Self Carriage

As the term implies, self-carriage means that the horse carries himself in the best and most appropriate manner for the movement he has to execute. Self-carriage is the result of balance.

A little while ago I read in a magazine that self-carriage is supposed to improve the balance of the horse. I think it's the other way around. I think the balance of the horse improves the self-carriage. Self-carriage proves that the horse is balanced. First I must put my horse in the correct balance so that he can do whatever it is I ask of him, then I must animate that balance and make sure that I have impulsion. of course the horse must develop his muscles and his body to create the kind of suppleness he will need so that he finds it easy to move in balance and with impulsion.

We don't expect the same degree of self-carriage with a Preliminary horse that we do with the Grand Prix horse. Depending on the kind of equitation we're engaged with - dressage, show jumping, eventing - the horse cannot go with the same balance that he has in the paddock when he is free. In the paddock he is his own boss. He knows what to do and he doesn't have the weight of the rider on his back, or the actions of the rider on his body. When he is ridden it is the rider who tells him what kind of balance he has to have and he has to be trained to obey the aids of the rider since it is the aids that show him the balance he is to take.

For example, when we ride and extended trot the balance is quite different from that for collected trot. It is different again for the pirouette and for the half-pass. In the beginning it can be difficult for the horse to come into balance because his body is not yet supple enough to be comfortable going in in that way. Because his muscles and his body are not use to the exercises, he goes through the process of losing his balance, regaining it, losing it again, and so on. When the horse loses his balance, the riders should make a correction instantly. Gradually the horse will spend a greater portion of the time executing an exercise in the correct balance.

In order to help the horse as much as possible through this process, we begin early in the training to ensure he has every chance. It is very important for the young horse to be worked correctly on the lunge with side reins or a chambon. This allows us to develop his muscles and achieve the suppleness that we will ask for when we ride. He has already had the chance to develop the same balance and it will be more comfortable for him and easier when we go to ride.

At the same time we work on the development of impulsion, which is the ability of the his hindquarters to push forward horizontally. The horse must always engage and push forward - from the very beginning of his training. Once he is comfortable pushing forward like this, we will use gymnastic exercises to transform this engagement so the horse carries more weight on his hindquarters and he pushes the weight more upward than just horizontally. This is how we develop collection. and throughout his training we work to develop the horse's body gymnastically so that he can work more comfortably. As the training progresses and the horse develops his balance under the rider, he can begin to come into self-carriage.

Now, what is the effect of self-carriage? Let me give on example. I ride across the diagonal in extended trot and before the corner I collect the trot and cross the short wall of the arena in this collected trot. When I go to collect the trot I half halt in order to put my horse into the correct balance for collection. After giving the half halt and establishing the balance, I look to see if my horse has maintained the impulsion and stays in balance while passing across the short wall of the arena - without my help. That means I don't have to continue giving half halts or use my aid to correct his balance or re-establish the impulsion. He carries himself. If after asking for the collection my horse tries to go faster, or loses the impulsion, or drops his poll, or raises it, then I will continue making half halts and correction in order to regain the balance and impulsion. That means the horse is not carrying himself, and he is not in self-carriage. It tells me that my horse was not comfortable with the balance I asked for. If he had been comfortable with that balance he would have maintained it with no problems and he would have been in self-carriage. Self-carriage is not a trick that the horse learns. It is a physical and mental capability that the horse develops with training. The most important thing for the rider to consider while developing self-carriage is that it is not possible for the rider to 'support' a horse.

The rider is on top of the horse and he can influence the horse's balance and impulsion, but he cannot support him.

If I want my horse to develop self-carriage, then right from the beginning I must encourage him to carry himself. This means that when I give my aids to ask for an exercise, and the horse responds, I immediately stop giving the aids - they go on standby - and I only use them again if I begin to lose the quality of the exercise. In my concept of equitation I know that from the very beginning I must encourage my horse to go by himself rather than with the constant support of my aids. I say, "do this", and then let him do it. I am not constantly saying, "do this, do this, do this" if he is in fact doing what I want. Either you encourage the horse to work by himself, or you will encourage him to go numb. If the horse becomes numb to my ids, then I have to continually increase he power of my aids, or my spurs, or my whip, and the horse will get worse and worse. He will become more resistant and unbalanced because he is numb.

However, if right from the beginning I stop giving an aid the instant he responds to my request and I let him go on, my horse will begin to understand that is is not meant to be told a second time. The horse that has been trained to the ideal will take the passage the instant I give the aid and tell him to. I stop giving the aids and he continues in a very good passage/ And unless I do something to stop him, he will continue in passage endlessly. that is the perfectly trained horse. He won't stop doing the passage until I give him the aid to stop and tell him to do something else. Of course, that is impossible and it never really happens like that. The horse is not a machine. He is an animal with normal reaction and he can get tired, or become distracted, or anything else. But the ideal horse should be so self-motivated that those things don't matter. He should have the attitude that says/ "My rider told me to this, and I will only stop when he tells me to". That would be the ideally trained horse. Of course this self-motivation is only possible if he is comfortable with what he is doing.

Now if the rider feels while doing an exercise that the horse is losing the rhythm, or balance, or impulsion, or he even stops executing the exercise, the action of the aids must again come into play. Equestrian tact means being able to feel when this is going to happen and acting before it occurs. We regain the quality of the exercise and then stop giving the aid. But if I try to support my horse throughout the exercise by continually giving the aid, without looking to see if he will continue own his own, I will eventually lose everything.

What is required is that I establish complete harmony between my body and that of the horse. I must ensure that my body is moving in a supple and relaxed way so that I am going with my horse and feeling every step of his movement so I can know if he is carrying himself and I can determine if a correction is needed.

It is a pre-condition of the horse coming into self-carriage that the rider is in the correct position, with his weight balanced correctly, and in complete harmony with the horse's movement. This requires a lot of control on the part of the rider. And this control must be developed by the rider in the earliest stages of he horse's training  when the exercise are the most simple. It then carries through as the exercises become more advanced. That way the horse isn't surprised the first time we ask him to obey our aids and then continue on his own without our support. If at any time the rider loses his balance or gives an abrupt aid that surprises the horse, he will lose the self-carriage.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that we don't support our horses. We tell them what to do, and then let them do it. If they lose the quality of an exercise, we make a correction with our aids, and once we achieve the result we want, we stop giving the aid. That is the real meaning of self-carriage - when the horse truly carries himself without interference from the rider.

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