Development of Phases in Horse Training/8

di Enzo Truppa


The first lessons given to the mounted horse form the basis of the preliminary training of a young animal, and the basis for the future decontraction sessions, that is, the preliminaries of each training session of any horse.

The horse should be ridden forward, in the gait most suited to him, calmly, regularly, with a steady and soft hand, rather low, and most of all, elastically.

If the horse is ridden forward incorrectly, it will tend to rush the gait; in fact, riding forward essentially means stimulating the horse’s hind legs, and not increasing the tempo of the gait.

The most serious problems derive from the loss of the correct sequence in the gaits, for example lateralization in walk or four beat canter, while in trot the most common problem is generally represented by short, irregular, tense steps, or as defined in another section of this book, so-called “passagé trot” tempos.

In general, errors in the correct sequence of the three gaits, or even the loss of the sequence, are often caused by the excessive use of the hand not accompanied by appropriate leg aids.

Decontraction aids thus become essential and include frequent transitions from one gait to another or in the context of the same gait, ensuring that the horse makes contact with the reins forward and low.

Work on the lunge, cavalletti, small jumps with only the value of exercise, or also riding a bit in the open country will provide great benefits in decontracting the horse, provided that the exercises are performed properly.


“Decontraction” is perhaps the central theme around which the training of the horse revolves. It is a fundamental aspect to be monitored constantly, and if necessary, to develop further, before proceeding to more advanced phases of horse training.

Before seeking to obtain decontraction in the mounted work, the rider will ensure the horse’s wellbeing and that it is free from tension, including mentally. This can be obtained through regular care in the stable and a sensitive approach to the animal, and through adequate and regular physical exercise.

What is commonly perceived as external decontraction, that we will call physical decontraction, cannot but arrive more rapidly when the horse is relaxed, including mentally.

Decontraction exercises also serve to warm up the muscles, gradually activating the tendons and joints, but most of all they allow the horse to work using the back. These exercises also stimulate the hind legs to go well under the body, with the result that the horse tends to extend towards the bit and seek trusting contact with it.

If problems arise in a more advanced phase of training, the rider should immediately return to the decontraction exercises.

Training problems often have more than one cause, and should be observed as a whole. However, if we examine these problems in detail, the decontraction phase is almost always involved.

It follows that, very probably, the horse has not been correctly trained.

The lack of decontraction can appear in different forms, for example in a contracted back, errors in the gait sequence, the rear legs lacking activity, a tense mouth, or if the horse does not move straight.

 The correct sequence (the regularity and purity of the gait) and (physical and mental) decontraction are the two basic criteria on which each dressage exercise is to be judged.

In the preliminary phase of training, that is, when the warm-up work and decontraction exercises are performed, the horse must be ridden with light contact. This is one of the most misrepresented points in training; in fact, the rider must not use his or her hands to try to force the horse to make contact with the bit!

Only with light contact can the horse easily find its balance, begin to develop a proper rhythm and thus decontract under the rider’s weight. This principle is valid for both young horses and more experienced horses.

The horse must “go towards the bit” and thus seek contact with it in response to the driving aids from the rider, who will encourage this movement with a “sensitive” use of the hands.

When the contact starts, it will happen with a relatively low position of the head and the neckline (the mouth will be approximately in line with the tip of the shoulders). This is the best position to teach the horse to extend and relax the neckline and the back muscles.

As we have seen, this must not take place through forced aids from the rider aimed at keeping the horse in this position.

The correct sequence of the gaits and decontraction are essential points in dressage.


Developing the horse’s driving ability, or the “thrust phase” as it is commonly called, means involving the process of stimulus of the hind legs to engage as much as possible under the body, towards its center of gravity.

The development of driving ability is required well before the capacity of the hind legs to “bear weight,” that is, before undertaking exercises that tend to transfer more weight from the front legs to the hind legs.

It is said that the horse has good contact and is “in hand” when it proceeds forward towards the bit without taking into account the length of its “silhouette,” that in fact will become shorter in direct relation to the development of the driving ability and the increasing engagement of the hind legs under the body. The horse will thus be able to rise and arch the neckline more, bending at the poll and bringing the nose slightly above the vertical.

If the rider ignores this training process and tries to force the horse into a shorter “silhouette,” the end result will be to block the activity of the back and thus of the hind legs.

