I was taught this riding-a-square exercise on my young horse at the walk 30 years ago by the assistant instructor of Roy Yates, student of Charles O. Williamson, author of the classic book “Breaking and Training the Stock Horse (and Teaching Basic Principles of Dressage)”. For more information about this lineage please see https://www.kipmistral.com/charles-owen-williamson-on-collection-from-range-bred-broncs-to-high-school-dressage/
In these days I had no idea that the exercise was connected to the French classical masters and ultimately to the work of François Robichon de La Guérinière. Nevertheless I was impressed at the time and have been impressed since that horses seem to immediately enjoy this exercise that is quiet at the walk, and gives them a chance to refine their focus to the aids, learning to smoothly turn the shoulders and cross over to the inside, and become more precise in their movements. It is…
La Guérinière’s Square
Writes Michel Henriquet in his fine book “Henriquet on Dressage,” under the heading of “La Guérinière’s Square,” “Today, the expression “volte” is commonly assumed to designate a circle of 6 meters [approximately 20 feet] diameter. In the 16th century, however, this term also applied to a movement on two tracks, haunches-out or haunches-in, which a horse described on a square, each side measuring three horse’s lengths. This exercise can already be found in the work of Salomon de la Broue in 1593; it continued to be honored two centuries later by the School of Versailles, and is perfectly described by La Guérinière. His sketches and his text describe squares of about a dozen meters on each side. One covered them at a walk, trot, canter, and at the passage.
This exercise supples the shoulders and haunches of horses, while also giving them a sensitivity to the aids for lateral movements. Indeed, if the horse maintains an equal angle and movement with respect to the forelegs and hind legs on all sides of the square, this is not the same at the corners, where one must set either the haunches or the shoulders in place, depending upon whether one covers the square haunch or head towards the outside. It is when one arrives at the bisection of the angle that one sets the “pivoting” part.
This exercise is broached only on gifted horses, who are already quite suppled on both one and two tracks and at the three gaits. It sets the final seal on their brilliance.” (Michel Henriquet and Catherine Durand, “Henriquet on Dressage,” p. 242, Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, Vermont, 2004. By permission of the publisher.)
Going further into the technique of La Guérinière, the following text is excerpted from “A Treatise Upon Horsemanship,” François Robichon de La Guérinière, translated by Captain William Frazer, pgs 118-120, Hircarrah Press, Calcutta, 1801.)
The Changes of Hands and the Manner of Doubling
“What is commonly called change of hands, is the line which a horse describes when he goes from the right to the left , or from left to the right, and as this lesson is partly founded on doubling, we shall first explain what is meant by doubling.”
“The manège, or place of exercise, ought to be an oblong square, and dividing this into other squares, forms what is called doubling large or doubling narrow.
This doubling, whether wide or narrow, as the rider pleases, makes a horse attentive to the aids, and ready to obey the hand and heel; but the difficult part is to turn the shoulders at the end of the side of the square, without displacing the croup. When the horse turns at the end of a side of a square , he must form a quarter of a circle with his shoulders, but his haunches must remain in the same place; in this action the inner hind leg ought to remain in one place, and the other three, which are the outer hind leg and the two fore -legs, turn circularly round it, so that it serves as a pivot.
When the shoulders have reached the line of the haunches, the horse is to go on straight between the heels to the other corner of the square, and the lesson must be repeated at the end of every corner of the square, except those formed by the meeting of the two walls; in such a corner the haunches are to follow the shoulders upon the same line that they passed over in the angle of the corner, and at the time that the shoulders are turned upon the new line.
From the squares at the four corners, and the middle of the manège, are derived all the proportions observed in a well-regulated manège, these establish the order that is to be the guide in the changes of hands, either wide or narrow, in volts, and in demivolts.
The changes of hands are of four kinds, the change large, and the change narrow , the counter change, and the change reversed.
The change large is the line which a horse describes in going from one wall to another, either in one tread or in two treads. The ground plan will give an idea of the proportion to be observed in changing large. In two treads it is to be observed, that in the passage when the change of hands is made, the head and shoulders must go first as in croup to the wall, with this difference, that the horse must advance a little every step he takes, which gives great liberty to the outer shoulder, and keeps the horse in strict obedience to the hand and heels.
The change narrow commences at the end of the first line of the narrow double, and ends at the wall in a line parallel to the line of the change large, as the plan shows; some horsemen very improperly confound the change narrow with the demivolt. At the end of a change, whether large or narrow , the shoulders, and haunches must arrive together, which is called closing the change; that is the four legs of the horse must be all upon the line of the wall, before he goes off to the other hand.
In the plan the change to the right only is laid down, because it is easy to conceive the figure of the same lines for the left. The counter change consists of two lines, the first is the beginning of a change large, and as soon as the horse has reached the middle of the place, instead of going on to the same hand, he must walk forward a step or two, and as soon as his head is placed for the other hand, he is to be carried back in an oblique line to the wall he quitted, and then continue to go to the same hand as he was going before the change.
The change reversed begins like the counter change, but in the middle of the second oblique line, instead of going to the wall, the shoulder is to be reversed, to go to the other hand, see the ground plan in which the reversing of the shoulder is laid down; so that when he returns from the wall from which he set out to the right, he is found to be to the left. All these changes, counter changes, and reversed changes, are made to prevent horses from working by rote, which is the fault of those that work more from memory than from the hand and heel.”