This is the final article in William Micklem's popular "Dressage Gold" series. Be sure to read the previous installments, "Good Dressage Equals Medals and Money," "Standing on the Shoulders of the Wrong Giants" and "The Constants." Today he discusses the Variables. Be sure to click here to learn more about the Micklem bridle, which is part of William's personal drive for more humane training.
Once the horse is “in gear” using the Constants, the right Variables are used for each progressive exercise and series of exercises. IMPULSION is at the heart of the five Variables, and the other four are DIRECTION and SPEED, which are the variables we should all start with, and finally BALANCE and TIMING to make a circle of strength.
They come from those two master coaches of the USA show jumping and eventing teams, Bert de Nemethy and Jack Le Goff. They both often made the same statement: “If you have the right Direction, Speed, Impulsion, and Balance, then Timing (the ability to see a stride) is much less important.” These five have become my Variables, the variable components that are required for literally every exercise we use.
THE FIVE VARIABLES
DIRECTION – The direction refers to the precise route you take, the rein you are on and the bend that you have, depending on which school movement or exercise you are riding.
SPEED – The speed refers to going slower or faster in any of the paces, or within one pace as in shortening and lengthening.
IMPULSION – Impulsion refers to both a propelling and supporting power originating from the hind legs and going through the back, with the whole horse working as one co-ordinated unit. It is a combination of suppleness, strength and spring, and when combined with Acceptance is “controlled” Impulsion.
BALANCE – Balance refers both to keeping an even distribution of weight, enabling a steady equilibrium, and to the changing amount of weight carried by the horse on the hind legs in relation to the fore legs according to the required exercise. The higher the degree of collection the more the weight is on the hind legs.
TIMING – Timing refers to the timing of transitions and flying changes, and the timing of a horse’s stride in front of a fence (feeling/seeing a stride), The right direction, speed, impulsion and balance are more important initially than precision timing.
The Powerful Simplicity of the Variables
You are about to go into a dressage test, or show jumping round, or cross country, or even race and you are under pressure. So what do you concentrate on? You have already got your horse “in gear” with the five Constants, so the easy answer is you now focus on the Variables.
And the simplest and most effective thing to do is just concentrate on getting the right Direction and the right Speed, the first two variables. People forget about the importance of precision with the direction and are frightened of using the word speed. “Don’t confuse speed with impulsion,” they chant, but it is a fact that an extended trot is faster in speed than a collected trot, and different speeds are required for different parts of a jumping course and for different types of competition.
It will get you most of the way there and as you gradually also manage to keep the right level of impulsion it will bring success. Of course the better trained the horse the more they will maintain the right level of impulsion by themselves, and as ever the sign of a good trainer is how little they have to do in the competition rather than how much they have to do.
With competitive horse riding simplicity is greatly underrated. This is why much of equestrian instruction is so complicated despite the fact that this will greatly reduce a rider’s effectiveness. Without doubt simplicity is vital when it comes to communicating to horses or any animal of a different species, it is a no brainer, but it is also key to successful performance for the rider.
Yehuda Shinar and his colleagues, who helped England win the World Cup in 2003, did an 18 year study starting in the 1980s. They analyzed 4,500 performers in order to discover the psychological make-up of a winner. They concluded that there was just one main quality shared by successful performers — “the ability to maximize one’s potential even under pressure and competitive situations.”
So simplicity is also of huge benefit to a competition rider because generally speaking the brain doesn’t work well under stress. In fact it has been proved that cognitive brain activity under pressure reduces to between 3% and 30%. This is why we do silly things under stress, whether it is taking a wrong turn, forgetting the name of a person you know well, or just reacting slowly.
Therefore the whole subject of learning to Think Clearly Under Pressure (T CUP thinking) is something most elite sports teams work at. And the foremost technique is to keep practising a simple technique. The top show jumpers are brilliant at this and they have much to teach the other disciplines. With the variables even children or novice riders have a simple method to follow that makes immediate sense and works!
Impulsion is a variable component because it is a misunderstanding to think that maximum impulsion is needed all the time. To give two obvious examples, the level of impulsion in trot is greater than for walk, and the level of impulsion required for extended trot is greater than required for working trot. We have to train with this in mind so it becomes possible to both increase and decrease impulsion.
