By now we have all heard that Pilates is really good for us. When done regularly the benefits of Pilates are numerous, including strengthening our core muscles, which in turn helps our back to become stronger. In addition Pilates teaches us body awareness, makes us more supple and can help reduce postural related pain.

What you may not have heard of is that “ Pilates” exercises for horses can offer them similar benefits. I normally begin an exercise that is new to my horse in hand or on-line, but all these exercises can be done under saddle too – and for the purpose of this article, I am going to describe the ridden versions.

Single Loop Serpentine

This exercise helps the horse loosen up without stress. It helps mobilize the shoulders which can release blockages in the neck and poll. The horse should become softer in the jaw, more flexible through the neck and back and more willing to accept contact.

  • Starting on the right rein, ride on the inside track (slightly off the rail). Leave the track at M and perform a single shallow loop to the 5m or 6m line, returning to the track at F. Repeat the maneuver on the other long side, leaving at K and returning at H.
  • Start with a loose rein and only progress to a shorter rein as your horse softens.
  • Start at a walk, progressing to a sitting trot once your horse is going well and knows the pattern.
  • Really work on the bend, switching from bending inside, to outside, to inside etc.
  • If your horse does not respond to the aids for a shallow turn, add in a small circle in that direction before continuing with the serpentine.
  • Repeat on the other rein.

Single Loop and Leg Yield

With this exercise you address the four corners of the horse, mobilizing the shoulders, rib cage and pelvis.

  • Starting on the right rein, ride on the inside track (slightly off the rail). Leave the track at M, by moving the outside shoulder to the inside, as though riding a normal single loop. 
  • As soon as you have left the track, change the bend from right to left and leg yield a few steps with your horse slightly bent to the left. 
  • Just before reaching the half way point of the school (in a line with B) ride a few steps straight on a single track.
  • After crossing  the half-way point move the right shoulder toward the fence and then change the bend and leg yield back to the  inside track, reaching it just before F.
  • Start with a loose rein and only shorten the reins as your horse gets softer. Try the exercise at a walk before progressing to sitting trot.

Twenty Metre Circle with Voltes

This exercise helps improve balance, as well as increasing your horse’s softness and flexibility. It targets the shoulders, rib cage and abdominal muscles by stretching the muscles on the outside of the bend.

Mark a 20 metre circle with a 10 metre volte at each of the circle points. The best way to mark a circle is to set a gateway of cones at each of the circle points (these circle points being the equivalent of 12, 9,6 and 3 ‘o’ clock). The more accurate the circle and voltes are the more benefits the exercise will have. I always use a tape measure to set out my circles accurately.

  • Start working at a walk and progress to a trot when you and your horse are comfortable with the exercise.
  • Walk round the circumference of the 20m circle paying particular attention to whether your horse falls out or in. If you miss the gateway with an outside shoulder then your horses in falling out, if you miss the gateway with an inside shoulder, he is falling in.
  • Try to correct any falling in or out by adjusting your seat or weight. If the horse falls out, try transferring a little more weight to the inside shoulder by doing two or three half halts into the inside front leg. Alternatively try nudging the outside shoulder inwards with your outside knee when the outside front leg is in the air. Use your reins as little as possible as pulling on the inside rein can exacerbate the situation.
  • After you have ridden the 20m circle a couple of times ride on to the first 10m volte. Pay particular attention to whether your horse finds this size of circle more difficult. After riding around the first volte a couple of times resume the 20m circle to the next circle point and ride round the next volte, etc. etc.
  • Repeat on the other rein.

 Riding exercises like these can really benefit any horse. You don’t need to do the exercises for too long, 20 to 30 minutes maximum. However If you do these sort of exercises with your horse on a regular basis you will start to see some huge improvements in your horse’s symmetry.

 All too many riders avoid doing any lateral movements with their horse. This can be because of fear of doing them wrong or simply lack of knowledge and not knowing where to start or why such movements are so important. I constantly hear from those that say they “just enjoy hacking out”, that they have no need for such fancy movements, or from those that “do” dressage declare they “don’t’ need lateral movements until they reach Medium Level”.

I couldn’t disagree more; shoulder-in, along with most of the other lateral movements, are essential tools in helping your horse become straight and supple, two of the key elements in British Dressage’s Scale of Training. In fact, Nuno Oliviero declared “shoulder-in is the aspirin of horseback riding – it cures everything!”

To me, using lateral movements, is like doing Pilates with your horse. Lateral movements can be used to help correct the horse’s natural asymmetry, to help him become equally strong and supple on both sides – without which you cannot have straightness. They can be used to improve his core and strengthen his back – which are fundamental requirements if you want to ride your horse. And finally they can help your horse learn to engage his hind legs by taking them further underneath his body, which is required if you want to ride in true collection rather than just with “head set”.  Lateral movements help keep your horse balanced and supple whilst only ever schooling or a riding on a single-track encourages stiffness in the and exacerbates your horse’s natural asymmetry. Even if you never ride in a school you can incorporate simple stepping over exercises, such as leg yields at a walk, to positively influence your horse’s basic balance.

Most horses find the lateral movements where the horse is bent against the direction of travel – such as shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, leg-yield-with-bend-against-the-direction-of-travel, and turn-on-the-forehand easier to learn than those where he is bent in the direction of travel – e.g. travers, renvers, half pass, turn-on-the-haunches and pirouette. But don’t take this as gospel, your horse may not have read this note!

If you have never done any lateral movements before, I’d recommend you start with turn-on-the-forehand, and then move on to shoulder-fore or leg-yield-with-bend at a walk. I’d also suggest you start with groundwork, where your weight can’t inadvertently make the movement harder to do, either by working on-line or in-hand. Which one of these methods you chose depends on which you prefer, but which ever method you chose make sure that you reward your horse for the slightest try. Only look for one step initially, don’t get greedy and immediately expect your horse to do a whole side of a school in a perfect 3-track shoulder-in.

These exercises are meant to benefit the horse and help him biomechanically – just as attending a yoga or pilates class helps you. Accept that things might not be perfect to start with. It is far more likely if you experience difficulties that you are either asking incorrectly or your horse can’t actually do what you are asking rather than won’t. Slow the request down and ask for less, such as only asking the front leg to move rather than the whole horse. Over time you will be able to ask and expect more. After all you wouldn’t expect your instructor to ask you to hold a plank for 60 seconds at your first ever Pilates class!

I tend to teach my horses on-line before doing the exercises in-hand but there is no right or wrong way, use which ever method you (and your horse) prefer. The most common mistake to look out for in any of the lateral movements-against-the-direction-of-travel is over bending the horse’s neck to the inside which causes the horse to fall onto his outside shoulder. This can be caused because we have asked for too much bend with our hand or because it is the horse’s hollow side and he has a natural tendency to bend that way. If you are working in-hand you can use your outside rein to prevent the excessive bend and support the outside shoulder, if you are working on-line you need to be able to use your stick to support the shoulder.

