Although the following passage is talking about contact, it also refers to lifting the horse’s back and the vital element that is mentioned over and over in classical dressage literature; that of addressing the hind legs first and foremost. Many problems that manifest themselves in the mouth, poll, neck and back are due to the horse not completing the circuit of aids from hoof to hand. As with all items on classical riding, it is not an isolated entity it is only part of the total equation. Another tie-in to this is Straightness.

On a well trained horse, you close your seat, engage the hind legs with your calves, apply a half halt and the horse has to engage, lift his back and drop his poll. On a correction horse, or a very green horse, it takes longer, of course, but the correctly trained horse has to accept all the rider's aids. He has to step underneath himself when the calf asks, rotate his pelvis, lift his back to meet the rider's seat expecting further instruction, expand his rib cage to meet the calves, and drop his poll to meet the rider's hand with his jaw. This is initiated by the rider stretching and closing his seat to be able to absorb and administrate the energy from the hind legs. Then the calf stretches down and asks the hind leg to step under (sending the horse forward). As soon as the hind leg lifts up, the seat asks the grounded hind leg to flex. That causes the pelvis to tuck a little, which in turn causes the back to rise, which in turn causes the withers to rise and the poll to drop. All that happens within the first stride or two. This does not have to happen in absolute flawless perfection, but there has to be a basic willingness and readiness for communication and co-operation there.

During the warm up you then proceed to remove whatever friction and unbalance there is, but when you sit, drive, and pick up the reins, the horse should not stick his head up in the air and brace against you. If that happens, the calf has to bring the hind leg that is causing the resistance underneath the centre of gravity so the weight of the rider can bend it. When that happens, the resistance will disappear. For too many people getting the neck into a certain "frame" is the ultimate goal of their "training", and all of their efforts are spent to manipulate the head and neck carriage. In reality, the head and neck carriage are like the fever thermometer that indicates your body temperature. The head and neck of the horse inform the rider of the tension or relaxation in the back and hind legs. If you have a fever, and you drill a hole into the thermometer, the read-out will drop, but the fever will still be there. The same thing applies to the horse. If we manipulate the head and neck alone, we may succeed in getting them into a "frame", but the stiffness and resistance in the hind legs and the back is still there, so we have not only accomplished nothing, but we have also robbed ourselves of an important measuring instrument.

Therefore, from day one of the horse's training, and in each lesson as soon as we get in the saddle, we have to feel and address the hind legs. If they step underneath the centre of gravity and articulate in their joints, the connection through the top line will be established, including the swinging back and the relaxed poll. And since gymnastic work is impossible without it, we have to establish this connection as soon as we get on the horse. Of course, this connection will feel and look different on a young horse than on a fully trained horse, but each horse has to offer this connection to the best of his individual ability as soon as he is asked to do so. As long as the hind legs are out behind, the croup is up in the air and the back is disconnected, gymnastic development is precluded (even if the horse should be performing Grand Prix movements), and the horse is in the process of breaking down. When the hind legs engage to the best of their ability, the back is swinging, and the energy can flow freely from the hind legs into the mouth and back, we can gymnasticise the horse and build his musculature, while keeping him sound. That's why riding the horse through the poll has to stand at the beginning of all gymnastic work, not at the end.

I find this especially in young horses. They are so willing to move forward as soon as you ask them, and if you merely receive the impulse from the hind leg for a split second elastically in your hand, they will round themselves very quickly and all resistances disappear. Of course, when you ride an 8 year old horse who has already been pulled and cranked on for 5 years, it takes much more work to regain the horse's trust in the rider's seat, legs and hands, before he dares to go forward and let himself fly. These horses have usually learned from experience that if they suspend in the trot, they get slammed in the back by the rider's uncontrolled seat and jerked in the mouth by the rider's hammering hands. Therefore, they have learned that it is much safer for them not to go forward anymore, because the less their back swings and the more they mince their strides, the less their back will get pounded.

An expression that was very common in Germany in the past and that I haven't heard in a long time is that the horse has to learn to trust the rider's hands. In other words, the rider has to have enough self control not to disturb the rein contact by involuntary hand movements. The same thing applies to the seat and legs, which I can't remember hearing about. The horse has to trust especially the rider's seat not to drop like a rock onto his back every stride in the trot. The horse will only raise his very vulnerable back, if he has enough confidence in the rider not to hurt him by bouncing. And the horse will only expand his rib cage to meet the calves if he is not jabbed with a big rowelled spur ever stride. So, one way or another, everything always comes back to the necessity of an impeccable seat. Without it, good riding is impossible.

Dr. Thomas Ritter

I am indebted to Dr. Thomas Ritter for his generosity in permitting me to quote him at length and in excerpts from private conversations and public discussions.

Activating the Hind Legs

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Classical Dressage Notebook


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