These short snippets have been written by Sue Hughes, a Level III Centered Riding Instructor, USEF Licensed Judge in Western Dressage, Dressage and Eventing, Life Member CHA, Region 2 Director USDF, Retired Clinic Instructor for Certified Horsemanship Association, has participated in Dressage through 3rd Level and Eventing Basic, Novice. Sue has a lifetime of experience working with both horses and riders. 

Sue is also the WDAMI Vice President and is a respected judge and clinician, residing in Plymouth, Michigan.  Thank you, Sue Hughes, for your contributions to the wellness of horses!!!


1: Essential Ligaments

nucal-and-suprasinous-ligKnowledge of the Ring of Ligaments and muscles that envelop the horse’s body is absolutely necessary to understand how to train a horse for success in any given equestrian discipline.

This picture gives us the starting point at the poll where the Nuchal (pronounced nukal) ligament is attached to the first of the 7 cervical vertebrae. It also is attached by ligaments draping down along both sides of the neck to each of those seven vertebrae. 

The Nuchal ligament continues from poll and over the fulcrum of the withers where it blends into and becomes known as the Supraspinous ligament.  This ligament continues to the point of the croup.  These two major ligaments are two of the 3 parts of the dorsal or top line ligaments.

When the head and neck of the horse are stretched forward and downward, the back is raised by these topline ligaments.  This is how and where the horse carries the saddle and the rider.

longissimus back muscleWhen the back is raised, this allows the longissimus back muscles to work in relaxation and remain free yet actively engaged. “Classical masters described the raised poll of collection as being moved both Forward and Upward, using the phrase that  ‘the horse pushes with his forehead’ to describe this action.”  (From Dressage Riders Atlas, by Nancy Nicholson, PhD)

Other references:  Tug of War by Gerd Heuschmann and Balance Gaits and Movement by Susan Harris.


2: Hollow & Straightness

HollowOnRightCrookedness can be caused by an unsoundness on one side – a crooked saddle, a crooked rider, or the fact that the horse thrusts more effectively with one hand leg than the other.  This picture seems to illustrate “natural crookedness” of a horse. It’s natural asymmetry. 

All living creatures are asymmetrical.  When divided down the length of the body, one side is larger, stronger or even higher – as with our own eyes.  This is neither bad nor good.  It just IS.  There is much beauty in asymmetry such as in flower arranging.

The problem is that crookedness feels uncomfortable to we riders and makes it difficult to “partner” with a horse. Steering is a challenge especially traveling counter clockwise as the inner shoulder and the barrel/torso of the horse fall in away from our line, and the head and neck face out.  Traveling clockwise is little better as the rider can hold the horses head to the right knee and the horse still falls over the outside shoulder and will not turn.

To me, the major fix for natural crookedness is to teach the horse to flex laterally at the poll joint, and to show him how to bend at his “hinge” (the girth groove into which our inside legs fit between the back of the shoulder and the front of the ribs)  and thus be able to balance laterally onto both of his outside legs. In “dressage speak” this is called “putting the horse into the outside rein and leg”.

VERY closely related is what we describe as “straightening the horse.”  If a horse is balanced onto his outside two legs on a bending line, he is considered to be “straight” on that line because his back feet follow directly behind his front feet.  He also is considered to be correctly bent because his entire spine follows the arc of the curving line. Hopefully the hind legs now are thrusting more equally.


3: Correct Bend On the Circle


This drawing which illustrates how a horse’s spine should follow the line of a circle opens the discussion on Bending.  

In this drawing, the red line along the horse’s spine shows a problem.  The rider’s inside leg is too far back and is pushing the hindquarters to the outside of the desired line of travel. Note the bright pink arrow.  Additionally, the rider’ outside leg no doubt is not back far enough to support the Turning of the horses outside hind leg.  

As an overview, a horse can shift laterally at 4 major places front to back.  These are at the junctions of the 5 major bony masses:  head, base of neck, between the back of the scapula and the front of the rib cage, and between the back of the rib cage and the front of the pelvis. 

Major Anders Lindgren pointed out to me that the “Hinge” of the body is in the girth groove at the back of the rib cage and the front of the pelvis.  Visualize a door hung on a frame and the metal pieces holding them together.  The hinge pin holding the two together is like the rider’s inside leg.  Therefore, the horse’ body parts in front of the hinge pin and behind it should arc equally for a smooth, continuous, harmonious and correct Bend. 

