Portal Techniques – Crossed Reins

“Sometimes the contact can get in the way of the truth” – Andrew J Murphy

Hi all,

We’re taking a quick break from Andrew’s Number Six Stretch series, secondarily because transcribing is a long and painful process, no matter how much you love the subject matter, and firstly because there are some demos and talks coming up that will allow me to deliver much more up to date content, rather than working off of videos that are a few years old.

Today we’re going to have a chat about crossed reins, the most difficult, nerdy, technical and fascinating of all the Portal Techniques. The reason that it holds the top spot for me is that, like children, drunk people and legging, it always tells the truth. Crossed reins does what it says on the tin – you cross your reins over the horse’s neck (not under, we’ve seen it done and it isn’t helpful) and hold the reins in the ‘wrong’ hands.

The aim of the game is to bring the horse straighter and more through, and to expose crookedness in the rider – it makes the aids more accurate, and tells you a lot about the horse’s relationship with the rein.

I’ve had a few crossed rein lessons with Andrew, on several different horses, and the initial reaction is always the same – the horse flies off in the wrong direction, and you can’t make it go where you want it to for love nor money. Prepare to spend the next 5-10 minutes on a tiny circle or completely adrift while your horse swings its head around wondering what the hell is going on, and you receive a brutal lesson on which is your dominant hand and how ineffective your legs really are when you don’t have your reins to rely on.

My steed for this particular lesson was Otis, a 10 year old ex-racehorse from Spain, owned by my good friend and student Miranda. He’s a capable horse with a lovely temperament and nice paces, who has the challenge of being croup high with a straight hind leg. At some point he developed a dislike of the bridle, so he is often ridden bitless, although as his training progresses he is increasingly accepting of the bit. Historically his tendency was to get a bit quick, be suspicious of the lateral work, and to find rein back mildly offensive. These days he comes through very easily, but can be difficult to ‘keep’ through, and this crossed reins lesson was partly aimed at changing that.

Otis was wearing a bitted bridle for this lesson, and while you can do crossed reins with a bitless bridle we don’t particularly recommend it, because part of the point of the crossed reins is that it changes the angle of the bit in the horse’s mouth. Bitless riders can still do it as a test of straightness etc, but it is a little less effective. This is not me saying that you need a bit to train effectively, because I personally do not believe that to be true, but it’s a case of horses for courses, and there are techniques that work better for bitless riding than crossed reins.

We’d already warmed Otis up, and got him to lift the back by halt-halting with a vertically downward pressing seat, accompanied by a raised hand which then released forwards and round when he connected to the bit. The pressing of the seat encourages the horse to lift the back, and encompasses the Number Six Stretch, as the raised hand which resolves forwards and round connects the horse whilst still pressing the neck out.

This was all very well, but of course we want to achieve the next level of sophistication,

and so Andrew told me to cross my reins. I get to watch Andrew use this technique fairly often, and so I tried desperately to channel him as I swapped my reins, envisioning a world where the horse carries on travelling in the direction that it’s meant to, becomes more connected, effortless looking and gorgeous. This image was shattered when Otis pitched sharply to the left (that tricky right hand isn’t as fixed as I thought) and I was once again left to cope with the limits of my abilities. Andrew and I spent a few minutes laughing as I zig-zagged, circled and meandered randomly around the school before, like with any new technique, there was a moment when the penny dropped, and I managed to coordinate myself so that I could control the direction of travel.

Bear in mind that the horse wasn’t through yet – I’m simply talking about being able to walk forwards in a straight line.

Andrew managed to stop laughing and told me to bring Otis onto a 20m circle. Once there I was to begin swapping the bend from inside to outside, fairly quickly, using my legs and seat. So two strides inside bend, two strides outside bend, wash, rinse, repeat. Crossed reins naturally draw your hands together and forward, creating an upright but open posture, and also encourages the rider to place more weight into the elbows. I was able to change the bend very easily, and Otis became more and more through, but in a way I’d never felt before. There was no feeling of him being braced, none of his prior tentativeness regarding the contact, or over reactiveness to the leg. We changed the rein, which for once did not cause any lack of throughness/control, and continued with the exercise, after which is was time to go back to standard hand position.

