Over 60 eager spectators gathered at Hamilton Stables in Wentzville Mo, graciously offered up by the owner, Anne Hamilton, and chatted while waiting for Cindy Sydnor to begin her symposium: The Development and Maintenance of Gaits in the Dressage Horse, hosted by St.Louis Area Dressage Society (SLADS). The crowd quieted as Cindy Sydnor, Grand-Prix instructor, “R” judge, and USDF examiner for the Instructor Certification Program entered the arena and checked her microphone. It was no accident that the first thing she said was that everyone’s horse should be “a pleasure to ride.” This was her way of letting the audience know that she was not here to force difficult demands onto the horses, but to teach dressage enthusiasts to distinguish gaits that were correct from gaits that were lacking, and to help them understand how to promote articulation, coordination, and strength in their own horses’ gaits. “Whatever the gaits are when you receive the horse, you should maintain or improve them, and not cause harm to them.”
We looked at 8 horses on the first day of the two-day clinic and 7 on the second. From young horses with little training, to 5-year-old FEI hopefuls, to mature Grand-Prix horses, Cindy discussed the history of the horse with the rider and commented on his conformation and muscling before watching him go. “It is important to evaluate the big picture,” she told us.
As we watched each horse in its working gaits, Cindy trained our eyes to first study the horse’s hind end, to ask ourselves if both hind legs were tracking up equally with equal suspension, and then to look at the stifle for flexion.
Cindy—being very familiar with the objective of the training scale--clarified a term that she believed often went misunderstood. “The relaxation we are looking for in the training scale is an athletic relaxation,” she said, “a contraction followed by relaxation.” A constant contraction would then be tension.
After the hind end, we were to evaluate how far the front legs tracked up and to see if the horse was using all of its leg joints—shoulder, elbow, and knee. We wanted to see freedom in the shoulder, with the point of shoulder joint opening and closing, allowing the front legs to move up and forward. Cindy gave the spectators hope in telling them that every horse would show a better range of motion if properly ridden, with the rider shifting weight to the horse’s back end, freeing up the front legs to have more expression. Cindy suggested promoting joint movement in our horses by encouraging them to “push from behind” with bending exercises, cavelettis, collection followed by extension, and leg yielding. She considered the piaffe a useful exercise in teaching the horse to engage, but not passage because the horse could simply kick his hind legs out behind him. “The anti-thesis of engagement is when the hind legs are out behind the horse,” she reminded us.
One of the first horse’s we looked at showed muscling under her neck and a hollow dip in front of the saddle. Cindy explained that muscling on the underside of the neck was a clue that the horse probably went above the bit. When we watched the four-year-old Oldenburg go, we saw that she had a pure trot with some suspension, but that she raised her head every five strides or so and repeatedly lost her balance. The mare also wasn’t willing to stretch when the rider asked. We had already learned, by Cindy asking the history of the horse, that the mare had only been under saddle for 8 months and that the rider had recently changed the bridle to one that produced more poll pressure.
Cindy told the audience to expect a young horse building up muscles for the first time, or an older horse rebuilding muscle, to go through a period in which he feels heavier in the hand. She considers this a good sign that the horse is using more power, and that the rider has to learn to shift more of the horse’s weight to his hind end using half-halts, while the horse needs to learn to balance himself with the added energy.
“Too much lightness is nothingness,” Cindy stated. “If you feel nothing in your hand then there is no push, or it is being lost somewhere before it reaches your hand.”
Cindy warned against using a more extreme bridle to soften the horse’s mouth because it causes the horse to focus only on his head. This mare had a rigid idea of where her head should be and let this mindset compromise her balance. She raised her head every so often because she was balancing her body around her head. Cindy took us into the horse’s mind and told us that this horse believes she is doing right in keeping her head and neck stiff, but that her attention needed to be on her hind legs. “We want to work the horse from back to front, not front to back.” Cindy told the rider. “Make her believe that you want an elastic connection.” She started the process of convincing the mare that her head and neck should be pliable by asking the rider to work her in a longer frame. Then Cindy asked the rider to try some leg yielding from the quarter line to the wall. This exercise was used to get the mare thinking about her hind end and the placement of her hind legs.
“When crossing over, the horse experiences a stronger leg—with engagement and activity,” Cindy said as she demonstrated, crossing her legs over with an exaggerated shifting of her weight from one leg to the other. Cindy showed excellent suspension in this movement. The mare, however, had not done a lot of leg yielding and wasn’t crossing her hind legs over, so Cindy had the rider bring her horse to her, where she helped on the ground to teach the mare turn on the forehand. “Turn on the forehand is a key leg yielding exercise. It wakes up new ideas to the horse, like awareness of the hind end,” Cindy said. She held the inside rein and assisted in crossing the horse’s hind legs. She patted the horse and let the rider give the mare a walk break on loose reins. Cindy turned to the audience. “People don’t make the mental connection to the horse’s hind end enough either.” She later asked riders to pick up the trot and to tell her when the inside hind leg was on the ground by saying, “now…now…now.” She offered a hint. “You can look at the inside shoulder if you want to. When it is coming forward the inside hind is on the ground.” She assigned homework to the crowd. “It’s really no more difficult than when you first learned to tie your shoes,” she said encouragingly.
Minutes later we were watching a large, 5 year-old chestnut in the trot. This horse had a nice back and was reaching for the bit but rushed on his forehand. Cindy suggested that, on this horse, the rider keep his head up so that the poll was closer to the highest point. Although Cindy appreciated the rider riding the horse’s back stretched in this way, she felt his heavy head coming too far forward was contributing to him falling off balance. She allowed the rider to lower his neck if he became cramped or tense in his neck.
In order to balance the horse, Cindy asked the rider to slow the trot down. She wanted the tempo slower, which she described as the speed of the rhythm. She had the rider do this by slowing her posting, sitting deeper, and bringing her shoulders back. She asked the rider to close and release her outside hand while sitting the down part of the posting trot. She explained to the audience that this was because in the down position of the trot—when the rider is on the correct diagonal—the horse’s inside hind leg is on the ground. This is important since you cannot shift weight to any part of the horse’s body that is not on the ground. Therefore, the inside hind—which has the hardest job—being loaded incrementally, will begin to reach further under the horse’s body. She advocated introducing the horse to the half-halt in trot-walk transitions, using three or four half-halts, shifting 5-10 pounds of the horse’s weight to the hind end with each one.
“The balance of the horse is directly connected to its gaits,” she told the auditors, “and the tempo is a reflection of the balance.”
In order to find the optimum tempo for the horse the rider was asked to seek the longest slowest strides the horse would offer. If the tempo of the trot was too fast the horse would shorten his strides, and if the tempo of the trot was too slow he would shorten his strides. The perfect tempo was the one in which the rider achieved the longest strides the horse would offer with the most suspension.
Cindy had given insight into the minds of the horse, judge, and the accomplished rider. She ended the symposium begging for more questions, ready to answer, but it seemed that her students clearly understood the concepts she had taught and were eager to put their new knowledge to work. Certainly the next time they rode they would pay attention to their horses’ hind legs—concentrating on which hind leg is on the ground and influencing it with the half-halt. Cindy wished everyone luck and many “pleasurable rides.”