In addition a good tempo (the speed of the rhythm) is primarily the result of having the right level of impulsion for each speed. Having achieved a first level of impulsion, and connected the horse from the hind legs through the back to the bit, it is then relatively easy to increase the level of impulsion as you work through the normal progression of exercises, but highest levels of impulsion can only be produced in a naturally athletic horse. As ever this will only happen if the horse thrives mentally and is happy in their work.
Direction & Speed
The fundamental priority for any dressage test or jumping round, having established the Constants satisfactorily, is to have the right direction and speed. Says British dressage star Spencer Wilton, “the information you give your horse needs to be 50% telling him where you want to go.” You control the direction primarily by controlling the bend in the neck and position of the forehand as a horse is like a car with front wheel steering but rear wheel drive.
It is not always possible to control the direction precisely if the straightness is lost, but in training, rather than physically manipulating the direction, which tends to restrict the horse’s way of going, you should instead make the exercise easier and go back to improving the straightness. At all levels riders will find it easier to control the direction if they look where they want to go and then allow their aids to happen naturally.
A decrease and increase of speed leads to shortening and lengthening, and when combined with the right level of impulsion to collection and extension. The faster the speed the greater the demand will be for impulsion, whereas a slower speed with extra impulsion will produce a more elevated step (eventually resulting in passage).
Balance & Timing
Balance and Timing are the final two Variables. When a horse has a steady equilibrium they can be said to be in balance, but a horse can have different balances. The horse can be balanced more on the forehand, as with a young horse or racehorse that has to “let down” to gallop, or they can have a more horizontal balance, as with a novice horse in the working paces or when doing flying changes. Then in collection the horse can be more “uphill” and eventually lower the quarters and “sit,” which is required in the advanced movements of pirouette and piaffe.
Horses for dressage are bred with a naturally more “uphill” balance but the benefits of this are often exaggerated. Good basic conformation and especially spinal flexibility are more important ingredients for a dressage horse. The right balance for a particular exercise is vital but it is primarily engineered by having the right speed and impulsion, and by the rider not giving the horse a supporting rein contact. If there is a loss of balance the horse’s natural response to regain the balance is to slow down, so the rider will need to allow this combined with getting the right level of impulsion.
Self-carriage is vital and means the balance is consistent. However in contradiction to this riders are continually encouraged to kick and hold (spank and yank) and “hold a horse together” in order to balance them. As a result you get horses going with short necks, dropped backs and often with tension.
As even Xenophon said, “… if the rider holds the horse back with the rein and at the same time asks him to go forward, the horse will be irritated … .” Riders misunderstand the instruction to ride from the leg to the hand and as a result fix the hand.
Dutch dressage superstar Anky Van Grunsven, multi Olympic gold medalist, emphasizes the importance of using the aids separately: “leg without hand, hand without leg, so you don’t confuse the horse.” She connects this to badly ridden half halts. “A half halt is not squashing a horse between driving leg and holding hand. Look at the rule book which states that it is ‘an almost imperceptible’ use of the aids.”
Finally I use timing to refer to the timing of transitions, the beginning and ending of movements, and flying changes, and the timing of a horse’s stride in front of a fence (feeling/seeling a stride) to find a good take off point. But the right direction, speed and impulsion are more important initially than precision timing.
On the other hand if you work at the timing in isolation it will lead to a manipulated, inefficient and mechanical result. In addition everything becomes easier as the horse becomes immediately responsive to delicate aids, what the Germans call durchlaessigkeit.
We should always remember the horse is not a machine and we should never neglect the mental side. This is why we keep returning to and revising the Constants, especially the Acceptance, Calmness, and Forwardness to keep the mental side right. Then we will have happy horses and happy riding days.
The Bottom Line
So my Constants and Variables set us up for success as we work through the beautiful progression of exercises and tests, and there is nothing more satisfying to me than transforming a horse into something more beautiful and happier because of good dressage. We just need to use the Constants and Variables and follow the example of Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin, Michael Jung, William Fox-Pitt and many of the best show jumpers in the world.
In addition Charlotte Dujardin emphasises that you don’t need a flashy trot in a young horse to do good dressage, just three good correct paces and a good temperament … and good training. So there are more horses out there than most realise that can do good dressage. And the pay off will be huge because good dressage is a golden key to more medals, more joy and more happy horses and riders. Yes it’s a huge challenge, but that is precisely what makes every little success on our dressage journey so rewarding.
This is the final article in William Micklem’s “Dressage Gold” series. Click the links below to read all of the installments: