Mastering Lightness: Understanding the Biomechanics

Sun, 10/08/2017 - 10:33
Training Your Horse

In an FEI press release on Eurodressage, we read that at the CDIO Rotterdam on June 25, 2017, “Laura Graves was in a league of her own, presenting her horse Verdades in the greatest of lightness.”

 This is a pleasant development. Today, most horses have great gaits and most riders ride accurate tests, so the deciding factor is apparently now lightness. How refreshing! I predict that, if this trend continues, we are going to see much-improved piaffe because it is the movement in which its quality is most dependent on lightness. Let's have a look at the biomechanics for achieving lightness both in and out of the saddle.


The father of the modern German school, Gustav Steinbrecht, considered lightness part and parcel of collection. He saw the two as inseparable. François Baucher, the originator of the modern French school, on the other hand, considered lightness as an issue separate from collection and sought it in all situations. He saw it as a means to an end, as well as a final result of training in its highest form.

They both have a point: on one hand, the more collected the horse, the more energy and mobility he has (lightness to the legs and seat) and the more easily he becomes balanced (lightness to the hand). On the other, the more the horse is trained to be light, from the beginning, by “the School of the Aids” (the development of responses to the aids that can be obtained automatically with a diminishing effort from the rider), the easier it will be to train him through the gymnastic process. The fewer resistances will be encountered and the quicker the horse will advance toward collection, which is the best way for the horse to carry his rider.

The German concept adapted the classical model of La Guérinière to their own culture of the “Campagne School” (outdoor riding for military purposes). It produces a collected horse that is shortened in his frame, moderately elevated in front and flexed in his haunches, yet ridden in very forward gaits. The thrust of the hind legs is the key to everything. The French since Baucher consider a different form of collection that implies lightness: the ability of the horse tomove in all directions, at all times, in any gait. This is collection “without concentration of forces” that can be applied to all equestrian disciplines.

Modern dressage horses no longer “sit” (lower their haunches), as they did at the time of La Guérinière, except, hopefully, in the piaffe and canter pirouettes. They now move in the horizontal balance advocated by Ludwig Hünersdorf (1748–1813) in Germany and François Baucher (1796-1873) in France. It is this particular equilibrium that allows them to perform the many transitions from shortened to extended gaits required by the current FEI tests. Today, we have, in effect, a mixture of the French and German systems, as wished for by the founders of modern dressage, General Decarpentry and General Von Holzing. What is still missing too much of the time, though, is lightness to the impulsive aids (the horse responding to discreet actions of the seat and legs) combined with an honest connection to the hand (the horse follows the bit softly without leaning on it). A greater attention to developing the lateral mobility in the shortened gaits would go a long way toward teaching the horse how to reduce his thrust. This, in turn, would allow for a much easier apprenticeship of the piaffe.


While lightness is too often touted as a unique component of French equestrian culture, it is a necessity for training in any discipline. Perhaps dressage authors have not described its biomechanical implications with enough detail for its importance to be well understood by trainers. This lack of explanation of the correlation between a cultural idea and the mechanical concepts of equine athleticism has resulted in the concept of lightness to be devalued for too many modern dressage riders, coaches and judges. People don’t practice a concept when they have not been given a good reason for it.

One of the sad consequences of this lack of interest in lightness is the alarming number of “accidents” that sideline top dressage horses, particularly when they involve suspensory problems, either in the front legs or, worse yet, in the hind legs. Health problems that demand one, two or three-year recoveries imply deep damage that can only come from mechanical wear and tear created by the constant tension of spasmodic muscles. This is generally the effect of working a horse for too long in asymmetrical, unbalanced equilibria, or under constant constraints that maintain the horse in a position he cannot handle safely for long.

The other big issue related to the lack of lightness is the absence of the corresponding collection that has been replaced by forced compression. The brilliant movements we see in the trot and canter of modern horses are due to the power of the hind legs used in very big gaits, while the front legs are only moving as an effect of the momentum of the horse. When the gait is slowed down and the push diminishes, the elevation disappears and the bracing of the horse on the hand (and its corollary, the slowness of the front legs) makes the movement disappear. Hence we witness very poor piaffes from exceptionally well-bred horses who should perform this movement with their knees horizontal. Only lightness in all the gaits and the transitions between them (the absence of resistances), performed with sufficient engagement behind,

allows the front legs to move alternately forward (extensions) and upward (collection) while maintaining the diagonal timing of the feet.


