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Flatwork: The Fight Against Boredom Part 2 - Loops & Serpentines

The more supple I can get my horse – so that it is willing and able to bend/turn/move-off and has improved balance – the more likely it is that I will have a nice and safe ride. Endless circling in the school is boring for anybody, but we can make schooling a lot more fun.

In my previous article, I wrote about riding circles and related exercises. Today, I would like to look at loops and serpentines. You can find both exercises in various forms in dressage tests. They are fantastic for improving the ability of the horse to bend, and therefore improve suppleness. The frequent changes of rein (and therefore bend of the horse) are good for horses that like to “switch off” and lose concentration. They are great exercises for encouraging a good rhythm, and they improve balance in horses that like to rush, vary the speed or tend to wobble a little. Loops and serpentines help the rider to improve coordination and the timing of giving aids.

SIMPLE LOOPS

After the corner at the beginning of the long side, the rider turns at the first letter, as if they wants to turn onto the diagonal line. After they leave the long side, they need to change the bend of the horse - if riding it in rising trot, the rider also needs to change leg. They then leave the diagonal line and ride a loop to a point that lies parallel to the middle of the long side. This point is either 5m, 8m or 10m away from E or B. The shallower the loop, the longer the rider stays parallel with the long side. If the loop goes all the way to X, the rider goes straight for only one horse length. Then they need to get back onto the other diagonal, change leg and the bend of the horse, and return to the last letter before the corner.

This exercise rides easier in a 20m x 60m arena, because the changes of rein are further apart and the horse doesn't have to bend as much.

AIDING (because there is a lot to remember):

  • The inside rein flexes the horse.
  • The outside rein allows the horse to flex, therefore, the rider’s hand moves slightly forward but, at the same time, has to lead the horse along the line of the loop and control the outside shoulder of the horse.
  • The inside leg is active at the girth.
  • The outside leg is behind the girth, where it helps to keep the bend of the horse and keeps the horse’s back legs in the same track as the front legs.
  • The inside shoulder is slightly taken back and the inside hip is slightly moved forward; the rider sits more on the inside seat bone.

WHAT’S IMPORTANT:

All changes of flexion and bend of the horse must be gentle!

Simple loops help to test the quality of the contact and the straightness of the horse. It is immediately apparent if the horse bends better to one side than to the other. We can also check how the horse reacts to our leg aids. If he doesn’t listen to them, he won't want to leave the fence. That’s why it is important to prepare the exercise.

Ideally, we start with half halts before we ride the second corner of the short side, because once we have ridden through it, it is too late. In the corner we need to make sure we flex the horse; by using our inside leg at the girth and putting more weight on the inside seat bone, we bend him/her. Our outside leg has to watch the back end of the horse.

We keep this flexion/bend even after the corner, where the horse needs to continue straight along the track for one more horse length or so (depending on how deep we rode into the corner). As soon as the horse’s nose reaches the first letter, we start turning. Ideally, the horse leaves the fence when its shoulder reaches the letter. After riding this turn, we adjust the rein length so that we can change the flexion and bend to the other side. We push with our new inside leg and put more weight onto the new inside seat bone. If in rising trot, we change leg.

Now we start the loop on the other rein; we lead the horse along the line of the loop. We have to know exactly where we are going. After this loop, just before we get back to the fence, we change flexion and bend again. Ideally, we try to get back about 1m before the letter, so our knee is at the height of the letter when we pass it. Then we have to ride through the next corner.

COMMON MISTAKES:

  • The horse goes against the hand of the rider, tenses his/her neck or goes too much on the forehand and rushes.
  • The horse is not flexed and bent to the correct side.
  • The rider changes the flexion and bend of the horse too early or too late.
  • The loop is too shallow.
  • The rider doesn’t bend the horse enough.
  • The horse falls out over its shoulder.
  • The rider doesn’t keep the horse in an outline.

To ride a shallow loop, we can place poles like this (see picture).

Place the poles on the left at 1m apart and the ones on the right at 1.3m apart. The horse will pay more attention if we ride through the poles on one side and over them on the other. We don’t have to ride the loops simply in walk or trot; we can, for example, add transitions in between poles or, for more advanced riders, we can ride the left loop in canter and practise counter canter.

The following photos show how we practised riding a shallow loop, using poles and markers, at a recent clinic I held.

DOUBLE LOOP

As you can see from the title, this time we ride 2 loops. It is not an exercise that can be found in dressage tests but it is amazing for improving suppleness of the horse and feel for the rider.

The rider has to really concentrate to manage to steer their horse; the horse changes flexion and bend 4 times (!) so can quickly loose balance. In a small arena, the loops are ridden only 2.5m away from the fence, whereas in a large arena they would be ridden 5m away. A well ridden double loop will give you an amazing feel – it will make you understand why people like dressage.