What I felt was this – the horse was much more stable in the contact, and also much more open in the frame, whilst also being more upright. The stride had more suspension and was more consistently rhythmical than ever. At no point did his posture feel vulnerable or weak. We went to the canter, which had been improving but was still tricky for him, and he was more sittable, relaxed and connected than ever, with slow, even and open strides.

But why?

As Andrew says – ‘I can see clearly now the rein has gone’. By removing conventional use of the rein the rider can strip away the unnecessary and work on true connection. The way that the reins cross over the horse’s neck also creates an excellent visual aid for the rider as to how straight the horse really is, and with no reins to help you, the seat and leg truly come into play. Any fiddling or unconscious use of the rein will quickly work against you, so riders will very soon stop doing anything random with their hands. Horses get used to our little habits, and so your horse might not respond to little non-deliberate tugs and jerks when the reins are in the normal position, but with the crossed reins it’s a whole new ball game.

Try it and see.

The Number Six Stretch – Part 2

The second article about Andrew’s Number Six Stretch, taken from teaching transcripts:

If you don’t have a horse available to you mentally and physically, you can’t really make it stronger. Our type of dressage is primarily therapeutic. Charles says that the first stage of dressage, where you put a rider on a horse’s back, is when you should start apologising to it. You have to use the language of your aiding, experience and knowledge to make the horse capable of carrying your weight; the horse isn’t a carrying machine – it’s an eating and running machine. We have to make the horse adopt certain postural changes so that instead of sitting on its spine, which is a relatively weak and dropped structure, we want the spine to be raised with its musculature, so that we are sitting on something that is lifting us and is strong. That entails the elements of what I call the Number Six Stretch.

So, if a stretch only involves deflation, although it may be better for the horse’s psyche and it may feel less threatened and more relaxed, it still isn’t turning the horse into a weight-carrying unit. To make it a weight-carrying unit, we have to change the way that the horse uses its hind legs. Imagine the horse as three bascules; the forehand bascule, which rotates forward and away from the rider’s positioning, the hind end bascule, which rotates backwards and under. As both of those work in opposite directions, the middle starts to come up and tone, and when this is developed in a horse’s musculature you get this lovely roundness in the pelvic hind leg step, torso, and neck. All of these things coming together create a bridge on which we can sit and be supported. This is why the horse has to be athletic eventually; because it has to use its musculature in a way similar to Pilates in order to be able to carry us without detriment. If the horse doesn’t carry us like that, every step it takes is a concussive step. Every concussive step that it takes is going to take its toll on the bones inside the foot, the bones around the joints, the spinal processes, the hock, hip, stifle. Everything is going to be impacted with a concussive step, unless we start to teach the horse to lift us up with a supple step that includes all the joints bending and then levering back up. The idea of the Number Six Stretch is that the hind legs are performing to a high level with the back lifted; if the symptom of that is that the horse drapes is neck down and lowers its poll, then this is the start of what we call an uphill position.

If you ask most people what they think an uphill position is, they’ll visualise a horse that has the poll as the highest point. Now that’s not incorrect, but like a lot of the jargon we use, like ‘on the bit’, or ‘uphill’ it is referring to the end of a process, not to the starting point. A lot of people take concepts like contact as being a starting point, whereas I see them as a result. There are other things that should be a starting point, like good balance and relative straightness, but contact is an evolved thing. Cadence is an evolved thing. So, when people say ‘the horse has got to be in the contact’, I would say yes – eventually.

The horse is actually uphill when the croup is lowered, the withers are the next highest point, and eventually the poll is the ultimately the highest point. Now if you start it the other way around, you completely ruin the horse’s ability to do the first two points. However, if by working our Number Six Stretch we get the croup to lower because the hind legs are taking a more bending step, which lifts the back, which then lifts the wither, with the neck relatively lowered as a result of that, then we have the prerequisites for our collected work. Teaching the horse to carry you with the hind legs and back like this, and allowing the neck to be low so we emphasise the throughness, is the first point of collection.

Throughness is the lovely feeling where the horse stretches down, when the movement of the horse seem unimpeded. Engagement refers to what the horse does with its hind legs, which should involve lowering the croup. A horse can be very engaged in that sense, with a very short top line, and you could say it was engaged because it’s underneath – but it lacks throughness completely. If you go the other way around, and put the neck right down but with no engagement behind, that’s 10 % throughness but no support.

