Training Masterclass: the correct frame

Dressage rider and trainer Greg Smith helps one young rider and her off-the-track thoroughbred with softness and developing the correct frame for their eventing tests. Images by Ana Rattray

The NZ Horse & Pony Training Masterclass is in association with Equitak Excell

Trainer Greg Smith and rider Darryll Cole are working on softness and suppleness

1. Free and Easy: warming up

Greg explains that his focus with young thoroughbreds like this one is to get the horse moving freely and naturally.

To work in, he encourages Darryll to let Richie stretch over the back, warming up slowly. “Keep your elbows by your sides and push those hands forward. See if you can get him to take the bit away from you. Push him round and down,” says Greg. “Let him really swing and loosen up.”

After a bit of trot, Greg tells Darryll to go into canter and again let the horse stretch down (below). “Have a little canter each way, just pushing him out and forward. Let him canter along, loosening the body up.”

Greg explains that when he is warming up, he doesn’t completely drop the reins – he still likes to have a bit of contact. Not every horse will stretch to warm up, because some just don’t want to take the rein forward. “Each individual horse is different, but I do try to push them down a little bit so they come up through the back. I like to make them really loose. My horses get used to doing it, so they all come out and stretch straight away. I still make the contact go forward and keep them in front of the leg, but I just let them roll around.”

2. Controlling every part of the body

After warming up, Greg tells Darryll to pick up her reins and ride a circle in walk. “Bring him up, leave him out in front of you and think leg to hand,” says Greg. “Two legs, two hands, push him forward.”

He then gets Darryll to ride a bit of shoulder-fore on the circle, using the outside rein to turn the shoulder to the inside.

“I just want him to loosen up,” explains Greg. “Can she ride shoulder-fore and then go straight again? Can she ask for quarters-in? If it’s done softly, it just breaks his body up, so she’s in control of every part of his body.”

Greg reminds Darryll to keep offering the rein forward, so she feels that he’s walking from her leg up to the hand and taking her forward.

“Because he’s only at Level 1/Level 2, he doesn’t need to be up and tight and round – not that he should ever be that anyway,” explains Greg. “You need to think about having him poll-high, but also getting him to poke the nose out a bit more, so he’s longer in the neck.”

3. Riding transitions

Greg gets Darryll to pop up into trot and ride some ‘almost’ transitions. He tells her to slow the trot down and think about walking, but then trot forwards again. She does this three times, and on the third time she actually follows through with the downwards transition to walk. “So he starts to really tune in and listen to you,” explains Greg.

In the downwards transition, Greg doesn’t want Darryll to pull at all; instead she should squeeze her inner thighs as she asks for the walk. “You want to feel that he takes you forward into it and then really marches. Put a bit more leg on and tell him to take the nose out, because as you start to slow he’s thinking about sucking back. That’s why we do transition after transition, to make it better and better.”

Greg explains that he wants Darryll to push her hands out in front of her, get the horse in front of the leg and use her core and her body to do the transitions, rather than grabbing at the horse.  “The more transitions we do, the more the horse will be inclined to stay out there and carry himself.”

Greg then gets Darryll to ‘ride large’ around the arena in trot, riding a bit of forward and back. As she comes into the corners, he tells her to sit up and make a half-halt with her body, leaning back a bit and thinking ‘wait for me’. Then she can trot on again, remembering to push Richie’s neck out in front of him and maintain a slight shoulder-fore position.

As Darryll brings the trot back slower, she should try to make the hind legs a bit quicker, and then push and go again. “Don’t get busy in the rein. Think about closing the leg and him staying out in front of you, so the whole time he’s just on a balanced contact,” says Greg.

He is quite happy with Richie’s frame for this level (left). “Sometimes at Level 1 the riders get the horses too low,” he says.

“The big warmbloods get away with it more, because they are so expressive, but this is a young horse and he’s in a lovely little frame for the level he’s doing. She just needs to keep pushing that nose out and then he gets looser.”


4. Follow the nose: a bending exercise

The next exercise Greg gets Darryll to ride is a bending one, to work on suppleness. First, he has Darryll ride a three-loop serpentine, reminding her that in the 60x40m arena this is literally three half-20m circles joined together. “As you cross the centreline, think of making a little half-halt with your body and get the new flexion. Push him off the new inside leg into the new outside rein,” says Greg.

With the serpentine flowing, Greg then tells Darryll to ride a 10m circle in each serpentine loop, being careful to turn her horse off the outside rein. He explains it’s okay if Richie slows down on the 10m circle, because he’s young and needs to work on his balance. “This exercise is designed so the horse just keeps turning, turning, turning, and following the nose,” says Greg. “If I have a bit of a hot horse I do this exercise because it zones them out; they just have to follow their nose and go off the inside leg.”

5. Sideways steps: leg yield

After a walk break, it’s time for Darryll to pick Richie back up into working trot and ride some leg-yield. Greg tells her to make a nice 10m half-circle to the right in the bottom corner, turning up the centreline and leg-yielding across to the left, to H (above).

