ARTICLE

How to Increase Suspension

            When I was asked to write some words on improving suspension, I realized how difficult that is, because the ability to improve the horse's suspension belongs in the category of the riders that do everything else really well. It's like talking about the improvised cadance at the end of a violin concerto. One must first flawlessly perform the concerto itself. When we talk about "improved suspension" we refer more to brillance produced by the virtuosity of the rider. The word "improved" has nothing to do with "natural" suspension. It takes quite a lot of skill to develop the brillance of suspension. The term suspension as I know it refers to the phase of the trot and the canter when all the legs are off the ground. "Improved" suspension has no real value in itself, but it is the beautiful result of correct training, as the horses grows taller in the collection, and grows longer and more brillant in the extension.

Improving the horse's suspension is possible, only if all the stages of the training scale are alive in the work, and really belongs in the sixth category of the training scale. The established training scale everyone is familiar with is set forth by the German Army Riding School in 1912 as:                                                                   

  1. Takt: (Rhythm and Tempo)
  2. Losgelassenheit: (Relaxation and Suppleness)
  3. Anlehnung: (Rein connection to the hand)
  4. Schwung: (Impulsion)
  5. Geraderichten: (Straightening and Flexion work)
  6. Versammlung: (Collection)

Robert Dover once said that suspension is the result of : " The collection being alive in the extension, and extension being alive in the collection." The adjustability is the hallmark of the well trained horse, not his ability to do the lateral movements.

Energy
To improve suspension the rider must be able to work his horses at their optimum energy level. This is why those rider's horses are always in peak  physical condition. Just as a dancer or skater cannot perform a difficult maneuver without being in shape, a horse cannot develop in DRESSAGE without maximum effort. An old german proverb " He who is afraid of doing too much always does too little."

The rider must have the ability to "wake" his horses up sufficiently, and to make proper use of the "driving aids"- or the rider's legs, and this "waking up" must clearly improve the Losgelassenheit, not that he comes into tension, and produce the all too common "hovering passage" that resembles the horse's natural passage that is produced only when the horse is excited or frightened. This sometimes tempts the less experienced rider to actually favor this passage and unwittingly encourage what the more experienced trainer would try to keep from cropping up. False, hovering suspensionis not desirable, because it indicates a deficiency in either the horse's education or the ability of the rider, and clearly show that the first three parts of the training scale are missing. The Grand Prix passage is the pinnacle of the horse's maximum developed suspension and the correct progression towards this air is evident in the transitions into and out of  passage more than the passage itself. 

In order to increase suspension in the horse, the rider must be in possesion of these skills:

# 1) A BALANCED SEAT: The balanced seat will enable the rider to "sit the trot" and make use of the weight aids.The only way I know of to improve the seat are as follows:

(A)   Rigorous lessons on the lunge line, on a suitable (swinging) horse with an expert handeling the horse.  The  trainer must have a thorough knowledge of lunging as the rider must place all of his trust in the hands of the trainer. I was fortunate enough to have Sonja Vracko for this work in my early part of my education in developing the seat which lasted nearly two years, and involved juggeling a ball from one hand to the other in the walk, trot, and canter. I have yet to see this work done effectively since this time, and have seen many strange variations and attempts at it. A good video to get is the Carl Mikolka " 30 days to a better seat."

(B)   Riding well trained horses after they are properly warmed up.

#2) GAINING " FEEL" FOR THE HALF HALT: Gaining skill at half halts takes a long time and is most easily accomplished after the horse has been schooled to properly respond to these aids. The fastest way to learn the use of half halts is to get directly on the horse after the trainer has warmed it up. This doesn't have to be a upper-level horse, and I have seen more people make progress in this then what is more commonly the case which is to buy a schoolmaster and attempt to learn from that schoolmaster all of the movements. This often tempts the loan soldier to buy a schoolmaster and in their ambition and vanity forget that this horse really is a schoolmaster, he is a master of all of the evations whereas the horse that is properly ridden maybe second or third level can produce a lovely half halt in the hand of the rider. And the old schoolmaster that can carry his rider through all the lectures of the Grand Prix and still appear lifeless and dull in his way of going and produce no suspension whatsoever can fail in giving the rider the proper feel to the hand.

            These skills take as long as they take, and they depend entirely on the rider's drive to develop himself. And remember there are no shortcuts, as Beverly Sills once said: " There are no shortcuts to any place worth going." When the rider feels confident in his or her aquired skills, they can begin the following exercises:

(A) To lenghten and shorten the gait.
The gait should be lenghtened to the same degree that it is shortened and vice versa, gradually stretching the horse's limit. The more advanced horses will be collection to extension, the lower level horses would mean working trot to lenghtening the trot and back again.

(B)  Developing the near halts.
The horse is asked for a transition from working trot to the walk, and at the moment before they start to walk the rider drives on again and in that moment the hind legs are driven a little more under and a few steps of suspension are produced.

(C) Making use of the cavaletti poles.
This is done best without the weight of the rider and the horse must go over the poles slowly, and when they lift the leg the trainer makes sure that the horse doesn't just lift the leg in a racking like manner, running over the poles or getting tense from this work.  

The best example of dressage developing is when the training scale is alive all throughout the work, and is the underlined theme that the whole dressage training is based on. It is when the rhythm is maintained throughout the work, as the horse grows taller in suspension, and longer in the extension, the rhythm stays the same, or nearly the same. That there is no change in the suppleness of the horse, meaning the facial expression stays contented and he stays relaxed mentally and in his muscles. The connection to the hand of the rider remains constant in and out of collection. The rider can always return to lively impulsion at any time throughout the work. The straightness is maintained as the horse grows dull and mechanical as the energy escapes to the side.

This defines the perfect dressage session, and we must make allowances for the developing horse to make deviations, as with any performing artist, before it sounded like the sibilious violin concerto it sounded like a lot of other things. Do not be discouraged, because there are no born masters.

I hope these exercises proof profitable in your work. Remember that the "improved suspension" we talk about is really more brillance of the work, and before we push the limits of the horse's artistry, we must first see a horse calmly producing the work, then a horse moving in brillance with too much severity of tension.

            For the advanced riders, I deliberetaly omitted the lessons in the lateral work which greatly improve the horse's suspension and brillance. The advanced riders know well that the lateral work will not serve to improve the horse gymnastically at all if the rider is not skilled at executing them properly, as all lateral work, especially canter half pass invites an inherent evation that goes unnoticed by the rider, and makes them even more dull, mechanical, and disobedient over time,  having a delitorious effect on the horse's development. Thorough schooling in the lateral work will serve to improve the horse's suspension and brillance, as the inevitable result of this work is increased engagement and optimum articulement of the joints. If the horse does not produce more impulsive extensions after these lessons, the lateral work was at best a waste of time.

Douglas Puterbaugh
www.puterbaughdressage.com
Petaluma,CA
707 975 6847
           

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