The Importance of Loading the Hind End in Trot Work with Straightness for Collection, Half-Steps and Piaffe

Written by Betsy LaBelle - In Training - Friday, May 1, 2015

Kim Herslow reveals some of her work with Rosmarin

Multi-champion FEI Dressage competitor Kimberly Herslow (USA) reveals her work. Herslow (Stockton, NJ) and Rosmarin have been named one of the eight athlete-and-horse combinations by the USEF for the 2015 Pan American Games European CDI Observation Event Squad. The Squad is composed of four Big Tour and four Small Tour combinations, which will compete in designated European CDI Observation Events for six weeks this summer. Training with Debbie McDonald, Kim and Rosmarin spend 6 weeks in Europe this summer on the USEF Pan American Games Observation Squad. 

By Kim Herslow with Betsy LaBelle

The competition arena is where all the many hours, days, and years of training show the judges, owners and spectators what has been accomplished. That training becomes imperative for the future. Since it takes a long time for a horse’s body to develop adequate strength in its tendons, ligaments, topline and full body, the thought on muscle development becomes crucial for the rider to take into account for the horse to carrying the weight correctly. 

It’s important to always note that each horse is an individual and a rider must develop the horse by ‘reading’ it daily in body language, feel-to-ride, and strength in its back and hind quarters. A horse will only take weight correctly onto its hind-quarters if the horse moves forward on its own to the connection, if it’s happy and comfortable in the daily work.

The purpose and objective for loading the hind end in trot work is three-fold – strength, expression, and thoroughness in the connection.

Because both hind legs of the horse carry the weight for the majority of their body in high collection like the piaffe, an effective strength-training and conditioning program is essential.  The importance of consistently developing a straight horse for the half-halt is paramount.

Rider Position

The rider has to have proper core and seat tension.

Rider core and back positions must be in supportive and active angles for correct pelvis engagement. For a horse to continue moving forward to the connection, the rider has to feel that the horse stays in front of the leg and stretches forward in the bridle so that the half-halt does not slow the horse down, but rather that it continues with energy and power. The horse must be forward before the bracing of the rider’s back can bring the horse into a shorter step with active energy.

On making the connecting half-halt, it’s important to ensure the horse’s mouth never opens during the ride. Personally, I’ve spent a long time training Rosmarin to understand the seat connection. The least resistance and the least change in the rein aid through the connection come from the basic work to develop his sensitivity and confidence in the half-halt through my position. The timing of the bracing my back as well as when to use my legs in each half-halt are the two biggest keys to helping Rosmarin understand the aids clearly and have less or no resistance in the reins.

This understanding came after much repetition. He and I both experienced the same feeling thousands and thousands of times over the years. The half-halt is about the rhythm and the timing of the foot-falls and, when your seat comes down in the 1…2… in the trot, it’s a mini core crunch from your stomach to your back engagement and to your hip flexors which holds your seat for a moment. So, you are saying to the horse, ‘keep trotting,’ but a little bit of resistance from the rider’s hip flexors make it so the energy doesn’t go flying too forward or downward into the hand. If you push too hard with a driving seat, the energy will go heavy into the hand and the horse will open its mouth or pull on you in a downhill pull. Balance has to be felt throughout the rider’s middle, which will control where the horse’s balance will go. A huge point is that the rider’s arms are always working independently of that brace and in the training in general.Kim Herslow reveals some of her work with Rosmarin

First, energy is created through engagement of the rider’s back and seat with a supportive leg. Second, the rider will then feel the horse lift its back up under the seat. And, third, the rider then braces and holds for that second in between foot-falls of the trot. The energy still goes to the bit with an even hand connection but, with enough feeling, the rider can keep the balance in seat and core. If the horse does brace or hollow through its body, bending it through the stiffer rein and stepping over (leg yielding) is helpful to fix that problem.

It’s the aim to have the horse pick up their abs in order to lift the back when the hind end engages; the horse has to engage its own abs just like the rider. The horse’s low back engages just like the rider’s low back engages and the pelvis angle of the rider becomes the same pelvis angle of the horse. When visualizing this, it’s that your hip flexors allow your pelvis to angle more upward with a flat back. You can also lighten your seat a bit in this position by allowing the weight to go down into your heels and absorbing the weight there more.

The sequence to training a horse to load its hind end in the trot work is the development of a half-halt from the rider’s seat and balance through to the reins. A horse needs to understand how to respond to a half-halt from the rider’s bracing against the motion of the trot and balancing with support from the lower leg into the balanced half-halting reins.

The focus in riding this way is to feel that you ride the hind legs forward into a steady, but elastic connection over the horse’s back into your rein connection. This can be achieved in your warm-up, by focusing on gymnastic lateral work (leg yields, shoulder-in and haunches-in) to get the hind legs moving forwards toward the rein connection along with stretching them in a rising trot to get the back up and swinging. You should feel that you control your horse’s frame in the connection (high or low) easily without making strong correcting half-halts through this work before moving into any collection. When you move into a sitting trot and feel the connection in your reins by allowing them to be adjustable and elastic, the horse is starting to round over its back and you can start working towards collection.

