a good response by quickly relaxing the aids, or follow up a non-response with a tap of the whip or bump of the leg. In other words, be clear in what you are asking for and quick to either reward or correct your horse. Your aids will become precise and more meaningful to him.
In the third scenario, rushing can be caused by the horse’s balance having fallen to the forehand. To help relieve the forehand, ride frequent half-halts and transitions. The moment you feel the horse take a bit more weight behind, soften the hand to allow the forehand to lighten. Ride frequent transitions within gaits and in-between gaits. Further improve the balance by adding shoulder-in, which supples the hindquarters, creating more “carrying” and thus a slower tempo. Keep in mind that slowness due to inactive hindquarters is never correct.
To develop elasticity in the trot, you’ll need to address both lateral (side-to-side) suppleness and longitudinal (back-front) suppleness, and frequently alternate the two throughout each ride. Elasticity can be defined as the ability or tendency to stretch or contract the musculature smoothly, giving the impression of “stretchiness” or “springiness”. I also like to think of it as “looseness”.
Stretching long and low, transitions between gaits, transitions within gaits and half-halts help develop longitudinal suppleness, while circles and bent lines, shoulder-in, travers/renvers and half pass improve lateral suppleness. (actually, you will find that shoulder-in, when correctly ridden, is useful in both). An example of combining the exercises is as follows. Be creative and ‘listen’ to your horse’s responses as you work together.
After you have loosened your horse’s muscles and achieved a round, lifted back through careful warming up and stretching, begin in working trot. Ride energetically forward to establish the activity of the hindquarters, keeping the same tempo. Now, ask the horse to collect for a few strides, maybe 6 or 7, reward, and again ask him to move out. Ride several of these transitions, until they happen smoothly and without resistance. Not only does this help develop longitudinal suppleness, but also strengthens your horse’s hindquarters and balance by alternating pushing and carrying power. This work also improves “throughness”, the ability transfer energy from the hindquarters forward towards the bit and from the bit back to the hindquarters, without any resistance, stiffening or dropping of the back.
Now, add some bending work such as voltes and serpentines, making sure your horse bends according to the line you are riding and that the shoulders or quarters do not escape in or out. Picture the horse’s spine lying directly on top of each line. Again ride a few transitions within the trot, followed by shoulder-in or leg-yield. Change direction and repeat the exercises. Now add travers/renvers or half pass (according to your horse’s level of training) followed again by some forward-back transitions or transitions between gaits, such as trot-canter-trot, or canter-walk-canter. For more advanced horses, transitions within the canter, such as collected to “very collected” and back again, are quite helpful.
Remember to give your horse frequent walk breaks and/or “stretchy” trot circles in-between this work. Avoid riding the same bend, direction or stride length for long periods of time, since this can cause muscle fatigue, tension and loss of elasticity, not to mention boredom and frustration. If the horse stiffens his back or drops it entirely during the work, you’ve lost the “bridge” over his back, and he will likely become tense, shorten his strides, or lose the supple contact. A simple remedy is to go back to rising trot and offer him to lower his neck and stretch forward and down into the contact, until you feel his back raise and swing again.
If you carefully ‘weave” these exercises into one another, you will be surprised by how much more elastic and expressive your horse’s trot becomes. Your friends may even think you got a new horse!

“Ask the Experts: Memorizing a Dressage Test” (Dressage Today, February 2014)

Several weeks before the show, Read through your test until you can recite it in your head, say it out loud, or write it down, with no mistakes.  You may need to do this in stages, such as once in the morning, once before going to sleep at night, again in the morning, etc. depending on your learning style. 

Now, do some or all of the following, depending on your learning style:

– Recite the test to a friend, having her follow along.

– Stand at the “A” end of the dressage arena and visualize riding your test, start to finish.

– Mark out an area on your living room floor, or use an actual dressage arena, to “ride” through your test on foot, complete with trot, canter, walk, etc. Include the half halts, changes of bend, etc.

– Watch others ride the test (caution: if you watch a rider who goes off course, it may disrupt your memorization, so be careful when choosing this option)

After you have memorized it, letters and all,  practice recalling just the main parts of the test minus the letters, for example, in training level test 3:  say to yourself:  “salute, track left, trot loop, canter, circle, trot, walk”, then: ”trot loop, canter, circle, trot, stretchy circle, centerline, halt”. This simplifies the test in your head, especially since by now, you know at which letter to perform each movement.

Whether you recite your test in your head, out loud, on paper, while looking at the arena, or while “riding” the test on foot, be sure to include your preparations for movements and figures. In other words, picture riding the preparatory half halts, changes of bend, etc. For example, you might say to yourself: “Trot loop is next.  Check impulsion, half-halt, change the bend, re-balance, change bend again”, etc. If you include this in your visualization, you are more likely to ride it that way on show day.

Practice, practice, practice! Ride through the test on your horse multiple times, several weeks before the show so that you can almost do it in your sleep!

If your horse is clever and anticipates the movements/figures, don’t ride through the test every day, but ride short sections of it at a time. You could also borrow a friend’s horse to get even more practice.

While riding your test, think ahead to the next movement while riding the current one. For example, in First Level, test 3, while starting the trot loop, tell yourself: “Canter depart and circle are next”, then focus immediately on the present movement, such as the quality of the trot, accuracy of the loop, quality of the bend, etc.  Some people need to mentally look ahead by one movement, some by two or more.   You must experiment to find the right formula which works for you.

