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The schooling of Icelandic horses according to classical principles does not generally differ from the classical schooling of other horse breeds.

Icelandic horses often escape from trot into tölt or pace, especially during the execution of classical lateral moves. This in itself does not pose a problem even though many people may say so.  But, it is a symptom which shows that somewhere else a mistake was made. A big horse which does not tölt might lose beat and relaxation in a similar situation, which then is not as obvious as an outright change of gait to tölt. The Icelandic horse then shows the rider much more precisely whether she rides the lessons correctly. It is also important to note here that a switch to tölt, for example during shoulder in, cannot be prevented by constantly repeating the same exercise ? in fact, in a worst case scenario, doing so may actually solidify the problem. If this unwanted change of gait is encountered, the rider has to retreat a step in the schooling of the horse, and check and improve the lesson in walk before again asking for it in trot. In this fashion all classical lessons may be achieved step by step, even with a natural tölter. The very few Icelandic horses that just cannot trot at all may in the end go through lessons like shoulder in, travers and pirouettes, in tölt.

The goal in schooling the horse according to the principles of academical riding (note: a form of classical dressage based on Guérinière, and advocated and taught among European riders around Bent Branderup) is to gymnasticize the horse in such a way that the rider will be able to frame and guide the horse between the aids. This means that the shoulder, i.e. the forehand will be between the reins and the hips and hind legs will be under the rider?s seat and between her legs. Not all horses will be able to achieve this high flying goal, but it is still what should be worked towards. The schooling should make the horses flexible, sensitive and strong in a way that they will be able to carry out all lessons with ease, lightness and elegance, even under the rider. Horses become flexible and strong with this type of education, allowing them to do their work without the danger of potential health risks. Even horses without the talent for high school lessons can benefit from these exercises. One of the main principles of classical dressage training is that every step of the training is determined by the skill and schooling level of the horse; there is no fixed schedule for a horse to learn any of the lessons.


Forward and down


The classical education of the Icelandic horse starts with teaching the horse to stretch forward and down. This work lays the foundation for future collection and the raised position desirable for tölt. Working a horse forward and down stretches its back muscles, and allows the back to lift. Only back muscles that are well stretched and supple allow the hind legs to reach far forward beneath the centre of gravity. Collection follows which goes hand in hand with a lowering of the hind end, finally resulting in the desired position of relative elevation in the front. The raised back is important because with the added weight of the rider there is a constant danger that the back will hollow. A hollow back does not allow for the relaxed swinging of the back up and down, and may cause back-related health issues.


The training for forward down is covered extensively in a separate article (note: on the website listed above).




Bending and Lateral Work


An important chapter in classical dressage training is lateral work. Moving sideways as in leg yielding is not used in classical dressage and not considered a useful exercise. The main goals during lateral work are the stretching of the horse?s muscles on the outside of the bend, and the stepping toward the centre of balance with the hind legs. In shoulder in, the inner hip moves forward, and the inner hind leg is required to step towards the centre of balance. In haunches in the outer hip is further back and the outer hind leg steps towards the centre of balance. The bend in the horse?s neck has to always reflect the bend in its hips. Gaited horses especially can benefit from these exercises. Practicing lateral exercises especially can help to eventually achieve more collection, resulting in the hind end carrying more weight, relieving the front end. Thus true elevation and free shoulder movements can be accomplished during tölt ? and still keeping a freely swinging back that can carry the rider?s weight. One of the main concerns often seen with Icelandic horses is the hollowed tense back together with an artificial elevation through high rider hands. Another important learning experience for the horse during lateral work is that leg pressure alone is not the signal to increase speed, but instead to step under with the hind legs, thus collect more. Hot Icelandic horses, or those that were trained incorrectly and react explosively to leg pressure, will lose a lot of that inconvenient explosiveness during these lessons.


It is important to mention the methods of Iclandic master trainer Reynir Aðalsteinsson at this point, who stresses the importance of dressage for tölt training like no other Icelandic trainer. He uses ?Reynir?s half shoulder in? to relax the horse?s neck and back, and ?leg yielding?, but to relax, not to collect. [1]






As mentioned before, the trot can often be a difficult chapter in the schooling of the Icelandic horse. Especially for a natural tölter, it can be the check whether the rider?s aids are used correctly, with a supple seat and hands and correctly timed. Natural tölters often do not trot on their own under saddle in the beginning, and the rider has to actively support the horse?s efforts with her back, to keep the correct trot beat. Leaning forward with loose reins to force the trot is not enough. The horse will often end up on the forehand and in pace instead. When gaited horses don?t trot, the rider?s seat is more often to blame than not. Especially the relatively small and light Icelandic horse can be influenced immensely through the rider?s seat. When the rider is stiff in the hips, the horse will often prefer the tölt to the trot since its back swings less in tölt and will therefore not be jarred as much by the rider. The rider?s hips that should always move with the horse can have the greatest influence on the choice of gait. Proper timing of the leg aids is just as important in order to be effective. The fast cadence of gait in the Icelandic horse does not give the rider a lot of time to think about proper timing of leg aids. The correct rhythm has to be developed from feel. Again the lateral work has good exercises to develop the proper timing of leg and rein aids. With longer practice of the lateral exercises the rider also develops a feel for what the horse?s feet are doing at any given moment; which foot is on the ground and which is being lifted off the ground. The rider will then be able to master the task of influencing the horse?s hind end through proper leg aids in such a way that it will strike the ground together with the front feet ? instead of after the front feet as in walk and tölt ? and thus find the trot.






