Engaging the hindquarters and lengthening the stride

Photo from BritishDressage.co.uk

BD Convention supported by The National Saddle Centre

The recent BD convention featured the training talents of the Academy Bartels. It was covered by an informative write-up in the most recent British Dressage magazine. There was some very refreshing talk of responsiveness and relaxation – a horse that waits for, not predicts, the commands and once asked to go forward continues in these longer strides until given an aid to change without continual nagging from the legs. Similarly a half pass ends in a new set of commands not in the removal of the aid. The removal of any aid has already occurred as soon as the horse complied. This strict philosophy gives a strong foundation, and shows how the Bartels achieve such relaxed, engaged horses.

The classic changes of stride length and tempo exercises are used to reinforce this. However I found these two types of exercises a little confused in the report. The report appears to refer to longer strides being faster strides, and this being part of the tempo exercise. The accepted wisdom in dressage, entirely supported by the scientific literature, is that in order to maintain the same tempo, longer strides should in fact feel a little slower. Tempo exercises changing the rhythm are very useful in creating engagement and responsiveness, as are exercises changing the stride length, but these are not normally seen as the same thing. As early as ’94 we knew academically that in high-level horses stride duration is maintained (canter) or extended (trot) with increases in stride length (Clayton, 1994a; Clayton, 1994b). Biomechanically speaking speed is the product of stride length and stride frequency, so it is entirely possible for speed to increase, as a result of longer strides, whilst the horse’s stride frequency (tempo) slows. However the article refers to faster strides rather than faster speeds. Was the journalist making an error here, or do the Bartels really change the stride frequency as well as the stride length when in training? Anyone?

Interesting the research also shows that in order to achieve increased stride length, the footfall rhythm in canter is altered by increasing the time spent in suspension and hence the distance covered between leading front leg and the next hind leg placement. The timing of the hoof-falls within the hind leg-diagonal pair-front leg part of the pattern is proportionally quicker, with longer spent in suspension. Perhaps this is why lengthened strides, which have the same duration and in fact feel slower to ride, are often described as faster.

In trot, stride length is increased by increasing over-reach distance, and stride duration increases (tempo slows) with increasing stride length. In other words medium and extended trots do have a higher speed, but a slower stride frequency. So in fact in both gaits higher engagement of the hindquarters is needed for lengthened strides, and this would be undermined if the strides were faster rather than longer.

I wish I had attended the convention and will try to make the next one. The report was a great read, and I particularly liked the following points, which fit well with my last post on the equine back:

On straightness: “The hind legs must step into the same tracks as the forelegs, whether on the straight line or a curve. Tineke used the helpful image of the horse having to be like a train that stays on the railway lines…..The aim frequently spoken was to ride into the two reins.”

On roundness: “..they put great emphasis on getting the muscles from the tail, under the hindquarters, under the saddle, into the area in front of the wither and up the neck, soft and malleable. Being round and soft on a connection helped soften these muscles and remove blockages. Any blocks of tension in the upper line would mean there is no connection from the hindquarters to the bit….. Until the horse took the rein down there was no work on the movements.”

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9 Responses to Engaging the hindquarters and lengthening the stride

  1. jenj says:

    Interesting summary; thank you for providing it!

    I am a little confused about the concept of “The removal of any aid has already occurred as soon as the horse complied.” If I ask for a 20 m circle, I request bend with my inside leg on the girth, and keep the hind end from swinging out with my outside leg slightly behind the girth, shoulders, head, and hips turning on the circle. Is this report saying to ask for that once and then move back to a “neutral” position, i.e. straight on the horse? Or are they saying that you apply the leg aids once and then remove them, but continue to hold the rest of your body as I described? And what is the role of the “supporting” outside leg – do you no longer need it?

    I’m not trying to be argumentative at all – this is a very intriguing concept, I’m just trying to understand (as a lower-level rider) how to practically apply it! Thank you in advance for any insights you might have.

    • Sian says:

      Really good question! On a circle, physics tells us, you don’t have a constant velocity, you are accelerating towards the centre (centripedal acceleration). This means that as a rider you are constantly asking for a change in direction (turn) as opposed to continuing to go straight on the new path reached by the turn. So if you apply the aid the horse changes path, removing the aid should see the horse carry on on this new path, or continuing the aid sees the horse continue to change path, forming a circle.

    • hermione says:

      In this system of riding the well-trained horse understands (in other words has been taught) to maintain the bend on a circle. You do not move your outside leg behind the girth unless something “goes wrong”. So only if the hind end swings out you use your outside leg. In general think no aid unless you either want to change something or correct something. As for your body I am not entirely sure but what works for me is to steer from my hips, and I guess my shoulders follow automatically.
      Another thing you might find interesting as a lower level rider is how to apply the legs without hands and hands without legs principle. If you want to make a downward transition say trot to walk you go smaller on your seat. Now if your horse pushes his nose out when you want to make the transition and goes against the bit you do not use hand and leg simultaneously. You simply do not make the transition at all but move forward again (just leg no hand). Repeat until the horse stops pushing against the bit (this means your horse is thinking forward and is staying more active) and then make the transition to walk. I hope this makes sense and I also hope I have used the correct English terminology, if not feel free to ask.

