In this training article we are looking at another dressage term that has a lot of people stumped: 'harmony'. Look it up on google and there really isnt a lot that is said, there is minimal information on it from a dressage perspective and yet it is part of the submission collective mark on every single test (and because it is a collective whatever mark you get is doubled so counts even more to your final mark!)
We are going to look at what 'harmony' actually is as well as why it is seen as this element that amazing grand prix riders achieve but is out of reach for anyone else and what you can do to make sure you and your horse show a harmonious partnership in a test as well as tests to stop you doing the one thing that is going to stop your harmony dreams in its track - relying on the reins!
What is harmony?
When you watch the best dressage riders in the world it looks effortless it looks like the horse is following the riders body and they are reacting to every small and tiny aid the rider gives. But more than that they flow around the arena in perfect synchronisation with their rider. This is what harmony is.
Harmony comes under the submission collective in a test and a horse and rider combination showing harmony will be those ones you see where the horse moves freely and softly but is attentive to the rider, reactive to their aids and following them. The rider's aids are soft without any big, sharp or quick movements.
Why is harmony so difficult to achieve ?
The main reason why riders find it so difficult to achieve harmony is simply because the majority of riders have a natural instinct to use their rein first.
This is completely natural, if a horse bolts the rider is going to pull on the rein to stop the horse. But put it into a training scenario where the rider is asking for a downward transition or a half halt or for collected trot and if the rider uses their rein, they pull backwards. When this happens we stop the horse from moving forward, we stop the horses natural balance which, naturally, encourages the horse to have to find their balance somewhere else. This either results in one of two things happening.
The horse shortens their neck and becomes tense. Long term this could lead to contact issues with the horse not wanting to push into the contact or tension and suppleness issues.
The horse braces against the rider pushing their weight against them. Long term this can result in a horse that leans against the riders hand and struggles to transfer that weight off the forehand onto the hind end.
So, the first reason why harmony is so hard to achieve is because as riders we so naturally want to use our rein as either the first or the only aid which causes huge problems not only in the moment but for our training as a whole. The second reason why harmony is so difficult is because horses are live animals (incase you hadnt noticed!). So sometimes we can do everything right and it still doesnt work. Horses have bad days like we have bad days, they have stiff days they have days where they feel more tired or more energetic. So, its not a case, like in many other sports where everyone just needs to learn the same technique and if you perform that technique correctly then it always pays off. Unfortunately not. Not only is each horse different and requires (if only slightly) a different approach, but sometimes what works one day might not work another day so we need to be far more adaptable as athletes and aware of the small changes in our horses and from there then know what we need to do or change to accommodate for this,
What do you need to achieve harmony?
Harmony requires all those scales of training we have spoken about a lot. The horse needs to be pushing forward and freely, it needs to be working into an elastic contact for the rider to be able to have clear communication, the horse needs to be supple to be able to follow the rider as well as being reactive to the riders aids. In other words, we need all those scales of training established for the level for you to be able to ride your horse with harmony and, like with the scales of training, the degree to which we need each one increases as we go through the levels. Similarly, the degree of harmony you see at a prelim is very different to the amount of harmony you will see at grand prix.
Alongside the scales of training, when we look at wanting to achieve harmony we as the rider need to have 3 skills:
Be balanced and straight in the saddle
The horse needs to feel they are able to move forward and feel there is an open door somewhere for them to go through.
We as the rider, need to be able to control the impulsion, tempo and balance without creating tension or resistance
The first thing then is your balance as the rider. When a rider is not balanced in the middle of the saddle one of two things happen, they either tip forward or they lean back. Neither of these positions result in a rider that is able to give clear instructions to their horse. Instead they will kick when they dont mean to kick, they will accidentally pull on the reins to help regain their balance, they will sometimes throw the horse off balance and they may encourage the horse to go more onto the forehand or lean and brace against them. But also, riders that are not straight and tip left and right will end up pulling their horse off their natural balance; this will mean the horse cannot physically be straight because they are having to compensate for the rider being off balance. This can cause all sorts of problems from sore backs to weak hindlegs to ???
When it comes to a riders position always think:
The better your balance in the saddle, the better your communication with your horse. The stronger you are in the saddle the more effective and clear your aids are. The more supple you are in the saddle, the more free, relaxed and supple you will allow your horse to be.
Then we can move on to the next point: The horse needs to feel they are able to move forward and feel there is an open door somewhere for them to go through. This is super important because we talk alot about a contact and the horse must be pushing from the hindleg into the contact which is true; and we talk as well about that feeling like your horse is in a box or a bubble; that you have control over the shoulders and the hindlegs as well as not feeling like the energy is falling out the front end or the back end. This is all true. But, alongside this, its also really important that by putting your horse into this box and gaining control of their body you arent losing the freedom in the paces.
