Lines and corners.

Dale Forbes:

I am going to warn you in advance that this post is really, really boring.

A sure cure for insomnia–just try to read it twice.

But, in my experience actually doing a good corner–one that leaves you ready and prepared for whatever is next is a skill that needs attention.  I know it did from me and since I rarely see people do them correctly, I assume it is a problem for others.

The main reason we care about a correctly-balanced corner is that it sets us up to succeed on whatever else we might have planned on the line after that corner.  Loss of balance and equine “line up” in the corner means you will enter the straight line with loss of balance and crookedness–all needing fixing.  Best not to jump off the cliff in the first place.

(Another reason for a correct corner might be to show off to the judge that we know the difference between a circle and “not a circle” at the lower level–something they appreciate.)


The dressage arena.  Now isn’t that a beautiful thing?

And though we know there are support groups to aid in quitting this kind of obsession, here is how a corner in the dressage arena should work.

Goal: As stated, landing straight after the corner.

Process: Horse positions nicely at the poll several steps before the corner, balancing evenly on all four equine corners (no tip), proceeds through the arena corner (sitting down just a tiny bit, depending on level). The horse is then softly straightened on the outside rein to whatever degree it will need either straightness or bend in the next project.

Sounds easy.

Here are some things to practice that will make it even easier.

The basic skill that the horse must master is transferring weight onto outside hind leg in the turn instead of inside front leg when he feels the inside rein.  This lesson is critically coupled with an utterly straight rider approaching the corner like they are going to jump out of the arena–in preparation–you are not turning, YET–only after the re-balancing has been accomplished.

People frequently do these actions too close together with a green horse.  He or she needs a bit of time to figure things out.  Step, 1, step 2, step 3.  Plus it is more fun that way.  Three chances to communicate.  All the better.  When your horse understands the steps they appear to happen all at once.  They do not.  It is always done in stages–just very close together.  (And this, once habituated, leads to a blissful, competent “slow down” in the mental pace of your ride–a nice thing).

First off the beast must understand when you pull slightly on the rein to position/bend it does not actually mean “turn” UNLESS the body of the rider says, “Yes, we are turning,” by initiating facing the new direction in the upper body.

This is the “take your best guess approach” for the beast.

For any transition aid there is more than one cue (or sequence of cues) that enables the horse to give you his “best guess”.

There are only a limited number of aids possible and you have to disconnect (in your own body and the beast’s) that a slight pull on the rein means turn–it only means that when the other aids are in agreement.

What to do: First practice riding a straight line–down the center line is good.

1. Make sure you are projecting your line–riding absolutely straight yourself, looking at a target at eye level.

2. Do not waver from that target in the slightest and go about teaching your horse to slightly position while still stepping forward on the line. Not so much that the balance is lost.  Make do with a little at first.  This will improve with practice. He or she may try to attempt to turn in that moment of positioning.  If so kindly redirect, checking your self for errors.  You can do this lots of times on a single straight line.  In fact that helps.

Why must you do this practice totally unrelated to an actual corner?

Because you cannot easily tell loss of line (and balance) in the corner–because you are in the middle of turning!  And, as above, loss of balance in the corner means you will enter the straight line with loss of balance.

Common rider mistakes at this point:

A. Losing focal point, looking down at bend/horse’s shoulder.

B. Raising rider’s outside shoulder and hip while looking down at bend. (Effectively releasing haunches–haunches will move into that vacuum).

C. Noting horse getting crooked and “falling on inside shoulder”, then fiercely using inside leg to “prevent such falling in”–which was actually caused by drifting hind end, caused in turn by rider’s body not lined up correctly. Inside leg has nothing to do with it–though it has many other interesting uses.

Do not worry, if this takes some practice.  There is a reason that the dressage arena has four corners–it give us a chance to practice frequently and hopefully perfectly.  Practice right, it gets better, practice wrong–not so much so.  The old, “if you are in a hole quit digging” thing.

Back to the beginning.  As in all problems decide what the real problem is.  In this case horse is losing balance necessary to position and needs both steering and assistance to prevent that.  They also need to understand what it is you want.  Give them a chance.  Correct yourself


If the rein is slightly used to indicate positioning, and the rider stays utterly straight in their focus, aids and intention the horse has a chance to figure out, “Oh this is different.”  If you lift your outer side and change your body like you are doing an (incorrect) turn how’s the beast to know?  That’s why practicing this skill unrelated to turns is so critical.

And in fact why doing definite lines and corners is a great way to school.

Still with me? If you want to see something more interesting go see the post on “Swing over the back.”