Developing Half-Steps

Begin in a sitting trot by closing your lower leg, supporting them and thinking forward the moment you are starting to brace your back for your half-halt, using your reins only if necessary with the rhythm of the trot in order to develop cadence. Start with a couple of steps, focusing on the move forward to the connection you bring them back creating loading power in the hind end and build up to 6-7 steps as the horse begins to understand the exercise. After you have developed this and the horse understands the exercise, then this will become the natural reaction. When your horse feels and relates your aids in that consistent sequence and you can ask for this throughout your work anywhere, then you can start asking for smaller steps with more activity and eventually into half-steps and to piaffe. It is important that the horse always remain moving and thinking forward to the connection in a round and through frame.Kim Herslow reveals some of her work with Rosmarin

With Rosmarin, if I was setting up on a circle, I would start riding my inside leg to my outside rein connection proactively to get a feeling he is taking me a bit more before I add the half-halt with the bracing of my back and use my lower abdominal muscles to control my pelvis to resist the follow into my seat.

You don't want to pull the connection in your reins, as this would risk the horse getting stuck behind your leg aids and instead of loading the hind end it would get heavier on the front end and pull downwards. The feeling should be that he lifts the withers into the roundness of the connection as it increases activity with the hind legs. Sometimes, you can also help the horse engage by touching it with a whip on the croup in the rhythm of the trot as you start to make your half-halts to bring it back to more collection. Sometimes, though, their reaction can be to kick up against the whip or scoot forward. Regardless of how sensitive your horse is, use care. This must be kept a positive influence and used to help engagement, and also take care not to use the whip all the time or you will risk your horse only giving it back to you in resistance. Also, using your voice when it is performing correctly is very helpful in teaching what you would like and are asking for.

The ultimate goal is to achieve a recycling energy. When the energy recycles through the horse, it takes less and less of an aid. The horse is more in tune to the rider for balance from the rider’s core and seat and then the reins do less and less to manage the energy and stay in a more consistent elastic connection. The best exercise is to trot and almost walk and then trot again, focusing on the hind legs staying quick in a steady tempo. It helps the horse understand the half-halt and learn to come underneath itself with its hind legs more consistently. 

The Importance on Straightness

The necessity for straightness is paramount for loading the hind end. Every horse and every rider are crooked to some degree. It’s a process to work on exercises that help straighten the horse out during the workout. You have to feel where the horse feels stuck and where you feel you can make the connection better. If one rein is stiffer than the other, you can work on exercises to even up the stiff or empty sides. There are many exercises you can do either on a straight line or circles to try to develop evenness in both reins. One that I like is a leg yield on a circle in the trot, stepping them over to the outside rein from the inside leg behind the girth for about one-half or three-quarters of a 20-meter circle; the angle is extreme so it almost feels like the horse doesn’t have a bounce in the trot anymore. Then, you straighten and send the horse forward to see if the connection is improved in the evenness on the inside rein, repeating whenever it starts pulling, leaning or getting heavy.Kim Herslow reveals some of her work with Rosmarin

It’s really important for the rider to be aware of the straightness all the time and quickly create an exercise to straighten the horse. Without a straight horse, the half-halts will be uneven, not square and therefore ineffective in creating that recycling energy. When training a horse to load its hind quarters, you want them to be as straight as possible. Sometimes you have to practice in shoulder-fore on the stiffer side a couple of times and then try for straightness when you can see in a mirror. Some horses also try to wiggle in the beginning, which is normal as it tries to figure out how to load. That is also when it’s a good idea to ride shoulder-fore first on both sides before trying to straighten perfectly.

The loading of the hind end must come through an understanding of the aids. You don’t want to push in a way that makes the horse defensive, nervous or worried. If your horse does become defensive or very resistant, it may have a physical limitation or perhaps what you are asking is causing pain. That’s when you have your vet check the horse to see if there is a reason why. You want the horse to understand the exercise by having clear aids in understanding them. In essence, the partnership created between you and your horse is based on mutual trust built over time.

The loading half-halt is also how to set up corners of the dressage arena. It is a pre-requisite when riding test movements to set up their balance for the next movement. It is scored in all transitions from any medium or extended trot or canter work; they want to see the loading half-halt which differentiates the extended trot to collected trot and this should happen in only three trot steps.

When the horse is straight, it makes the forward energy better through the overall connection to the seat. In order for that activity to come through to load the hind end, the horse must be straight with the muscles on both sides of the body built up the same. It takes time… years to make sure that the hind end loading can become a world class piaffe.

The best way to communicate with your horse to achieve harmony in the work is by making sure your horse understands your basic aids clearly. This is what you spend a majority of time doing in every training session so that it feels solid. The transitions and exercises that help you achieve this with each horse can be different depending on its weaknesses. It’s up to you as the partner to determine how to make the horse as even on both reins as possible, from the hind end to the rein connection. This is ultimately how you will get the most out of what your horse’s abilities can offer and you can share that with the judges, owners and spectator in competition.Kim Herslow is on the Pan American Games qualifying US Dressage Team Squad - Photo from Wellington CDIO Nations Cup 2015

About Kimberly Herslow

Kim Herslow (Stockton, NJ) and Rosmarin have been named one of the eight athlete-and-horse combinations by the USEF for the 2015 Pan American Games European CDI Observation Event Squad. The Squad is composed of four Big Tour and four Small Tour combinations, which will compete in designated European CDI Observation Events for six weeks this summer. Training with Debbie McDonald, Kim and Rosmarin spend 6 weeks in Europe this summer on the USEF Pan American Games Observation Squad. 

Rosmarin (Rosentanz x Hauptstutbuch Wolkentaenzerin x Weltmeyer) is a 2005 Hanoverian gelding owned by Kiroli Enterprises. Kim and Rosmarin scored a 72.474% to win over the rest of the field in the Small Tour during week 7 at the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival. During the CDIO Nations Cup, the pair placed second in the Prix St. George with a 73.684%, and won the Intermediaire I with a score of 76.158%.