Canter may be the gait in which the Icelandic horse is most handicapped, compared to warmbloods. This is due to conformation. Many horses with a lot of pace show a tendency in canter to run instead of jump with the hind legs. Furthermore, in Iceland it is mostly the fast gallop trainers look for when schooling horses. If we now want to ride canter in a working or even collected tempo, we may have to deal with the obstacles of the horse?s conformation and possibly its initial training. Again, the classical lateral exercises can help to develop the basis for a good canter. They prepare the horse by creating the flexibility and strength necessary. Thus a classically schooled Icelandic horse can learn collected canter. There are different ideas as to when it is appropriate to begin canter training. Strictly speaking, training should not start before the horse is able to perform the lateral exercises in trot. Only then are the hind legs strong enough to carry the horse properly in canter. Reality is something else of course, and pushing hind legs work just as well. In that case though the horse has to move faster to canter and the front legs have to continue carrying the majority of the load.




Tölt ? the Problem


Icelandic and classical methods differ the most when it comes to tölt training. If we look at the most extreme positions, Icelandic training often proposes that the horse should be ridden in tölt as early as possible. In classical training the horse has to be able to collect before it should be ridden in tölt, i.e. it should master shoulder in and haunches in, at least in walk. Even though natural tölters offer tölt because of their physical and genetic disposition, one should not suppose that they can be ridden in tölt from the beginning of training. To assume that would be the same as to assume that Spanish horses automatically know how to piaff and passage. Obviously, natural tölters offer a four-beat gait on their own. Often enough this four-beat gait shifts towards pace, if the horse is asked for too much too soon. So where is the problem? Without a rider, tölt is a natural gait for the natural tölter and the young horse will prefer it to trot. With a rider, this changes. In the beginning the horse?s back is not able to carry the rider?s weight and still swing freely and develop momentum. This is especially impossible if the rider tries to lift the front end artificially with her hands.The horse escapes by bracing the back. This is where the problem starts because a tense back at once influences the clear beat. Furthermore, if the extra weight is not carried effectively by having the hind legs step towards the centre of balance, i.e. in collection, the end result is a horse on the forehand. Next artificial means are used to still try to bring the weight back to the hind end: flat tölt saddles, possibly with extending bars that allow the rider to sit far back. The rider?s weight is indeed transferred to the hind end, but the horse?s joints are not bent as they would be at proper collection, and carry the weight at too steep an angle. This results in excessive wear of the joints and may even be a trigger for spavin. The excessive stress on back and hind end will result in a loss of the clear beat tölt. The correction: special, extra heavy shoes in front and weighted bell boots in order to suppress paceyness. It should make us think that show standards allow attaching up to an incredible 700 or 800 grams per hoof (shoes up to about 500 grams and bell boots up to 300 grams).




Tölt ? the Classical Solution


At the beginning of the classical path to tölt is the forward down in walk. The horse stretches its back muscles and lifts the back allowing it to swing freely. If this forward down exercise is ridden correctly, the horse does not - as often stated ? end up on the forehand because the lifted and relaxed back is what actually allows the hind legs to also reach forward under the horse. In order to achieve collection later it is imperative to first show the horse the way to the depth.


Next are stretching exercises on a circle and laterally to stretch and supple all of the horse?s lateral muscles. The ultimate goal of lateral exercises is not the sideways stepping of the legs, but rather the bending of the horse?s neck and back, allowing the hind legs to step under and carry more weight, i.e. collection. Leg yielding which is often practiced with Icelandic horses does not have the same effect; it only loosens certain muscles.




Tölt training may begin when the following conditions are fulfilled: the horse is supple after the forward down and lateral work. Back/stomach and the hind end muscles are strong enough in walk that the horse will not hollow its back, even under the rider, and will swing it loosely. The hind legs can carry more weight by stepping further towards the centre of gravity (collection). A special saddle is not required and it is not necessary to position the saddle far back. With the preliminary training the horse will achieve the correct posture for tölt with the rider?s seat and leg aids alone: hip, knee and hock are bent and the hind legs step towards the centre of gravity. In this way the horse is lower in the back, its back can lift up and the head will come higher automatically; elevation in the front is achieved because the hind end is lower. Weight is carried by the bent joints and stronger muscles. The term elevation is a bit of a misnomer in the same way as for the exercise levade (elevation) where the horse is also required to be lower in the hind end instead of higher in the front.

