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The perception of what is correct in dressage is an acquired eye.  Most of the postures that trainers, riders, and judges see as acceptable, are in fact faulty.   I don’t like the word frame because it implies a static stance. The posture of the horse is constantly changing and should be evaluated as a kinematic system, not a snapshot in time.

The correct looking top line for an advanced dressage horse has certain characteristics.  The horse is generally higher in the withers than the croup. The neck curves gracefully up out of the shoulder. The poll (the point where the spine connects to the back of the skull, negating a fleshy crest) is the highest point.  The front plane of the face is on or in front of a vertical line dropped perpendicular to the ground.  The horse is relaxed, aware and looking out, not forced to stare at the at the dirt in front of his feet.  You can easily see this posture in the horse at liberty. 

Here is a quick picture study to train your eye. 

We have to study what the horse’s natural posture is to be able to recreate it.  There are four main things to look for:

  • The hind thrusts strongly not only sending the horse forward, but the thrust raises the forehand.  Over 40% of the thrust generated by the hind end is upward.
  • When the hind pushes forward and up, the head and neck comes up to compensate balance. With the neck muscles fully engaged, the neck arches up and out of the shoulder, with the poll at the highest point. 
  • The forelegs swing out to cover ground and the body rotates over the point of contact with the ground like a catapult.  The forelegs also send over 50% of the energy upward.
  • The horse holds its head gracefully up and out, and it’s nose is extended to the footfall of the foreleg.  The frame literally gets longer when the gaits are extended.

A good way to train your eye to the natural frame of the horse is to watch foals prancing around.  The horse executes in nature the high level movements we strive for in the dressage ring like piaffe, passage, and lead changes.  Collected and extended gaits are easy to see.  Take a look at any horse at liberty and you will see not only these, but the posture pictured above. 

Here is a couple examples.

Remember the purpose of dressage is to recreate the horse’s natural movement under a rider. It’s rather a simple concept but difficult to execute. We humans think we are training the horse, but the horse already has the movement. When we sit on them we disrupt it. All our training is simply to get back what was already there. The goal is to bring it out in such a way that the horse can do it, on cue, with the burden of the rider, and not damage themselves in the process. Once you realize it’s already there, the challenge becomes to train ourselves to allow the movement and not block it. Here are some more images of horses moving in a natural way.

Figure 3: In a natural extension the nose reaches out. This equates to a good training level posture.
Figure 4: An energetic walk creates forward and upward energy. This is a natural “stretch” over the top line.
Figure 5: Horse in a trained piaffe without a rider. The horse is allowed to choose the best posture to accomplish the task.

I looked at literally hundreds of photos for this article because I wanted to find a photo of a horse in a natural movement at liberty with its head curled low and deep while simultaneously the hind was driving forward, like the “frame” you see in many riding arenas.  Didn’t find any, not one, although I’m sure there are snapshots, such as a stallion whose neck is curled during a charge or horses in raucous play. The horse can certainly move that way for a brief instant, but given the choice he probably would not want to stay there very long. 

So if the purpose of dressage is to recreate nature, then we must recognize what is natural and what is not.  Training a horse to carry itself in an inefficient, unnatural way creates tension and possible injury over time.   Even though humans have been riding horses for centuries, carrying a load on it’s back is not natural for the horse and does have consequences. By working to restore the natural balance and teaching the horse to carry us in a healthy way, we can help our horses live long and sound lives, and enjoy them for many years.

In Part II of this series we will look at lower level postures under saddle.


[All pictures and photos are Adobe stock images.   I reference video links as examples for educational purposes only, not as an endorsement of any entity or methods.  I’m not responsible if video links do not work.] 

Carole Curley