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03Dec 14

Behind the vertical is not necessarily behind the bit

It was a revelation to hear trainer Robert Pickles say that you do not necessarily need a warmblood in order to do dressage. There was an interesting variety of horses at Sunday's demonstration, organised by the Cornwall Dressage Group. Being Dutch, I can not help but being proud of the international stamp the Dutch breeding world has put on the equine sports, specifically on show-jumping and dressage. However, one could not be but charmed by the first group in which the two bigger cob-crosses moved so well and showed great willingness to put out for their rider.

The littlest one, which did not quite pass the test for conformation and movement stole the show with a ten for character. The very determined jockey on top did a great job, particularly when correcting the canter lead.

I did have my concerns about one of the horses in a later group, which seemed to find great satisfaction into going quite irregular to the point of looking positively lame every time Robert was talking to the audience and therefore wasn't able to see the horse , but completely sound as soon as it felt the eyes of the trainer up on itself. It obviously did not bother the rider as the horse was made to work the entire session.

After the demonstration a friend of a pupil asked my opinion on one of the last more advanced horses. She felt it was behind the bit. It is a complex issue and very difficult to explain, as what is for a more advanced rider a perfectly acceptable and temporary measure to get the horse more up in the back and at the same time more submissive looks wrong for the lesser experienced eye.

My way of explaining is to compare it to a human athlete. Whether it is gymnastics or diving or football. The exercises in order to do the perfect leaps or somersaults or play the best game are entirely different from the end result. Also, for each individual athlete the exercises might have to differ according to what their body needs in order to be in top form. We can look at dressage and how to prepare our horse for a test the same way. The test is around five minutes so we only need to peak for that amount of time. Also, it would be impossible for the horse to work for the entire session like that.

So, first of all, we have to assess the level of our horse in order to decide which exercises to do in order to improve. We then decide in what frame we need to do them so that the horse benefits in such a way that it can peak for a shorter amount of time in the perfect frame with its nose on the vertical whilst tracking up correctly. For a longer possibly more hollow-backed horse or a horse which is easily distracted a deeper frame is temporarily more effective. As long as the horse is tracking up this is may be behind the vertical but not behind the bit. Watch the part of the neck nearest to the shoulder. When that part is positioned more upwards the neck is not able to restrict the movement of the shoulder.

Equally, a horse which is narrower and weaker near the poll might have to work a little higher in order to not 'bury' itself. When it goes on the bit too early in the training session or before a test, the not yet sufficiently developed muscles nearer the poll will not be able to hold the head in the desired position and the horse will drop too deep and become very heavy on the hands

So, a different recipe for each individual horse without ignoring the general rules. I wish the person who asked me this afterwards had asked Robert Pickles, himself. I would have loved to hear his opinion on this subject. Maybe another time.

Also, see blog 27 from August 14: too deep or not too deep?. You can find this in categories dressage and general training.






Hi Liz, very interesting, thank you for answering my question in more detail. In hindsight, I also wish that I had asked Robert the question, would have loved to hear his thoughts. Cheers Sharon
Sharon Mitchell, 23rd December 2014

Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

About Liz Barclay

Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.


My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' with the subtitle 'A Personal Impression of the Development of the Gelderland Horse World' has been received with more enthusiasm than I possibly could have hoped for. Click here to contact me and I will send you a copy. £7.50 + postage, or click here to order from Amazon.