Keep in mind that many entry-level riders usually do one of two things: They ride accurately but mechanically from movement to movement, forgetting about the quality, such as impulsion, connection, “thoroughness”, bend, etc.

Or, riders focus on the quality, but then ride inaccurately or forget the test. The goal is to do both!

I remember riding a test in which my horse felt so wonderful, I actually said to myself, “wow! This is going really well!” As you can probably guess, I lost my focus and nearly went off course in the next movement!


Day of the show:

1 – Review your test again, using one or more of these methods.

2 – Keep a copy of the test in your pocket, in case you need to check it again before riding it.

3 – Keep a test-reader “on call”, and use her during your test if you are still unsure.  The judge will not penalize you for this. Many riders employ a caller as a “safety net”, only listening if they are lost.

4 – Review the basic pattern one more time, while putting on your coat or while your horse is relaxing at a walk, while the rider ahead of you is entering the space around the show arena. Then relax and take some slow, deep breaths.  Pat your horse.  You are ready!

5 – While riding your test, look up at the arena and the letters.  Look ahead, and not at your horse’s ears. 

6 – Remember: find a balance between knowing where you are going, and riding quality into each movement! This is how you will do well!

7 – If you DO get lost during your test, don’t panic! Just head towards the judge at C and she/he will direct you back on course.  Make sure you clearly understand where you need to go before calmly resuming. 

At the end of your test: salute, smile, pat your horse, and rejoice.  You did it!

Brief History and Career Highlights (so far!)


This condensed article is for those who have asked for more information about my background and how I got started in dressage. It has been and continues to be a wonderful journey…enjoy!


Brief History and Career Highlights (so far!)

I began riding at age 14, and bought my first horse a year later with money earned from babysitting.

After taking 2 years of basic English riding lessons, I was drawn to dressage, and began riding with Diana Mukpo, one of few women to train at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria.  She had established her riding school in Colorado, where she stressed classical rider position as it was taught in Vienna. Consequently, I spent many hours on the longe without stirrups, learning the correct seat, and un-learning my bad habits. At age 17, I began teaching longe lessons at the school.  I also showed some of the school’s horses, including Diana’s Lipizzaner stallion, Maestoso Drala, receiving my first score above 70%.

It was through Diana that I met the late Herbert Rehbein, Germany’s most renowned dressage master. Diana had two horses at his barn in Germany, and invited me to visit her.  I took a semester off from my studies at CU Boulder and headed overseas.  I was 20 years old.

While at Mr. Rehbein’s stable near Hamburg, he offered me a horse to ride, after which he invited me to stay as long as I wished. I took another semester off from CU and stayed for 6 months, riding and learning.

During my stay, I picked out a nice 5 year-old Hanoverian gelding, “Gran Chaco”, for my friends, Nick and Mary Brisbane.  I had met them during a young rider “testing” in Colorado, where I had won the ride on their thoroughbred mare.  When the mare sadly developed health issues, they allowed me to choose a new young horse, which I began training.

After importing Chaco to Colorado, I rode in a clinic with Olympian, Robert Dover. After the lesson, he invited me to train with him in California, and I was delighted, spending the next three months near Los Angeles, training and showing.  I would repeat this pilgrimage for many winters, although all of the next winters were spent in Florida.  I gained experience training, teaching, and showing on the big Florida Circuit.  The FEI classes were huge: it was common then to have 40 horses in a Prix St. Georges/Int. 1. Chaco and I did well, and in great company

At age 23, I was offered the position of head dressage trainer at a stable in New York.  Accepting the opportunity, I packed up Chaco and my little schnauzer, “Walter”, and headed east.  There I would live, teach and train for the next 15 years, making the yearly trip to Florida with clients and training horses. During the summers, I lived in New York, riding, teaching, and reading a lot of dressage books.

I had never had the luxury of a “schoolmaster”, and therefore trained all of my horses.  This took more time, but opened my eyes to different training methods and taught me to be sensitive to the needs of each horse. I also honed my teaching skills, since, like the horses, each student has a slightly different learning style, so I adjusted. 

During my time in New York and Florida, I had trained and shown Chaco to the Intermediare-II level, and then sold him for the Brisbanes. After the sale, my friends in New York, the Millers, offered to provide me with a new young horse.  The result was a whirlwind trip to Germany, where we ended up with a beautiful Trakehner mare for Paula, and a very special 5 yr. old mare named Dia, for me.

Over the next 6 years, I trained Dia to the Grand Prix level, under the tutelage of FEI rider Steve Kanikkeberg.  Dia and I competed successfully in New York and Florida, as well as the Devon Horse show, where we placed 3rd in the Prix St. Georges and 4th in the Int-1, out of 60 horses. At that time I often flew to Germany on buying trips and to attend the famous Aachen Horse Show, usually sitting in the judge’s box and learning from the international judges.  I had begun my judging path at age 23, over time earning the USEF ‘r’, ‘R’, and ‘S’ ratings. I also enjoyed watching my students learn and succeed, especially when Paula earned her Silver Medal on Fiora.

