From RaceHorse to Dressage Horse

The dreaded medium trot ...

Louise Robson, a sought after specialist in the field tells us more about what is involved in the retraining of a racehorse and the success she has enjoyed.

The most ‘common’ training issues I come across whilst teaching variety of OTTB’s and their riders are;

  1. Contact issues
  2. Suppleness issues
  3. (both of the above..)
  4. The medium trot

It is difficult, if you are a competitive rider with an OTTB (Off-the-Track Thoroughbred) as the medium trot, or showing some strides of, is required from Novice upwards. If you have an OTTB who naturally extends in balance and swing, you have a very rare OTTB and one who many a rider will be jealous of.

Even my most naturally flamboyant OTTB; Mission Impossible, struggles with medium trot as his hind leg moment is so great that he cant quite work out how to lengthen his frame and ‘reach’ forward whilst in balance. For him, and many that understand the concept, the hind leg goes wider than that of the front legs when asked to go forward. This is a balancing issue as the horse has to become wider at the base, but from a judging point of view, shows that the horse isn't lengthening the frame. the horse is losing balance and pushing with too much engine, which will result in your OTTB becoming onto the forehand.

Much to the frustration of many of my clients. I tell them all the same; until your OTTB is at medium level and above they always struggle with the medium trot as your horse has to begin to understand the concept of collection. I would also like to mention that in most tests the medium trot is of one, maybe two movements (three if you're at regional/national level) out of a possible 25-30. The medium trot is not the be all and end all, and I would rather ride for a ‘6’ and maybe a cheeky ‘6.5’ than over push and get a 3/4 for cantering. loss of balance, running or contact issues resulting in the former.

There are a few exercises that can help your OTTB whilst they are developing and progressing through the levels

Image A

We keep on returning back to the same training ‘block’ of; how do we make the hind leg quicker and more underneath our OTTB, to encourage the wither and shoulder to come up, to allow the frame to push, lift, reach and extend. Looking at Image A we can see that when our OTTB generates more power from behind the result is for the croup to become higher, the wither lower and the hind leg doesn't step through, but more upwards. This what I would call’ default’ and be aware that when the OTTB’s body is challenged to a degree, this is what will happen in various forms.

What we as re trainers must always remember, is that to allow the hind leg to come through, and encourage the hind leg to step under the body more naturally, we have to move the shoulders to a slightly different path than that of the hind leg to create space underneath their bodies.

In the younger OTTB I would spiral the horse in on a 20 centre circle in the trot towards a 10 metre circle. As I leg yielded out of the circle I would as for a longer stride length at the same time. My inside leg would be applied on and off in rhythm with the trot, along with a halt halt, so your OTTB would understand that the rhythm stays the same whilst the stride length increases, with them soft through their necks and jaw, which allows the swings and step from behind. You will find in your OTTB that when you ask them to do this exercise that they will either try and run and come above the bridle, or they will try and reach down and lower their neck to help balance themselves better.

Image B

If your OTTB takes the rein higher, then I would re establish my working trot, stop leg yielding and then proceed again once they had settled back into a rhythm they were comfortable with. If your OTTB draws the neck forward and slightly downwards, for now, I wold allow them to do so and then over time, try and increase the angle of the leg yield to stop them becoming too low. You can see this in Image B, where the poll has lowered and the neck has lengthend to help Mission impossible’s balance. however, as mentioned at the beginning of the article you can see how the hind leg has had to step wider than that or the foreleg as he has over powered himself from behind and has no where for the hind leg to go and he hasn't fully released from the shoulder forward as the wither has gone down (‘default’ mode).

For us as riders, it is easier for us to have a better feel and create the connection in our OTTB on a curved line as opposed to a straight one. On a straight line our OTTB’s ‘default’ kicks back in, they become disconnected and it all becomes quite fragile. The exercise above is a good starting foundation; however, in no British dressage test is medium trot performed on a circle (canter yes, but not the trot) so how can we develop the medium trot onto a straight diagonal line.

Using the foundation of the 20 metre circle leg yield, I would ask your OTTB to leg yield away from the fence towards the middle of the arena for a few strides. the leg yield has helped get the handle stepping under and working in a supporting role under the horses body with the shoulders on a slightly different line. I would then turn the shoulders onto the diagonal line, half halt and ask for a few steps forward. When I feel my OTTB loosing their balance, or they start to run, I would finish the diagonal line in a leg yield. This will also help teach your OTTB to start and finish the medium trot with the hind leg underneath and supporting their body rather than pushing up/ out behind and dropping down in the wither and shoulder.