In practical terms, lightness is the absence of resistance to the aids while the horse moves with a relaxed topline. We can think of “lateral lightness” (permitting uprightness, turns, bends and lateral steps), “longitudinal lightness” (permitting the control of speed, the rounding of thetoplinefor the purpose of regulating collection) and “vertical lightness” (permitting the elevation and lowering of either end of the horse to modify weight distribution).

This is the general order in which we should work on those forms of lightness, but it also depends on each horse’s prevalent difficulty. Some horses are stiff laterally and we must start with lateral flexion, while others have balance problems and vertical lightness is what they need. Others find collection difficult and we need to work on relaxing their topline to improve their flexibility into the contact. Eventually, the horse must become light to all hand and leg actions, regardless of which direction the aids come from.

The first step is to teach the horse to turn by pointing his front toes in the exact direction the rein wants him to go. It is most easily taught using a stick while working in-hand. Associate the tapping on the outside front leg to make it take a longer step in the direction of the turn with a direct, consistent pressure of the lead rope. The trick is to alternate rapid taps on the shoulder or the back) for relaxation (every time we see the top line contract) and slow taps in the rhythm of the gait’s tempo to increase the stride length at the walk. Progressively, apply the stick to the side of the horse where the rider’s leg will act in order to transition to ridden aids. When the horse releases the pressure of the lead rope by advancing just a little more without the help of the sick, he has understood the task and achieved lightness in that particular direction.

This work may be tedious, but it has immense value: the trainer will find that every horse, by either resisting a particular turn or resisting the bend, will come against the rein action. At first, he may lose his stride length, change his tempo, jog, etc., but once this work has been done thoroughly, the horse will be available to turn in any direction while bending easily, in a constant tempo and length of stride, all with a feather light touch on the rein. Once the horse knows how to turn, he needs to do it with a bend (practice shoulder-in and flexions in hand). The lateral flexion of the neck facilitates the uprightness of the shoulders by placing the weight on the front foot outside the bend.

The next step is to teach the horse to slow down the gait by a slight upward opposition of the hand so the horse learns to shut down his push partially, then reactivate it instantaneously when the hand allows the head to lower again. This is a skill that the horse needs to learn by associating a slight pressure on the reins with a verbal command (“Steaaadyyy!”) and a release associated with a cluck to go again. Today, too many horses are taught to go in very big gaits and do not possess the mechanics of the slow trot (the “doggy trot”) that will be indispensable when they come to study the piaffe. The search for the showy rebound, started too soon, incites riders to use endless half-halts and prevent the horse from learning self- carriage.

Once the horse knows how to shorten his stride and transform his forward movement into an upward gesture, he can progressively learn to shorten his frame from both ends. Short gaits and short frame are two separate lessons. This happens by the work of flexions and mobilization, which will be the subject of my next article: release of the jaw, flexion of the poll, lifting of the withers by arching the neck, bending the back laterally and diagonalizing the walk by the shoulder-in, rounding the loins by the reinback, flexing the hocks in the engaged halt, putting it all together in the piaffe.

In learning collection from back to front, a horse with a naturally uphill conformation will learn to elevate the neck progressively and sit down behind. For less well conformed horses, we must elevate the neck carefully to help them sit behind, while paying particular attention to the back (never let it sink down). This work has some limitations relative to each horse’s conformation.


All of these techniques designed to instill lightness, balance and impulsion in the horse follow the principle of the “diminution of the aids.” The rider needs to do enough at first to be understood (“imperative force”) alternated with rapid tapping of the stick to induce relaxation, then identify the slightest sign of compliance verbally so the horse knows he is doing the right thing. The reward comes by the ceasing of the demand (release to long reins).