Turn-on-the-forehand

https://www.facebook.com/frangriffithriderbiomechanics/videos/2037848566438405/

This is a super starter exercise which helps engage the core, mobilize the horse’s pelvis and bring a hind leg underneath his body. You will need a cavesson, a single line (such as a short lunge line) or rein attached to the central ring of the cavesson and schooling whip or cane. It is important that your horse is not frightened of the stick or cane, and he is quite happy for you to touch him anywhere on his body with it. If he is concerned and you can’t touch him everywhere, you aren’t ready to do this exercise yet. Equally you should be confident and competent enough so that your horse won’t walk over you, strike you with a front leg or trample you! If you aren’t confident about this – don’t try the exercise.

  • Stand in front of and facing your horse with one hand resting just in front of the horse’s nose holding the single rein or line. The arm should be straight (or slightly bent), so the horse is a couple of feet away from you.
  • If you have mastered the art of stelling, flex your horse’s nose slightly against the direction of travel. The rein should be lying across an open hand rather than held tight. Raising your energy, slowly raise your stick so that it points towards the horse’s tail and is parallel to the ground.  Pulse the stick slightly towards the horse or gently tap your horse on his body with the full length of the stick (shoulder, through rib cage to hip).
  • The moment the horse moves one step away from the stick, drop the stick and reward your horse.
  • The hind leg that is closest to the stick should step under the horse’s body in front of the other hind leg away from the stick.
  • The front leg that is closest to the stick should step in front of the other front leg away from the stick.
  • You are eventually looking for your horse to circle around you with his hindquarters performing the largest circle and you performing the smallest.

There are a number of videos that cover teaching the horse lateral movements from the ground; these include but are not limited to Straightness Training, The Academic Art of Riding and Manolo Mandez. Books that cover the subject include Schooling Exercises in-hand which is published by Cadmos.

Biomechanics seems to have become the buzz word in the equine industry in the last 10 or so years. Everyone these days is a biomechanics coach, but what does biomechanics really mean and is biomechanics really important to you or your horse?

Lets us look at the meaning first. If we look at Wikipedia, biomechanics is defined as “ the study of the mechanical laws relating to the movement or structure of living organisms”. But what does that really mean and how does that relate to you, your horse or your riding?

In a nutshell, Biomechanics is the science of the movement of a living body, including how muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments work together to produce movement or are influenced by an outside force such as gravity, pressure or weight.

I like to break Rider Biomechanics into 3 components – the biomechanics of the human, the biomechanics of the horse and finally the biomechanics of the horse and human combination – rider biomechanics.

Basically all horses and all humans are born asymmetrical and as we grow older our asymmetry increases. This asymmetry places unnecessary strains and stresses on joints and ligaments, and if not dealt with can cause real physical problems for both ourselves and our horses.

The Biomechanics of the Horse

Like us, horses are born right or left handed – or more correctly in their case, left or right footed. They have a hollow and a stiff side and naturally carry more weight on their forehand.  Understanding the longitudinal (front/back) imbalance is easy, although this cannot be corrected until the lateral (side/side) imbalance has been dealt with. Understanding the lateral imbalances and indeed working out just which side is hollow and which is stiff can be far harder. 

The actual terms “hollow” and “stiff” have been used for centuries. The term hollow is used to define the side of the horse that is more contracted, whilst the term stiff is used for the side that is more stretched. In more extreme cases your horse can look a little like a banana, with the stiff side being more convex and the hollow side, more concave. This isn’t a major problem if the horse is never going to be ridden but in order to carry a rider without undue strain, the horse needs to develop a strong back, be equally strong and supple on both sides and learn to carry his weight more equally. Therefore the horse needs to be taught how to improve both his balance and straightness – his biomechanics, using gymnastic exercises.  It is only by training our horse’s muscles and straightening him that it is possible to achieve optimum movement, posture and position. A straightened horse will be physically and mentally in balance, symmetrical and supple and be able to carry his rider with ease. This training is often easier to do without the hindrance of a rider and can be achieved by working with the horse on-line, in hand or on the longe.

The Biomechanics of the Human

As I have already mentioned, all humans are asymmetrical. Most of us collapse more on one side, stand with one shoulder higher than the other, have a dominant hip or place more weight on one foot than the other. In addition to our asymmetry, all too many of us are overweight and lack muscle tone which exacerbates the asymmetry. Another big problem for so many of us, is our lack of ability to isolate certain muscles or body parts, so that we use a hand inadvertently when bringing a hip forward or we clench our gluteal muscles (bottom) when doing a half halt.

To remain healthy and certainly to become better riders we need to take responsibility for our own bodies, become aware of our posture, and work to improve our suppleness and balance. Pilates classes (either mat-based or using a Swiss ball) are absolutely perfect to create awareness, increase suppleness and core strength and teach us how to isolate specific body parts.

The Horse & Human Combination – Rider Biomechanics

Finally we come to the horse and rider combination, or rider biomechanics.  Every time we sit on a horse, we influence the way our horse moves, or he influences the way we sit. If we sit more heavily to our left our horse will move to the left. If we hollow our back, our horse will hollow his. Conversely a horse with a hollow back can cause us to hollow ours!  We need to be aware of our position and weight when we sit on our horse, we need to be able to adjust our position at any moment in time to help our horse achieve correct balance and alignment. We need to remember that our seat is the one aid we cannot take away, and do our utmost to make sure that our sitting on our horse’s back becomes as pleasurable an experience for him as riding him is for us.

When I teach, I like to use PI (my electronic horse) initially to help my student acquire “self awareness”. The weight sensors and cameras enable the student to see their own asymmetries and they have the time to learn what a neutral pelvis feels like without having to worry about the movement of the horse. The rein sensors enable them to see just how heavy handed (or not) they are and they can practice “giving and re-taking” of the reins and half halts without any detrimental effects on their horse’s mouth.

Once we become aware of our own, and our horse’s asymmetries we can use “dressage” exercises as physiotherapy for our horse. Changes of bend in motion are really good for developing the lateral suppleness of the horse as well as the suppleness of our own hips.

“The application of one aid alone will never produce an accurate and correct movement. Only the correct application and co-ordination of all the aids can bring about perfection” Charles Harris  – Workbooks from the Spanish Riding School.

An aid can only be effective if it is timed correctly so that the horse can comply to the request. Equally an aid can only be applied effectively if we have an independent seat and can isolate our hands and legs, otherwise the aid gets muffled by a whole lot of “white noise” caused by us inadvertently kicking our horse continuously or using our reins subconsciously. Looked at like that, applying our aids correctly and effectively is not such an easy task. All too many riders just muddle a long – and put bluntly follow the old adage “kick ‘em to go and pull on the reins to stop”. Just how many of us really spend time on getting our aids just right or finding out which combination of our aids our horse prefers? So this month I thought I would write about some fun exercises that not only improve your coordination and timing but can help your horse respond to your leg and rein aids in an increasingly sophisticated manner.

