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Work in-hand is valuable for horses of all ages and levels of schooling

In-hand work to improve your schooling

Work in-hand is valuable for horses of all ages and levels of schooling
Work in-hand is valuable for horses of all ages and levels of schooling

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]uring the course of 2015, HQ spoke to German-accredited instructor, Helmut Wagner, about using correct schooling and gymnastics to unlock the natural movement of the dressage horse. This month we get back to the basics, with an overview of in-hand work and how it can help you overcome problems in the saddle.

The right tools

For correct in-hand work, you should have the following:

  • A long dressage whip
  • Gloves
  • Closed shoes
  • Treats to reward
  • Patience

Fantastic tool

In-hand work starts at the head and graduates to help from behind
In-hand work starts at the head and graduates to help from behind

“Work in-hand is an old tradition that goes back to the cavalry days, but many modern riders don’t understand its value. It is a fantastic tool to overcome issues for a youngster when teaching the aids; for instance, understanding the leg, the hand and the whip,” says Helmut. “From the ground, the horse learns to accept these aids without resistance.” He adds that good groundwork begins with correct lunging, which has become something of a lost art for those of us who relegate it to our horses’ caregivers.

“To lunge correctly, you should be standing in the centre of the circle, with your horse responding to either the whip or the lunge line. Also, there should be no loop in the lunge line; essentially, it should have a contact with the mouth and serve the same purpose as your reins – it’s just longer.” Sessions should be short, with regular rewards, allowing the horse to learn to balance himself without the additional weight of a rider.

Helmut says that a lot of the responses we feel from our horses on the ground will be mirrored in the saddle. Work in-hand also allows you to ‘explain’ complicated aids to a young horse, with less pressure. A rein-back can be taught with a touch of the whip on a foreleg or coronet, and praise when the horse steps back.

If you teach all the aids in a gentle way, from a young age, it makes the work of the rider much easier later on. If the horse learns that there is no need to fear the whip, he will not react badly when you use it.

More benefits

In-hand work has other benefits. “You will generally find that it will help sensitive horses to become calmer, while cold horses will become much sharper,” he adds.

Conformational problems can also be addressed more easily. When you are standing on the ground, it is easier to see how a specific issue might affect your horse’s performance. “You will identify tensions more quickly,” Helmut says. For instance, many horses will have stiffness in the poll and jaw area, which restricts acceptance of the bit and the ability to work ‘through’. This point, referred to by the German school as the ‘ganache’, has an impact on the jaw and salivary gland, and tension here can affect flexibility through the whole body.

“By gently flexing or massaging this area, you can relax the horse in preparation for work. As a young rider learning from Harry Boldt, I remember how he would line all the riders up and approach each horse in turn, simply loosening the jaw before schooling,” Helmut reminisces. He shows how gentle massage causes a horse to drop his head, soften his mouth on the bit, and become relaxed in the neck, as indicated by the ‘popping’ of the crest.

The right position

You can use two whips to encourage activity in both hocks
You can use two whips to encourage activity in both hocks

Helmut explains that it is important to get your own position right before starting. “Stand at your horse’s head, not at his shoulder, holding the ring of the bit, and be prepared to walk quickly backwards as he moves. From here you can touch the side or the hock to encourage a response.”

From this position you’re able to teach a leg yield or a turn on the haunches with a touch at the girth, remembering that every movement must be done correctly. “Many of our horses are ‘dead to the leg’, but you can overcome this from the ground by sensitising these areas again.” He advises that as a trainer you will learn where to stand for each horse, but remember that if you are going to work near the hind legs, take care to avoid being kicked.

In addition to suppleness, in-hand work allows the trainer to create activity in the hind leg. “If a horse is not elastic or bending in the joints, you can use two whips – one on each hock – tapping to encourage activity.” Helmut stresses that here timing is everything. “You can’t activate the hind leg when it’s on the ground – then it’s history; the tap must come as the foot is lifted.”

As the horse learns to respond to the aids, the whip will no longer be necessary and a simple voice command is sufficient to get the response. “The voice is highly underrated as a training aid,” says Helmut.

He demonstrates the technique further on a small canter circle, where he points the whip at the horse’s inside hind leg to encourage more action. “From the ground you can see that this horse is a little long, so he must work harder to ‘sit’ in the canter. This work helps him to bring his quarter under himself, which not only improves the canter now, but will later improve the flying change.”

“In schooling we must first begin by addressing the challenges of a horse’s exterior, before we can move on to the next challenge. And we must create a partner who is relaxed and accepting, because a tense horse will struggle to learn what you want. In-hand work is a very good way to achieve these aims,” he concludes