An application of this for test riding is that an intro, training and first level horse should be able to arc through the corners of the ring following a quarter of the shape of a 10 meter circle.  A second, third and fourth level horse should follow and 8 meter arc, and an FEI horse should have enough lateral suppleness to match a 6 meter arc.


4: See the Bend From the Top


The view from the top of the horse’s shoulders and neck on the left is correct.  This picture shows very subtle details which you need to train your eye to see when you are riding your own horse.  Braiding helps bring the details into sharper focus, but it is not necessary.  You can see these things if you simply believe that you can.

Look first to where the drawing of the shoulders fades away at the bottom.  It is easy to imagine the rider’s inside leg in the girth groove or “hinge” so that the bend of the entire spine originates there. Refer to the previous Blog on bending.

Next, look at the outside shoulder of the horse on the left.  It is reaching around the inside shoulder because it travels farther on the circle line.  It should be easy to imagine that the outside legs are carrying a little more weight than the inside legs.  Notice too that the braids of the mane stay an equal distance away from the outer edge of the drawing all the way to the ears. 

On the right the braids are closer from just in front of the base of the neck all the way to the ears on the outer line.  Particularly note the 6th braid back from the ears on the right horse.  That braid is almost twisted by the nuchal ligament under it in an effort to “make the turn”. On the left at the poll, the flexion is a little more pronounced laterally.  Thus the ears both appear to be coming around the curve equally and are more nearly matching in where they point.

 Look too, at the “tubular neck” shown on the left.  This is the bulge of the muscle on the inside of the neck.  It should bulge evenly as shown on the left from the poll area down into the bass of the neck.  The base of the neck is where the entire neck “plugs” into the front of the trunk of the horse.  The base of the neck is a major point of connection.  It must be kept in the middle of the shoulders by the rider’ knees and thighs which mold or shape it back into alignment. The rider uses the aids only on the bulging side to do this.  The aids on the opposite side momentarily are silent.


5: When Spines Meet

One of the miracles of the interaction between the two species – equine and human – is how the horizontally oriented equine spine and the vertically oriented human spine meet so harmoniously.

The tops of the vertebrae of the equine spine all face towards the rear of its body until the 13th thoracic, the costovertebral joint. That is like a keystone in that it is vertical.  From there back, the tops of the equine spine all face forward until meeting the support of vertical No 13. And it is here, at T13, that the vertically oriented human spine marvelously meets the horizontal equine spine. 


horsehumanspine1Natural balance and harmony should result from this grand plan. Who is most to blame when the plan has glitches?  My opinion is that almost all humans have  a scoliosis or lateral unwanted curvature.  These curves can be anyplace from between the shoulder blades, to the mid back or the low back.  Our first job is to admit they are there, find out approximately where they are and then begin the probably life long work to smooth them out so we can bring ourselves to our horses spines in the most compatible way.  That means that our seatbones should straddle the horses spine so they are equidistant from side to side.  Probably we can get them balanced laterally while standing still.   An effective way to keep them there is to learn to connect an imaginary line diagonally through our torso from the right seatbone to the left shoulderpoint , and then the left seatbone to the right shoulder point.  Usually one comes easily and the other makes us wiggle and twist and tighten and loosen until we can accomplish this.  That can be done while the horse is in motion as well.  Stay with one until your body acknowledges the connection before going to the other.  

CrookedThe drawing of the two stick riders shows only the collapse of the rib cage on the right side of the rider on the left.  However the lean probably is connected to a scoliosis.  Often the description of the illustrated rib cage collapse is deemed to be a “collapsed pelvis”.  For me, since the “fix” does not involve the pelvis, that description is wrong.





6: Cracking the Half-Halt Code

WM01 For a seemingly long time I thought that that the words half halt meant that you were to bring your horse half way to a halt.  This difficulty with words is so prevalent in dressage, but this is the biggest Code Word” and it needs “cracking”

 Who would guess that a half halt actually describes set of muscular contractions and releases done by a rider to communicate with her horse.

 Who would guess that horses can figure out an amazing number of combinations of those moves and Remember that each set means something specific that he is to do. The first one is that when a rider presses her lower legs on the horses’ rib cage, it is supposed to go forward.  How do young horses ever figure that out?  Later the moves come in combinations and series that the horse understands and produces a half pass or a side pass. 

 Not only do the riders’ body parts make requests of the horses’ body, but also, through the reins to the bit in the sensitive mouth  to  horses head, neck and brain. It is best to think of any bit as having two side by side parts.  I refer, then, to the right bit and the left bit. That works for riders who are used to using two hands. Look for a Snippet about rein aids in the future.