I originally learnt some of these exercises through an article written by George Williams, whilst some of the others are from the Ritters’ Exercise of the Month Club. All of the exercises are supposed to have originated from the Spanish Riding School.

The exercises can help the rider to learn the footfall of the horse and improve the independent use of their hands and legs. The horse benefits gymnastically from the use of circles and learns to relax from the rhythmic application of the aids. The exercises can also reveal what works best for your horse, some of the aids may make him rounder and softer, others may cause a brace. You can use these exercises to help diagnose which combination your horse prefers and how they affect his gait and posture.

To get the maximum benefit from the exercise you really to spend some time  setting out a perfect 20m circle in your school by using 4 gateways to form the quarters. This way you will know whether you are riding a perfect circle, or falling in or out.

The exercises work best for the horse at a trot, which is how they were done at the Spanish Riding School, but they can be modified and done at a walk, if you want to use them to concentrate on your actual timing of the application of the aids.

Exercises One to Six

Ride a 20m circle at a rising trot, rising on the correct diagonal – that is you sit when the horse’s outside front shoulder and inside hind leg are on the ground (if you do this exercise at a walk you need to apply the aid when the inside hind leg is on the ground).

One – Apply the inside rein, by gently and rhythmically closing the fingers of your inside hand, every other sitting moment of the rising trot. You do this over 12 strides so that you will gently close your fingers of your inside hand 6 times. You are looking to see if your horse acknowledges your rein aid by softening his jaw and beginning to flex slightly to the inside.

Wait a few strides before starting the next exercise.

Two – Gently squeeze the fingers of your outside hand every other sitting moment.  You do this over 12 strides so that you will gently close your fingers of your outside hand 6 times. See if your horse responds to this aid by relaxing at the poll. He should not bend or flex outwards. If he does, check that your aid is not too hard.

Wait a few strides before starting the next exercise.

Three – Close your inside calf inwards (the aids should be applied inwards and not backwards, and only the calf should be used) as you sit.  Ensure that you keep your leg long as you use it and do not grip upwards at the knee. Do this over 12 strides so that you will close your calf 6 times. Check if your horse feels more relaxed. Has he softened through the rib cage?

Wait a few strides before starting the next exercise.

Four – Close your outside calf inwards (the aids should be applied inwards and not backwards, and only the calf should be used) as you sit. Do this over 12 strides so that you will close your calf 6 times.

Wait a few strides before starting the next exercise.

Five – Close the fingers of your inside hand and close your inside knee against the saddle as you sit on every other stride. Do this over 12 strides. See if the horse relaxes his shoulder or moves his shoulder away from the nudge.

Wait a few strides before starting the next exercise.

Six – Close the fingers of your outside hand and close your outside knee against the saddle as you sit on every other stride. Do this over 12 strides.

Before continuing with any further exercises you can check if your horse is better able to stretch his topline by giving with the inside hand on every other sit.

Change the rein and repeat on the other rein.

Notice how the exercises have affected you and your horse. You should feel better able to coordinate the aids and your horse should feel softer and more relaxed.  By alternated your inside and outside aids you will have created a network of aids around your horse, so he should feel better balanced and not fall in or out as much on the circle.

Exercises 7 to 10

The next 2 exercises are best done at a sitting trot, although if you struggle with feeling the feet at a sitting trot they can also be done at a walk. The final exercise works best at a sitting trot but can also be done at the sit stage of a rising trot.

Seven – Close the fingers of your inside hand and your inside calf when the inside hind leg is in the air. Do this every other stride, so you repeat 6 times over 12 strides. Does your horse start to step further under with his inside hind leg and soften even more?

Eight – Close the fingers of your outside hand and your inside calf when the inside hind leg is in the air. Do this every other stride, so you repeat 6 times over 12 strides. Do the diagonal aids work better than the lateral aids used in the previous exercise or not as well?

Nine – this exercise is a stirrup stepping exercise and is intended to help transfer the weight from the outside front leg of the horse to the inside hind leg. The stirrup step should be applied as the leg mentioned touches down, between the moment of touch down and the vertical phase.  The sequence is ridden in 6 consecutive strides. Although the aid is referred to as stirrup stepping it is probably closer to stirrup whispering. Imagine gently lowering your toes as though pushing them through soft mud, or feathering a brake pedal. Apply the step with the outside foot when the outside front touches down (shoulder starts to move back) and then again on the outside front. Then apply the step with both your inside and outside stirrups for 2 strides as the outside front and inside hind touch down. Finally apply the step to the inside stirrup for 2 strides as the inside hind leg touches down. This final exercise should improve the diagonal coordination of the horse’s legs and support the swinging of the back.

Contact is the third building block in the classic German Scales of Training pyramid following after Rhythm and Suppleness (sometimes shown as Relaxation). However, the question of what contact is, or more to the point, just how much contact is needed and how soft or how firm the contact should be, seems to be something that a lot of people struggle with.

According to Gustav Steinbrecht (“Gymnasium of the Horse”) there are 3 gradations in the degree of contact, namely, light contact, soft contact and finally firm contact.  He states that a perfect light contact is only possible when the horse is in absolute balance and is able to carry himself in self carriage. This is basically because balance and contact are essential to each other, so the better the horse’s balance the more consistent and vibrant the contact will be. Conversely, a horse’s balance can be improved by correct contact.

Contact therefore is, in fact, ever-changing – dependent on the balance and the self-carriage of the horse. The more your horse is in self carriage the lighter the contact is. However, as we all know, there are moments during training when things don’t go to plan and our horse isn’t balanced let alone in self carriage and falls on the forehand. And when this happens, he will get heavier in the hand. The important thing here is not to try to fix the problem by pulling on the reins or shortening them even further but to try and help the horse to rebalance himself by using a downward transition or a series of half halts and double checking that you are sitting extra correctly and that you have your core engaged.

In the most basic terms, contact refers to the situation in which the reins are stretched in a straight line between the mouth of the horse and the hands of the rider. To an onlooker, correct contact should appear as an unbroken straight line from the rider’s elbow (which should be held at or above the hip) to the mouth of the horse.  For this to happen, the rider mustn’t have their hands too high or too low but at the appropriate height for the head carriage of the horse. As a rough guide the hands should be held just above and in front of the pommel of the saddle.

How the hands are held is also important to the quality of the contact. They should be held thumb uppermost with the thumbs pointing towards the horse’s opposite ear and slightly downwards as though pouring a pot of tea. Many riders ride with what I call piano hands – where the hands are turned over as if playing a piano. This position prevents riders from being able to really follow their horse’s head with their hands (so the contact is rigid rather than elastic) so they try to compensate for this by opening their fingers in the mistaken belief this makes their hands light. But instead of having a light-feeling contact, they have almost no contact or no feeling and their lower arms can’t give to the horse or be elastic. When the knuckles are almost vertical (thumbs on top) the two bones of our lower arm run virtually parallel (when viewed from above) which permits the hand to be more sensitive and responsive and our contact more elastic.