  2. Shannon says:

    I’ve always been taught that the tempo of the gait should remain the same through the lengthenings or extensions, that if you were to close your eyes and listen, you should not be able to tell when the horse lengthened and came back. In order to accomplish this, the horse’s legs would need to move faster at the extended gaits because they are traveling farther, perhaps this is what the rider means by “faster strides”?

    I was also taught to ride the circles as a series of turns, as opposed to one smooth circle. So, you apply the aids for a turn, release, and apply aids again in quick succession, creating the appearance of a smooth circle. You “pulse” the aids, rather than applying them constantly. This keeps the horse from becoming dead to the aids and allows for any minor corrections in bend and balance that you may need.

  3. Sian says:

    Ooo, interesting. Love the description of pulsing the aids on a circle – much more accurate way to describe it. Turn – good – turn – good – turn- good.

    On the faster strides I like the theory but the legs aren’t travelling faster. In trot and canter the extra ground-covering distance is primarily made up in the suspension, not by the legs travelling further. Hence the need for all that muscle to create a higher suspension phase. The legs do swing through during the suspension phase creating a larger over-reach in trot, but that’s why stride duration increases. The pendulum still swings at the same rate.

    • Shannon says:

      Ack! I was not taking into account the moment of suspension. I was never that good at physics anyway, even though I had to take it twice at University (haha). I suspect the writer of this report did just as well in physics as I did!

      Also, I should clarify on the “pulsing” of aids: I pulse the driving aids, seat and leg. The passive aids, my shoulders and head, always remain turned in to the direction of travel.

  4. Theoretically, if you are riding the horse on a circle and you take the aid off, the horse should simply go straight. The pulsing would need to match the stride to get the horse to step into the curve with his inside hind leg so as it comes forward, you would apply the aid. I like that pulsing description too.

    Going to “chew” on the tempo concepts for a while. Another really good post with lots to think about.

  5. Katie says:

    The USDF defines tempo as the “rate of repetition of the rhythm, the strides or of the emphasized beats — beats per minute, as may be measured by a metronome.” The USDF glossary makes mention of the fact that “tempo” is historically often used in Europe to denote what the USDF defines as Pace. From the USDF glossary comes this definition of Pace:
    1a. Named variation(s) within a gait…characterized by a given length of stride as well as by other attributes listed under the individual definitions of the various paces.
    b. MPM within a gait as determined by stride length while maintaining essentially the same tempo.
    2a. Gait in which the lateral pairs of legs move in unison (not a dressage gait).
    In its definition of Pace, the USDF makes mention of the fact that the FEI uses the term “Pace” synonymously with “Gait” and uses “Variation” to refer to the concept of Pace [definition 1a.] as defined by the USDF.

    The USDF defines rhythm as “the recurring characteristic sequence and timing of footfalls and phases of a given gait. For purposes of dressage, the only correct rhythms are those of the pure walk, trot, and canter, and reinback and piaffe…
    Note 1: “Rhythm” is sometimes used mistakenly to mean “tempo [rate of repetition of the rhythm”…
    Note 2: In English, there is no one term that covers both the rhythm [as defined above] and the tempo, as does the term “Takt” in German. This has caused confusion because “Takt” has commonly been translated as rhythm…

    I also found myself hiccuping when I came to the phrase “classic changes of stride length and tempo exercises used to reinforce this” — the “this” I take to be the horse carrying itself without continuous aids from the rider. What I find troubling is the application of the world “classic” in this context. I believe that exercises involving variations of tempo within the gait are rather contemporary — certainly popular but not what I would call classic. I can’t think of any classic texts that recommend playing with tempo within the gait. The same tempo was to be maintained, for example, in the working, medium and extended trot, while the amplitude of the strides changed, and cadence was developed in the “school trot.”

    If, as you say, medium and extended trots have a slower stride frequency (rhythm), where does that leave us with the FEI Dressage Rules? Currently, Article 404 states that “The quality of the trot is judged by general impression…this quality originates from a supple back and well-engaged hindquarters and by the ability to maintain the same rhythm and natural balance with all variations of the trot…The following trots are recognized: Working trot, Lengthening of Steps, Collected trot, Medium trot and Extended trot.

    • Sian says:

      Argh, you’re right there is a British/ American confusion here. I’ll do some quick editing to make the article less ambiguous! Thanks for pointing that out, I’ll leave this comment intact, but hopefully it won’t match with the article any more.

      Your last couple of points are interesting. As to whether tempo changes are classic, and how well the FEI rules/guidelines matches what we’re looking for as judges in a literal sense, as opposed to in appearance, both merit their own articles.

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