There is a nice clip of riding a very gently group of turns.  We’ll add a video of a true corner next week.

Swing over the back

Dale Forbes:

When I first went to Germany I was mystified about something (many things!) they talked about rather constantly.

Swing over the back.

When Elmar, Rudolf’s top rider at the time, was kind enough to visit us in Washington for a week training session in about 1993 he conveyed to us that he did not see riders developing swing in their horses.

I asked him which of our horses were correct over the back?

His answer?  None.


That motley equine crew included several ex race horses, an Arabian, a Morgan and a few crossbred Warmbloods–mostly French lines.  None of these is known to easily develop a softly swinging back.  And told that “Use of the seat was important,” yet knowing nothing about how to go about that, we were failing utterly.

(Sadly, we were lost and stayed lost for quite a while.)

You can’t demand swing, it must be developed, and this is not done by constantly holding against–nor floating off into the ether.  (Though at least that way you are not preventing it!)  The trick  is you have to both allow swing in how you use your back/hip and sometimes lightly encourage it–a combination of regulating the rhythm, supporting lightly with the leg and moderating softly with the seat/hand.

And then not let them do anything that prevents development of swing, like throwing legs or a “passagey” trot for instance. (Running off, chasing the rhythm, roll backs and exuberant bucking are also in the list to avoid as well, but I was feeling snooty and did not want to mention them.  Actually, sometimes a bit of a buck helps–I remember clinging to the neck of one horse in Germany with Rudolf in the corner growling something about, “A sign of a tight back!”  At the time I was certain he was talking about the horse.)

Moving on.

Lacking horses that swing over the back rather naturally, how is a person supposed to learn how to develop that quality?  You can’t teach something you have never felt, or in many cases in the US even seen! 

Below is a short clip of a horse demonstrating a relaxed swing over the back in the very first part of the ride, yesterday morning, with Melynnda Thiessen up.  The horse is a TB/Hannoverian that was bred here in Spokane by Patricia Peterson from one of my stallions, Watson, and a very good Thoroughbred mare.  He spent most of his life in California under one of my other students Kelly McGinnis who has done a very nice job with him.

If you want to watch it, look for a couple of things in the horse and then the rider as they pass by the camera and head away.


1. Relaxed rise and fall of each of the horse’s hips–creating “swing”.  (Along with good diagonal pairing, engagement, etc all)


2. Relaxed rise and fall of the rider’s hips, to assist/suggest the “swing”.  (Along with control of the upper body, engagement of shoulder, etc all)

THIS IS NOT “swishing” the seat across the saddle laterally, nor gouging the saddle towards the horses ears.  The movement is more like a soft drop that follows the actual movement of the back–and it is done with controlled relaxation–nothing else in the lower pelvis anyway.  It is much more obvious in the horse than the rider, and that is how it should be–subtle.

The above is good riding.  And on a slightly worry-prone horse horse that would LOVE to “throw the legs,” and move in tension.

Long Pause. . . .

How is a person going to do that with rigid hip flexors or knees jammed up against a thigh block?


I feel like a nag saying a lot more about it, because frankly that’s about it.  You are supposed to be able to move your hip–think flexible, not go-go dancer–and stabilize the torso via other methods.  I think I wrote something about that. . .

But in this clip you see a really happy horse.  Of course the other parts of the work were much more “spectacular”–but this is the one I like the best.

Anyway, re training: Leg movement is flashy and easy to see–but it is not right precisely because it is movement through tension.  The swing part?  Just the opposite and we don’t see much encouragement of this difficult and yet basic skill that runs along the longitudinal, not the lateral training of the horse.  (Translation: you don’t get it by leg yielding or stretching per se.) It really doesn’t happen just by lowering the neck, and you need to keep it when you raise the neck anyway, so you can’t depend on that.  Many people interpret it as a long horse falling on the forehand.  It is not.

How come swing is so little practiced or focused on, as it is so helpful to the ride?

We are a backwater, I know it.  But I don’t exactly see great pictures of it in the big leauges anymore either where it seems the correct, actual trot has fairly gone the way of the Dodo.

Anyway, it looks easy and natural in the clip, but just ask Melynnda how difficult this is to learn.  It took me years–and there are a lot of paths on the map.  But it is an essential skill.  Sure, “fancy” is great: a horse wanting to show you his or her stuff.  And though big weird trots are “in” just now, I don’t recall any revisions in the scale of training saying a “passagey” trot was now the desired method of transport.  Swing is fun!  Might keep that in the back of one’s riding mind.  Just a thought!

Hint: Don’t pay much attention to bad riding–it makes you think it is okay. 

(I could watch this for hours!)