It is also important to think of riding forward into your hands!  Our hands may move outwards (as in an opening rein), inwards (as in a supporting or indirect rein) or even upwards, BUT NEVER backwards away from the mouth. And yet backwards is probably the most common mistake that occurs!

Equally one should never ride the horse from the front to the back but all too frequently this is what we do. The horse should move forward into your hands. In training for contact the horse must play an active part and the rider’s hand a waiting, passive part. In the original German version of the Scales of Training the word Anlehnung is used, which translated literally means “ leaning to” and not “pulling in”. A rider’s hand that is too active backwards or too hard leads to disruption in the horse’s balance.

Contact gives us the ability to communicate with our horse (and the horse with us). To be correct the contact should feel alive.  If you hold your hands correctly, you feel a connection with your horse. When he chews the bit, you feel a small vibration on the reins. When we have correct contact we should be able to feel a flow of energy, that stems from when our horse’s hind leg touches the ground, travels along our horse’s spine, through his neck and poll and on into the bit and then through the reins to our hand where we feel that energy as a subtle pulse.

Contact should be thought of as a tool for sculpting the horse’s body and guiding the horse. You can use the rein contact to gauge the asymmetry of your horse. For instance if your horse is crooked because the hips and shoulders are not aligned precisely on the line of travel, the rein contact will be too heavy and inelastic on the stiff side (the side which the shoulder falls out from the line) whilst, on the hollow side the contact will be too light. If the hind legs push more than they carry, the rein contact will become heavy as the horse leans on the bit. If the hind legs carry more than they push the horse will stay behind the bit (which may feel light) and avoid the contact. As such, contact allows us to feel what our horse is feeling as any brace or stiffness will have a negative effect on the contact.

To have correct contact you need to sit correctly, using your core muscles to hold yourself in balance. An independent and supple seat is the cornerstone and prerequisite of soft contact. Your arms and legs are extensions of this correct position and are able to retain their position without brace. The upper arms hang straight down to your hips and support and frame your core. In this position, you won’t need to pull on your reins to stay in balance and conversely if the horse leans on the reins, you have the strength of your core to keep you from being pulled forward. Even when we ride with contact, we have to bear in mind that our reins are only a secondary aid. Our seat is the primary aid and it is the engagement of our core that helps the horse to engage his abdominals and find his balance.

The amount of actual ‘weight’ in your hands when taking contact will vary from horse to horse due to conformation differences and as already explained, the “frame” or level of schooling of our horse. The contact feels at its heaviest when the horse is stretching forward and down, becomes lighter as the horse comes into balance and even lighter when the weight starts to shift to the hind legs so that the horse now ‘carries’ himself (self carriage).

Another important factor is we have to learn to accept the contact from the horse as he moves into our hand. So many riders ‘give’ the rein as soon as they feel the horse coming to their hand. If they do this regularly, their horse will never be able to step in to the contact. You need to have a steady hand that ‘accepts’ the contact and closes the circle of aids. If you give away the connection at the same time you ask the horse to step under and carry more weight on his hindquarters the effect is like squeezing a toothpaste tube with the top open,  the energy runs out the front and the horse doesn’t achieve the rounded frame you want.

When the rein contact is loose and floppy the horse cannot feel fine finger communication. Without rein contact he cannot learn to go into the round balanced frame needed for true self carriage. However once the horse can hold a round balanced frame, the reins may be given to him for a few strides to see if he can maintain self carriage.

Too strong a contact will block forward movement and prevent the horse from feeling light communication and whilst it might force the horse’s head into position, he will probably “break” between the second and third neck vertebra (sometimes between the third and fourth), drop his back and trail his hind legs in compensation. Too strong a contact also causes discomfort, numbs the mouth and can damage the nerves.

So what is correct contact?  As already mentioned the reins must be neither too short nor too long but form a straight line between your elbow and the horse’s mouth. It should be the horse who seeks the contact and the rider, in turn, who grants it. In fact the definition of contact given by British Dressage says it all “ the ideal contact is a light, even, elastic feel in both reins and this is achieved by aids from the legs and seat, not the hand”.

Having said all that it is really hard to know just how hard you grip the reins. If you live in the UK my electronic horse, PI, is a great tool for seeing what really happens when you take up the reins. Sensors positioned at the bit record the actual amount of rein contact that you take up and show you just how light or heavy your contact really is. If your contact is more than 1.6kgs per rein the display goes amber to show that your contact is too heavy.

It is interesting to see what really happens when you give a half halt and whether you throw the reins away when you release it. It is also fascinating to see what happens to the contact when we do a rising trot!

So far on PI I have seen as little as 250 grams of pressure per rein to over 4kgs per rein. The contact can differ between the hands too – with the maximum variation between the left and right hand recorded so far being a massive 2.5kgs!  Remember that our contact should be even – assuming we are riding on a straight line and our horse is in balance. Unfortunately, hands that are too strong are all too common. A recent study in Sweden found that their riders took an average of between 1.5kg and a massive 2.5 kg of rein contact in each hand. So much for that light, elastic contact that BD talk about!


It has been a couple of months since I last wrote my last article, as apart from being on holiday and spending spent some quality time with my own horses, I have been thinking long and hard about what this article should be about. Then I had one of those light bulb moments – both my horses had given their all the other morning, Abee on line and Yafee at liberty and we were having a group scratch – when I suddenly realised that despite writing numerous articles about correct biomechanics, groundwork and riding, I had never written about the most fundamental requirement in horsemanship, relationship.

Of course, by the very nature of the word, everyone has a relationship with their horse. After all any 2 or more beings have a relationship, as the word means nothing more or less than how two (or more) beings connect. So, even if your horse hates you and you hate him – that is a type of relationship. However, that is not the sort of relationship I had in mind. From my perspective the relationship that I want with my horse and that I am referring to as being one of the foundation stones of true horsemanship, is one that is based on trust and respect, where 2 beings WANT to be with each other. A relationship that is truly two-way, where I respect my horses space and take his point of view into consideration and he respects my space and takes my view point into consideration.

If I am honest, I have really only had this type of relationship with my own horses within the past 15 years, despite the fact that horses have played a major part in my life for over 60 years. I had always considered myself a “horse-lover” and would have argued until I was blue in my face that I loved my horses, but it was probably riding that I really loved, rather than the individual horse. When I was a child I dreamt of having a relationship like Joey had with Fury or the young boy had with The Black.  Then I lost that dream, that was fiction, it wasn’t the way real horses behaved. Why should they? After all, I didn’t consider if my horses were really happy with their lot  – whether they liked competing, were frightened of trailers or liked jumping. I just expected them to do what I wanted them to do, when I wanted them to do it – and under no circumstances to try and tell me what they were really thinking or feeling – if they did they were being naughty. After all it was totally “normal” to put a martingale on a horse, use a stronger bit, use spurs or have a horse that was hard to catch, or perhaps difficult to load! It still amazes me to this day  just how blind I was.