When judging whether a horse has correct contact or not, or as said in jargon is “in hand,” it is not sufficient to look only at the neckline and the head, but in reality one must observe the horse as a whole and thus evaluate its position, its bearing, and in particular how it moves.

Unfortunately, there are very frequent errors in training a horse to make correct contact with the bit.

This can result in various positions that are not correct.

Here are the most common:

  • Horse below vertical: the horse carries its nose below the vertical; in general, this happens due to a too strong hand. This situation can derive from a temporary error in the application of the aids or a too strong hand in a precise moment, and represent a symptom of incorrect training as a whole. The correction of this problem is to push the horse forward and at the same time lighten the contact with the hand.
  • Horse behind the hand (refuses contact): this problem implies that the horse’s nose is behind the vertical and indicates a much more serious problem. The horse tries to avoid the action of the bit by refusing it, and thus remains behind contact with it. This is often accompanied by the fact that the head is bent at a lower vertebra on the neckline with respect to the poll. To remedy this problem, the first thing to do is to re-establish correct contact, teaching the horse to trust the hand of the rider, who in turn will have to ride with very light hands and with the reins possibly longer. Careful work on the lunge can also be very helpful, as can riding actively forward, especially outside of the riding school, while continuing to help the horse lengthen the neckline and seek contact with the bit low and forward. The rider must also pay careful attention to coordinating the driving aids with the restraining aids, remembering that it will be possible to send the horse’s nose forward only if the hands are gentle and elastic. In no case must the rider try to raise the horse’s head by moving the hands upward.
  • Incorrect bending of the poll: this happens when the rider seeks to establish contact with the horse’s mouth by acting with his hands from front to back. Thus the highest point of the neckline will no longer be the poll, but a point behind it, normally between the third and fourth vertebrae. This problem can become hard to solve and generally requires a long, systematic, and correct re-training of the horse. It will be necessary to ride the horse forward with determination, while avoiding the rushing of the gait. To that end, it will be necessary to make an elastic and intelligent use of the hands, that will have to be ready to release the amount necessary for the neckline to adopt a correct position. The horse will thus have to be re-trained on how to extend the neckline and bring it decidedly forward in correct contact toward the bit.
  • Horse that weighs on the hands: in this case, the horse seeks support in the rider’s hands, using them as a “fifth leg” due to an insufficient engagement of the hind legs. To remedy this problem, the rider must stimulate the horse’s hind legs to have greater activity, increasing the driving aids, while the hand will take on a very important role since it will have to judiciously yield, and through half-halts, check that the horse does not  project all of its weight onto the front legs. All of this is to be combined with frequent transitions. In any event, the most important thing to observe is that the rider refuses to “offer” the horse his hands as a support.
  • Horse against the hand and above the bit: in the case of a horse above the bit, its nose will be well above the vertical, thus not bending at the poll. The antagonist muscles of the neckline will be used by the horse to resist the rider’s hand; all while the back will stiffen, collapsing. If this problem is allowed to take root and the horse develops an antagonist musculature, it will be necessary to return to the work on the lunge, for example with rubber reins that at the beginning should be rather short, to then gradually increase their length as the work proceeds. This type of work on the lunge teaches the horse to extend and work in a correct position without the additional problem of the rider’s weight on the back, and by doing so the proper muscle system will gradually be developed. If attempting to correct this problem with a mounted horse, it will be necessary to pay particular attention to the warm-up and decontraction phase, evidently insisting much more on the decontraction exercises. In fact, if the horse is decontracted and its back oscillates correctly, it will certainly be possible to establish good contact between the horse’s mouth and the rider’s hands. In this situation, when mounting it will be necessary to ensure a fairly relaxed position of the neckline, which means allowing the horse to frequently extend forward and low in order to develop the proper muscle structure. The use of the opening reins, i.e. reins that act on the inner side of the horse, without pulling, is certainly helpful to show the horse the way to extend the neckline downward. The best way to reach this goal is to ride on curved lines, changing sides frequently. It should be noted that due to their conformation and neckline structure, when some horses are asked to adopt an extended position of the neckline with the relative release of the poll, they tend to show the nose a bit below the vertical. In that case the rider must immediately ensure that the activity of the hind legs is maintained, but above all the shortening of the horse’s neckline must be avoided, because that would create tension, and given that the neckline is the principal element of its balance, that attitude would seriously harm the possibility for the horse to proceed with balance.