What happens when you have a canter that is a little bit short and braced and I interfere and get you to put the horse’s neck out? It trots. Because the horse can’t handle that degree of stretch, so you get 80 % throughness, 5% engagement. What I want to pitch is how we can get the maximum throughness with the engagement that will support it. We need to bring engagement and throughness together. The idea of engagement is that the horse supports before it transports. The symptoms of horses that are the other way around is that it might run, or come against the rein. A horse that is engaged but not through might even look like it is able to stretch, because the horse coming against the rein with a lowered neck can look like a stretch, but if you look at the hind legs you will see that they are not doing what they need to do as a way of carrying the rider, which is to support first and then go forwards. So going back to the whole fifty shades thing, I believe that when people start seeing the similarities between things they are a bit more evolved than someone who sees the differences.

What I see a lot of in horses that are hollow or tight in the back is that the hind legs are straight. If you urge that horse more forward it has to go faster to cope with a lack of articulation in the hind legs. When you slow a horse down, people think it’s being lazy – well you try running really slowly with your knees up all the way round the arena. Our first point of reference with the Number Six Stretch is how do we get those hind joints to bend, so that instead of pitching you forwards it carries you upright.

So, if a horse has a straight hind leg, it’s unlikely that is something that happened yesterday. It has happened over time, where the horse has developed stiffness from bracing. A stamping hind leg then ricochets through the back, and results in the horse coming ‘against the hand’ or hollowing. So the horse isn’t really coming ‘against the hand’, it’s making a gesture to cope with what is going on in the back and hind leg. To cope with discomfort. It just so happens that the bit is in the way. And horses can kind of budget for it. They’ll sneak a little bit ‘behind the bit’ or develop a head tilt, or go a little quarters in, and they find a way to cope. A horse can cope for weeks, months or years by putting itself into a defensive body-and-mind-set that unfortunately can be made to look respectable by putting draw reins on, or with a double bridle. A horse can be forced to look ‘on the bit’ when everything about it is screaming discomfort.

When the horse is uncomfortable, its mind is disquieted. And then it doesn’t matter that you feed it three times a day, give it sugar cubes and tell it that you love it, the horse is going to be tense, because it’s worried. Sometimes the issues are conformational. A horse like an Arabian that is built to take a low long step to allow it to gallop over sand will step forward 1/3 of the way and then push out behind the other 2/3, so it’s not a lifting supporting step. The Arabian’s reasons for moving like this are perfectly legitimate, but if we want it to properly engage and to carry us in a way that doesn’t do it detriment we still seek to change that. Luckily the answers are the same as with the stiff horse, and the number six stretch is still a key part of training horses that don’t step under for conformational reasons.

On the whole we don’t deal with horses that are at the top level – although those horses would be better if they had this kind of work – we deal with quarter horses, arabs, thoroughbreds, native ponies, Irish sports horses, Iberians, warmbloods that have maybe been screwed up and young horses. The neck is the least important part of the horse’s body at the beginning, because it’s only a reflection of everything else that’s going on. When the horse is ridden in a correctly stretched profile the spinal processes are pulled slightly apart, leaving room for movement and a degree of cushioning. If the horse is hollow and tight in its top line, the spinal processes close together and may begin to press on one another, causing the horse to suffer discomfort. That’s why I say that I prefer throughness without engagement rather than engagement without throughness.

When a show jumper bascules over a fence would you say that stretch is deflated? Absolutely not. My pitch with the Number Six Stretch is that a stretch should be athletic and dynamic, with the engagement gradually increased so that it stops being a downward looking movement and ends up with a horse that has the poll as the highest point – but in a stretched way, with the back open and lifted and the hind leg supporting. If you look at a good piaffe, the horse should still look like it’s craning up and out. There is no book that I’ve ever read that says you should shorten the horse’s neck. You can shorten the horse by bringing its hind legs under, but no one has ever said that you shorted the horse’s neck. Because the neck is a symptom – it isn’t the point.