If I really want to do amazing things with my horse – to have (in the words of Bent Branderup) “two spirits who want to do what two bodies can do” then I need a superb relationship with my horse as my foundation.  To get this relationship takes time and effort – we have to put aside our ego and appreciate that the horse is as important as we are! Fortunately with horses, it is never too late to build the sort of relationship to which I am referring. They are the most amazingly forgiving creatures and even if you have had a rocky relationship with your horse to date, if you are prepared to invest the time and effort and to start to listen to your horse then you can change that relationship around.

Obviously your safely is of paramount importance. So if your horse is aggressive towards you that needs to be dealt with first  – perhaps even consider calling in a professional to find out why. Most horses aren’t naturally aggressive; so if they are aggressive it is normally caused by pain or fear.

The next step is to spend some undemanding time with your horse – quality time from your horse’s perspective. Go sit in the field with him – and let him come to you. Learn to read his body language, how to observe, and what to observe. Start to be aware of the smallest signs – awareness leads to feel.

If he doesn’t come up to you don’t worry, it might take time ( several or even numerous visits). Spending undemanding time will help your horse gain trust in you and enable you to reflect on what you are really seeing and feeling rather than doing. If you really struggle with “being in the now”, take a good book and just observe your horse occasionally. When your horse does approach, do nothing – let your horse take the first step, touch or whatever, and just be. Don’t scratch or stroke unless you know that your horse really likes it. The time you spend with your horse without doing or expecting anything is time well spent – you will “feel” each other better and understand each other more.

Once your horse is comfortable with coming to you, then your next step is for you to approach your horse in the field. Do just that and only that, walk up to your horse; treat, scratch or do something your horse likes – then walk away. It doesn’t matter if you walk away and sit down or if you walk out of the field completely. You are still totally undemanding of your horse. Do this for a few days, does he start to want to stay with you? Then think about taking your horse out for walks – gentle ambles along the lanes – going from one grazing patch to another.

One you have worked on the basics of the relationship – it is time to strengthen that connection by learning and using a new language, the horse-human language. This isn’t just a “Natural Horsemanship” concept –   communication is the foundation for good horsemanship!

Body language is the key to you understanding your horse and your horse understanding you. Start to think about what your body is saying to your horse, are you applying too much pressure? Is your message congruent? Is your primary aid (body) at odds with your secondary aid (rein/whip)? Learn to read what your horse is saying to you – the head turned away, a relaxed neck,  a high head, a twitch of an ear, a wrinkled nose, a tail swish – all mean something. Learning to “speak” and “read” takes time and effort. If you need help ask a professional for a few lessons as this can help speed up your learning process and stop you making some elementary mistakes.

Once you have the basics in place you can continue to develop your communication skills and relationship with training your horse, either on the ground, in the saddle or a combination of the both.


Last month I wrote an article about Starting Groundwork to improve your communication with your horse and help to gymnastise his body by using basic leading exercises. This month I want to take you a step further in your amazing journey of using groundwork exercises.

If you tried the exercises mentioned in the previous article you will have found that both you and your horse have an “energy bubble”. This bubble pretty much defines your personal space.  Push on the bubble and you (or your horse) will either move away or react (possibly aggressively). As you progress with these exercises you need to learn not to push against each other, and to learn just how much space you each need so that you can keep the appropriate distance from each other, where you are both comfortable. You need to be able to walk in balance next to each other, to stop and start as one. When all this is in place it will feel as though you have a joint bubble, one in which both you and your horse are comfortable.

Once the basic leading exercises are reasonable well established you can move on to the continuation exercises defined here, learning how to refine your body language and speed up the reactions of your horse. This is when you start to “dance” together as you move your joint bubble forwards, backwards and sideways.

Probably one of the most important things to remember about groundwork is that your body is your primary aid. The rein, the stick, and your voice are all secondary aids. Basically primary aids cannot be taken away (unless you remove yourself from your horse’s presence), secondary aids can be taken away or not used. In an ideal world your horse responds to the primary aid and the secondary aid is only used if further explanation or refining is required.

Using your primary aid you can start to ask for more engagement in your transitions. When you ask for a stop, try tilting your pelvis by “tucking your tail between your legs” to prepare your horse for collection. Then ask for just one step forward, stop and then one step backwards with your bod by taking your weight slightly forward and then backwards, only supporting with your stick if necessary. Remember if you want engagement you need to engage your body too! When this is going well, you and your horse can start “rocking” together. Whilst in a halt see if you can move the weight of both you and the horse forward and then backwards, so that you slowly start swinging front, rear, front, rear.

Now start playing with extension and speed. Can you increase the pace a little and lengthen your stride and get your horse to emulate you? Can you reduce the speed and have your horse slow down too? Try this using only your primary aid (body language) and variations of your energy level. Try walking slowly for a couple of steps, then stop, go forward a step, stop, back up five steps, stop, stride forward, slow right down etc. etc. Can you and the horse walk at the same pace? Your left leg is equivalent to the horse’s left hind leg and your right leg is equivalent to the horse’s right hind leg. How big or small do your steps need to be to match your horse, and once you can match him, can he match you?

Once all this is going well you can start to ask your horse for correct shape which means introducing stelling and bending. It is normally easier to start this exercise on a small circle – something like a 10m  volte. You will need to be on the inside of your horse, so that you are on the smaller circle and your horse on the outside. As always we need to explain to the horse what we want with our primary aid, our body. So if we want our horse to bend, then we need to bend in our own body and if we want our horse to soften and give us stelling, then we need to be relaxed in our own neck and jaw line.

Standing beside your horse try relaxing your neck and flexing your head slightly to the inside, can you transfer this movement to your horse?  Probably not to start with; but if you can’t, don’t worry. Support the stelling of your neck and jawline by touching the back of your outside hand at the girth and then, if you still need to clarify things a little further to your horse, do so by briefly closing the fingers of your inside hand on the rein (small impulse).  The moment that your horse softens and flexes at his throatlash – reward him. Repeat this exercise at a standstill until your horse relaxes and softens and offers stelling easily and willingly.

Now turn your shoulders slightly towards the middle of the circle, to show your horse the right bending with your body and start walking. Remember you need to keep a small stelling in your own neck. As you walk on the circle you can ask for the inside hind leg to step forward and under the point of mass with your stick. Once the exercise is easy on one rein, change the rein and try it the other way, and then add in transitions.

Then when all the above leading exercises work well in a walk, try them all in a trot.

Remember

Collect by “tucking your tail between your legs” in your own body.

Rock together, forwards and backwards.

Vary the speed, even in trot.

Ask for stelling and bending in your horse by finding bending and relaxation in your own body.

