Does your horse fall in on a left circle and fall out on a circle to the right, or vice versa? Does he toss his head or try breaking into a canter when you want to trot? All too frequently we blame our horse for being naughty, but have you thought he may be trying to communicate with you that he is having problems with his balance.
Groundwork and programs like Straightness Training or the Art of Academic Riding can help us tremendously but even so we may still be experiencing difficulties once we are in the saddle.
Initially we need to look at ourselves. Is our rein contact too tight (or loose), or are we collapsing to one side or the other. Is our seat level or do we unintentionally place more weight on one side than the other? If you don’t know how balanced you are, consider booking a session on PI (the posture and alignment indicator) . Once we have ruled ourselves out of the equation, we need to look at how we can help our horse find his balance a little better.
The key to balance is strengthening the hind legs. When the horse can carry himself and the rider in balance, the quality of the gaits is improved, and the horse’s soundness is preserved. To move in balance under the rider, the horse must shift weight from his forehand onto his haunches.
The correct timing of our aids is of prime importance. Unless we time our aid exactly right, our horse probably can’t do what we have asked. So our first priority is learning how to feel our horse’s foot fall.
Feeling the foot fall was covered in a previous article http://frangriffith.com/feeling-footfall/ but probably the best way to learn the feel is to start at a walk and to get the help of a friend. Have your friend stand in the middle of a 20 metre circle and ride around them at a walk. Feel how your horse’s back moves, can you tell when the inside hind leg is in the air and the outside hind is on the ground? As the horse steps forward his hip lowers, and your same hip should also drop. The movement is not just forward and back, but side-to-side and up and down as well. There’s a lot going on when your seat is in the saddle. Ask your friend to call ’now’ when the inside hind leg is in the air – you should feel your seat bone on that side drop downwards and inward slightly. Equally as the inside hind moves forward, the outside hind leg is on the ground, and you should feel your seat bone on the outside rise.
Once you know where your horse’s hind leg is in space, you can influence his stride or direction of travel by cueing him with your leg on the same side as he steps forward. For example, you can ask him to step under himself and sideways with his inside leg by pushing with your own inside calf as he takes a step forward.
Let us assume you are travelling on the right rein, as his right hind is in the air ask your horse to move his right hind a little further forward and under for two consecutive strides of his inside hind. You can add a slight tilt of your pelvis to the outside to help clarify the matter. Try this exercise a couple of times and ensure that you reward your horse for doing the right thing (your circle size should have increased by about one horse’s width over the distance of two horse’s length). Once you feel that you can leg yield fairly easily you can follow this movement by asking your horse to take a little more of his weight on to his outside hind.
So this time, after you have asked your horse to move out from your inside leg, apply a little downward pressure on the outside stirrup when his outside hind is on the ground. At the same time as you do this; you can apply a half halt with your seat and outside rein.
Play with this a few times and then change rein and repeat on the other side. Your horse should feel a little more balanced.
If you decide to ask him to take bigger strides at the walk or slow down, you’ll know exactly when to push (to step further) as his hind foot is off the ground or engage (take more weight) when is hind foot is on the ground. You can also ask your horse to stop by cueing him to plant his right hind first (right stirrup step, right seat bone, right rein), and then his left (left stirrup step, left seat bone, left rein) for a more balanced stop.
Just take your time, practice, and become more aware of both you and your horse’s movement until you can tell when and where your horse’s feet are moving.