As Dia’s training progressed, I returned to Germany with her, to train and compete.  Unfortunately, Dia was injured after only 8 weeks, but luckily I could continue training on other horses while she recovered.  I stayed in Germany for 6 months, training first with former Spanish Olympic team coach Jan Bemelmans, and later with my Belgian friend and trainer, Jan Nivelle. I would make many more such trips, most of them buying horses with clients.

Each trip to Europe was filled with intense learning. Every good rider and trainer I watched, every horse I rode, every training conversation I had, opened my eyes and exposed me to the best training in the world.  I watched wonderful riders compete at the Aachen horse show, year after year.  I rode many, many sale horses in Germany and Holland, and learned how different people train. I watched training sessions and show warm-ups, notably the great Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer coaching Isabelle Werth, Dr. Reiner Klimke warming up the imposing “Biotop” in Muenster, Germany, and Rudolph Zeilinger preparing himself and his students for tests.  I watched and learned at the Young Horse Championships in Germany, and discussed riding theory with different trainers. I traveled to Vienna, Austria to watch Hans Riegler ride and train the Lipizzaners, and to Paderborn, Germany, to watch Hubertus Schmidt ride and teach. I absorbed and learned, slowly forming my own riding, teaching and training style.

During one of these trips, I found Gepetto, a 2 ½ yr.-old Oldenburg gelding, descended from Grundstein, who I later trained to the FEI level.  While signing the deal on a beer glass coaster, the breeder, Werner Schockemoehle, offered me a job at his stable in Germany, training his horses.  It was a tempting offer, but I now had responsibilities to sponsors and clients, so I returned to New York.

During those memorable 15 years in New York and Florida, I was exposed to wonderful teachers, including the great Harry Boldt (German Olympic Gold medalist and team coach), Kyra Kirklund (Swedish Olympic rider and World Cup winner), Arthur Kottas (head rider at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna).  After a lesson with Mr. Kottas, he suggested I come to Austria to ride and train. It was another great opportunity, but again, I felt compelled to stay at home to work with my students and horses.

After almost 14 years on the east coast, I accepted a year-long position at a breeding farm in the Midwest, where I trained, showed and imported Dutch warmbloods, both for competition and breeding.  I again wintered in Florida with 9 horses, training and competing. During that time, I received 2 new offers for teaching/training positions, one of which was in my home-state of Colorado.  What a wonderful time to return to Colorado, after nearly 15 years away…the timing was perfect!

I worked for the next 7 years at Paragon Equestrian Center in Berthoud, Colorado, helping plan the new facility and watching it grow.  I imported many horses, mostly schoolmasters, as well as Napali, as a talented 5-yr old. Currently, I teach and train at Somerset Farms and Blue Roof Equestrian Center, both in Colorado.

In November of 2012, I flew to Stuttgart, Germany, passing the exam for FEI 3* which took place at the German Masters.  During the first year, I officiated at CDI’s in the U.S. and scheduled multiple international trips, both for judging and clinics. 

I continue to teach instructors and students of all levels, on both coasts and in-between.  Many have earned their USDF gold, silver and bronze medals. Some have become trainers, and many have won or placed in Regional Finals, U.S. Junior Championships and NAYRC. I have trained young horses from scratch, re-educated poorly-trained ones, and kept schoolmasters tuned for their owners.

Over the years, I have imported 25 horses from Germany and Holland, usually accompanying clients to help them find their perfect partners.

I look forward to continued growth for my horses, students, and myself.  I have made lifetime friends over the years, and am excited about the future.

Most of all, I have the horses to thank.  They have provided so many opportunities and have taught me so much, especially patience, humility and self-reflection. Their kindness is truly remarkable and they are, to me, the real teachers.

S.H. October 2013

Improving Half Pass

I recently taught a group of talented and enthusiastic riders in the Seattle area, and remember one rider performing lovely half passes to the left, but having trouble achieving enough bend and suppleness to the right. Her horse stiffened, and she resorted to trying to push him sideways, losing the bend and suppleness.
I remembered an old exercise I used to practice and teach years ago, which did wonders for suppling the horse behind the saddle and creating more flexibility and bend. It was also great for coordination, reminding the rider to use both legs.
This exercise is intended for horses performing a minimum of solid third level work, showing reliable collection and balance.

Tracking right in collected trot, ride shoulder-in right on the long side from M to B. At B, turn right across the arena to E in Travers (haunches-in) right. At E, carefully turn left, maintaining the right bend and continuing in Renvers (haunches out) down the long side to K. Continue in Renvers through the corner and turn left onto the centerline, maintaining the renvers.
Once on the centerline, immediately straighten the horse, ride a few steps of right shoulder-fore, and proceed in half-pass to the right, from the centerline to the rail.

You will be surprised at how fluid the half pass becomes!

Keep in mind that these turns are fairly steep and require adequate collection and balance, and that each movement is performed in the same bend.
Most riders find that the half pass gets much better, especially since these more challenging turns and movements tend to supple the horse nicely, and prepare him for the bend required in the half pass. They also remind the rider to keep the inside leg on in the half-pass, which is challenging for many riders. Give it a try!

Muddy the Quarter Horse

I gave a clinic in Kalispell, Montana last weekend. I’ve been going there for years, and it’s always nice to see everyone again. One highlight this time was a quarter horse named “Muddy”, who belongs to my friend Laurie Baldwin.