Impulsion can be developed and improved by executing transitions from one gait to another, or in the context of the same gait.
Particular attention must be paid to maintaining the same rhythm during the transitions and applying very discreet rein aids during the downward transitions so as not to negatively influence the forward movement of the horse’s hind legs.
When the horse works with impulsion, the moment of suspension will be pronounced, even if this should not be confused with “negative” suspension, that indicates the so-called “passagé trot,” essentially the result of tension.
The most immediate result of the production of impulsion will be that the activity of the hind legs will be increased so that the legs will be lifted more energetically from the ground and the horse will be able to show a gait that covers more and more space.
If the horse works with impulsion, it will end up responding correctly to the rider’s driving aids, meaning that it will not attempt to rush or fall on the front legs, but allow for the impulsion to come from the hind legs.
The development and improvement of impulsion are of fundamental importance in both stimulating the horse’s desire to carry itself forward, and later, in increasing its capacity to bear weight on its hind legs.
Impulsion is also the fundamental prerequisite to ride the horse straight and thus, ultimately, to achieve proper collection.


The specific training aimed at making the horse straight and thus collecting it cannot be initiated until the desire to carry itself forward, i.e. impulsion, is completely stabilized.
The improvement of impulsion and making the horse straight are essential goals before preparing it for greater collection. First of all, the horse must be mounted forward (a concept clearly expressed in Gustav Steinbrecht’s book Das Gymnasium des Pferdes: “ride your horse forward and put it straight”) from which we deduce that aids that act in a retrograde direction will always be incorrect.
The specific exercises to make the horse straight cannot be started until the desire to carry itself forward and impulsion are correctly developed, since to make a horse straight it is necessary for it to go resolutely forward.
For example, if the horse is crooked to the right, such that the back right leg follows an outer track compared to the front right leg, it means that the same back leg will tend to move sideways in order to avoid bending. This will be the origin of the greater weight on the left shoulder, such that the horse will tend to tighten up on the rein on that side. On the left side, the horse’s muscles will become tenser and will tend not to yield. This will therefore become the “rigid” side, even if the “difficult” side is the concave one, i.e. the right. This is because its back right leg tends to move sideways and thus the horse will tend to push against the rider’s right leg, refusing to accept contact on the right rein. In that case, the training must be aimed at ensuring that the back right leg projects forward under the body, and at this point, the horse will extend forward making correct contact also with the right rein. If that correction is successful, it will be found that the rigidity on the horse’s left side will disappear almost completely.
The exercises to make the horse move straight consist of the execution of curved lines, circles, yields to the leg, and later, work on two tracks, especially with the shoulder in.
All of these are exercises that increase obedience at the legs; likewise, counter canter is of enormous benefit for this purpose.

Collection can be obtained only through correctly structured training, with patience and dedication.

If the horse works with impulsion, the execution of transitions on straight or curved lines will ensure that the horse learns to go straight, thus improving its ability to collect.
The horse’s desire to carry itself forehard will increase in response to the driving aids of the rider, who instead of yielding with his hands, allowing the energy created to flow forward as is appropriate when the strides are lengthened, will ensure that his hand does not yield, to “capture” the energy that will be passed back to the hind legs, through a soft back. The result will be that the ability of the horse’s hind legs to bear weight will tend to increase.

“Capturing the energy” created requires a “sensitive” use of the hands and a certain dose of talent to not risk restricting the forward movement of the hind legs.
All of the exercises that teach the horse to transfer its weight onto the hind legs are “collection” exercises, meaning exercises that increase and improve collection. To provide an example, half-halts that are properly executed and transitions to halt are primary exercises for this purpose.
The difference between an exercise to improve collection and an exercise “in collection” lies in the way it is executed. For example, if the basic training is initiated, the backward steps are used as an exercise for improvement of collection and obedience and in that case the horse’s head and neckline can be slightly lower so that the horse learns to use its back more and more. In a more advanced phase of training, the horse’s head and neckline should be brought higher and the horse should remain in absolute balance; by doing this, going backward is an exercise “in collection.”
A golden rule is to ride actively forward between one exercise and another for the development of collection, or in any event continue to perform exercises that make the horse straight, above all preserving the purity of the gaits.
If the horse weighs on the farhand, alters the rhythm or resists in the legs by tightening the back and poll, it means that the training that leads to collection was conducted poorly or that the horse was asked to do “too much” in too short a time.
If, on the other hand, the horse proceeds rhythmically with expressive gaits, it will be a clear sign that the training for collection was gradual and correct. The horse will then be able to move forward, despite the rider’s weight, in decontraction, maintaining rhythm and impulsion. For example, in the execution of the medium trot, it will maintain light contact and extend its silhouette in order to cover more ground.