The Number Six Stretch Part 1

This is the first of a series of articles adapted from transcripts of Andrew’s teaching:

So then, where to begin? The No.6 Stretch is a concept that I developed not just through the years I’ve ridden and trained horses, but also the long hours that I’ve spent looking at them from the ground. I think it’s important to talk about it because stretching is a subject which has somehow become controversial in some circles – for many people it’s seen as something which just lets the horse off the hook for a bit – which it can be if the rider chooses. However it can also be something entirely different, and that’s where the No.6 Stretch comes in, to give people access to processes and ideas, while maintaining a sense of structure.

Imagine a number 6 turned on its side, so that the long tail is the horse’s neck, and the round bit is the horse’s haunches. So this is an elongated and stretched top line, which has the engagement and holding capacity for collected work because of the collected hind end.

Part of the reason that people are dismissive of stretching horses is due to the terminology that surround it; dressage has its origins in military training, and the language that an instructor or trainer uses with his or her students has, historically, been quite abrupt. It is language that is appropriate for the drill sergeant training a raw recruit, but the demographic in dressage has broadened to include people who may start riding later in life, or maybe had a break from riding for their career or family. This creates an interesting dynamic because you have people who have brilliant brains and a huge amount of life experience, but are in this area relatively novice. Therefore it’s all credit to people, as a sign of an ego under control, that they don’t mind being the student. I would say that anyone who tries hard enough, as long as they can ride the walk, trot and canter, can get to top level if they choose. However, many people don’t necessarily want to become Olympic riders, but they want to know what makes the horse tick, and feel that they are getting towards the end goal.

But let’s go back to language. I really dislike the phrase long and low, because that speaks to me of deflation – you hear people say “Well I can’t ride my horse long and low because he’s just so on the forehand” etc…A bit like the eternal struggle between good and evil, there is also a constant struggle between throughness and engagement. Throughness refers to the degree of lengthening through the top line, so that the movement of the horse’s hind end can transmit through all the vertebrae, from the pelvis through the lumbar back, through the thoracic spines, through the withers and into the neck. I see throughness as a movement, a ripple. It is arguable that most horses being ridden long and low are through but not engaged; they look ‘downhill’ or ‘on the shoulder’. If we develop this idea of the No.6 Stretch, where the horse is stretched but still engaged behind, then this stretch becomes the open door to the rest of the horse’s training.

Sticking with the topic of words I don’t like, I also can’t stand the word evade, because evasion is a human characteristic, and an implication of being sneaky. Horses are not intellectuals. Horses are reactors. Horses need to be loved as what they are, not as surrogate human beings. The horse is blameless – when they offer less than ideal behaviour it is a reaction to things that have happened in the past, or a lack of understanding of the reactions we expect them to have. The horse isn’t a good boy or not; it wants an easy life, it isn’t thinking ‘Ooh, let’s go to the Olympics’.

The state of the horse being on the aids is such that when the horse feels comfortable we feel it’s being good, partly because it’s conceded to our requests, but also you get that sense of coordination. It moves forward, maybe it relaxes its neck, it swings through the back so it’s easier to sit on, it’s lighter in the rein. All these symptoms are something that we create through our attention to the horse’s balance, its physique, its suppleness, straightness etc. But from the horse’s point of view it’s almost a neutral reaction. When the horse is correctly on the aids and is balanced and supple its ears go floppy, its eyes glaze over; it doesn’t need to look at the tractor outside, doesn’t need to guard itself from the sabre toothed tiger around the corner, because it’s letting you do that. Horses put their heads down to graze when they know they are being looked after by the lead mare or the stallion – when they are ready for flight the back is down and the head up. A bullfighting horse will crouch, ready to go sideways very quickly, like cutting horses, ready to rope a steer – they stay low, ready for action. A dressage horse, when it lifts its back and trots with a moment of suspension makes itself incredibly vulnerable, because it can’t move while in the air.