Muddy is a handsome fellow who has suffered from metabolic issues and resulting muscle stiffness. He moves nicely, despite a rather high croup, low shoulders and neck, and rather straight hind legs, making dressage work a bit more challenging for him than more “uphill” types.  Each time I see Muddy, he has improved in suppleness and balance.  Laurie and her excellent trainer, Linda Snyder, have been diligent in their attention to engagement, throughness and straightness, helping Muddy find balance in his work.

This last time, however, Muddy was even better.  He was more expressive in his gaits.  He had a lovely, cadenced trot showing “uphill” balance, and his canter was nicely collected and no longer appeared to be doing the “breast-stroke” with his front legs.  He was schooling flying changes, passage, and working canter pirouettes.  I asked Linda what she and Laurie had been doing with Muddy to bring about these changes.  The horse had become stronger from daily basic work including countless transitions, and she had taught him passage from the ground with Laurie in the saddle, which she had already shown me during the previous clinic. This taught him how to lift his forehand. Laurie would ask for collected trot, and Linda would assist from the ground with an in-hand whip, tapping him lightly at different places, until he responded by offering a few very cadenced steps. He immediately received a treat, then they would repeat it. He soon learned and enjoyed doing these steps.  Soon Linda could ask for them from the saddle, without assistance, and used them to improve his basic collected trot by riding many transitions within the trot.

Laurie also routinely warms Muddy up in long-lines, where she supples him first, and then asks for various movements without the rider’s weight in the saddle. This has made a big difference.  Muddy, who tends to stress and stiffen a bit when things get challenging for him, performs shoulder-in, leg-yield, travers, etc, on the long lines with more looseness through his body and expression in his gaits. Then Linda gets on and continues the session under saddle, asking gradually for more collection but trying to maintain the looseness. The result is lovely!

Linda and Muddy scored 67% at third level in their last show, and that was with some “pilot error”, according to a smiling Linda.  I do not profess to be an expert on long-lining, quite the contrary, but always find it interesting when riders work through challenging phases in their horse’s training by being open-minded and creative.  Muddy is a great example of how good training can improve a horse and bring out his best. Nice job, Linda, Laurie, and of course, Muddy!


Debbie McDonald Clinic

This past Monday, Debbie McDonald visited Somerset Farms in Longmont, Colorado, to give a one-day clinic. It was a great follow-up to lessons I had with her in Florida this past winter.
Debbie was, as always, kind, professional, and helpful to all. She improved every rider, focusing with many on developing self-carriage and not, as she put it “allowing the horse to fall forward like a snowball rolling downhill”.
Some riders were reminded to soften their arms and hands, and to not “hang” on the reins. All riders, regardless of level, were asked to practice transitions, both between gaits and within gaits, in order to improve “throughness” and balance. Debbie payed close attention to the quality of the walk, making sure the horses were relaxed while carrying themselves forward. She did not allow even the simplest upward transition to be performed until the rider had the horse balanced and “through” in the lower gait. The same was true for the downward transitions. Riders had to balance and prepare their horses using carefully ridden half halts before asking for these transitions. Rider’s positions were also corrected, to my delight, as I have always felt that a rider who is out of position/alignment or is out of balance can never fairly ask the horse to be in balance.
Overall, it was a wonderful clinic, filled with gems of wisdom and much encouragement. Thank-you, Debbie, for a great learning experience for all! S.H.

Improving trot-canter transitions

Last Saturday I judged and taught a Ride-A-Test clinic at Autumn Hill Equestrian Center in Longmont, Colorado. Attendance was good, with 20 riders entered. Each first rode a test of his/her choice, and then received commentary and a 10-minute “mini lesson”. Tests ridden ranged from the new Rider Tests to the Prix St. Georges. Although there were some lovely performances, a recurring theme that day seemed to be “thoroughness” and connection, even at the higher levels. Many riders had problems with transitions between gaits, especially trot to canter. I’d like to outline a simple exercise I use frequently to help riders whose horses routinely come above the bit or against the hand in these transitions.

Start in a trot on the 20-meter circle, focusing on the correct tempo, bend, balance and round, soft connection to the outside rein. When this is achieved, gradually decrease the size of the circle to 12-15 meters. After the horse gets comfortable on this new, smaller circle, gradually begin leg-yielding back out to the 20-meter circle, carefully maintaining the same balance and soft connection.

Before reaching the 20 meter circle and while still leg-yielding out, ask for the canter and notice what happens. Most horses stay in steadier balance and are less likely to hollow their backs or come about the bit in the transition. This is because during the exercise, the rider focuses on using the inside leg toward the outside rein, which helps keep the horse balanced and connected, especially if she remembers to soften the inside hand during the transition. Although the outside leg gives the aid for the strike-off, it is the inside leg to outside rein connection which maintains the balance and connection. This simple exercise often results in riders getting fewer comments like “above bit” or “hollow in transition.”

Try this and let me know if it works for you!


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sandra C. Hotz


Judging: Same comment but different score – why?

While judging some smaller shows these past two weekends, I was quizzing my scribes and “sit-in” judges about movements which show similar problems but receive different scores. For example, two different horses can receive the same comments on a movement, but one horse can score higher than another on that movement. Why? The answer is this: Quality.

For example, let’s take two horses performing shoulder-in left at second level.

