If your horse is strung out at the trot or is ‘downhill’ when loping, it’s not only uncomfortable for you, it’s also uncomfortable for your horse. These problems are the result of tension, imbalance and poor posture. The good news is that they can be corrected with simple riding exercises that don’t require any gadgets.
The foundation for all gaits is relaxation, balance and rhythm. Without relaxation, the horse cannot be focused, balanced or maintain a consistent rhythm. With relaxation, the horse can begin to use his hindquarters, core and back, which improve his balance and his way of going.
The first step with any training or behavioural issue is to determine the source of the problem. Eliminate any possible physical problem or discomfort in the body. Check that the saddle and bit fit correctly. These steps may require the help of a professional such as your veterinarian, a body worker, farrier, and saddle fitter.
Relaxation begins before you get in the saddle ‒ from bringing your horse in from the paddock, to grooming and tacking up. This is not a time to rush, but rather the time to notice how your horse is feeling both mentally and physically and help him to feel safe and comfortable before riding.
The Rider Affects the Horse
A rider who is tense, crooked or not balanced in the saddle affects the horse’s level of relaxation and balance. So start with working on having a good seat and position in the saddle. Sit with your weight even over your seat bones and down each leg. Have the vertical alignment of ear-over-shoulder-over-hip-over-ankle with soft, supple joints from your neck through your shoulders and elbows, your lower back, hips, knees and ankles. Your legs should have a gentle contact with your horse’s barrel without gripping in your buttocks, thighs or calves. Lift your chest softly and look forward towards the horizon.
As your horse walks, allow your hips to follow and absorb the movement of the horse’s back and barrel; allow your elbows to follow and absorb the movement of his neck and head.
The Walk, Foundation of All Gaits
Feel the steady 1,2,3,4 rhythm of the walk as you ride on a long rein with light contact. If your horse rushes, steady him with a half-halt. If you feel like your horse is pulling you forward then he is on the forehand. To rebalance him onto his hindquarters, give a half-halt as you turn him in on a small circle. It’s important to help balance him by ensuring he has the correct bend for the direction of the circle and to support him with the outside rein. Avoid pulling him into the circle with the inside rein as this will unbalance him and create resistance, which will increase tension.
The Bend is Your Friend
How well does your horse bend? If he turns corners counter-bent or as stiff as a two-by-four, he won’t be balanced.
Instead of riding around the outside of the arena, use circles to help improve your horse’s balance through bending. Until the horse has established self-carriage and relaxation, working with bend allows you to rebalance your horse without creating more tension.
Ask him to bend around your inside leg giving the leg aid quietly and consistently in time with the swing of the barrel.
If your horse rushes, won’t slow down, or is difficult to stop, riding him on a balanced circle ‒ and gradually making that circle smaller (while staying balanced) will help him to slow down naturally.
Quality of Transition Creates Quality of Gait
Once you have established a working walk with a consistent rhythm, set your horse up for the trot transition on a circle (at least 20 metres). The goal is for the horse to remain relaxed, stay in the correct bend, and use his hindquarters to make the transition.
On a circle, maintain the true bend as you ask your horse to trot. If your horse falls on his forehand, rushes the walk, or lifts his head (dropping his back), stay in the walk instead. Re-establish the balanced, consistent working walk before asking for the transition again.
It may some time before your horse is able to perform a balanced, soft transition. Remain patient. It will happen eventually!
Once you do achieve a good transition, keep trotting on the circle for a few strides before coming back down to the walk. If your horse resists the down transition, gradually spiral the circle in while half-halting. Establish a balanced working walk before asking for the transition again.
Do this exercise in both directions. Once you are getting consistent, balanced walk-trot and trot-walk transitions and maintaining a consistent rhythm, the trot will become more balanced. If your horse becomes strung out at any point, simply use the circle to rebalance and bring him back to walk.
Use the same exercise to work on and improve your trot-canter transitions.
Exercises for Balancing the “Downhill” Canter
To help the horse who canters or lopes on the forehand, include these exercises in your regular riding routine:
- Ground poles and low cavaletti set randomly around the arena
- Lots of upward and downward transitions (on a circle) using varieties of all 3 gaits (e.g. walk/trot/walk; trot/canter/walk; etc.)
- Adjusting length of stride in trot and in canter
As with the trot exercises, focusing on the quality of the transitions is key. Practicing the transitions only on a circle with the correct bend and ensuring your horse is balanced helps encourage your horse to use his headquarters so he naturally steps under and shifts the weight off his forehand.
A neck rein is a simple yet effective tool to help lighten the horse’s front end without sacrificing connection and balance. A neck rein can be a martingale strap, an old stirrup leather, or a piece of boat rope; it should sit at the base of the neck and be loose enough for you to hold with two or three fingers (similar to holding double reins) along with your reins.
To rebalance your horse, using light pressure, take the rope in a slightly diagonal direction (following the line of the horse’s shoulder) rather than pulling straight back. Similar to a half-halt, there is a take-and-release. Without the release, the horse may pull into the pressure. The rebalancing happens on the release.
All of these exercises require patience and a sympathetic hand and leg; don’t over-school and try to finish off each training session on a positive note.