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Revitalizing the Effects of Down and Out
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Revitalizing the Effects of Down and Out

by Kristin Hermann

Published in Dressage & CT, November 1986

Blythedale stretching on the lunge line
Teach your horse to stretch on the lunge line to get all the kinks Kristin!

The ideal in dressage is to feel the horse carrying itself and the rider with the natural grace and fluid stride that the horse has on its own. As dressage riders, we want our mounts to be as balanced with us on their backs as they are without our cumbersome weight. Therefore, basic training begins with developing the horse's back, enabling its muscles to develop elastically, and thus carry the rider without becoming concave, rigid, or cramped as a result of the extra burden. Only when the horse's muscles flow through our legs and seat with no hindrance can it have that freedom of movement displayed so naturally in a field. Suppling and loosening exercises to develop and maintain a fluid, forward, straight, calm, and elastic horse are the beginnings of dressage.


Down and out, showing the horse the way to the ground, or plowing potatoes - whatever phrase you choose - is the most basic training that establishes an elastic horse and develops the back, so that the loosened muscles engage all the way to the bit. The riding masters, past and present, remind us continually that our horses must remain supple while on the bit in the lower levels, and when collected. Surely it seems a contradiction to be supple and flexed at the same time, but so it is for our horses to come back to us while going forward. A point of harmony comes together, as in daybreak and dusk, when these contradictions meet, whether it be an engaged downward transition that loses no impulsion, or a horse remaining soft and elastic, yet full of power and strength.


Often, enthusiastic dressage riders claim that letting their horse go down and out puts their mount on the forehand, making it harder for them to put the horse on the bit, and maintain collection and control. These are all true fears if down and out is not practiced correctly. Yet, these apprehensions are in opposition to what the great masters have been trying to teach us that suppleness is flexion, or a poised and balanced flexion is incomplete or even unattainable without first suppling the horse.


There is no doubt that the use of down and out is misunderstood, and as a result not practiced, although it has great recommendations from basic training on up to the advanced levels, keeping the muscles elastic and oscillating. Even Dr. Vasko in his November 1979 column states that "the long frame, nose-on-the-ground posture... stretches and strengthens the muscles of the back, pelvis, abdomen... It is through this posture and muscular development that a normal horse obtains the ability to carry itself and, in time, its rider..." He goes on to point out that, "This is basic training at its best, and is, in fact, dressage put into the context it was originally intended."


If presented properly, this long frame - or nose-on-the-ground posture - will not put the horse on the forehand, nor was it intended to release the horse from the aids. Erik Herbermann's article in the October 1982 issue of D&CT highlighted many aspects of down and out and its relation to the horse on the aids. "The horse should be no less on the bit and on the aids during the forward downward work that when it is up in the hand with the poll as its highest point." Ideally, contact is to be maintained with the forward and down, but exceptions are granted with green horses in the beginning. If we just let the horse drop its head without asking it to reach from an activated (driven) hind end, the connection between the driving aids and the horse stretching is not established, and the horse could put more weight on the forehand.


It is the stretching and striding of the horse into receiving hands in down and out that results in the action one ultimately strives to achieve. We do not just let the horse take the reins from our hands. Wilhelm Mseler, author of Riding Logic, states, "the neck should not only be lowered, it should be stretched, and the stretching is perhaps more important than the lowering." Mseler goes on to write that if the rider cannot make the horse stretch its neck (and thus back), then they have no chance of keeping the horse from coming behind the bit and evading their influence. This kind of stretching forward is what lengthens the stride, and engages the hind end with the suppleness of the back muscles into an elastic rhythm. With down and out, the horse's nose must lead the way.


Showing the horse the way to the ground does not make it more difficult for the rider to return the horse to the bit, nor does it encourage the horse to come off the bit in the first place. It encourages the horse to accept the bit from its back and engaging hind end. Of course, if one cannot get one's horse on the bit, this stretching forward encourages the animal to accept it willingly. Actually, it cannot be avoided if the horse is asked to reach forward. This is the natural way of getting the horse to accept the bit without artificial aids. It may take longer and require more skill, but the rewards are incomparable to any other method. It is one of the purposes of down and out to connect the engaging hind end through the back and neck on into the poll, jaw, bit, and then receiving hands. Each muscle in the horse massages the next as the pulsation from striding is created and the back begins to swing.