Let’s say the comment on both reads something like: “needs clear bend” or “quarters drift to outside”. The first horse, however, shows a high-quality trot and good basics, like steady rhythm and tempo, good energy, balance, elasticity, and connection. On this horse, I’m already starting with a high score in my mind, which will come down a point or two because of the bend issue. Let’s assume that our second horse has problems with the rhythm, energy, balance or connection, or lacks elasticity or adequate “uphill tendency” for the level. If there are already inherent problems with the quality of trot, then the score in my head is already lower to begin with, and will be lowered further due to the same bending issues. Therefore, the final score for the shoulder-in could differ by one or more points between the two horses simply due to the difference in quality.

At this point, the question usually comes up: “Do I need a fancy horse to do well in dressage?” My answer is always a resounding “no!”. While it certainly helps having a horse with high-quality gaits, an average-moving horse, ridden well and in good balance, often wins out over one with better gaits but showing poor basics or sloppy riding.

Just another reason to practice the basics, every day, at every level!

Happy Riding!


Ft. Collins Clinic

A big thanks goes out to Mimi White at Stonegate Farm in Ft. Collins, Colorado, for hosting my one-day clinic on Sunday, April 21st. The clinic was filled with wonderful, enthusiastic riders with nice horses, many of whom are students of Jessica Greer. The day was full and eyes were opened to more ways of achieving suppleness, straightness and harmony. Kudos also to the pot-luck team for bringing excellent munchies, most notably, Marie’s now famous peanut-butter and chocolate cookies. Thanks again to Mimi White who provided her hospitality and nice facility, and to the riders, who were fun to work with, as they all made progress with their horses! S.H.

“Ask the Experts: Uberstreichen” (Dressage Today, November 2012)

Literally translated from the German, “uber” means “over”, and “streichen” means “to stroke or pet”.  Put simply, uberstreichen is a slacking of the reins by moving both hands forward along the horse’s neck for several strides, demonstrating that the horse is in self carriage. During this release, the tempo, balance and outline should not change. It can also be a test of diagonal connection and bend by releasing just the inside rein for several strides while on a curved line, the goal being that the bend and balance remain the same during the release.  In both cases, the reins are softly taken back up afterward.

Uberstreichen differs from the exercise “allowing the horse to chew the reins forward and downward”, which involves opening the fingers and encouraging the horse to lower and stretch his neck out into the bit.

Both exercises are important in dressage training, and I encourage riders to make frequent use of them in every training session.  While the former helps to increase balance, confidence and collection, the latter improves the horse’s physical and mental relaxation.


We can use uberstreichen to test not only the horse’s longitudinal balance, but also his straightness and confidence, as well as the rider’s own balance, symmetry, and independent use of the aids.

For example, if, during uberstreichen, the horse falls to the forehand and/or changes the rhythm or tempo, it tells the rider that the horse was not properly balanced before the release. That is, perhaps the horse lacks engagement or activity, pushes the hind legs out behind, or the rider habitually holds him together with the reins.  Any of these can cause the loss of balance, and indicate to the rider that the basic work needs improvement.

If the horse drifts to one side or assumes a crooked position during uberstreichen, it tells the rider that she needs to improve straightness by aligning the horse’s shoulders and hips, which in itself will improve the balance and allow the horse to come more “through” from behind.

If the horse stiffens or hollows his back during uberstreichen, it shows the rider that she may not have the horse correctly connected from back to front, that is, directed from an effective seat and leg toward a soft, receiving hand. It can also mean that the rider needs to improve the quality of the half- halts, when applied before the release.

Half-halts serve to improve the horse’s balance, and act as a “call to attention”, preparing him for upcoming turns, figures, changes of gait, etc.  To perform a half-halt, the rider grows taller in the saddle, firming her middle position, or “core”.  She lightly closes her legs or activates him a bit more with them if necessary, and closes her fingers around the reins.  This is immediately followed by a relaxing of the aids, which is the final phase of the half halt.  The entire action lasts but a few seconds, and if the rider uses the aids in the right proportion and with a timely release, the horse’s balance momentarily shifts toward his hind quarters.  If, however, the half-halt lacks forward intent or the rider dominates with the hand or sustains the aids too long, it will have the opposite effect of hollowing the back and disengaging the hind legs. (Half-halts take time and practice to master!)

That being said, it is not necessary to ride a half-halt each time before performing uberstreichen, especially if the rider feels that the horse is already in self-carriage. The rider simply uses it as further proof of the horse’s balance, and/or to reward the horse.


Uberstreichen is an excellent opportunity for riders to test their own body balance and symmetry in the saddle. It encourages an independent seat and often cures riders who habitually hang on the reins for support.  Can the rider, during the release, continue to sit in the middle of the saddle with long, relaxed, draped legs, supple lower back and hips, elongated upper body and stable torso? The release creates more confidence in the rider by encouraging body-balance, as well as moves the focus from the horse’s mouth to the feeling of the horse’s body swinging underneath her. This can be life-changing for some riders.

