The most natural thing for a horse to do is to go forward. The most frustrating issue for many riders is having a horse that is not willing to go forward. So, what prevents a horse from doing what comes so naturally to him? Some might blame it on a bad attitude, laziness or stubbornness. But, the most common reason is that something is getting in the horse’s way – something that makes him feel uncomfortable or disturbs his natural balance and rhythm.
This article provides tips and fixes for common riding errors that block the horse’s natural movement. By correcting these errors, you’ll get some “go go” into your “no go” horse.
Going With the Flow
Every horse has an individual rhythm to his movement, but, generally speaking, when a horse carries himself in a balanced and correct frame, his head nods (in walk and canter, but not in trot) and his back swings. Tension and imbalance in the rider interferes with this natural rhythm and movement inhibiting his ability to go forward. Following your horse’s movement requires you to ride with supple, lengthened muscles and soft, elastic joints. (My previous two articles – “Give Your Horse Power Steering,” March/April and “Turning Tune Up,” May/June – gave tips on improving your position in the saddle as well as your horse’s straightness, frame and balance.)
The following factors determine the flow of your horse’s movement (or lack thereof), so use these exercises to motivate a sluggish horse, encouraging rhythmic, forward motion.
- Develop a following seat. Stiffness anywhere in your body (even in your fingers or toes) creates tension elsewhere that blocks your horse’s movement. Many adult riders are stuck in the pelvis so that their seat does not follow the horse’s motion. To have a following seat, you must relax your pelvis so that hip and seat bone moves independently at the walk, your pelvis rolls forwards on the up beat of the posting trot and on down beat of the sitting trot and canter. Avoid relying on your stirrups for support.
Exercise: You can practice this relaxed movement and build muscle memory at the walk. Sit tall and balanced in your saddle with your seat bones “plugged in” and the top of your calf in contact with your horse’s barrel. Drop your stirrups and let your legs fall out of your pelvis naturally, dropping towards the ground. Allow your hip flexors, thighs, calf muscles and knees lengthen and soften. Relax your pelvis so that each hip and seat bone moves independently and in time with your horse. Soften your knees so that your lower legs swing slightly with the movement. Drop your shoulders away from your ears and allow them and your elbows to move softly. Lengthen your spine from your tail bone to the top of your neck and lift and open your chest. Breathe deeply and calmly from your diaphragm. On each exhalation, release tension and lengthen your body. Notice how this feels and how your horse responds. Pick up your stirrups and keep that same open feeling in your hip flexors, knees and ankles.
- Go straight forward. A crooked horse will be tense and unable to go forward easily. Crookedness is often created by the rider sitting crooked or using one rein more than the other. When this happens, the horse’s head is pulled either in or out creating resistance in his jaw, poll and neck.
Exercise: Keep your horse straight between your seat bones, legs and reins so that his nose lines up with the centre of his chest, his shoulders and hips are square and he bends slightly around your inside leg. Ensure your reins are even and you have equal and consistent contact on both that does not restrict your horse’s movement. Carry your hands just above your horse’s shoulders. To have supple arms, keep your elbows bent and in front of the midline of your torso. (Straight arms or elbows held behind the midline are tense creating gaps in the contact or jarring movements that travel to your horse’s mouth.)
If a horse is ridden crooked over a period of time, he will become “one sided” meaning he is more supple moving in one direction than the other. If you find that this is true for your horse, add more lateral exercises into your rides. Whether riding in the arena or on the trail, doing these exercises makes your rides more interesting while improving your horse’s suppleness. In the arena, get off the rail and use the middle of the arena more. On the trail practice leg yields or small serpentines in open spaces. Take different routes and avoid always doing the same things in the same place.
- Use well-timed aids. Apply your aids in time with your horse’s movement. Pushing hard, squeezing and kicking all cause tension in your body that interferes with your horse’s ability to create impulsion.
Exercise: Feel your left and right seat bones and hips moving in time with the horse’s hips and barrel swing. Time your leg and seat aids with those movements. As one hip drops, push gently with that calf. As one hip moves forward, push down and forward with that seat bone. Your same side leg and seat bone work together on the same beat. At the trot and the canter, apply your pushing aids on the down beat. Work through a scale of one to five for pressure. Level one is soft, passive and just in contact with your horse, level two is a light push, level three is a bit stronger, and so on. Move through the scale one step at a time always coming back to one in between. If your horse needs a little more encouragement, lightly stroke or tap his flank with a dressage whip in time with your leg aid.
As you become more supple and balanced, you can help your horse relax as well. With the tension and discomfort removed, you will soon be moving forward in harmony together.