Today I rode a relatively unfamiliar horse. I have watched him being ridden and I know of his habits and where he could improve, so today I did some light flatwork with him.
He is a galloway and has a short back and neck. He is quite compact and a very handsome horse for his size. He is also fairly young though experienced, with barrel racing in his past, and is kept very fit.
He could improve in a number of areas which are rarely worked on by his normal rider (which is no fault of the rider’s as the same could be said for any of us). His movement is deceptive as he uses his back like no other horse I know, making you feel very balanced and rather high. Because the rider is positioned high, they must take extra care with their hands, and the line from elbow to mouth, because he is not in the habit of travelling long and low. His head carriage isn’t high but he has developed the muscles to resist the bit.
He sometimes runs through the bit, though not badly (as he will happily maintain a given pace), which leads to a deficit in his stopping. He also happens to have poor bend and flexion, and as a result a poor trot to canter transition which isn’t very accurate either.
Luckily one exercise helped all of these problems: I needed to improve his balance and bend. He had the fitness for it and therefore the strength to succeed without tiring or becoming uncomfortable. This is important so that he can do the exercise while maintaining relaxation – something not possible without the requisite strength.
Too often I see strong riders getting on difficult horses to give them some training but without the horse being fit enough for the rider. The result is an exhausted horse, apparent success and a happy owner, but relatively no improvement next ride with the normal rider. If that strong rider were to continue without building the horse’s fitness they will likely cause behavioural problems as the horse tries to avoid the punishing work they’re being made to do. What sort of personal trainer do you want in a gym? Someone who makes it a good experience so you want to return, or someone without mercy? Pain is not what helps your horse learn. Take the time to help them build up their fitness where they need it first and then you are practicing good welfare.
Today I began with what I call listening exercises. I keep at a walk and test the horse’s response to different aids. So I asked for direct turns and indirect turns, and I asked for some lateral movements. Not leg yeilding as that doesn’t bend the horse. In fact I asked this dressage-naive horse for lateral work on the circle. Haunches out and head turned in on 3, sometimes 4, tracks.
Yes, shoulder-in. Yes I’m still talking about basics. This isn’t basics of riding. This is the basics of every horse’s training. If the horse is athletic enough, your training is consistent enough, and your aids clear enough, then you can ask your horse to do this too. Take care not to confuse or frustrate them. Reward with a release of pressure when they do it right for a given period of time.
As we walked, then later at trot, and then again at canter, I asked him with half halts on the inside rein to bring his nose into the circle as I carried my hands with the inside lower than the outside (for lateral work the higher hand is always in the direction you’re travelling, see the photo). Normally this would simply steer him, so I applied a firm inside leg urging him to step through and under, breaking his straight line and effectively bending him. The result? A softer contact on the bit.
He was no longer resisting the bit because I wasn’t applying constant pressure, nor was I applying even pressure, nor was I steering him by his mouth. I was riding by my seat and legs and only using my inside hand to bend him (with a light supporting outside hand; you can’t do nothing with it or else you are guaranteed to fall out through the shoulder).
What happened next was that he would begin to fall out through his outside shoulder. I let him on occasion because it was more important to maintain his bend, and leave his mouth alone, but I would block with my outside leg by creating more forward and occasionally pick up the outside rein to block the shoulder if he began running out of the circle.
Ever heard your outside rein is to control your horse’s pace? This exercise makes it obvious to the rider. By creating more forward with the outside leg to prevent falling out, you are now going faster. Asking for more bend with half halts on the inside rein may tighten the circle and slow the horse. Otherwise you must pick up the outside rein and you instantly feel your horse’s response (if everything else is going well) as they steady their pace.
This horse who normally travels with his nose in front began to carry himself better, balancing underneath me and no longer running through the bit. I had a very light contact on him and there was no need to ride him into the bit to create a frame. He was learning about that frame through correct carriage.
Note that I wasn’t riding him in any arena. It was an open space where I could take as long as I liked with as large or as small a circle I liked to get the training result I wanted.
When I cantered we still had issues with the transition but there’s little I can do about that until his balance is consistent with the bend (whilst travelling straight). He just wasn’t used to a canter strike off like that. One thing at a time is a great way to train so in the meantime I minimally interfered until we had the correct lead (ie. I was patient and didn’t over correct. I also took care not to throw him further off balance, or force him into the transition). In canter you really feel the effect of rebalancing him and how he’s supporting himself on the inside hind so I was satisfied for today.
When I asked for a halt from the canter (something he’s already trained to do), the result was vastly improved. In fact I was tipped forward since I didn’t expect such a great stop! He received a big pat, and we took a break before beginning again in the other direction.
I’m pleased about today. He learned quickly, though was sometimes inattentive. He needs consistent work focusing on the rebalancing which will also serve to retrain the rider’s habits. The combination have shown consistent improvement over time and have always been happy together so they will have little trouble.
For more information on lateral work I suggest this post by dressagedifferent