“Go straight up the centreline first, then ask for a little bit of right flexion and let that left shoulder lead,” explains Greg. “You need to look up the arena to H. Don’t lean to the left. Think about keeping your weight to the right, so you can push him off your right leg. You don’t have to push your leg back to make him go; just push it on the girth and make him step across.” Darryll can also give a little tickle with the whip to encourage Richie to really cross his hind leg over, he says.

He gets Darryll to mix up the exercise by riding a couple of steps sideways, then a couple of steps forward before going sideways again. “Just so you’re always in control and he doesn’t run away from you.”

This exercise is repeated in the other direction, with Greg reminding Darryll to keep her hands balanced and still.

“I just want you to push your hands forward and actually forget about the horse being on the bit. As long as he’s off the leg, that will come,” says Greg. “Everyone can roll the horse’s head down, but I try to think about the horse carrying himself.”

6. Working the canter transitions

After another short walk break, Greg wants to look at the canter. First though, he gets Darryll to practise picking Richie up after the free walk a few times, so he doesn’t get fizzy when she collects him again. “You want to teach him that you can take the rein back and the walk doesn’t change. He’s not to anticipate – he has to wait for you to give him the command to trot. Slowly pick him up, squeeze the leg and just think ‘stay with me’,” explains Greg.

Moving into the canter, Greg gets Darryll to ride some trot-canter transitions. “I’m not fussed about him being totally on the bit. I just want him in front of the leg, so when you ask him to canter he jumps to canter,” says Greg. “The first transition to canter is always a little bit hairy.”

Greg wants Darryll to think about Richie going off the leg, into her hand, taking her forward. She should also get the trot re-established between the canter transitions. “Don’t let him canter on again straight away. Establish your trot again, so that it’s always a good transition. Don’t accept bad transitions.”

Within the canter, Greg asks Darryll if she can stretch Richie down a little bit. “Give him the rein and push him down, see if he can stretch that neck and relax a bit more,” says Greg. “Do half a circle like that and then take him up back up again, so you’re slowly starting to work on transitions in the canter as well.”

When Richie falls out of canter into trot, Greg tells Darryll to take her time and get the trot balanced before asking for canter again. “You’re in a hurry to fix it, but we’re only training, so get your trot back and make a better transition.”

Greg gets Darryll to go large and push the canter forwards (above). “Let him lope around. Think about being on a trampoline; push your feet off the pedals and make him push up underneath his stomach, so he’s rounding and pushing up underneath you. And then slow down again; just sit up and squeeze him back to you.”

The lesson ends with a nice trot stretch and Greg reminding Darryll to keep her hands still. “Just let the rhythm slow a little bit and see if he can push the head down and take the bit out and let go of his back. The stretch is really going to lift him over the back and make him push behind the saddle, which makes the muscles stronger. You don’t want to throw away the contact; you want him to take the nose down and round, so he starts to swing a bit more.”


I do lots of transitions and lots of turning with the young horses, so the horse just follows its nose. I like to keep everything basic and don’t worry that it’s not always on the bit, as long as the horse is in front of the leg.

Don’t freak out if the horse drops out of canter, and think you must canter again straight away. Re-group and then make the transition.

Every transition should be for a 10. Try and work your way to a better transition, instead of just cantering around.

Dressage needs to look as if you’re not doing anything at all. If you do have to do something, be clever at hiding it. But if the horse is trained enough, you really just sit there and steer.


GregRichie is a really nice type for a thoroughbred and he’s very willing. He’s just a young horse, so it’s about teaching him to have manners, and walk, trot and canter in a nice frame. He has to just stay out there at the end of the rein and carry himself. I try not to let Darryll get too carried away with everything being perfect, and instead we just do transitions to make it better and better. Darryll needs to learn to sit still, keep her hands still and ride the horse leg to hand, push it forward.  I’ve taught her a few times now and they are just getting better each time.

DarrylThe thing I like best about Greg as a trainer is probably his simplicity – he doesn’t make things too complicated. He doesn’t just give everybody the same lesson. Greg has improved my whole position, so I ride more like a dressage rider on the flat, and not an event rider. The main thing he corrected was me fiddling with my hands. Your natural instinct is to take a pull in the downward transitions – I just have to remember not to and trust my horse more. Richie was so nice and soft in this lesson. He goes really well with lots of transitions; otherwise he just switches off. I finally got my leg-yielding more established, with Richie stepping across. We’ve struggled with leg-yield and I tend to try and twist my body, but Greg just told me to sit still and straight so I could use my inside leg, again making it quite simple.


Auckland-based Greg has won a number of national titles in dressage. He spent seven years in the UK, including three years with Carl Hester. He is firm friends with Charlotte Dujardin and was instrumental in organising Charlotte’s trips to New Zealand. Naturally, Greg trains with Charlotte when she visits, as well as Vanessa Way and Saskia Ostermeier.

  • This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of NZ Horse & Pony