Additionally, uberstreichen is a wonderful tool to increase confidence in the horse.  Even a younger horse can benefit, although it is typically used for horses which are a bit further along and already have a concept of self-carriage.  Generally, horses dislike being out of balance, as it results in stress and tension.  At liberty, horses are well-balanced on their own, but when we add the weight of the rider, this balance changes and poses difficulties for the horse. The rider’s job, through correct and systematic development of his muscles and mind, is to not only re-establish the horse’s balance under saddle, but also to improve upon it, thus lightening the forehand over time.  Uberstreichen, when included in the training program, gives the horse momentary rewards where he can carry his rider in balance, which in turn instills confidence.  A balanced horse is a happy horse, in-tune with his rider.


When do we use uberstreichen? The answer is: often! As good, conscientious riding employs countless transitions, uberstreichen may be used in conjunction with them. For example:

-After half-halts, to check their effectiveness.

-After downward transitions, such as from medium trot or canter back to collection.

-After transitions within a gait, such as from collected canter to very collected canter or from collected trot to half steps.

-During very collected exercises such as piaffe or canter pirouettes.

-Anytime the rider wants to test the horse’s balance or when he/she wishes to reward the horse for achieving it.


In essence, uberstreichen is a wonderful tool, giving the rider valuable feedback and improving communication and harmony.

Use it often and enjoy the results!

“Ask the Experts: Showing After a 15 Year Hiatus” (Dressage Today, November 2011)

Congratulations on your decision to start showing again after 15 years!

You will be happy to know that our sport has grown tremendously since you last came down the centerline.

At today’s shows, we tend to see higher-quality horses, better riding and training, and larger classes at all levels. More riders, both amateurs and professionals, are moving their horses up the levels, and we see greater numbers of entries at the FEI levels than ever before.

We also have a plethora of quality shows to choose from, run by more experienced, knowledgeable management staff. Shows tend to run better on time and have better stabling and footing, due in part to USEF rules, USDF educational materials, and more comprehensive feedback systems.

Due to the greater number of shows being offered, riders can be pickier about which ones they wish to attend, so the higher-quality, better-managed shows have prospered.

Judging has also become better and more consistent, due to an ever-growing and improving judges training program, of which we have one of the best in the world. Don’t be surprised if you find more comments on your test sheets than you had in the past, as judges are encouraged to give riders more feedback, especially for scores of 6 or below.

As far as rules changes are concerned, I strongly suggest you consult a copy of the new USEF Rules, as many have changed considerably over the years.

Some notable changes are: one may use a double bridle in third level tests, or a snaffle in FEI tests* at national competitions. (Exceptions are published in the USEF Rulebook) Whip length has changed, and then changed again:  currently whips may be up to 120 cm long. The time allowed to enter that arena after the judge rings the bell is now 45 seconds instead of 60, and riders up to first level may now wear half chaps, as long as they are brown or black, and of smooth leather/leather-like material.

Errors have also changed: you may now accrue only two errors, with elimination upon the third.

Another notable change is that protective headgear, although always allowed in the past, has become more popular and accepted among both amateurs and professionals.

It is not unusual to see an FEI rider performing a test wearing a tailcoat together with a helmet.

As for the new tests, effective December 1st, 2010, several changes have been made.

First, we now have only three tests per level. Riders may post the trot in all tests up to first level, and the difficulty of the fourth level tests has been reduced, making them more “horse-friendly” and not as close in difficulty to the Prix St. Georges.

Also, the Collective Marks have changed. The “Gaits” score no longer has a coefficient, and the “Rider” score (still worth a possible 30 points) has been divided into three sub-scores, worth a possible ten points each: Rider’s position and seat, Rider’s use of aids, and Harmony between rider and horse .This gives judges a way to more thoroughly assess a rider’s performance, and to give the rider more accurate feedback.

In short, much has changed in our sport in the last 15 years, and you are wise to educate yourself on the rule and protocol changes. I wish you luck at your next show, and hope that you have a wonderful experience. Happy showing!

“The release: letting the aids breathe” (Dressage Today, March 2009)

One of the most significant things I have learned over the years is the importance of the release.

Not a big fan of the “hold and drive until your arms turn numb and your legs fall off” method, I prefer my horses to be light to the aids.  The most effective tool, I have found, is the release.

This momentary ‘giving up’ of the aids after every driving aid, half halt, straightening aid, directional aid, bending aid, aid to stop, rein back, make a flying change, quicken the hind leg, etc. is so important in keeping a horse light and responsive.  The aid itself poses the question to the horse: “can you listen to this?” The release provides the feedback to the horse that his answer, reaction, or ‘try’ was noticed and appreciated.

The release does not need to be as obvious as giving the reins up to the horse’s ears or lifting the legs six inches off the horse’s sides, holding them there for twenty minutes, but can be as simple as a gentle exhalation while briefly relaxing the muscles of the legs, seat, back and hands.  The horse feels this instantly.

I like to think of it as letting the aid or aids “breathe” for a moment.

The length of time for the release varies, but is usually from a split second to several seconds. I sometimes ride canter pirouettes where I can release most of the way through the pirouette, letting the horse just follow me seat around…. “a divine feeling”, to use the words of the old masters.  It is also fun to develop the piaffe this way. It is a wonderful feeling to have a horse piaffe quietly and actively by giving only tiny aids, not having to constantly squeeze, nag, etc. Needless to say, it is also nicer to watch.

Another benefit of using the release is that the horse gains confidence and balance, since he starts seeking more and more moments of release. The corrections become smaller and the releases more frequent, resulting in a horse which is increasingly “on his own” in between increasingly subtle aids. The more the horse comes “through” from behind, the quieter and more sensitive the rider can apply the aids.