When the horse is uptight, the only thing to do is reassure it. The better our aiding system, the better set up we are to do this. The leg can bend and support, and as we make the horse feel more comfortable physically, the psychological distress goes away. Imagine what happens when a horse spooks or is habitually hollow and tight through having been habitually badly ridden; its body is in a constant state of preparation for flight. If its body is always like that; then its mind is going to be like that as well. So we make the horse’s body supple and soft, and make it feel as though it is in grazing mode, so it is no longer worried about looking out for predators. Relaxation is the pre-requisite for athletic development; if you don’t have the horse available to you mentally and physically then you can’t really make it more powerful. Our type of dressage is primarily therapeutic. The horse is not a weight-carrying machine – it’s an eating and running machine. We have to make the horse adopt certain postural changes so that instead of sitting on its spine, which is relatively weak, we want the spine to be raised with correct musculature so that we are sitting on something strong that is lifting us.

To make the horse a weight-carrying unit we have to change the way it uses its hind legs. Imagine three bascules; the forehand bascule, which rotates forward and away from the rider, the hind bascule; which rotates under, and the middle bascule; which is characterized by the back coming up and supporting the rider. In good training, these three bascules combine to create one big bascule, providing a bridge on which we can sit and be supported. If the horse doesn’t carry us like that then every step it takes is a concussive step. Every concussive step will take its toll on the bones inside the foot, the joints and the spinal processes.

The idea of the No.6 Stretch is that the hind legs are performing to a high level, which means the back is lifted, and if the symptom of that is that the horse drapes its neck down and lowers its poll – if done in a correct way – then you have the start of what we call an uphill position. When you ask most people what they think an uphill position is, they will describe an image where the poll is the highest point. That’s not necessarily incorrect, but like a lot of the jargon we use, such as ‘on the bit’ and ‘uphill’, it refers to the end of the process, not the starting point. A lot of people take concepts such as contact as a starting point, whereas I see them as a result. There are other things that should be starting points – balance and relative straightness – but contact is an evolved thing. When people say “the horse has got to be on the contact”, I would say “Yes – eventually”.

The No.6 Stretch is a way of evolving the whole horse at the start of the process, so that the croup is the lowest point, the withers are the next highest point and eventually the poll is ultimately the highest point. If you start it the other way around, you completely ruin the horse’s ability to achieve the first two important points. However, if by working on the No.6 Stretch we get the croup to lower because the hind legs are taking a more bending step, even in a modest way initially, which then lifts the back, which then lifts the wither, but with the back relatively lowered as a result. This means that there is a pull in the back muscles from the back going down and the hind legs stepping under, and we have the prerequisites for our collected work.

Coming soon – The Number Six Stretch Part 2, more Portal Techniques, and we’ll meet another Equinerd!

Featured Equinerd – Helen White

Helen White BHSAI probably rides for Charles de Kunffy more than any other rider in the UK; she also comes second to Charlotte Dujardin fairly often, which, let’s face it, is the same as winning. She is one of the most switched on and empathetic people that I know, and both of these qualities come out in her riding and teaching. She talks to us about acquiring horses, getting bucked off, and how she’d like another shot at the Nationals.

Tell us about yourself. What’s the set up, who are the horses?

My name is Helen White, I’m an AI. I have a yard based in Worcestershire, and I also train on a freelance basis in the surrounding area. I have 5 horses; two are retired, one is a project horse; then there is one, Reg, working at Medium and my main horse, Spider, who is advanced. I do most of my competing on him, as well as the lecture demos.

How did you get into horses?

When I was 6 a leaflet came through the door for a local riding school. I spent pretty much every weekend and every school holiday there, until I got my own horse when I was 17. I bred Spider, my main horse, but all the others I ‘acquired’, so progress tends to be slower as they generally come with issues. Tiger, one of my retired horses, came to me because the owner couldn’t pay the livery bill and no one would ride him because he was so wild. I literally fell off every day for about three months; nearly every time I took him cantering for fitness work he would drop me at the furthest point and gallop home – I used to have to ring my dad and tell him the horse was coming home without me!! But I persevered and in 2004 we were third in the Elementary at the Nationals at Stoneleigh. My poor long suffering Dad has driven me around the country for competitions, lessons and lecture demos from the beginning, and is an expert in his own right because he has seen so much – or at least he thinks he is!!

How did you hear about Andrew? What made you go for that first lesson?

In all honesty I just fell upon Andrew. (Not like that – ed) I had been searching for something in my training, but I wasn’t sure what. I just knew the training that I’d previously had wasn’t how I wanted to do things. There was a clinic at the Unicorn Trust that a friend of mine suggested I go on. That was when I had my first lesson with Andrew, and I knew within thirty seconds that I had found the trainer and training methods that I had been desperate for.

