Evi Strasser has been extensively coached by internationally renowned trainers and riders Klaus Martin Rath, Neil Ishoy, Kyra Kyrklund, Norbert van Laak and Ellen Bontje. Evi is currently working with former Canadian team trainer Robert Dover. With three decades of international competition experience, six Olympic Games, four World Championships and seven World Cup Final appearances, American Robert Dover has amassed four Olympic bronze medals and over 100 Grand Prix victories. In addition, he has coached some of the world’s best dressage riders to top international results.
Whether the problem is over-bending, leaning or getting above the bit, every problem with contact really starts at the opposite end of the horse. This important lesson is one that Evi Strasser discovered as a young rider in Germany, where the learning took place not only in the saddle, but also in the classroom and in books. A lack of theoretical education is a contributing cause to contact issues; many riders don’t understand that all good contact comes from energy flowing in a straight line through the horse’s body from his hind legs all the way to the mouth. That energy flow can only take place if the rider is positioned correctly. “Everything comes from my seat,” Evi explains. “If my seat is not in balance, I cannot expect the horse to be balanced.” Whatever causes a horse to tend to curl – by bringing the nose behind the vertical and evading the rein contact – the solution lies in his hind legs, which are influenced by the rider’s correct position and driving aids.
A horse’s conformation will have a direct impact on the ease or difficulty with which he learns to do his job. When I look at a youngster, I want to see him as balanced as possible from neck to tail. His neck and back should be of a length that is in proportion to one another; the shoulder should be round and not with too steep an angle that will
restrict freedom of movement; the back should go smoothly back to the loin, not dropping behind the wither. I look for a wither and croup that are the same height, or a croup that is slightly lower than the wither. A slightly high croup may be alright, as long as there is balance in the angles of the croup and hind leg – in other words, the croup is not too long or short, and there is not too straight or too angled a hind leg.
Temperament can go a long way to compensate for small weaknesses in conformation; a horse that is willing and tries to achieve what is asked of him can make up for imperfect natural balance through correct training and building of the right muscles. The conformation which is likeliest to lead to a horse that tends to curl, with the poll dropping below the highest point, is when a horse has a long neck and short back. What is commonly seen with horses with this feature is that they ‘roll up’ the neck instead of keeping the nose slightly in front of the vertical with the poll as the highest point.
Much can be learned about a horse’s natural balance and neck carriage when he is very young. I like to start horses on the lunge with tack when they are two and a half. Once he understands the idea of going on a circle on the lunge and keeping his balance, I will put side reins on to introduce the neck position I will later want to achieve when riding.
The first times I use the side reins, I attach them to a lunging cavesson, not to the bit. He may have a snaffle bridle
on underneath, but I will not attach the side reins to the bit the first few times I
use side reins. If I have a lunging pen, I will often let the horse run free the first time I put side reins on. The horse will have to figure out how to find his balance with the neck in this new position. His ability to balance and his mental response will already tell me quite a lot about his physical and temperamental tendencies. If the horse shows natural balance and self-carriage, that’s a good sign. If the neck set is not good or the horse struggles with his balance, it tells me a lot about what challenges face me as I train this young horse.
From the first time I put a snaffle into a young horse’s mouth, I am beginning to create a relationship with his mouth that will last his entire career. Mouth issues are the most difficult training problems to solve, so giving the horse a good start is extremely important.
When I first put the bit in the horse’s mouth, I will do it in his stall and let him eat with the bit in his mouth, which teaches him it’s to be chewed, and not to be spit out with the tongue. I want the horse to learn that the bit can move in his mouth and he doesn’t have to try and push, pull or hold it with his teeth. It goes without saying that
the bridle should be well-fitting, with the bit correctly placed high enough in the mouth to sit where the horse has no teeth – at the bars.
I sometimes feed the horse sugar in the introductory sessions with the bit, but once the horse has accepted the presence of the bit in his mouth, I stop doing that.
I don’t want to encourage him to play with the bit too much. I want him to understand that this is part of riding and not a plaything.
I don’t want the horse to start experimenting with putting his tongue over the bit, or out of his mouth, or to develop a busy mouth. The noseband should be close-fitting so that the horse can’t open his mouth wide, but it should also not be so tight as to clamp the mouth completely shut.
A bad start to a horse’s relationship with the rider’s hands can easily happen with an inexperienced rider on a young horse. The horse has no idea what ‘stop’ or ‘go’ mean, and the rider will naturally try to hold the horse with the reins to keep it from running forward, while at the same time driving the horse with the leg. The rider is not directing the horse’s energy in the right way; it takes experience to feel what the horse is trying to do so that you can keep that energy coming forward. With nowhere to go, the horse will try to get away from the bit pressure by dragging forward, coming up with his head, or curling.
Already, in the first stage of his riding career, the horse has learned how to avoid the rein contact by curling his neck and dropping his nose behind thevertical.
Another common rider mistake begins to have a serious impact when horses are five or six years old. This is the age at which they have reached maturity, and riders will start to put pressure on them as their goals begin to reach higher. Many riders think that a four- to five-year-old horse is just a baby and should be ridden always in a long and low frame, which is a misconception.
Even with a three-year-old horse, I begin to introduce him to a shape that is more toward what he will be asked for
later in his career. I do it in baby steps, and it’s important not to work a young horse too long in a higher frame.