I have written a lot recently about how we can use groundwork to help correct our horse’s asymmetry. Gymnastic exercises done in hand or on line help strengthen the horse so he can carry us, the rider, without detriment to his body. This is something that any horse benefits from, especially those that for some reason have difficulties under saddle. These difficulties could include falling on the forehand, poor top line, difficulty in stepping under with a hind leg, over bending at the base of the neck or falling in or out on circles.

However before we can start gymnastising our horse with the appropriate exercises, we need to have some basic leading skills in place. There are numerous ways you can work with your horse on the ground: these include walking backwards in front of the horse, walking forwards by the shoulder of the horse, walking behind the horse, using one rein or two or on the lunge. Probably the simplest way for the human to start is at the shoulder of the horse. But we need to have some basic skills and communication with the horse in place to do this properly. You cannot work on your horse’s body if you have to drag your horse along by his lead rope or are in danger of being towed behind him at high speed.

You won’t need any fancy equipment to try these exercises, although a French link cavesson or rope cavesson are ideal. If you don’t have a cavesson you can use your usual head collar or rope halter. You will also need a short lunging line or lead line (10 to 12 ft), or a rein with a clip at one end. Finally you will need a dressage or schooling whip (4ft or so) or a natural horsemanship stick.

Exercise One – Leading your horse from his shoulder

This simple exercise is fundamental to any work you wish to do. Can you walk with your horse, shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the horse? Place yourself by your horse’s shoulder with the rein or line in the hand further from the horse and your stick and the tail of your line in your hand that is closer to his shoulder.  Don’t wrap the rein around your hand, and carry the tail of the line in loops. Be careful that you don’t drop the tail of the rein so it trails behind you, as it could get caught around either your legs or those of your horse. The hand that holds the rein should be loosely closed with a slight loop in the line between your hand and the horse. Now start walking. In the beginning you may need the support of a fence to stop the horse falling out. You need to be able to walk together and stop together. Walking together does not mean that you walk away and drag the horse along by pulling on the rein, it means that you both take the first step together, at the same time. You must clearly demonstrate in your body that you want to move forward, so bring your point of weight forward and lean slightly in the direction that you want to go. If your horse doesn’t walk off with you, slow down, and use the whip to tickle your horse on his belly. Walk a couple of strides and then prepare to stop. Don’t stop too abruptly. Prepare for the halt by using a gentle half halt with the rein when the front leg closest to you touches down. Then the next time the leg touches down, offer another little half halt, exhale, sink down a little in your knees, tuck your tail bone under and lean your upper body slightly backwards. If the horse does not want to stop, bring the whip in front of the horse and then if necessary use the whip (to tap) on the horse’s chest. Don’t pull on the rein. It is important to remember that the rein does not regulate the horse’s speed and a half halt is about rebalancing!  Once you can start and stop easily from one shoulder, repeat the exercise at the other shoulder. It can be surprisingly difficult to do this from the right.

Exercise Two – Turns

Once you can start and stop on a single track along the fence, you can leave the outside track and start working on the various patterns that will help with the gymnastising of your horse.  However before you can begin to do circles, figure 8s and serpentines you need to be able to turn your horse to the left and right whilst still leading from the shoulder. Initially you need be extra clear about your intentions in the turns. So, assuming you are leading from the left and want to go to the left, turn your body clearly to the left so that you are turning away from your horse and allowing room for your horse to turn. Weight your left leg a little more and turn – hopefully together. If you want to go to the right, turn your body towards your horse, lift the rein towards the horses head and your whip hand towards his shoulder. Weight your right leg a little more and if necessary bring your whip up and forwards towards the horse’s head to help get the turn.

Exercise Three – 10m Circles

Once you can turn easily, you can start more complex patterns. Begin with a 10m circle on the left rein. Circles (when done correctly) are very good for balancing the horse and softening the inner side of the horse by stretching the muscles on the outside of the horse. Your horse should be on the outside of the circle with you walking a slightly smaller circle. If possible try timing your footfall to your horse’s front legs – left leg, left fore, right leg, right fore. Find a tempo in which you can both work and walk in a relaxed fashion and when you are happy with the circle to the left, stop. Change sides and try a circle to the right. Try and be as precise as possible with your circle. I would suggest that you measure your circle carefully and put out markers at 12 ‘o’ clock, 3 ‘o’ clock, 6 ‘o’ clock and 9 ‘o’ clock so that your circle is accurate and doesn’t inadvertently become an egg. This way you will be able to tell if your horse starts to drift out on one rein (that will be towards his stiff side). Once your circles are firmly established you can try spiraling in and out. To spiral in, weight your inside leg a little more and turn your shoulders slightly in, to spiral out, weight your outside leg a little more and turn your shoulders slightly out.

Remember

Reward often. Show appreciation and tell your horse he is doing well. Focus on using your body language to move the horse where you want.

Start together – lean slightly forwards.

Stop together – exhale, sink down in your knees, tuck your tail and lean slightly backwards.

The whip regulates the speed if your body language is not enough. Increase the speed by using the whip where your lower leg would be if you were riding. Decrease the speed by showing the whip in front of the horse or on the chest.

Do not hang on each other. Respect the personal space of each other.

All new movements are unfamiliar and strange to the horse at first. He therefore needs time to understand what it is you want him to do and how to do the movement. You may have to stop frequently and give the horse a chance to process the last steps and to prepare for the next ones.

These exercises are just the start – as you continue you will refine your body language and speed up the reactions of the horse. You will be able to transfer your own relaxation and softness to the horse. Then you can start dancing together.

I originally wrote this post in 2018 but  it is as relevant now as it was then.

As anyone who has followed my articles for any length of time or attended one of my clinics or classes  will know, I am pretty obsessed by asymmetry (both our own and our horses) and how being crooked can have a major effect on our health, the health of our horse and our riding. So I thought we could have another look at what we can do to help solve some of those crookedness issues!

As far as we, the human, are concerned, there are three major front/back crookedness patterns that we tend to suffer from. Before we look at these and how to help correct them, we need to make sure we know what the ideal is.

Good posture is basically nothing more than correct spinal alignment. This alignment is commonly called neutral spine and it defines correct posture, whether we are standing, or sitting in the saddle.

With ideal posture the body’s centre of gravity is balanced over the centre of the foot, with the weight being balanced equally on both feet. Proper alignment is observed when a plumb line falls from the mid line of the ear, through the shoulder, the greater trochanter (at the hip), slightly anterior (front) of the knee to finish just slightly anterior of the ankle. When assessing the posture from the front, the plumb line should halve the body, with the line passing through the forehead, the centre of the sternum, and the pubis. In addition the head should be level (not tilted), the shoulders should be even without any elevation or depression and the point of hips (ASIS) even.

The most common postural deviations are round backed (kyphosis), over arched back (lordosis) and swaybacked (s-shaped). In addition to these front/back crookedness types, there is also left-right crookedness which includes scoliosis. Obviously being aware of what your posture’s default is, is essential before you can start to correct it. If you don’t know then you may need to consider having a posture assessment.