What different has it made to you and your horse?

Every difference!! The training makes complete sense, not only to the rider but to the horse as well. My horses are light, supple, and a pleasure to ride, but most importantly to me, they are willing, happy athletes.

What came first, the half halt or the yield?

 The yield!

What would you have done if it hadn’t been horses?

 To be honest I never really thought about doing anything else. I have always loved art and creating so maybe something along those lines.

The Reverse Turn

Previously, on Equinerds…

Last time we spoke about the how I began training with Andrew, and introduced a concept that he has developed – the Portal Techniques. The Turn and Release changed how I view the fundamentals of training horses, and we hope you’ve had a chance to try it out, but the fun doesn’t stop there. This time we’ll look at another important technique; the Reverse Turn.

The what?

In its most basic form, the Reverse Turn is counter bending the horse while changing the rein, although it can also be done on the circle, and then resolving the bend once the horse is on the new rein. This can include lateral steps (or not) and can be done in all three paces.

The goal is to upright the horse, improve throughness, focus the rider on their position, and promote using the seat and leg, rather than the rein, for bending. It is also a useful aid to collection.

Clear as mud? Read on.

I’ve got two examples of the reverse turn, which end in the same place, but begin very differently. For the first one, I’ll take you back to that freezing indoor school, once upon a time in Surrey…

There is Andrew, hat pulled down to his eyes and scarf pulled up over his nose, and there is me, sitting on Norman the champion carriage driving horse, navigating my first attempts at the turn and release.

We were at the point where things were getting better, so naturally it was time to change

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A very early picture of Finn performing a Reverse Turn – be a love and ignore my raised left heel.

the rein, and we all know how dangerous that can be. I mentioned in the last post that I used to be a fervent left rein merchant and never sat correctly in a right rein configuration, and so when I changed the rein this time, the whole thing went completely to pot. Suddenly Norman’s neck was made of rubber, his back disappeared, and he shot off like a cat in a thunderstorm. I could have cried.

A word from the wise – if you need to correct your upper body position, don’t just wedge your shoulder back or whatever it is; start from your seat. If you just change the symptom, then the cause goes unchanged. My crookedness manifested itself in my shoulders, but the problem actually was that I was sitting to the left all the time. Once I’d sorted that out, the upper body took care of itself.

Anyway, once I’d got everything back under control, more or less. Andrew began talking about the Reverse Turn. He spoke about the necessity of aligning the horse, and also made a point that has stuck with me – horses do not fall in or out, they are pushed in or out. Controlling the horse’s body using the reverse turn is actually mainly a way of controlling how the rider navigates the horse through the change of direction. I thought it sounded a bit like witch craft, but then I was in no position to argue.

This is how you do it:

As you begin to go off in the new direction, keep the horse connected to what is now the outside rein, and maintain a counter position with your body. The rider then begins to bring the horse around from the outside leg, which adds a lateral feel – this is when you will feel the horse begin to upright; most horses will slow down and upright at this point, because the Reverse Turn is also an active half halt. The rider then smoothly, over as many strides as necessary, resolves their position so that they are now sitting correctly for inside positioning, which rolls the horse under the seat so that it is now bent to the inside. Easy, right?

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Actually, once you’ve got your head around the coordination, it is easy. The first one is a little strange, but then trying something for the first time always is.

I found that Norman took to it incredibly well, and it seems to make sense to most horses. The first feeling was that he connected a little more strongly to the outside rein, and then he flexed to the outside, almost gratefully, and I felt his back come up. He slowed down, which is the active part of the half halt, and I took that opportunity to get my legs on. This time when I changed my position to the inside there was no chance of anything going awry, and because the Reverse Turn had made me more conscious of my position, the Turn and Release then came more easily as well.

So what I ended up with was a horse that was properly aligned, balanced, and started to collect. Luckily Norman is unavailable for comment as to how the Reverse Turn improved my riding.

