Dear Jessica, I am a dressage instructor and I train a few horses for clients. I find myself to be perplexed by a young mare that a client brought into my barn three weeks ago. She is a very well-bred mare, six years old, but for various reasons involving a divorce, she has not been ridden in the last three years, only turned out. She has now been under saddle for seven months. She was very fat when my client purchased her (I have seen the photos) and has lost a good bit of weight in that time and looks much better, but although her basic conformation is acceptable, her neck is set on a bit low, and it is also somewhat heavy and somewhat short! I have tried to do some "long and low" work with her in the interest of getting a good stretch over her topline, but it takes all the energy and skill I have to do this, and when her owner rides her, "long and low" is a disaster. The mare just falls entirely on her forehand, does no stretching at all over her back, and barely uses her hind legs. I have asked my client please not to ride her "long and low", but I need to give this client something to do in pre-lesson warmups and when she rides alone. With her previous horse, "long and low" was exactly what he needed, so between lessons and before each lesson, she would warm up at walk and trot, doing a lot of "long and low" work, and she now thinks that this is the answer to all problems. That is partly my fault, I know, because I put so much emphasis on its value for her previous horse.
I think that I know what to do to improve this young mare, but I would like you to tell me what you would do, and also to give me some ideas of what my client can do for a warmup. She is not a very skilled or strong rider, but tries very hard, wants to learn classical riding, and has improved greatly in the last year. I want to help her without discouraging her. Right now that is very difficult as I am telling her "Don't do long and low!" and that is really the only warmup exercise she knows! If you can suggest a warmup "routine" that she could do when she rides her mare, I would be very grateful. I look forward to reading your advice, thank you,
For a safe and useful warmup routine, your client could begin by walking for the first fifteen minutes (around a field if possible; otherwise, around and across the arena in straight lines and wide turns), focusing on relaxation, rhythm, and forward movement. Then she could trot (working trot, that is) straight lines, wide turns, and large figures for five or ten minutes, again focusing on the basics of relaxation, rhythm, and forward movement. Once the mare is showing good energy and rhythm at the working trot on large circles, figure-eights, serpentines, etc., she could spend five minutes or so in canter - again, around a field if possible; otherwise, around and across the arena as above). The canter should be done in a half-seat, with the mare on a long (but not loose) rein, and the rider will have to be careful to use her leg or whip as needed to maintain the forward impulse, whilst maintaining a balanced position (not looking down and not leaning too far forward). If she becomes unbalanced and tips forward on the mare's back, or leans too far forward, she'll be inviting the mare to fall on her forehand once again.
Once the mare has achieved a better "default" balance and is in the habit of using her hind end more energetically and effectively, your client will be able to do the canter part of her warmup on a loose rein without encouraging the mare to drop onto her forehand. For now, she should focus on activating the mare's hindquarters and sending her forward into soft contact on a LONG rein.
You will need to monitor the warmups carefully, probably for quite some time, so that you can be sure that the mare is actually engaged, using her belly muscles and her hind legs, and letting her back lift and stretch. When your client is able to ride the mare this way most of the time, you can allowing her to ask the mare to stretch out and down... but just for a moment or two. You will need to teach your client to FEEL what is happening underneath her, so that she'll be able to tell when the mare maintains her energy and impulsion and stretches out and down at a good, balanced working trot. She will also need to be able to tell IMMEDIATELY when the mare begins to lose impulsion and engagement, and simply drops her neck and falls on the forehand. If she can feel that shift just as it's beginning to happen, she'll be able to balance and center herself - and immediately ask the mare to canter.
It's very easy for even well-balanced horses to get sloppy and fall on the forehand if the rider is preoccupied with head and neck position and not paying attention to what is happening underneath AND BEHIND the saddle. The way to avoid the problem you're worried about - "long and low and on the forehand" - is to keep the horse engaged, both physically and mentally. Instead of continuing the working trot until the rider loses her focus and the horse begins to drop onto its forehand, it would be much more beneficial for your client to do a couple of circles - or one circle, or half a circle - at working trot and then ask for a canter. If the mare knows that she may be asked to canter at any time - that she's not just going to be expected to trot five circles to the right, then five circles to the left, and THEN canter - she will be more mentally alert and will keep herself better balanced physically, so that she can be ready for the canter strikeoff when the rider asks.
This is going to create some extra work for you for a while, as you'll be constantly observing your client's riding and reminding her of what she needs to do, but the long-term results will be good for both the rider and her horse.
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