However, if a horse is ridden in a long frame for the first two years of his career, he won’t be prepared for the
sudden demand that he bring the neck higher and shorter. The goal of training right from the earliest age should be to improve the horse’s self-carriage. When a horse has never learned to bring the hind legs under his body, lift his shoulder and keep his neck round and arched, it’s not possible to suddenly expect him to go in a higher frame. The rider may power the horse up and try to take more contact, but instead of riding the horse up to the hand, she will usually pull the horse back from the mouth.
His reaction will often be to curl, and the resulting crisis is that the wrong muscles will begin to develop. What has usually been missed is the correct training of the half-halt using transitions, which are the basis of all my training. The horse that has spent too much time going long and low has not learned to understand the communication of a steady contact from both reins. Whether my half-halt is light, like the blink of an eye, or stronger, I want to have consistent communication through the body of the horse into my hand, and that begins in the first year under saddle.
When I am teaching a rider on a horse that tends to avoid the contact by curling, I tell my student to think of her reins as two sticks. The challenge with this type of problem is to maintain a consistent pull in the hand – not a leaden feeling, but a steady one, not on-and-off contact. By thinking of the reins as sticks I am constantly reminded that even in a downward transition – a moment when a horse that curls is likely to try and drop the contact – I must ride the horse forward from my seat, leg and core to the hand. The image is one of pushing the horse’s nose out with the sticks, instead of pulling with the rein. The length of the stick corresponds to the correct length of the neck, and using my ‘sticks’ I don’t want to let the neck get shorter. The feeling I am looking for is that the horse is
moving forward in one piece; he is straight and not breaking out on one side or the other. Straightness means that he is pushing through his body evenly on both sides and into two reins of contact, and doesn’t refer only to going in straight lines. Whether I am in a corner, riding half-pass or shoulder-in, I want to feel that I have the horse’s body in ‘a box’ and I can keep him in that box. His neck doesn’t get shorter, and his body doesn’t escape to one side.
The transition, both within gaits and between them, is the number one tool for developing good contact. I ask for a
transition from trot to walk on a circle, for example, through my seat and core. I want the horse to come from the hind to the front and to push into the two sticks.
The moment I feel the contact getting inconsistent, I ride out of the partly completed transition, mostly with my inside leg. The dropped contact is a sign that the horse stopped coming under his directed forward because she cannot lift her pelvis or roll her tailbone under. The energy is instead driven downward. The correct position can only be achieved when the rider has an independent seat. If she is depending on the reins for balance, there is no hope of correctly using her aids, or of developing a correct contact to the horse’s mouth.
Riders are often taught to ride from the inside leg into the outside rein. This instruction is a correct one – the outside rein controls the direction of the energy created by the inside leg which, when applied on a circle or in shoulder-in, brings the horse’s inside hind leg farther underneath him, making self-carriage possible.
However, riders often then forget to have any contact at all on the inside rein. The basic point of straightness is to have contact on two reins at once. There may be more contact in one rein than the other, but it should not be an on-and-off contact.
The two ‘sticks’ are giving me a direction to line up those hind legs, and they put the neck in the right position so that I can feel the horse flowing forward into those sticks.
Bent lines, circles, shoulder-in and half-pass are all exercises that, when correctly executed, improve the contact. One exercise I use often with my students incorporates leg yield. Horses usually tend to drift out on the turns on the short side, particularly if the rider loses the straightness of her position. He drifts because he can’t bring his inside hind leg underneath him and the energy is not flowing straight into the contact on both reins. He is not staying in ‘the box’ and his hind legs no longer follow the front legs into the two sticks that are the reins.
I tell the rider to think of the short side like a half-circle, rather than corners. As she comes out of the short side on the right rein and straightens on the wall, I have her leg yield the horse off the left leg toward the quarter line. This is a really straight leg yield, with no bend or flexion. It’s going sideways with a straight horse, yielding from the outside leg. After five or six strides of leg yield, I tell the rider to then go straight and feel the horse fitting into that box again. The exercise can be repeated as the horse continues down the length of the ring. A few steps
sideways, then a few straight; then a few sideways and straight again. What the rider should begin to feel is that the horse is staying in the box and moving straight forward into both reins. He will then also be able to stay balanced on the short side, as long as the rider stays straight in her position.
With young horses, I like to ride three-loop serpentines, with loops of 20-metre half-circles, to develop that ‘in the box’ feeling as he bends first one way, then straightens for a moment and bends in the new direction. With more advanced horses, I use a half 10-metre circle from the long side to centre line, then a half 10-metre circle the other way to the other long side. Constant turning and changing the direction is a challenge to a young horse’s balance; the change of direction tests whether my horse is truly straight on both sides and going to my two sticks of contact equally. My goal is to teach the horse that in everything he does, he should stay in the box, with the neck the same length and shape.
Adding transitions on the circle will tell me how long it takes for the horse to become balanced when I have started the circle. Can he do a transition from trot to walk in the first half of the circle, or does it take longer to feel that I can ask for the transition with complete control over every step? As I ride transitions or
changes of rein, I want to always be able to keep the horse’s hind legs coming under him and keeping his nose out on the end of those sticks.
Throughness – when the horse is truly working through his body and in self-carriage – will result only when the horse understands what it means to be on the bit and properly flowing forward into the contact.