I remember years ago, riding in countless important shows where I was too nervous to relax enough in-between giving the aids.  I sometimes wonder how I managed to ride successfully in the FEI tests when sometimes I felt like I was holding my breath through the whole thing!  Imagine how the poor horse must have felt!

The same was sometimes true when I rode with famous and/or demanding trainers and clinicians, where I robotically followed their instruction without using my own sense of “feel” and letting my aids periodically “breathe”. At the end of the lesson the instructor was usually happy, since I could perform pirouettes, changes, piaffe/passage on cue and to their satisfaction.

Unfortunately, I would sometimes go home knowing that I would have to spend days suppling and making friends with my horse again.  Now, I rarely feel the need to “fix” my mistakes after returning home from a show or clinic. Instead, I try to support my horse at the moment he needs it, letting the aids “breathe” in-between. The result is a happy horse who understands what I want and willingly works with me in a relaxed way. What fun!

“Developing Feel” (Topline Ink Equestrian Journal, Sep/Oct 2008)

Have you noticed that some riders seem to ride effortlessly, while others appear to be working harder, even struggling, to accomplish even the simplest requests from their horses?  Have you also noticed that a horse’s way of going often reflects the rider: some being happy and relaxed, while others appear uncomfortable, sour or resolved?

The riders who seem to be in harmony with their horse have developed something called “feel”.  It is almost as if they instinctively know which aids to apply and to which degree and frequency.  Their horses seem almost to read their every thought and movement, even though the rider’s aids are almost invisible. The horses reflect this by working in a relaxed, content but attentive way, totally in tune with the rider.


It is true that some riders are blessed with natural talent and seem, as some say, to be “born on a horse”.  For these riders, learning comes more easily, as the words of their instructors are quickly absorbed and “felt” as a response in the horse. Of course, learning dressage takes much time and practice, even for naturally talented riders.  They too must spend countless hours in the saddle and on various horses, constantly developing their skills.  Learning to develop ‘feel’, however, is something any rider can develop and improve in herself, even if it does not come naturally.  The result is a more conscious rider who applies more subtle, empathetic aids, creating increased harmony with the horse.

In order to develop and improve feel, I recommend four basic steps to start you on your way.


Step One: Develop feel in the rider


Improving body awareness off the horse:


Feel in the rider depends on her ability to isolate muscle groups and be aware of the sensation of muscles relaxing and contracting.  To help develop this skill, I recommend practicing body/mind endeavors like yoga, tai chi, pilates, etc. These practices, especially yoga, put us in tune with our bodies and help identify differences between the left and right side, which is very important when riding a horse.  A good example of this: A rider whose horse tends to drift to one side suddenly learns, through yoga or a related practice,  that she tends to squeeze one of her legs harder than the other.  The horse is simply reacting to her unconscious aid.  When you become in tune with your own body, you will be in a better position to influence your horse and certainly make more sense to him.


Improving body awareness on the horse:


For this, I recommend taking longe lessons.  All one needs is a quiet, reliable horse and a capable trainer with a good eye.  On the longe, the rider can develop the correct seat position, which sets the stage for improving balance and feel.  By performing exercises such as stretching and swinging her arms and legs, plus riding without stirrups and reins, the rider becomes more confident and relaxed, relying less on gripping and tightening and more on balance and suppleness.  This encourages the rider to develop feel.

Another useful exercise, performed at the halt, is to lift one leg at a time, including the thigh, completely off the saddle.  After lifting one leg, gently let it drop down again. Then repeat with the other leg.  Do this several times and notice how the legs lie more relaxed on the saddle, without gripping.  Now try to become aware of different body parts, one at a time: ankles, calves, thighs, knees, hips, torso, shoulders, neck, upper and lower arms, hands.  Gently tense and relax these parts, first at the walk and then the trot and canter.  The result is that you will become more aware of what your muscles are doing at a given moment.  When riding a horse, your muscles must alternately engage and relax.  Being aware of and, ultimately, being in control of this “cycle”, will help you make much progress toward developing feel.



Step Two:  Develop sensitivity in the horse


The most important thing to remember here is:  Less Is More.

Recognize that a horse can feel a fly land on its body and will twitch the skin to flick it away.  However, horses also tend to lean into direct pressure, which one can observe when watching horses in a herd situation or a mare with her foal.  The mare will often brace herself while the foal playfully leans into her.  This tells us that while the horse is very sensitive and can react to very small aids, he can also become ‘dull’, leaning against direct pressure if presented with it.  Because of this, we need to use the lightest aid first and teach the horse to react to and move away from it.  This develops feel, sensitivity and alertness to our aids.  (The rider who only kicks or grips with her legs will make her horse dull, thus negating feel.)

How do we do this? Start at the halt.  Relax your legs. Touch your horse gently with one leg.  If he responds by moving his hindquarters (or his whole body, depending on your intention) slightly away from it, immediately release the leg pressure and praise your horse.  If you don’t get an immediate reaction, do not increase the pressure, but do something a bit different to get his attention:  use either a slight “bumping” leg, a touch with the spur, or a tap with the whip, applied just behind your leg on the same side. Praise again after you get a response. Relax, wait, then try again in the same way.  Usually after a time or two, the horse will learn to respond to the light leg aid. Now try for this reaction on the other side.