What i often see is horses that look extremely free and soft and moving over their backs at the age of 4 or 5and then they almost look shut down and shuffly in their paces by the time they get to the higher levels. Theyre too busy worrying about the collection and the horses ability to sit and the contact that the horse feels trapped so its lost its free flowing, supple movement. These horses can go behind the leg because they dont feel like they have anywhere to go or they may start pushing that energy up by bucking or bouncing because they dont feel they can move forward.
The difficult bit is how you combine the two. How do you keep a contact and that connection without losing the harmony and the freedom of movement. The answer is a very well known dressage term - elasticity. We talk about it alot when we refer to a horses paces they need to be elastic and swinging in other words the muscles themselves and the movement in general needs to be soft, relaxed and stretchy.
What i say to my clients is to imagine your elbows all the way to your finger tips are made of elastic, you are able to stretch that elastic and push your hands forward and you are able to bring your hands back slightly if you need to too. Its a really small movement that from the ground not many people would be able to see, but the horses mouth will feel the difference between a hand that is pulling back and a hand that is pushing forward and is elastic.
When youre on a circle there is a balance between not throwing the outside rein away so the horse falls through the shoulder but also not keeping such a strong hold that you stop the horse from actually being able to bend in the body. It is such a fine line and it is a feeling that is really hard to understand until you try it. Apply the elastic theory again though you can allow a little with your hand whilst still maintaining a contact. Like an elastic band has that little bit of give if you want to stretch it so too should your contact.
Always imagine you should always be giving your horse an open door and pushing them through that door. Whether that door is right in front of you and you are wanting your horse to take you forwards or its a little bit to the side if you are wanting a leg yield or half pass.
So we have said that the horse needs to be freely allowed to move in a direction with that open door idea whether that be forwards or sideways. But there comes a time where we do need the horse to come back and not be freely moving around the arena in a huge trot or canter. This is where we as the rider, need to be able to control the impulsion, tempo and balance without creating tension or resistance. So, we have said that we need to use less rein to control our horses tempo as well as in downward transitions and half halts. We know that if we use just the rein it teaches our horse to shorten their neck and not their whole body and it can create tension and multiple other issues that weve already talked about. So, we need a new set of aids to still ask our horse to carry more weight behind, sit more, do a downward transition and so on. And this is where our seat comes in. For all these things (the downward transition, the half halt and when asking for collection) what we are asking the horse is essentially the same: to take more weight behind and compress their body, sit a little more on their hindleg and continue pushing from behind into the contact without losing the relaxation, straightness and suppleness. All this can be achieved through your seat:
Breathe in, sit a little back and deeper into the saddle, engage your core, slow your rising if you are in trot and squeeze with your knees.
You can use your rein during this but the important thing is that it is not the predominant aid or, worse, the only aid. We can have a little shortening of the neck alongside the body compressing and sitting. What we dont want is only the neck shortening and the body staying long which is what happens when we just use our rein.
So, the most important thing to remember when thinking about collecting, riding downward transitions and half halts is to make sure you are using your leg and your seat the most and your rein a little to back up your leg and seat if need be.
How to know if you are relying on your reins?
I have 2 tests i like to do with my horses that tell me pretty instantaneously whether i am relying on the reins or not. Both these tests are more looking at how much you use your rein vs your seat and leg aids. This tends to be the thing that most riders struggle with when it comes to harmony is their reliance on the rein and these exercises do a pretty good job of telling you whether this is the case for you.
Ride with one hand or bridge your reins together. I have also been some riders cross the reins over too but my brain cant really deal with that! The point is the same though it will help you realise how much you are relying on your rein to control your horse and ask for the collection, downwards transitions or in the half halt.
Second test is: are you able to give and retake with both your reins. This test tells you whether you are controlling the tempo with your seat or whether you are holding them back with your hand. If you are holding them back with your hand when you give with the rein you might feel the horse either runs forward or drops their nose down. And this is why they add in these give and retakes into tests is because it shows the judge very clearly whether your horse is balanced on his hindleg, carrying himself and isnt relying on the rein.. A lot of the time horses may run forward or drop their head and neck and this is a sign to you that you are either holding your horse up or holding them back. Either way your horse is not in a natural balance and self carriage.
The purpose of both these tests is that it shows you how much you are using your leg and seat aids and how much you are using your rein. This is another reason why stretching is so important because it teaches both the horse and rider to move on their own, it teaches the horse how to carry themselves in self carriage and it teaches the rider to rely on their seat and leg and not their rein.