Image C

As seen in the previous article, pole work can help begin to compress and extend the frame of your OTTB. With the poles slightly raised and closer together you can start to teach your OTTB about collection and the hind leg coming under and lowering, to then push up and through as opposed to ‘default’ of up and onto the forehand as can be seen in Image C.

One of the issues with having an OTTB is being able to create and sustain the connection between front end and back end. In a warmblood, usually, when you apply the leg, with a half halt, the shoulders and wither lift, with a soft and supporting hind leg coming under. If your warmblood looses their balance, cadence and step, you ask with a bit more leg and another half halt or two to help engage. With an OTTB, the more leg you use/apply the more the over step and push of the hind leg, the croup becomes higher and with the use of the leg comes more speed, and the half halt then can create a tense and backwards neck, which the back then becomes tight and lowers, rather than lifting. The use of poles, especially on a curve, will help us a riders start to train the body and mindset of our THOROUGHBRED DRESSAGE OTTB to allow the half halt and use of the leg in accordance to what their body is doing.

I have found that by teaching the beginnings of the Piaffe and Passage have helped greatly with the quality of the trot work and the lift and push of the medium trot. When asking Quadrille for medium trot his wither goes down, his bottom goes up and his neck becomes brittle and a bit too straight. The passage has helped teach him to step under and lift and has actually helped confirm the half halt with the use of the leg. The teachings of the piaffe and passage are the highest forms of collection, which will test your OTTB’s brain and more importantly their conformation. It is very important to do things slowly and thinking about ‘playing’ with the idea, opposed to asking too much too soon and risking possible injury.

Image D

It might be that your OTTB is no where near the stages of passage, but it is important that you can start to compress and extend their frame and encourage their joints to become softer and understand about lowering. I have found that the most encouraging way to do this is by riding a square and using the turns to encourage the compression whilst turning the shoulder. In the young OTTB I would use the squares to teach about turning the outside shoulder, which would then develop on to teaching them about shoulder in. In the later stages of training I start to use this exercise to, again, move the shoulders, but encourage greater lift and compression of the frame. In the younger horse you can use this exercise to ride should run on one side of your square, a slight 45 degree turn from the outside shoulder, onto a diagonal line and ask for a fe strides forwards. The slight turn out of the diagonal line moves the shoulders onto a different line than that of the hind leg, and the shoulder in/fore position already has the hind leg stepping through underneath.

The same applies with the leg yield exercise, go forward and come back in the shoulder fore position to teach them that the hind leg stays under and supporting.

In Image D you can see how the first stride into the medium trot is with the shoulder and wither up, the hind leg is stepping forward and the neck is soft and forward. The medium trot can be maintained across the diagonal with the thought of ‘building the trot in an uphill frame’ through the use of mini half halts and gentle press and release of the leg to think ‘working trot in a passage frame.’ the turn onto the diagonal line is key, as I need the hind leg with me and the shoulder up. This is where the ‘square work’ has helped teach Quad to lower the hind leg and become quicker on the turns as opposed to him dropping the hind leg slightly away from in on the turn, falling onto the shoulder and the first stride starting off low, rather than higher in front. This can be seen in Image E.

Image E

For me, as a rider, as soon as Quadrille’s shoulders go down and the wither drops, we are back to Image A scenario and he will run and become shorter in the stride. If we compare this to Image E where I haven't secured the shoulder and lift on the turn to the diagonal, how we have start the medium trot a little bit low in front and the neck appears tight and the croup is already higher than that of the wither. In this circumstance, there is very little I can do to adjust the frame and quality of trot in a half halt/a stride. I believe that as Quadrille’s training continues that I will be able to, but for now, I would ride that medium trot in a conservative way and go for a ‘6’ as opposed to interfering with the balance that he is in and upsetting him for the following movements.

Without sounding too negative, the reality is that Thoroughbreds are not built to have a medium/extended trot for a 9/10. We can teach them to lift, extend and push; however, it is probably one of the most challenging movements as it not just about the movement of the medium trot, but also being able to ride the movements before, after and the transition to the best of your horses ability at that point in their training without them feeling pressured. It takes time, patience and lots of thinking outside of the box!