In the transition back to collected trot of a well-trained horse, on the other hand, it will be noted that the impulsion the horse showed in the medium trot has been transformed when shifting to collected trot, into trot tempos that are more expressive or showing a good cadence (for dressage).
The duration of the collection exercises or the training that leads to the improvement of collection depends on how good shape the horse is in, and how prepared it is to perform those exercises. It should be recalled that if there is a tendency to overdo it, the horse will end up showing resistance and tension.
The position of the horse’s head is strictly related to its degree of collection. The horse should move with the head and neckline raised proportionate to the degree of collection obtained.
If a horse, despite being “in hand”, tends to put less weight on the hind legs, it will show the head and the neckline lower, and the neckline will be visibly longer.
To the contrary, if the weight is increasingly transferred to the hind legs, and thus collection is accentuated, the front legs will become lighter. The horse’s hind legs will lower as a result of greater bending, with the result that the horse will seem higher in front and in the “ideal” dressage position, that is defined as “uphill.” Through correct training, it will become almost natural for the horse to develop this way of carrying itself.

A great misunderstanding on this subject arises from the fact that many riders tend to raise the horse’s head principally through the use of the hands. This is not correct, because the position of the head will no longer be related to the degree of engagement of the hind legs. The horse will not carry itself, i.e. it will not be in balance, while the rider will tend to support the raising of the head and neckline through the use of the hands, thus negatively influencing the activity of the hind legs. In the end, the horse will not work properly through the back.
If the capacity to bear weight of the hind legs is sufficiently developed, the horse will able to balance itself on its own and move with so-called “self carriage” at any gait, despite the fact that the rider’s weight tends to aggravate this search for balance.
The rider can determine if the degree of balance reached by the horse is appropriate through a release and subsequent retaking of the reins for some trot tempos or canter strides. In that case, the horse should remain in “self carriage” without any support from the rider’s hands.


What is defined as “durchlassigkeit” is the result of a correct process of exercising the horse. If the horse possesses “durchlassigkeit” (that is not easy to translate into other languages, but for which we have chosen “through” in English – see the relevant section of the book) we will have definitive proof that the training proceeded correctly.
“Durchlassigkeit” is intimately related and interconnected with some fundamental aspects of training a dressage horse:

·     The correct sequence of the three gaits is always maintained correctly, even in the transitions.
·     Only if the horse is decontracted in its movements will the energy developed by the hind legs pass through the horse’s body. In fact, without decontraction it is almost impossible to apply restraining aids through the mouth, the poll, the neckline, and the back down to the horse’s hind legs.
·     Any problem of contact, meaning rigidity or irregular contact in the connection between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth, will negatively influence the animal’s ability to allow the aids to “pass.”
·     A horse that shows the ability to work with impulsion, using its back, that will oscillate correctly, will be decontracted, with the hind legs engaged, and will readily accept both driving aids and restraining aids.
·     Until the horse is straight in its movements, half-halts cannot be applied equally to both hands, nor will it be possible to push the horse in an ideal contact in response to the rider’s driving aids without the hind legs tending to escape outwards.
·     The previous point, as we have already seen in another part of the book, is essential to improve the horse’s collection and thus to obtain the raising of the horse’s neckline and head into the ideal “uphill” position.
·     If the horse responds correctly to the various exercises performed in collection, bringing its hind legs under the body in equal measure towards the center of gravity and thus transferring more weight onto its hind legs, that will be a certain indication that a high degree of “durchlassigkeit” has been reached and thus the horse will be “through.”

That “state” of the horse is the ultimate aim to be sought through correct training, and its ascertainment will constitute the main task of a good dressage judge.

For Chapter 1 CLICK HERE

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For Chapter 3 CLICK HERE

For Chapter 4 CLICK HERE

For Chapter 5 CLICK HERE

For Chapter 6 CLICK HERE

For Chapter 7 CLICK HERE

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