How to maximise your dressage marks: Balance, suppleness and collection

How to maximise your dressage marks: Balance, suppleness and collection

How can better balance help you achieve more self-carriage in a dressage test? How do you get your horse more supple through their topline to improve their way of going? International dressage rider and trainer Charlie Hutton shares his favourite exercises for improving balance and suppleness, and how to teach your horse to lengthen and collect strides to maximise your marks at every level.

Improving balance and suppleness

All horses can feel unbalanced at times, especially in the early stages of their training. But if you want to hit those high marks between the boards, your horse must be balanced and supple, because those elements lay the foundation for self-carriage.

What is self-carriage?

A horse that’s in true ‘self-carriage’ is doing exactly what it says on the tin: carrying themselves and not relying on the rider to hold them in position.

Is your horse balanced and carrying their own frame?

It’s easy to tell if your horse is in self-carriage when you perform basic movements in a dressage test like ‘Give and retake the inside rein on the second half of the circle’, which show up right from Introductory and Preliminary tests. The purpose of this movement is to test if the horse is carrying itself and reaching for the bit, and that there is a connection between your inside leg and outside rein.

If those elements are all in place, your horse won’t lose rhythm or throw their head up when you give and retake the rein. Instead, they’ll maintain their outline because your inside rein isn’t holding everything together.

Get your horse in front of the leg

Before you start, your horse must be thinking forward and responsive to your leg aids. When you ask your horse to be more forward, they should respond by feeling more ‘uphill’ – like a plane taking off. They achieve this by lowering their hindquarters to take the weight off their front legs.

  1. Go large in working trot. You can do this in an arena or another safe area, like a flat corner of the field.
  2. Close your lower leg on. You should be squeezing with your calf and sending your horse out in front of you.
  3. Lighten your hand as you do so. Watch Charlotte demonstrate this at 0.44 in the video.

It should feel like your horse is coming up through the shoulders and neck without feeling any heavier in your hand or leaning on the rein.

Problem: ‘My horse feels tighter or stiffer when I put my leg on.’

Be careful not to close or tighten your reins as you put your leg on, as this will restrict your horse, making them feel tight.

‘That’s often what happens when you ask for more balance and suppleness: the rider starts doing more and the horse starts doing less. So you’ve got to try doing less to get more.’

This means being lighter with your hands, closing your leg on and thinking ‘uphill’.

How to make your horse more supple

It can be frustrating when your horse feels relaxed and supple at home, then stiff and resistant at competitions. But most horses are less relaxed when they are out and about. These exercises will help you get your horse listening to you and release test-day tension.

Flexions in the neck

This exercise will help with lateral (sideways) suppleness.

  1. Put your horse on a 20m circle in trot or canter. You can try this exercise at walk, but it can be more difficult to keep your horse forward and swinging through at walk, especially when you’re just starting out. Trot is usually a good pace to start with.
  2. Flex your horse around your inside leg. Put your inside leg on and ask your horse to flex around it, try to exaggerate and ask for almost too much flexion. Have a little play (squeeze) on the inside rein to ask them to relax their jaw and flex their neck. Imagine your trainer is standing in the middle of the circle and you want to point your horse at them, without coming off your circle.
  3. Release when your horse yields and bends.
  4. Repeat. This time flexing your horse to the outside.

While you’re doing this exercise, ask yourself: Can we flex left? Can we flex right? This will make your horse more laterally supple in their neck.

Asking for more roundness

The next step is longitudinal (lengthways) suppleness. This is your horse’s suppleness over their topline – from their hindquarters over their back and to their poll.

  1. Close your leg and create a little bit of pressure by bending your elbows. This will guide your horse to be slightly rounder and softer through their jaw.
  2. Release.
  3. Repeat a few times on each rein.

You can massage the bit (squeeze lightly with your fingers) to encourage your horse to come a little rounder, then release.

‘As a rider, when you’re working on suppleness, it’s really important to look for the moment when they let go. Even if it’s 1%. So you give them the light at the end of the tunnel.’

Collecting and lengthening strides

When you start training at Novice level, you’ll notice movements like ‘show some medium trot strides’ in your tests. As you progress through the levels to Medium, you will be required to show collected strides within paces. In this next video, Charlie puts two different horses and riders through their (shorter and longer) paces!

How to ride a collected trot

  1. Go large in working trot. Riding around the outside of your space or arena.
  2. Ride your horse into the corner as you approach the long side. Squeeze your fingers gently to ‘feel’ the bit to keep your horse supple. If they feel tight or resistant, have a light play with your fingers to ask your horse to relax their jaw. Go back and work on the suppleness exercises described above if you need to.
  3. On the long side, think about bringing your horse back with your body. Move your upper body and lower leg back. Watch Charlotte demonstrate this at 0.42 in the video.
  4. Create the smallest, shortest trot you can. If your horse naturally wants to slow down or hollow their back when you ask for shorter strides, nudge with your heel to create more activity from behind. Watch Lyndsey demonstrate this at 2.18 in the video.
  5. Wait with your hands. Your hands should stay steady as if they are ‘waiting’ as you encourage your horse forwards into them. This is a good way to get your horse to use their tummy muscles and prepare for lengthening later.
  6. Ride forward again as you approach the short side.

Tip: Stay in rising trot to help your horse stay in rhythm.

‘It’s OK to go too small in the trot. That needs to be achievable so you can almost bring them back to nearly a walk, so that you can find where the gears are somewhere in between. And if your horse walks, it doesn’t matter!’

How to lengthen strides for a medium trot

  1. Ride down the long side again.
  2. Squeeze with your lower leg and ask your horse to be more forward. Ride forward, ride positive and go!
  3. Allow your body forward and your lower leg forward. It’s opposite to the way you asked for collection. Watch Charlotte demonstrate this at 1.30 in the video.
  4. Return to your working trot as you approach the short side.

When you’re lengthening strides, remember to ask: What is appropriate for my horse? Different horses will be able to offer different levels of lengthening and collection in their paces.

Don’t mistake a faster trot for longer strides

It’s common for horses to gain speed without offering lengthened strides. You can encourage your horse to lengthen their strides by repeating the suppleness exercises above; these will encourage them to stay round and soft over their topline.

Charlie’s top tip: Don’t forget to show a clear transition between your different trots at the beginning and the end. This is an easy place to pick up marks in a test!

Looking for different ways to work on balance? Try combining Charlie’s tips with these polework exercises to keep your horse guessing..