After a moment of rest to help the horse register what happened, the trainer reiterates the demand with a lesser intensity, and again, until a very light aid suffices. This process is not always linear and might be “two steps forward and one step back.” In general, the horse learns to anticipate the full effect of the imperative force and complies with a smaller and smaller signal. This is absolutely fundamental to the training of horses in all disciplines. It leads to comprehension as the key to self-carriage, self-propulsion and self-discipline (cooperation).

Imperative force has nothing to do with any form of brutality. It is simply the key to the trainer’s credibility because ti brings on the horse’s attention and respect, from which his trust will derive. In nature, dominant horses send each other very clear signals supported by their physical might so they can be clearly understood and complied to. They then send smaller and smaller signals very quickly, eventually reduced to a simple facial expression, but they never hesitate to return to force if not understood. This is the equine behavioral process for establishing total lightness. Trainers need to follow the same model: if they do not diminish the intensity of the aids rapidly, the horse has no opportunity to exercise his comprehension and, from there, improve his goodwill.


One of the fathers of 18th-century French military riding, Boisdeffre, discusses how most resistances came from the lack of uprightness of the horse; in other words, the faulty distribution of his weight over his feet. If the horse is not upright, he may be leaning on one side, or one of his legs may be usually inclined under the body or in front of it. The withers are usually tipped toward the heavy shoulder.

This problem is not just obvious in the stance but also, and most importantly, in movement. In order to move in balance, the horse must always move one foot in sufficiently far in front of his body to “catch” the mass projected forward or sideways by the thrust of the legs. Too much contact restricts and delays the advance of the feet and compromises the balance. The horse ends up needing the hand as a permanent crutch and the vicious circle is completed.

Think of it this way: a basketball player dribbling around himself always moves a foot in the direction he is sending the ball, supporting his body as far as he can to stay in balance. He can relax his body and keep control of the ball to shoot it in a relaxed manner (which gives him accuracy). This is how an agile horse functions (show-jumper, cutters, bullfighters): always quickly advancing a foot ahead of the body to keep his balance.

Today, we have qualified chiropractors, osteopaths and myofascial massage specialists who can observe a horse’s stance, notice a hip or shoulder that is higher than the other and remedy the problem by an adequate manipulation. No amount of traditional training can remedy the asymmetry caused by fascia tension and we must turn to qualified, professional body workers to help horses do their jobs more easily. On the other hand, these treatments only work in the long term if the saddle fits, the teeth are worked on correctly and regularly, the feet are trimmed properly and the rider sits symmetrically.

Equally important, the horse must be re-educated in movement after being adjusted, so his biomechanics are corrected to fit his newly found posture. This work is done in hand by returning to tapping each leg in turn to correct the timing of their lift in all directions at the walk. A delay in the lift, reflecting a remaining excess weight load, is only the habitual memory of the postural anomaly that was there before the adjustment. A little repetition of previous work will bring the horse to realize that things have become easier and a new, better habit will be established.

The correction of the timing (until each leg picks up without delay and the loading is corrected), diminishes the bracing and the body contractions disappear eventually. This work is ongoing during the horse’s life and must be refined constantly, transferred to the legs under saddle and eventually to the hand as a rein aid, timed with the lift, in every direction wanted. This will help the horse increase his range of motion and his balance. At this point, the horse is balanced, mobile and light to the aids. Each new movement may temporarily disturb this lightness, but the same process will reestablish it at the new level of education.

by JP Giacomini. Article was first published in Warmbloods Today September/October ’17 issue.

Related Links
Team U.S.A Wins Nations' Cup Leg at 2017 CDIO Rotterdam 
History of French Equitation - Part I: Dressage a la Francaise
Classical Training: Where Did the Walk Go?
Colonel Christian Carde, Classical Dressage as Horsemanship - Part I
Classical Training: This is not Lightness
Rewarding Lightness, From Top to Bottom
Diversity and Lightness, Essential for the Development of the Horse
Frömming & Stammer Seminar 21 - 23 October 2016: Biomechanics Meets Classsical Dressage in Daily Training
Classical Training: Over the Back: Supple and Light vs. Tense, Tight, Held