SCHWUNG – Expanding the Frame

SCHWUNG – Expanding the Frame

Translation by Lynne Sprinsky of
Schwung – Rahmenerweiterung
by Walter Zettl

Schwung is best recognized in the forward movements of trot and canter, and transitions between the two. The walk is a striding foundation gait, but has no Schwung. Schwung is that phenomenon which, through developing strength that stems from increased driving with Kreuz and calves, “swings” through an oscillating back and through wither, neck and mouth into a flexibly carrying hand. Schwung travels back to the hindquarters without any interruption from the hand, or in the horse’s mouth, neck, wither or back. This cycle is repeated over and over.

We can see the importance of Schwung in the training of our horses in that our Old Masters placed Schwung as the fourth tier of the training scale. Without Schwung, nothing goes right.

It’s possible to have Schwung without collection, but never to have true collection without Schwung. This is true for every transition, turn, and lateral movement. Often we see a rider who goes beyond his horse’s limits and rides the horse too much forward. But speed has nothing to do with Schwung; on the contrary, when the horse is too quick, he loses the purity of his rhythm and his balance suffers; the contact becomes too heavy; he leans on the rider’s hand, becoming anxious and tense in his musculature; and relaxation and his trust in his rider and confidence in himself go out the window.

Another common error made in the attempt to develop Schwung is that the rider, through the use of strong leg and spur aids, tries to force his horse onto the bit. Again, the poor horse tenses his muscles, and the harmony between horse and rider is lost.  There we have a forced collection without Schwung. Coercion and force have no place in training and have never produced anything beautiful.

So what is the right way to develop Schwung? In my early training as a rider, I tried first and foremost to help the horse relax in mind and body. This Losgelassenheit is a subject that actually needs a description of its own.

But let me get back to the subject of Schwung. Whenever one of my students takes a walk break on long or loose reins, I always have the rider take up the contact again with the reminder that they’re now addressing the most sensitive part of the horse’s body (next to the back), so they must be very careful with their hands. When we drive the horse into our hand, this means that we must always drive more than we restrain. This isn’t easy for us hand-oriented humans. We always want to fix any problems in the front with our hands.

We want the horse to demonstrate a good, lively, but not hurried, walk, which should be ridden in such a way that we can, at any moment, immediately trot or canter on. And the trot and canter must be ridden so that any transition can be executed immediately. We should have the feeling that the walk is lively enough so that we could urge the horse fluidly into the trot using only a slight pelvic tilt (this is the concept of the concerted efforts of both gluteal muscles, seat bones, and coccyx) and increased pressure with the legs (this is another concept of the concerted effort of the thighs, knees, and calves) .

With all of this, it is important to pay attention to giving the aids in a well-balanced way, so that we don’t push the horse into the trot with strong, exaggerated aids. Once the horse finds itself in the trot tempo that is correct for him as an individual, we ride him back into the walk with active haunches. Shortly thereafter we pick up the trot again, and so forth. In this way, the horse develops Schwung almost invisibly. Only when these two transitions are harmonious, fluid, and full of Schwung should we begin to lengthen and shorten the steps of the trot. The two-beat nature of the trot must be maintained as both the frame and the length of the horse’s steps become shorter. The hindquarters must simultaneously become even more active. The horse’s energies are gathered up in a way that uses hardly any strength, so that merely by yielding both hands forward slightly, we can encourage the horse to lengthen his frame as is required (this happens throughout his whole body).  Only a few steps later, this Schwung  is captured by means of a light restraint with the hand and the deepening of the heels (the increased weight that the rider puts in the saddle when he deepens his heel is felt clearly by the horse in his back). Sitting too heavily will be uncomfortable for the horse and cause him to drop his back away. Merely deepening the heels also bulks the calves and drives the hindquarters under so they can take more weight off the forehand.

Once the lightly restraining hand has captured the Schwung, the hand softens a bit, but without losing contact. We can only stay in the lengthened trot only as long as the horse is able to balance the thrust from his hindquarters. Only after the horse is able to maintain both the more powerful steps and the purity of the trot will he not find it difficult to do a few steps of medium or extended trot without losing his relaxation, rhythm, or Schwung.