After the horse becomes sensitized to these lighter aids, try for other reactions in the same way: Ask your horse to move forward from halt to walk using a light closing of both legs. If you get an immediate response, praise and immediately relax the pressure.   If he does not react, repeat the correction described above.  Repeat until the horse moves off actively but calmly at your first indication. Gradually work toward the same, light response in other exercises, such as leg-yielding at the trot, walk-trot transitions and trot-canter transitions.

The most important thing to remember is that as soon as the horse responds to a light aid, immediately release it by relaxing the muscles used in applying the aid.

The horse can also be made sensitive to the rein aids.  Try using the

softest hand possible, remembering that a horse’s mouth is among the most sensitive parts of his body. Starting at the halt, ask for soft yielding to the hand, slowly, one side at a time, just by closing the fingers and asking for a gentle flexion.  When the horse yields, immediately soften the hand. Repeat on the other side.  This paves the way for a softening response each time you close your fingers. When you learn to coordinate soft rein aids with correct leg, seat and weight aids, harmony and feel develop as a result.



Step Three: Ride different horses

There is an old saying which says, “To appreciate someone else’s riding, get on their horse”.  Every horse feels different to ride, depending on conformation, natural sensitivity and the way it has been ridden or trained.  A wonderful way to (further) improve and develop feel in the rider is to ride as many different horses as possible.  It is true that we learn from lessons and hours in the saddle, but when you get on a different horse, everything can change instantly.  The new horse may react entirely differently from the horse you are accustomed to.  For instance, your own horse may reliably pick up the canter when you use a certain combination of aids. On the new horse, however, you may wish to ask for right lead, and he may pick up the left one.  Perhaps his current rider used slightly different aids than you do. Such differences can make a rider more analytical and thereby increase her feel. I once went horse shopping with a student wanting to buy a school master.  She was an accomplished rider, but had ridden mostly one type of horse.  When she got on the first horse, a beautiful mare which had won many prizes, she asked the horse to trot, but the horse responded by performing a lovely piaffe!  My student could do nothing to get the horse to trot… she only continued to piaffe!  It was as if the horse was speaking Spanish and the rider was speaking Chinese! We learned that the mare had been trained to perform this movement when the rider lightened her seat, which is the same aid my student normally used to get her own horse, a very sensitive thoroughbred, into the trot. The mare’s usual rider deepened her seat slightly to ask for trot, but lightened it for piaffe.  So the horse was only doing what she had been trained to do.  My student did eventually buy the mare, and went on to learn the mare’s “language” with much success.

I must add here that the development of feel suffers greatly when the rider insists on only one way of riding every horse, and forces each one to respond to the aids in the same way.  This type of riding creates only frustration and confusion in horses.  It is the one of the rider’s jobs to determine which aids/timing/intensity work with different horses and in different situations. This is another important application of feel.


Step Four: Let a “feeling” rider get on your horse

Another useful way to improve feel, especially if you have only one horse to ride, is to ask a proficient rider or trainer to periodically get on your horse.  (perhaps she’ll even let you get on one of  hers!)  Riders or trainers who routinely develop horses up the levels of dressage using harmonious training methods can help “tune” your horse, making him more sensitive and alert to subtle changes in seat, weight, leg and rein pressure.  This can give you a new appreciation of how sensitive and balanced your horse can be, and may help increase your development of feel.

Just be wary: not every trainer, even if they have won prizes in competitions, rides with feel.  In fact, you may have more feel than you think!  The best way to decide if the person “tuning” your horse is the right choice for you, get back on your horse for a few minutes after the session and determine whether or not you like the way your horse feels.  If he is more sensitive, balanced and alert to your aids but is still relaxed, great! You can then try to remember this feeling and work toward it the next time you ride on your own.


In conclusion, developing feel in dressage is a worthy goal for every rider.  The skills to develop and increase feel are honed over a lifetime of riding and studying horses, and are vital for those truly seeking harmony . Not only does this make riding more enjoyable, but honors our commitment to the needs of our intelligent, sensitive partner, the noble horse.

“What Judges Would Change…” (Hunter and Sport Horse, March/April 2005)

In the article entitled, “What Judges Would Change”.  Hunter and Sport Horse Magazine, April 2005:


“I would like to see a greater number of riders who are performing tests appropriate to their level of riding.  For example, riders who have trouble sitting, have unsteady hands, and whose horses are uncomfortably hollow-backed and not on the aids are not, in my opinion, ready to show, let alone in the more advanced tests.  (I have seen this at all levels, including FEI). These riders would do better to work more on correct basics at home, and then when they can perform with reasonable correctness and harmony of aids, enter in a test which is at or below their current level of riding.  This takes honest evaluation by a qualified trainer, who is not afraid to let the rider know where he/she actually is and what level can be performed without harming/confusing the horse.  Moving up one level each year is fine, as long as the riding/training is moving up in quality as well.

Additional note: if the horse appears unhappy, the riding needs serious improvement.  When I see a horse in obvious distress due to incorrect/unclear aids and/or poor seat, it makes a negative impression.  I can easily overlook little mistakes within a test, as long as the rider/horse combination appears to be ready for the level entered and can present a harmonious picture.”