Across all disciplines, judges expect to see circles of uniform size with a horse’s body arched to follow the circumference. In dressage and reining, marks are specifically deducted for circles of inaccurate size and over-arched or counter-flexed body alignment. In a trail or hunter class, bulging off line approaching an obstacle disrupts the canter rhythm and flow of the course, resulting in an awkward take off distance or “chip.”
By comparing your horse to a train, here are some tips to improve lateral control and keep your horse on the track of your choice without derailing!
Define your train track. You, as the leader of your herd of two, are the decision maker, mapping the path you want your horse to follow – looking ahead and planning your route. As a novice rider, I was instructed to look ahead. I asked myself, “Where exactly is ahead? In the air? Between the horse’s ears?” Years later, it occurred to me that circular circles only resulted when a) I plotted destination points in the path ahead, and b) I remained unwavering in my decision to ride through those points.
Practice locating imaginary dots in the dirt approximately 30-feet ahead of you and direct the horse’s feet to step on those dots. Challenge yourself to be decisive. How deep into the corner do you want to ride? Would you like your horse to cross the exact centre of the pole?
On circles, pinpoint four dots around the perimeter, like key numbers on a clock face. As you approach one point, lift your eyes to the next, keeping your decisions well ahead of your horse’s feet. As your circle gets larger, you can even pinpoint dots between those dots, increasing the accuracy.
As your coach, I should be able to tell where you’re heading by reading your eyes.
Direct each train car. You now need the physical tools to connect those dots, keeping your horse on the track.
Visualize your horse’s head and neck as the first train car, his mid-section the second, followed by his hips as the caboose. The ability to control each section so they individually follow the line is the essence of straightness.
Often, when a horse drifts to the outside, the rider intuitively pulls on the inside rein to try to get him back on track. The rein, however, controls only the front train car while the rest of the cars fishtail, coming off the rails. With every bulge comes loss of pace – you can bet that if your horse is going to break from lope to trot (a major error) it’ll be when he’s drawn toward the gate and he bulges out towards it.
Practice lateral exercises such as turns on the forehand and haunches and leg yields. If your leg and rein cues are clear, distinct and accurately located, your horse will understand which section of his body you want him to move.
Here’s an alternative to simply pulling on that inside rein. Try riding 90-degree corners around a square perimeter, keeping your horse aligned from poll to tail. Although counterintuitive, instead of turning with your inside hand, shift the focus to outside aids. Press his shoulders across with your outside leg, while keeping his neck straight with a steady outside rein. Picture your horse between the shafts of a cart, limiting body bend. Maintain forward motion – don’t fizzle into a stationary turn on the haunches.
Visualize the “gate half” of your circle with straight sides, like a stop sign, contained with outside aids – just a subtle version of your 90-degree turns. Be prepared to enlarge the “top half,” where horses are inclined to cut in, with a leg yield off the inside aids.
Anticipate the bulge. Herd animals are creatures of habit. Be prepared for your horse to drift out and cut in somewhere on every circle. Determine possible magnets, such as other horses or the gate, well before you derail. Respond quickly – on the first step out, as the notion of leaving your track enters his mind.
You may need a spur or dressage whip to support your initial leg cue – a horse determined to go in a certain direction can run right through your leg. If you don’t have tools ready to motivate him to get on track, you’ll miss out on a training opportunity. Having seen that window of opportunity, he’s likely to opt for the escape again. We can un-train our horses by failing to correct errors in the moment.
As a judge, it’s sad to see competitors without their lateral skills in place, open up a can of worms in the show ring. Your horse is vulnerable in the unfamiliar atmosphere, with his buddies and the trailer in sight, the incentive to drift toward these magnets is powerful. Riders exit the ring having ridden circles like giant eggs, stopped at the gate or stepped off trail bridges. Perfect lateral skills at home, before taking the show on the road.
Using these techniques you should be able win the battle of the bulge!