The second story about the Reverse Turn begins a few years later, shortly after Finn joined the Murphy clan, in the summer of 2016. For those who don’t know him, Finn is a former professional dressage horse who competed up to Intermediaire II before suffering an injury, after this he went to a series of very loving loan homes before rocking up at chez nous. Those of you have been fortunate enough to learn from schoolmasters will know that they can be incredibly strange to ride. He was an odd mix between an advanced horse and a remount – obviously educated and capable, but also insecure about the aids, having not been properly through for some time.

What this caused was what we can only describe as a ‘bounce’. Because he was no lover of the contact, he tried to exist in the middle of the aids, as far away from potential impact as possible. When changing the rein, or doing anything that wasn’t going large, he would connect to one rein, dislike it, and ‘bounce’ off. This caused him to hollow and take one large passage type step, disconnect the hind leg, and retract his neck with viper-like speed. The whole process was as unpleasant as it sounds, for everyone involved.

The Reverse Turn was how we started to get around this issue. In the early days Finn felt like an awful lot of horse; he’s 16.3hh, not exactly a monster, but I am not a tall person. One thing that is not obvious from pictures of him is that his neck is three miles long. He also has rather bombastic movement, so I had some trouble keeping him lined up, as most of my energy was spent maintaining some semblance of an adhesive seat.

Finn’s first reaction to the Reverse Turn was not entirely positive, and there was some enthusiastic pogo-ing during the first couple of attempts. Then I managed to keep him lined up so he didn’t jump up in the air and retract his neck, but was so surprised that I managed it that I forgot to apply a leg aid and he walked. Andrew laughed. I didn’t.

Then the magic started. This time I was ready to pick up his outside ribcage when he flexed onto the outside rein, which introduced a lateral aspect to the movement and allowed me to use his education to my advantage. He took slower, more measured steps, which were more collected but felt more ridable because I finally had the horse connected, and, gloriously, when he resolved the bend to the inside the hind leg stayed engaged; he reached over his back and took the contact evenly forward, and the muscles at the base of his neck filled out. All this lasted for about another half a circle, but that didn’t matter because the good thing about Reverse Turns is that you can do as many as you like. Each time the good effects lasted a bit longer, and what was noticeable is that each time I rode the horse the benefits were more and more noticeable.

These days Finn is ultimately through, round, light and available, and the Reverse Turn has been a big part of that. This technique is such a vital tool because of how flexible it is – you can do one so mildly that no one watching will know, and it’s just a balancing tool, or you can make it very exaggerated with lateral steps if you are riding a horse that needs a lot of help.

Enjoy, and let us know how you get on!

Ps. In the last post I did say that we would hear from an Equinerd, and talk about the Number Six Stretch – that is all still true, but it made the post incredibly long, so I’ve split it up and will release those sections a few days apart.




The Turn and Release

Okay, here we go – the first Equinerds post. One of the difficulties that we’ve had is finding a place to start, because everything to do with training horses is so interconnected. Therefore I’ve decided to start by discussing my first lesson with Andrew, as it was my first exposure to his principles and methodology. Over a few posts I’ll explore what we covered in that life changing half an hour, and how it fits in with training as a whole.

Disclaimer – I am not a perfect rider, nor am I an advanced rider. Please do not use this website to point out my myriad flaws, or to be horrible to people. I am not being promoted as any kind of ideal, and the pictures used are of normal horses at various stages of training. Thanks.

 The First Lesson

The first lesson I had with Andrew took place on a freezing day in the February of 2013. My good friend and mentor Caroline Douglas had leant me her excellent carriage driving horse, Norman, who had a Europeans under his belt and was a complete professional. I, on the other hand, was as green as the grass in spring, for all that I thought about riding a horse.

Andrew started off by talking about the horse; observations about how he was going and how he needed to go, etc. Norman, excellently trained though he was, had just galloped around a marathon to contest his Europeans, and was pulling like a train. I, with my arched back, disunited upper body and tendency towards a chair seat, was not up to doing much about it.

merlin 177
Andrew displaying enviable rider positioning

I was treated to the full hip popping, muscle stretching, agony-inducing rider sculpt. For those who have not experienced this particular joy and delight, it involves the trainer firmly gripping each leg, rotating it and placing it in the correct position, making your pelvis feel worryingly like a Christmas wishbone. You then have a whip placed again your spine so that you both round out your lower back and straighten your shoulder blades, something that my body has no natural desire to do. Next you rotate each arm over your head, while your shoulders sound like bags of gravel, so that your arms hang straight down and your elbows are connected with your rib cage. After enduring this I was apparently still expected to ride, and proceeded to a tentative walk.