With proper preparation according to classical principles the horse will not have a problem with any requirements necessary for tölt. This training method always follows the immediate skill level of the horse and will not ever push too far. The training plan has to adjust to each individual horse and not the other way around. As soon as there are any problems occurring in tölt, training has to retreat a step. In all likelihood the error already occurred during basic work and has to be corrected there.                                                                                                                              We must never forget while riding tölt that leg action alone is not enough; the tölt has to be beautiful, loose and expressive.


Additional Lessons


An Icelandic horse can explore the entire training scale up to high school and the schools above the ground; it is simply a matter of training. With this in mind we must not forget that training according to the principles of academical riding takes many years. The lessons alone are not the important factors but their use to the horse. If I decide to follow the classical training method with my horse, the question should not be, ?will my Icelandic horse ever learn the levade??, but instead one should go step by step and always ask, ?how does this lesson benefit my horse?? Even if a horse does not make it all the way through the high school lessons, it will have benefited from the chosen path.


The Equipment


In order to train a horse, proper equipment is essential. One of the mainstays of classical dressage training is the cavesson, a tool often forgotten these days. It is used when working in hand with the young horse and can also be used together with a bit when the horse is first started under saddle. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a good cavesson that will fit an Icelandic horse. Recently some models after a Portugese design ? with a well cushioned bicyle chain for the nose section ? are available and fit quite well and also allow fine manipulation.


When working the horse in hand or on a longe line, the cavesson has the great advantage that it has a ring right in front, allowing clear signals to position and bend head and neck. If a bridle with the bit is used to position neck and head, there is always some motion inherent in the equipment that contradicts the intention of positioning neck and head, and may thus cause braces in the head area. For the young horse, reins can be attached directly to the cavesson until it is used to a bit in the mouth, or in combination with a regular bridle. In this way the horse?s sensitive mouth can be taught gently, which is especially important for sensitive and reactive horses who may react too strongly to the bit as a teaching tool. The rider also learns to ride with four reins, distinguishing between rein contact to position and bend the neck, and bit contact to relax and supple the mouth. Another advantage of using the combination of bridle/cavesson is the fact that there will not be the need to use a thick training bit since only a percentage ? and a clearly measured amount - of the hand aids reach the bit. Many horses don?t like the thick metal in their mouth and react better to regular bits.


?Special? Icelandic saddle ? extra flat ? extra hard




Often it is the saddle that prevents horse and rider from communicating effectively and precisely. This is the case with the old tölt saddles still in use today, that are made after old Icelandic models. They are too hard, too flat and the channel is too narrow. Most of them have to be ridden with a crouper because they don?t sit well, which does not really solve the problem, but in fact creates new problems. The often stated comment they are ?close contact? may be correct, but often ignored are the disadvantages of such a design. [6] The hard pads press down hard on the horse?s back, inhibiting proper bloodflow to the back muscles, preventing their development. The long bars press into the loin area, creating disquiet in the horse, which often causes the rider to ? without noticing ? ride in a permanent lightened seat; correct riding is impossible.


Modern Saddles for Icelandic Horses




Modern saddles have a larger seat and are more cushioned. When correctly fitted they will work even with difficult back shapes and do not need a crouper. They allow good contact on the sides, and though the overall contact to the horse is not as close as for the saddles described above, they do not have the problems assoctiated with these other saddles and the rider can use subtle aids effectively.




For protection and against excessive wear shoes are mostly accepted as a necessity. Shoes and trim ? with respect to weight, position, angle and other factors - are handled according to orthopedic aspects. In addition, shoes for Icelandic horses are also used to influence beat in several gaits and the position of the legs (so that the hind legs pass the front legs during flying pace). In those situations, orthopedic considerations become secondary. We already mentioned that the shoes add up to 500 gram per foot. In addition extra long hooves, positions and angles are often employed. All of this may result in premature wear of the horse?s motion apparatus. Classically speaking, any of these mentioned extremes should be rejected. Differently weighted shoes in front and back can help the horse to find a clear beat in tölt, but one should keep in mind that shoes that are too heavy can throw off the horse?s overall balance, resulting in tension and braces in back and neck. Problems such as lack of action or lack of clear beat in tölt should always be remedied via training first; very often the rider?s poor seat causes beat problems.




[1] Aðalsteinsson, Reynir: Reynirs Islandpferde-Reitschule, Kosmos-Verlag 1998


[2] Branderup, Bent: Akademische Reitkunst, Cadmos-Verlag 1999


[3] Branderup, Bent: Barockes Reiten nach F.R. de la Guérinière, Cadmos-Verlag 2000


[4] Oberst Seunig, Waldemar: Von der Koppel bis zur Kapriole, Krüger-Verlag 1990


[5] De Kunnfy, Charles: Ethik im Dressursport, Kosmos-Verlag 1997


[6] Dr. Stodulka, Robert: Medizinische Reitlehre, 2006

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