Last week, I started this series to help you decide how and when to introduce new work. That blog focused on Training and First Levels. What follows is Part 2 of that series.
Let's say your horse is solid at first level. Look ahead to the Second Level movements. Check out the dressage tests. You'll see that you need to work on shoulder-in, haunches-in, renvers, simple changes of lead, reinback and turns on the haunches.
You'll also notice that the big difference between First and Second Level is rather than schooling at the working gaits like you do at the training and First Level, you're now asked to show modest collection. That means the balance of your horse is more uphill. And from that modest collection, you're asked to show medium gaits. Medium gaits are basically the lengthenings that you showed at First Level but in a more uphill balance.
By doing the lateral work with bend like shoulder-in, haunches-in and renvers, you automatically develop that slight shift of center of gravity back toward the hind legs. The shift in the center of gravity creates the degree of modest collection that you need at Second Level.
Then if you're schooling your horse at Second Level, look ahead to Third Level. You see that you need to learn the aids and the preparation for movements like half passes and flying changes. But now, the big difference between Second and Third Level is that your horse needs to show the difference between collected, medium and extended gaits. In other words, he needs to show three gears within each gait.
Keep in mind that medium and extended gears grow out of collection. That is, the degree to which your horse bends the joints of the hind legs and lowers his croup is the degree that his forehand comes up. His outline begins to look like a see-saw or an airplane taking off. That degree of collection determines just how good your medium extended gaits are.
So what should you work on to develop the degree of collection that you need at Third Level in order to also be able to show medium and extended gaits?
I'd suggest work in four areas to increase collection and, therefore, be able to show a clear difference between collected, medium and extended gates. Those four areas are lateral work with a bend, frequent transitions skipping a gait, decreasing size circles, and collecting half halts.
You've already stared lateral work with a bend when you moved from First to Second level. Just remember this equation. Bend plus sideways equals engagement. Engagement refers to the bending of the joints of the hind legs. And as the joints of the hind legs bend or "fold", the croup goes down. As a result of the croup going down, the forehand comes up.
If you bend your horse and go sideways, you're going to shift the center of gravity back. That will create a certain degree of collection.
But there are other things that you can do to develop collection such as frequent transitions skipping a gait. For example, if you want to collect the trot, trot for 5 or 6 strides, and then halt. Then trot again for only 5 or 6 strides, and halt again. The main thing that you want to strive for during frequent transitions is that there are no dribbly walk steps in between the transitions from trot to halt and back again.
You can do the same type of transitions to collect the canter. Ride five strides of canter and then five strides of walk. Repeat this several times with no dribbly trot steps in between. As you do the down transition to the walk with your back and outside rein, visualize your horse lowering his haunches the way a dog sits down. Use this mental image to support your aids so that the croup lowers as your horse steps into the down transition.
Another very simple thing that you can do is ride smaller circles. As the arc of the circle becomes tighter, the joints of the inside hind leg bend more. Obviously, there's more bend in the joints of the inside hind leg at 10-meters than there is at 12-meters. And there's more bend of the joints at 8-meters than there is at 10-meters. So by decreasing the size of your circles while making sure your horses spine directly overlaps that arc, your horse shifts his center of gravity back.
The final thing you can do is "collecting half halts". I've talked a lot about "connecting half halts", or the connecting aids, which is the third ingredient of the training scale, but collection is the sixth and final ingredient in the training scale.
With collecting half halts, I like to give three half halts (a hardly visible, almost simultaneous co-ordinated action of the seat, the legs and the hands) in a row--take/give, take/give, take/give.
Be sure to time the half halts when the hind leg you want to influence is on the ground. That's because the only time you can influence a hind leg is when it's on the ground just before it pushes off. You can feel when a hind leg is on the ground because your corresponding seatbone feels like it's pushed "up" or "forward".
When you give those collecting half halts, focus on two things.
1. With each collecting half halt, decrease the amount of ground that you cover per stride by about 50%.
2. Keep the same rhythm and tempo as you shorten the strides.
The "collecting half halts" shift the horse's center of gravity back. When you trot or canter forward, be sure to maintain the same balance you achieved during your collecting half halts. You don't want to collect your horse with half halts, and then charge forward. If you do, your horse will unload his hind legs and shift his balance to the forehand.
To sum up, following the dressage tests gives you a good general program. Check out what's coming up next, and start to add in little bits of what's in the next level. In that way, you'll systematically and progressively add new work. Your horse won't even realize that he's being asked to do anything more difficult.
A Happy Horse