Let's say you and your horse are doing pretty well in all your movements.
Let's also say that you've got a good grasp of the aids, and are using them effectively.
So you do well, especially if you show, but even if you don't. You ride almost imperceptibly and your horse moves along with accuracy.
You could learn new skills. Challenge yourself and your horse with movements you haven't done before, that require more collection or self-carriage.
Or, you could work on what you already know - only make it better.
In dressage, we often talk about this evasive concept of "brilliance". Lots of people can get the job done, but not everyone can achieve "brilliance".
It's more than just putting down a pattern, although the pattern is an essential component.
It's more than the movements, although the movements are enhanced by brilliance.
You can't take your eyes off brilliance. You somehow become captivated by the performance in front of you. Time stands still, and you find yourself teleported into an equine-driven story that mesmerizes you and stops your breath.
The rider almost seems to disappear. The horse seems to love every second.
Brilliance can be demonstrated in a show environment, competitive activity, or just in your back yard. You can find brilliance in the nearest riding ring, in any discipline and in any riding style.
But the key question is: how do you develop it?
The First Step: Lateral Flexion and Bend
Maintaining a steady lateral position in the direction of movement is the first key to relaxation for the horse.
Flexion refers to the horse looking in the direction of travel. It is achieved by turning the head in toward the arc of the turn, at the amount needed. So if you are on a large circle, only a small amount of flexion is needed.
The inside hand (and rein) is responsible for flexion. Make sure your own shoulders are "open" into the direction you're going in. Don't point your shoulders left while riding right! Use small finger squeezes to encourage your horse to look into the direction of travel. The smaller the circle, the more the horse should be looking in.
Bend happens in the body, and is the result of the horse "wrapping around" your inside leg. So bend is initiated by your inside leg. The horse's body should be bent into the turn pretty much to the same degree as the horse's head. So a large circle requires a fairly small bend while smaller circles should get the most bend through the horse's body.
Position your inside leg at the girth, and your outside leg behind the girth. Encourage your horse to shift away from your inside leg as you apply pressure. Your seat should also be pointing into the direction of movement and you should have more weight on the inside seat bone.
But there's more to brilliance than just bend and flexion.
The Second Step: Longitudinal Flexion
This is a fancy term for developing "roundness" in your horse. To me, longitudinal means "over the top line". The more flexion you have over the back, the rounder your horse moves and feels. The horse reaches deeper with the hind legs, the back rises (and drops equally in rhythm with the stride), the neck elevation rises and the neck gets thicker near the withers. You might see the neck muscles begin to contract and relax in the movement (as opposed to not being able to see any muscle movement at all).
Essentially, your horse begins to collect, even if only a little.
How much your horse can step underneath the body with his hind legs dictates how round he can get. The rounder he can get, the freer he can move in his body, and the better he can carry your weight. Roundness is an important part of "freeness", meaning that he can allow the energy you initiate come through his body and into the movement itself.
Longitudinal flexion dictates how flashy the horse can look. Even the flattest horse can develop animated, sweeping movement when he begins to learn to round.
Develop better roundness through energizing the horse with legs and seat, and half-halting and releasing in time so that the horse doesn't just move faster or change gait. Rather, you want him to move bigger, stronger, rounder (you have to ride that way in your seat too).
Third step: Activity
Your horse can have lateral and longitudinal flexion but still be a little short of "brilliance". That is because there is another key component that acts as the icing on the cake.
Here's one tip: you can probably never have enough activity in your horse's movement. So just when you think you have enough energy and bounce, you can probably add a shade more.
More movement, more energy, more freedom. (psst!! Not faster!)
Even if you work at a relatively slow pace (think western pleasure), you can still encourage more activity. Keep the flexions and work on allowing, or even developing, your horse's ability to move freely, especially in the front end.
The energy should not be stifled, but rather let through the body.
There should be no tension - in the topline, the underline, or anywhere else. The horse should look active but relaxed at the same time.
And the clincher - if all this falls into place together at the same time, he will appear happy. Think snorts, floppy ears, bright eyes, soft poll and jaw. Enthusiastic. Interested.
And What About You?
Well, the beauty of riding in brilliance is that all the attention is taken away from you. Your job is to disappear into the horse, becoming only a prop as he does his thing.
Of course, we all know there is a lot more to it than that. But that is what it looks like.
One more note: brilliance doesn't happen every time you ride, although you can encourage it using the three steps above.
It doesn't even necessarily happen over the course of a whole ride. You might find brilliance one movement at a time, or minutes at a time. Don't worry. Keep working toward adding together moments of brilliance until you can maintain it longer and longer. It is a skill that can be developed - both of you can work toward it.
Can you think of other aspects to achieving brilliance in riding? Let us know in the comments below.
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Read more here:
Where Does Your Half-Halt Start? Here Are Four Suggestions: Under most circumstances, the half-halt shouldn’t start from your hands.
Interpreting the Half-Halt: The more half-halts we include in our ride, the easier the horse can negotiate changes of gait, weight and balance.
What Is A Neck Bend? And What To Do About It: The body continues on the same original arc, but you’ve got that head and neck pointing in the direction you want to go!
An Easy Way To Turn In Horseback Riding: Instead of focusing on each and every body part and aid component, morph yourself into one whole.