Andrew spoke about availability, and how a key part of riding is making the horse available – i.e. the feeling that you get when everything is going well, when you know you could ask the horse for anything and get it. On this day ‘available’ wasn’t exactly Norman’s middle name – he’d done a marathon, he was in a strange arena, he was being ridden by a buffoon – which brought as on to the next important point:

For the horse to be available, the rider has to be available too. It became apparent pretty quickly that I am a left rein merchant, and didn’t really change my position when I rode on the right rein, which meant that I didn’t get into the horse’s back enough. We began with a technique that will always be a favourite of mine; the Turn and Release. The fundamentals of this are that the rider applies an exaggerated turning aid – inside shoulder back, hands to the inside, weight down through the inside stirrup, outside leg behind the girth – then releases and harmonises, then repeats. This can be done in all three paces, although to begin with walk is enough.

But why would you do that?

The turn and release is one of what Andrew calls the Portal Techniques. This concept has changed the way I ride and train. A Portal Technique is something that you do to improve the horse – it’s the ‘portal’ to everything getting better.

For instance, as riders we often hear things like;

  • The poll should be the highest point
  • The horse should be straight
  • The horse’s head should be on the vertical
  • The horse should display self-carriage

All of that is perfectly good advice, nothing wrong with it at all. However, sometimes it

The turn and release in action

just isn’t so, and this is where riders can feel like they’ve been left high and dry. What if the horse isn’t straight? What if it isn’t in self-carriage? What if it isn’t even through? Portal Techniques are not about riding a finished product horse – they are part of how you get to the finished product. They are how you make a horse straight/through/sittable/round, if it just isn’t.

Where does it lead?

The turn and release does a few useful things; it helps the ride begin to develop an understanding of correct bending, makes you sit correctly for the amount of bending required, helps you take control of the outside of the horses body, and gets you using your legs.

The first thing that I noticed was that Norman slowed down, but became more active. Gradually I got control of the outside of the horse’s body, which meant that I was no longer allowing him to fall out, and therefore he was straighter and felt more upright. I also felt that my position became markedly better.

Tanner showing the benefits of the turn and release

By this point I had Norman more connected, but on a longer rein, than ever. What had begun as (on my part) effortful aiding, had become more natural. Everything was glorious. And then he went and said something stupid like “collected trot”.

An intense lack of control followed, but Andrew was persistent – elbows down, coccyx down, turn, harmonise. Repeat until abs screaming. Then change the rein, forcing dominant shoulder into submission. Ignore worrying twinge in left hip. Elbows down, coccyx down, turn harmonise….

Bit by bit, what had felt like hell became more coordinated and less effortful. I felt more aligned, Norman was through, engaged, light and bending. I had my legs on. We had arrived at that place where you do feel as though you could ask for anything and get it. And all it took was a Portal Technique, and half an hour.

Andrew summarised by saying that good riding takes the whole rider’s body into account, but hinges on the seat. The seat is the main point of communication with the horse – the leg and hands are aids to the seat, and the turn and release is part of teaching a rider to use the leg and hand to support the function of the seat. Riders are generally not taught to use the seat actively, but the seat bones pressing down is important because the massaging pressure created by their downward action encourages the horse to bring its back up, and without the horse’s back there is no dressage.

The aiding and then harmonising routine of the turn and release is also active half-halting. Modern teaching has reduced the half-halt to a perfunctory tug on the outside rein in order to slow down a bit, which is neither accurate nor effective, and reduces the half halt to one thing, when actually a half halt can be a million things. Part of the turn and release gets riders into the habit of half halting liberally, in order to encourage the rider to lower into the inside seat bone, allow the horse onto the outside rein whilst focusing everything onwards, inviting the rider’s inside leg to the party, and rewarding the horse for existing within the ‘coin slot’ set by the rider.

Next time, on Equinerds…

Next time we’ll cover another of Andrew’s Portal Techniques – the Reverse Turn. We’ll also hear from some other Equinerds and have a chat about an important concept, the Number Six Stretch.