 So how does a rider use her body to produce what is called a half halt?

  1. She must be able to move the bottom part of her pelvis forward, backward, sideways and to some degree diagonally.
  2. To move the pelvis there must be something farther down in the body to move against. When standing, it is the feet, but in riding we to use the stirrups as a place to rest our feet, not as a place to brace against. Therefore the riders’ thighs roll inward and stay closed around the upper part of the horses rib cage until her pelvic move is completed.
  3. How long that lasts and how strongly the thighs stay closed depend on the reaction of the horse to this application of the upper leg aids.
  4. The low back muscles help to move the lower part of the pelvis by a down and under push so the tail bone curls under the rider’s body.
  5. The front line of the body both lengthens and widens to bring the pelvic action upward and send energy right out the top of the rider’s head.
  6. In summary, the body usage called a half halt directs the rider to close her thighs, keep them closed so she can tilt the bottom of the pelvis and send energy both forward and upward through her body as well as asking the horse to join her with the exact same movements in his body. When he does, all of the above contractions and movements cease. The half halt is over.

Now the Dressage Code word of Half Halt no longer is a secret code, but something you and your horse can do.  Well, of course, there is more.  There always is in dressage!


7: Engaged

You now know that the words half halt mean that you close your thighs, tilt the bottom of your pelvis forward and stretch your front line.  This tells the horse to do the same with his body. 

The tilt of the horses’ pelvis and the increased articulation (bend) of the 4 joints in his hindquarters is called Engagement. 

piaffeOther signs that engagement has happened that one can see from the outside are:  The cannon bones are more angled when the hoof under it hits the ground:  the rear hooves come father under the horses’ body as they touch the ground; the croup may be seen to lower; the back behind the saddle may be seen to rise; and the hocks stay more underneath the body and do not come as far behind the point of the buttocks during the weight bearing phase of the stride. An observer cannot see all of these manifestations at once, but will learn to spot them as they become apparent. Different horses will express them differently.  .

THIS IS IMPORTANT.  Half halts with the rider’s body, heard by the horses’ body, are the first part of every transition either up or down.

The second part of any transition, up or down, is the responsibility of the riders rein system and speaks to the front limbs and the thoracic sling (interior chest muscles) of the horse.

To repeat.  The rider’s body controls the horses back end, the arms and hands control the front end.

The Rein system starts between the riders shoulder blades, continues down the backs of both arms, flows through the elbows, the outsides of the forearms and wrists and hands, down the reins and through both side of the bit itself. Energy flows through the rein system constantly in larger or smaller quantities and can fluctuate from one direction to another.

When holding the reins, the rider should feel the bit through her elbows as that joint should be the first to recognize a need for a more firm feel or a lighter feel.

If a rider’s forearms bounce up and down, the cause almost always is that her shoulder blades have lifted and probably locked there.  “Heavy shoulder blades followed by heavy elbows” almost always will stabilize the forearms.  The upper arms of the rider should find a “home” where they hang down the middle of the torso/rib cage. After leaving this spot, they should return until the next need to leave this  “home base”. 

If more contact is needed, a slight drawing back of the elbow will work.  When doing that, notice that the muscles along that side of the back of the torso become more firm all the way down to the seat bone on that side.  This is one way in which the arm/hand aids connect to the pelvic aids..

If less contact is needed the rider probably should start with a softening of the tension in her ring finger, then in the hands, wrists, forearms and elbows which give forward as needed. With each give along her arm, she listens to the horses’ response.  That is, did he get it or does he need more room?

THIS TOO IS IMPORTANT.  In general, a half halts lasts as long as the limb of the horse is in the swing phase or in the air.  That is the only time he can answer with a longer or a shorter step as required. The most important part for the horse is the moment of release.  Then he knows if he understood.  If he did not, another half halt surely will follow.


8: What To Do With the Reins?

Image result for rein aidsSince the first known book written about riding horses was written by Xenophon in 600 BCE, it is not surprising that by now there are written descriptions of what to do with the reins to get horses to do what we want. So here are “the rein aids” as generally agreed upon after being distilled by centuries of discussion.

Generally the horse is wearing a bit, but a halter and two lead ropes will produce the same results.  Curb bits being used one handed with a highly trained Western horse and an accomplished rider will produce the same results. English double bridles work the same way with the added results that the snaffle/bridoon, obtains lateral flexion and the curb increases direct flexion.  Direct flexion means that the horses’ facial plain is almost vertical to the ground.

