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.”