The horse’s particular, individual tempo must also be coordinated with his particular length of frame. A horse can only set his front foot down on the spot toward which his nose is pointing. Thus, the longer the step, the longer the horse’s frame must be.

It’s important that the rider always and everywhere have enough “feel” to be able to bring the extended trot back to collected trot without having to use strong aids to do it. The rider’s will or intention is critical in this vein. People say it can move mountains.

Just as we develop Schwung in trot through the use of many and frequent transitions, we can do the same with the canter. Again it is important that the horse have a good, lively, but not hurried, four-beat walk rhythm and give us the feeling that we could instantly canter on. Only when the rider can give the aids in the right moment will the very first canter “jump” be filled with Schwung.

At first, almost all riders have trouble giving the aids at the right moment. If the rider nails it, the horse jumps immediately into the desired canter. But if the rider misses the moment, giving the aid too early or too late, the horse either gets the wrong lead or delays until it’s physically possible for him to get the correct one.

Let’s assume that we’re riding on the left rein and want to pick up the left (or inside) canter. Again, it’s so important that the horse display a lively walk. If the rider doesn’t have a little helper on the sidelines who can call out to him when the right moment happens, then he’ll have to look at the right (outside) shoulder, and give the aid when that shoulder starts moving rearward. At that same moment, the right (outside) hind leg is grounded and able to strike off into the left canter.

The first jump of the canter must be just as powerful (Schwung-full) as the last. Every stride of the canter is a new canter depart. In the canter, the rider must always have the feeling that he is riding up the side of a mountain. “Ride up in heaven, not down in Hell,” I always tell my students during a lesson.

When the rider has learned, through frequent canter departs, to find the right moment, he’s not allowed to look at the shoulders any more, but must rely on his developing sense of “feel” to know when to apply the canter aids.

In the same way, a student must learn how to give the aids for the down transition from canter. Think of a rocking horse, which moves first down in the rear while going up in the front. There’s a similar feeling in the canter. The right moment to bring the horse down from canter is when the horse goes up in the front; that’s the moment when the hindquarters are the furthest underneath his body.

So this is the moment to bring the horse back to the walk with a slightly restraining hand and one or more (depending on his level of training) half halts on the inside rein.

Why give the half halts on the inside rein? The reason for this is to interrupt the canter footfall. If we give the half halts on the outside rein, the horse will understand these as collecting aids and compress himself but not make the transition. We use outside half halts to improve the “jump” in the canter and to collect it. In these cases the horse should step up under himself with greater Schwung.

Through frequent canter departs that activate the hindquarters, the canter is improved. Then the half-halts preceding the walk can prepare the horse so that the last “jump” meets the now-restraining hand, and the horse settles lightly into the walk like a snowflake falling to the earth. That walk must immediately be so energetic that the horse can, after only a few steps, immediately pick up the canter again. It’s very important that the horse display a correct walk between the down transition and the new canter depart. If the horse gets tense, we must either go on to a different exercise, or stay in the walk on a curving line until the gait regains its correctness. Only then should we resume the canter exercises.

When the horse has reached the stage where it can take the correct canter easily after only a few trot steps, and can be brought back to a good walk after only a few canter strides, then we can begin developing the lengthening of the canter. Here again we must pay attention to lengthening the steps by means of the accompanying lengthening of the whole frame, and not by chasing the horse forward. We can only ask the horse to lengthen as long as he remains under control (on the rider’s seat). Every canter “jump” is a new depart through which we repeatedly capture the Schwung and allow it expression through the lengthening of the frame. In extended canter, the utmost lengthening of the frame is reached. Here again the rule is that we can only ride freely forward as long as the horse stays reliably on the aids and can at any time and in any place be brought back (collected) or asked to lengthen again.

In closing, I’d like to remind all riders once again that all transitions must flow harmoniously into one another. The less visible the rider’s aids are, the more easily the horse will comply with them. Any exaggeration must be avoided.

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Walter Zettl

I believe in dressage as art, and I have practiced that art throughout my professional life.”
-Walter A. Zettl

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