The List:

Direct reins mean that the reins come straight back from the bit/s to the riders’ hands. Ideally the reins should touch the horses’ neck on both sides to provide part of the corridor of straightness in which we ride.  The weight of the bit should be equally balanced from side to side by the rider’s fingers and hands.  This usually is maintained by a tiny but ongoing process of “balancing”.

When using direct reins, the hands of the rider should be balanced so that there is room for one more fist Between her hands. This is “home base” for the hands.

The Leading Rein is used with young horses and beginning rider.  The inside hand and arm move a small distance or a large distance to the right to show the horse (and rider) where the line of travel is to be.  The leading rein then Always returns to the Direct Rein or “home base” position.

The Inside Indirect Rein in front of the withers. Mentally ride clockwise or to the right.  The riders’ inside hand comes diagonally from the bit in close to the withers without crossing over the body of the horse.  This puts weight onto the horses’ outside shoulder.  This tends to make the horse slide out or left over that shoulder

The Inside Indirect Rein behind the withers. The riders’ inside hand comes diagonally from the bit in close to the back of the withers without crossing over the body of the horse.  This puts weight onto the horses’ outside hip.   This tends to make the horses’ hindquarters slide left or out of the line of travel.   

The Outside Opening Rein.  Still tracking to the right or clockwise, when the rider takes the outside rein away from the neck by moving it to the left, it provides a space into which the rider can move the horse laterally.     

Image result for rein aidsBut again, There Is More.  Rein aids are not used in isolation.  For each of these rein actions, there is a supporting rein on the other side of the horse.   The seat and legs of the rider also are instructing the horse to follow the rider’s intent.

What a miracle that horses can understand and remember all of the various combinations of rein, leg and seat aids to understand the huge number of things we humans ask them to do.      



9: Transitions Between The Gaits


What a miracle.  How does the horses’ neurological firing work so quickly and so outwardly effortlessly for him to switch rhythms the way he can.  Remembering that Rhythm is defined as the sequence of the footfalls, or The Beat, it is mind boggling that he can be cantering – 3 beat – and even halt next where there is an absence of rhythm.

The second miracle is that they will listen to our aids and switch upon request.  What generous and intelligent partners we have.

As riders we need to be systematic about how we ask our partners to change from one rhythm to another. For down transitions, our body half halts come first to ask their hind legs to change and then as we hear/feel the response, use our reins for the front legs.  This should insure that down transition look and feel like the way airplanes land.  Back wheels first and then onto the nose wheel.  This is the goal of properly balanced  dressage transitions  which will produce high scores in English and Western dressage competitions.  They are the kind of transitions which indicate that the training is correctly focused on back to front riding.

For up transitions, the same body use progression is required for the horse..  The horse should firm its lower abdominals such as it’s ilio psoas muscles, coil its hindquarters under (engage) to the degree requested by the rider, engage the front end underline muscles and shoulders and Lift up off of the ground into the gait requested.

When progressing past the stage of simply getting a horse to move forward from the lower legs, a rider needs to refine both her expectations and her aids in order to achieve this quality of upward transitions.  She needs to warn the horse that a transition is expected.  Her understanding partner begins to increase positive muscle tensions to be ready for the transition moment.  Then transitions will look like they lift horse and rider up off the ground so that the first step of the new gait has absolutely clear rhythm as well as achieving  the required tempo for the task at hand.

To be a well rounded rider, one needs to read as well as spend time in the saddle.  In order to further understand the miracle of transitions from the horses’ standpoint, the rider should at least be familiar with the “Phases” of each of the 3 gaits required in English and Western Dressage.  Gaited horse riders need to add knowledge of their breed’s gaits to the three under consideration here.

One of the most complete descriptions of the phases of the gaits can be found in Susan Harris’ book “Gaits, Balance and Movement”, Macmillan General Reference, A Simon & Schuster Macmillan Company, New York, NY, 1993. Chapter 4 pages 32-63.

This material is readily available elsewhere.  Probably it is not necessary to memorize all the sequences, but it is necessary to understand the swing phase of the limbs and the stance phase of the limbs.  This goes back to the “rule” that the rider’s aids must be applied In the Horses Rhythm.  That extrapolates into the need to apply both forward and restraining aids at the time when it will be physically possible for the horse to respond to the request.

For example to produce a lateral step for a leg yield the rider must ask just at the end of the stance phase of the inside hind leg so as the horse picks up that leg for the swing phase it can be directed  to swing sideways. This sounds daunting on paper, but with an in tune following seat, the rider will gain a feel for that timing.