Working the entire horse from tail to poll gives the horse the ability to carry itself in self-carriage. Karl Mikolka wrote of this supple and harnessed harmony in flexion involving all the muscles from tail to poll in his article, "The Bases for Gymnastic Training of the Horse" in D&CT, August 10, 1978. This article should be sought and studied. Most of us are under the impression that flexion comes from the neck, poll, and jaw, but it is actually engaged by the horse's ring of muscles, which are activated by the rider's driving aids.


In the same article, Mikolka points out that the communication "between the rider's aids and the activity of the horse's muscles is especially important. In order to really comprehend these relations, it is necessary to recognize the basic components in the horse's conformation, and also to know the formation and effect of the horse's muscle structure." It seems, however, we tend to forget that we are dealing with muscles that affect the communication. If we are not relaxed enough to feel and develop the horse, overall suppleness will suffer. Surely we are not all anatomists, but in order to fully appreciate the process of suppleness as flexion, it must basically be understood that dressage is gymnastically involving all muscles and joints.


It is the result of suppleness in collection that characterizes the art of dressage. Therefore, even at the advanced stages, suppling the horse is of utmost importance. Erik Herbermann illustrates this in his book The Dressage Formula by including photographs of the same horse doing down and out and then piaffe. However, as Herbermann and others point out, the suppling and elasticizing exercises are not being utilized as they should be, both in the advanced and training levels. As a result, maybe one out of a hundred horses will walk out of the dressage arena with his head dangling - an indication that the horse has worked his back.


The point of dressage training is to harness the horse's energy with suppleness, rather than stifle the energy by interrupting the movement of muscles. If the flexed muscles are not sustained by the loosening process of stretching, they will contract continually like those of a body-builder. Tight muscles hamper the freedom of movement in the horse, just as tight muscles constrict the body-builders range of motion.


The classical principles should be sought from the beginning, and the student should be made aware of the reason why the horse reaches for the bit from the back. Teaching enthusiastic dressage riders methods relying on forced flexion causes the classical school to become obscure. As Waldemar Seunig writes in his thorough book Horsemanship, the young horse will not progress in dressage, and the young rider in seat and influence, "unless all training is based upon the elastically pulsating activity of the horse's back."


The trend, however, is focused on putting the horse on the bit, ignoring the suppleness from tail to poll that is necessary for the horse to accept the bit. Therefore, heads that are set and hands that are fixed are not receiving the horse's back as it stretches and reaches into the contact. Instead, they are dominating and forcing an artificial flexion that is not founded on suppleness and self-carriage sought through balance. Freedom of movement is lost in this approach, as the muscles are cramped into a prescribed frame and lose elasticity. Common thoughts about obtained flexion tend to neglect the source of real flexion and suppleness.


Training, emphasizing the working of the entire horse with suppleness, will give the rider the feeling of the horse carrying him effortlessly - self-carriage. For a horse ridden in a prescribed frame or for a horse that is hollow, rigid, and cramped in the back (most usually due to faulty training and stiff seats), Dr. Vasko prescribes "therapeutic exercises", consisting of loosening exercises: "dressage put into the context it was originally intended".


The horse and rider work in a symbiotic relationship - they are not supposed to be dependent upon each other for support. Not only the horse, but the rider as well has to find his own balanced, suppled, and centered harmony, so as not to burden the horse while being trained. By interfering with the horse's natural movement, one blocks the natural state of floating freedom that is part of the equine's independent beauty. Also, there are less naturally balanced and fluent horses in which dressage will help by working out stiffness and redistributing weight. The rider's position has to allow the horse's energy to filter through the muscles to flow without discouraging any movement with their own bodily tensions.


In summary, asking our horses to reach into the bit, rather than setting the head, puts into effect all of the horse's muscles in its ring of muscles. Putting a horse into a prescribed frame, and calling this dressage, is robbing the animal of the neutral pose and balance of self-carriage you originally sought to restore by attempting dressage in the first place. Plowing potatoes enables the back muscles to become elastic, so that the swinging of the hind end can develop and then be maintained and harnessed into flexion. The more the horse stretches forward and down, the more elastic and springy the gait will become, provided of course that the rider's seat and position are without tension, so that the animal can flow through the legs and seat without having its rhythm disrupted. (Down and out is taught to the horse at the posting trot to give the back freedom to round, develop, and strengthen elastically.) The nose-on-the-ground posture is not only for originally suppling lower level horses, but for maintaining elasticity throughout the advanced stages of collection. Stretching the horse into the bit from an activated, oscillating, and pulsating back is the well-spring of truly brilliant dressage.

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