Serpentines are a great exercise for horse and rider, but must be ridden correctly to get the right results. Dressage trainer Amanda Brewer explains how they are done.
Serpentines are a super way to teach a rider the feel of subtle aids and to improve the horse's gaits, outline and suppleness.
A serpentine is a series of half circles starting in the middle of one short side of the school. Horse and rider complete a series of semi-circles, changing the rein each time they cross the centre of the school. The serpentine starts in the middle of one short side of the school and finishes in the middle of the opposite short side.
You can ride a serpentine with any number of loops, as you can see from our diagram of a three-loop and a four-loop serpentine.
What is important is that you ride each half-circle the way you would ride a correct full circle. When riding any circle or semi-circle, the bend should be around your inside leg, with the inside rein directing the horse. He should step softly into the outside rein, with your outside leg supporting him and controlling his quarters.
In this sequence of pictures you can see Sarah ride the end of one loop on the right rein, straighten Belvoir for one stride in the middle of the school and change the rein for the next loop.
As you change direction over the centre of the school, think of your horse being straight, or parallel to the short side, for one horse's length. This is the moment when you should change your weight to the new direction and, if trotting, change your diagonal. By changing your weight you are helping the horse and this is of real importance when riding any change of bend, especially when riding a young horse.
As you approach the centre line, think of changing the bend and direction aids so that the inside rein becomes your new outside rein and ask the horse to bend around your new inside leg, with the new outside leg supporting his quarters. Take care as you change bend and direction that you really do change all your aids to ask for the new bend, and don't just use your reins.
The serpentine must be regular and fluent. As with riding circles, try and keep the same rhythm in both directions, working hard to keep the bend and suppleness around the inside leg - especially on the horse's stiff side - and be careful that he is not falling out through his outside shoulder and body when changing direction.
As with a circle, follow a true line and make sure you divide the school evenly into however many loops you are riding. With a three-loop serpentine, the first and last loop start and finish in the middle of the short side. The middle loop should touch B and E with the B to E line dividing the middle loop in exactly half. Once you have mastered three correct loops and can feel the horse really able to change his bend, keeping the rhythm and impulsion, you can ride as many loops as you want but remember to keep them all an even size. Make sure they are not bigger on your horse's easier side and smaller on the stiffer side!
Once you have mastered riding serpentines in trot and the trot feels the same on both reins, then you really are on the way to having a truly supple horse.
As you progress, try some variations - maybe riding a trot-walk-trot transition each time you cross the centre line. As both you and your horse improve, ride some steps in sitting trot, keeping the same quality trot as you had in rising, until you can ride the serpentine with many loops in sitting trot. Serpentines are usually ridden in trot but, in more advanced dressage work, they can be cantered, often with a simple change (a canter-walk-canter transition) over the centre line. These then progress to flying changes over the centre line or counter canter loops.
AMANDA BREWER has competed at a high level in eventing, show jumping and dressage. She was event trained by Captain Mark Phillips and has received dressage training from Conrad Schumacher, Ellen Bontje and Nicole Uphoff.