Awareness of our body (proprioception) is all about our ability to stay safely upright without compromising our joints or ligaments.  The skeleton is supported and moved by the muscles of our body. If our skeleton is out of alignment, then our muscles and ligaments are either overworking or under working to compensate and these muscular imbalances leave our body vulnerable to injury.

So how do we start to correct our crookedness – well fundamentally we can alter our body’s awareness and posture through exercise. It can be Pilates, Swiss Ball, Yoga or Feldenkrais, but exercise, carefully controlled, correct exercise is the key.

Let us look more closely now at each of the 3 main postural types, and what exercises can most help each type.

Round Backed

This posture is where the shoulders are rounded, resulting in an excessive curve of the upper back. You may sometimes hear this referred to as Upper Cross Syndrome. This posture type is common with office workers, or those who spend a long time sitting at a computer, reading, driving or watching tv. Indicators of this postural style include:

  • Head/chin held forward.
  • Cervical spine hyper-extended.
  • Shoulder-blades may elevate and rotate upwards and outwards.
  • Thoracic spine has increased flexion.
  • Pectoral muscles are tight.
  • Rectus abdominis and internal obliques are tight and external obliques are weak/
  • Lower and mid trapezius and rear deltoids are lengthened with the shoulders pulled forward.

Consequences of round backed posture in the saddle:

  • Strains rider’s intervertebral discs.
  • Leads to chair seat with rider behind horse’s movement.
  • Frequently causes rider to look down and round their shoulders.
  • Makes it difficult for the horse to step underneath his point of mass.
  • Makes it hard for the rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Chin Tuck
  • Swan Dive
  • Spine Twist
  • Cobra
  • Chest opener (over ball) or Dumb Waiter
  • All core strengthening exercises – Bridge, Boat, The Hundreds, Scissors
  • Full walk out on ball

Over Arched Back

This posture type is common in pregnant women, dancers, gymnasts, those who carry too much weight around the belly and those who participate in sport requiring repeated lumbar hyper-extension. If your back over arches you may have some of the following:

  • Pelvis tilts forwards (hip bones are in front of pubic bone).
  • Rectus abdominis and external obliques are lengthened and are usually weak.
  • Gluteals (maximus and medius) are weak with poor tone.
  • Hamstrings are tight.
  • Lumbar spine is hyper extended.
  • Knees may be hyper-extended.
  • One hip is frequently tighter than the other.

Consequences of over arched back posture in the saddle:

  • Causes low or mid back pain.
  • Causes horse to invert and hollow his back.
  • Limits suppleness in the rider’s shoulder girdle.
  • Makes it hard to find elastic contact.
  • Makes it hard for rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Pelvic tucks
  • Cat & Horse (mat)
  • Arch & Chair (ball)
  • Hamstring stretch
  • Side Clam
  • All core strengthening exercises – Bridge, Boat. The Hundreds, Scissors
  • Seated walk out on ball

Sway Backed

This postural type is common in people who stand for long periods of time, particularly when they rest the majority of the body weight on one leg. This posture’s main features are:

  • Head and chin held forward.
  • Cervical spine is slightly flexed.
  • Lumbar spine is flexed.
  • Posterior tilted pelvis (pelvis is swayed forward in relation to feet).
  • Weak hip flexors (stretched).
  • Upper rectus abdominis short and tight but lower abdominis weak.
  • Knees hyper-extended.
  • Hamstrings short

Consequences of sway backed posture in the saddle:

  • Puts rider behind the motion, can cause leaning on the reins.
  • Makes it hard for the horse to step under his point of weight.
  • Restricts the movement of the rider’s pelvis.
  • Makes it hard for the rider to feel the foot fall of the horse.

A few suitable exercises are:

  • Jack knife with ball
  • Ham string stretch
  • Bridge
  • Boat
  • Squats
  • Plank
  • Plank with side bend
  • Side Plank

Like us, our horses are probably crooked. Hollow on one side, and stiff on the other. Just as we need to recognize our postural type so we can do the right exercise for us, we need to know what our horse’s natural tendencies are.

Like ours, our horse’s proprioceptive system will lie to him. We need to help the horse have a greater awareness of his body. We need to help him find better balance because otherwise we leave his body vulnerable to injury.

So what is “straightness” in a horse?  Straightness as a term used in the training pyramid refers to the horse’s feet being aligned on the line of travel. This means that the inside pair of legs are on the inside of the line, the outside pair of legs on the outside of the line, with the spine (in theory, if not practice) forming a segment of the line.  So on a straight line the horse’s spine would be straight and on a curved line, the spine would be bent. Unfortunately one of the main problems with this is that the horse’s shoulders are narrower than his quarters and your horse will invariably try to line up one front leg with the hind leg on the same side, rather than centring his shoulders directly in front of the pelvis.

When you’re riding whole school (going large), most horses will tend to lean against the rail with their outside shoulder, so that their outside front leg is the same distance from the rail as their outside hind leg, which means that his shoulders are no longer centred in front of his pelvis and the horse is crooked. Because the inside hind leg is no longer able to step forward and under the centre of mass, the outside shoulder will have to support the share of weight that the inside hind leg should be carrying but isn’t.

Very often we become aware of our horse’s asymmetry because our saddle slips to one side. Our initial thought may be to tighten the girth and the second that we need to change our saddle.  But this is probably not the answer. Recent research in Australia has shown that over tightening a girth results in deterioration in the overall performance of race horses. And whilst we may not be racing, over tightening a girth will certainly affect our horse’s biomechanics. A better fitting saddle may be the solution, and having your saddle checked out by a Master Saddler or qualified fitter is always worthwhile to ensure that it does fit properly, but in my experience, a slipping saddle is often caused by how our horse flexes (or rather doesn’t) his hind legs and carries his body weight. So before changing your saddle or over tightening the girth try sending your horse to the gym.

Just as we are right or left handed our horses will favour their left or right side. Over time this leads to the over development of shoulder muscles and/or haunches on the side (normally the stiff) they prefer to weight. Your horse will be heavier in the hand on the stiff side, fall out or in with his shoulders on the stiff side and fall in with his haunches on the hollow side. When a horse is crooked he has difficulty in stepping underneath his body mass with his hind leg on his hollow side. This can lead to a shortened stride with the hind leg on the stiffer side and cause problems with the correct flexing of the joints. When the hind leg can’t flex properly, the hip on that side rises. This can cause the saddle and rider to slide over to the other side. Changing your saddle will therefore not alleviate the problem, only a rehab program where you work on correcting your horse’s crookedness will correct the muscle imbalance.

We can choose to work with our horse either on the ground or in the saddle, or with a combination of both. I find it easier to start on the ground, either on-line or in hand as then I can actually see how my horse is moving and teach him the movements without the interference of my weight. Other people prefer to do all the exercises under saddle. There is no right or wrong, it is whatever is easier for you and your horse but fundamentally the exercises to correct your horse’s crookedness are the same. To achieve straightness we need to teach the horse to bring his hind legs under his centre of gravity and flex the joints during the weight bearing phase of the leg, this can be done by working on curved lines, changing the bend and using lateral movements.