When teaching this exercise, I find that most people find it hard to visualize it, so as to ride it accurately. That’s why I like to help with poles and cones.

I place poles and cones (as seen in the picture):

  • 1 pole 9m away from E or B (so the rider can do a 10m loop).
  • Another pole 7m from E or B, for an 8m loop.
  • And another pole at 4m, for a 5m loop.
  • 2 cones just past K and H (or F and M), to remind the rider to turn.

On some occasions I use poles and on others I use cones to show the line of the loops.

SERPENTINES

A serpentine with 5 loops is an exercise that shows the level of rider and horse. When I get a new rider for training, this will be one of the first exercises I will ask them to ride, because just by watching I will be able to answer the following questions:

  • Is the rider able to orientate themselves in the school? Do they ride the loops accurately or just somehow?
  • Does the rider correctly change flexion and bend?
  • Does the rider know to change leg on the center line?
  • Looking at how the rider sits on bend lines: can they keep their shoulders parallel to the horse’s shoulders or are they crooked?
  • What is the quality of the contact? Does the rider lead their horse with feel or are they arguing with the horse?
  • Does the rider understand diagonal aiding? Do they use inside leg to outside rein?
  • Is the horse bending well; are they falling out over the shoulder or with their haunches? Are they willing to flex? How is the rhythm?

When riding serpentines, it is necessary to remember a saying from Gandhi: “the path is the goal”

Riding serpentines encourages the horse to soften; frequent changes of rein help to mobilise the poll and spine and loosen up muscles in the neck and body. In every loop, the horse puts more weight on its inside hind leg, so it is a suppling and strengthening exercise. Riding serpentines also helps to improve the natural crookedness of the horse, therefore helping straightness.

There are many ways to ride serpentines!

When riding serpentines, we can use poles and/or cones again to better visualize which way to go. You could even put 2 to 4 trotting poles on the center line, instead of the cones, to help improve balance and straightness.

We can ride 3 or 4 loops, or even 5 or 6 loops in a large school. We always start and end at A or C. A serpentine is ridden as a series of half circles, evenly spread out in the school. These half circles are connected by straight lines. When riding serpentines this way, we need to straighten the horse up after each half circle, and then at the end of the straight line, where the next half circle begins, we bend the horse again. If the number of loops is even-numbered, we change the rein. If we ride serpentines in rising trot, we need to change leg every time we cross the center line.

Another way to ride serpentines is by connecting the loops. We cross the center line diagonally and the loops become pear shaped. We change flexion and bend when crossing the center line, but the horse has to pretty much change flexion and bend straight away, there is no time to straighten up first. This makes the exercise harder, but is good for suppleness and flexibility of the horse and dexterity of the rider.

Another option is to ride serpentines only on one side of the school. This means that they have to fit between the long side and the center line. This requires more bending around the rider’s inside leg and more accuracy of the rider.

Try to add circles!

We can also add circles. On the center line, before we change flexion and bend, we ride a small circle. If we ride a loop on the left rein, we ride a small circle to the left, if we ride a loop on the right rein, we ride a small circle to the right.

We can ride serpentines without change of flexion and bend. We keep the original flexion and bend for the whole time, and we can do that in walk, trot or canter. This is fantastic for improving “througness” of the horse and coordination of the rider's aids.

Serpentines and transitions

Ride transitions when crossing the center line: walk – halt, trot – walk, trot – halt, canter – trot, canter – walk. Transitions improve suppleness and obedience; rider and horse learn not to rush the change of rein, wait for a half halt, etc.

There are many variations for the canter too. For example, we can ride one loop in canter and two loops in trot, or two loops in canter and one in trot. The rider really has to pay attention and learn to ride the trot – canter transition with a plan, not just somehow.

Aiding for riding serpentines, 3 loops:

  • Every loop has to start with a half halt, to make sure your horse pays attention and to check if it is on your aids.
  • After riding a loop, adjust the rein length so that you can change the flexion and bend to the other side.
  • On every loop, your inside leg has to be active on the girth, your outside leg is behind the girth, where it is acting as a reminder for the horse not to move its haunches out. You have to put more weight on your inside seat bone.

I hope you have fun trying these exercises!

Mariana Broucher
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 14-07-2020
Mariana is a BHS accredited coach who originally qualified as an instructor and judge in Germany and The Czech Republic. She is also a fully qualified and insured Bowen practitioner. Having ridden competitive dressage up to IM 1, Mariana was Czech Young Rider Dressage Champion five times. With over 20 years of experience teaching internationally and traveling regularly to the Czech Republic to teach dressage clinics, Mariana enjoys teaching riders of all ages and abilities.