Basically we can choose exercises that create body awareness and coordination, supple the entire body of the horse or target individual muscle groups.  The following two exercises allow us to analyze our horse’s crookedness as well as generally supple his entire body.

Exercise One – Diagnosing Crookedness – Figure 8

Mark out 2 x 10 metre circles (volte) with cones to mark gates ways at 12, 9, 6 and 3, with the circles sharing a common gateway at 3 and 9. Ensure that both circles are perfectly round and exactly the same size.

Ride the circles at a walk and then a trot. Observe what happens. As a result of natural crookedness most horses will make the circle on the hollow side smaller and larger on the stiffer side.

Exercise Two – Spiral Volte  – Improving Crookedness

  • Ride a 10m circle (volte) in the first corner of the long side of the arena.
  • When your horse is parallel to the short side of the arena, enlarge the volte 2 strides from the inside leg, so that the shoulders and hips move out simultaneously. When enlarging the circle to the horse’s stiff side he will want to lead with his shoulders, when enlarging the circle towards the horse’s hollow side he will want to lead with his quarters. Ensure that both hips and shoulders move together, if the shoulders or hips lead there is no gymnastic benefit.
  • The moment you have enlarged the circle by 2 strides, turn the shoulders to resume the volte. This way the volte remains the same size throughout as it progresses along the long side of the school.
  • When you reach the second corner of the long side change the rein through a figure 8 to a new 10m volte and repeat the exercise on the other rein.
  • Start at a walk and when you and your horse know the pattern try it at a trot.

So far in this series we have looked at “the importance of straightness” and “the importance of the hips”. But just as you can’t build a house without a good foundation, we can’t correct the posture of either our horse or ourselves without looking at our feet. Both horses and humans will find a way to favour the leg (foot) they prefer, so working on both our own and our horse’s asymmetry needs to be a continual process. We can obviously help to address the issue by improving our awareness (of both our own and our horse tendencies) and changing our proprioception. The problem for both us and our horses is that we are set (subconsciously) in a whole pattern and it is only when we become aware of the root cause of the problem that we can start to fix it. And that cause is all too frequently our feet.

Let us look first at ourselves without the horse. Yoga teachers often use the word grounded. It can be a verb (to ground through the feet) or an adjective (a grounded feeling). Taking it literally, we can start by feeling our physical connection to the ground. Feel all the different points on your feet that are touching the ground right now. Is your heel resting on its inner edge, or its outer edge, or the middle? Is there more weight on your toes or on your heels or is the weight equal? Is the ankle tipping to one side or the other, putting weight on a certain side of the arch? Become aware of how you are standing.

Now, through this connection to the floor, let the rest of your body relax towards the ground. Imagine the heaviness of your shins and calves flowing through your ankle to the ground.  Picture the weight of your knee and thigh bones flowing downwards, then imagine the weight of your pelvis sinking towards the floor. Let the weight of the spine and the head flow down towards this stable base. Now you might start to feel “grounded.”

Grounding is not always a feeling of heaviness, it is also energising. With both feet on the floor, notice how the ground holds firm and doesn’t sink. Imagine your feet resting on a pillow, and then feel the comparative hardness of the actual floor. It quite literally supports you. It even pushes back. The “ground reaction force” is studied by athletes and it is this “ground reaction force” we need to use as riders to help our horse obtain true impulsion. In other words “ground reaction force” is the rebound of your action against the ground, or when we are riding the rebound action of our horse’s hoof against the ground when it is placed correctly.

The idea of grounding is a mental shift; we might not feel or think about it when we are practicing yoga or Pilates but all the standing and balancing poses should focus on lifting off and pushing away from the floor. Sports and good posture do the same. We have to welcome the floor, with our feet, and lift off from there. Then our posture will have a stable foundation.

Just like your horse, your foot position is a critical factor with every step you take. Most of us are either “pigeon toed” or “duck footed” and this affects both our knees and our hips. It is only when we walk with our feet pointing forward that the muscles and ligaments that surround our hips and knees are able to work properly.

The simplest way to check whether your feet are in alignment is to use the straight edge of an exercise mat. Line up

the outside edge of your foot so that it runs parallel to the edge of the mat. Now your foot is straight and your pelvis can work correctly – however the chances are this positioning will feel abnormal.

To test out how much our feet can influence the freedom of movement of our pelvis try this exercise. Sit up straight, towards the front of a hard chair, with equal weight in each seat bone.  Your knees should be at approximately 90° and your feet pointing straight ahead with the weight equally distributed across your foot. Now, without raising your heel, try and lift your right hip, taking the weight from your right seat bone and closing the gap between your rib cage and hip bone, without moving your torso.  Do this a few times and then try your left hip. Once you feel that you have the movement try transferring your weight into the outside of your foot and try again. Then turn your feet out and try.

Now let us look at the horse. We know that if we want our horse to use his body correctly, he has to be in balance. The fact that he can have 60 per cent of his weight on his forehand whilst he is grazing isn’t a problem – providing there is no one sitting on his back. However the moment we sit on his back things change. If his hind legs are behind or to the side of his central mass then physics dictate that the combined weight of both the horse and the rider is on his forehand. That in itself can cause long term damage to the fore limbs and shoulders but if the rider tries to change the head set by just using the reins that damage can manifest itself with problems in the poll and neck,  kissing spine or damage in the lumbar sacral area.

As you will know yourself, if you lose balance you will tense your body to avoid falling over, perhaps even taking a step or two forward or backwards that you hadn’t intended. That also happens to our horse. If he doesn’t feel secure

on his feet then the horse will brace and in more extreme cases, rush or refuse to move! How many people have horses on which they use stronger and stronger bits because their horse “leans” on it, perhaps the horse is only leaning on the bit to help with his balance?

Although it may seem impossible, lots of horses don’t seem to know they have four feet. Like us, our horse will have a dominant side – perhaps his left, perhaps his right and most of his weight will be carried on the front leg of that side (that’s the shoulder that falls out or in on a circle). Some horses struggle so much with the concept of transferring weight on to the other 3 legs they refuse to lift that particular hoof when being trimmed, shod or having their feet picked out. Our response is frequently, that our horse is naughty or stupid – but it may well not be that – it could easily be that our horse is frightened of falling over.

As always one of the best ways to see if there is a problem, and to start to teach the horse how to use all 4 legs, is on the ground. Start (assuming it is safe to do so) with standing in front or a little to one side of your horse. Observe if the forelegs are vertical or if the horse is leaning over them so they are a little behind the vertical. Is the weight more on one front leg than the other? If he is leaning over his front legs ask him to shift his weight back, does he take a step backwards or does he just shift his weight? Once he is standing with a little more weight on his hind legs ask if he can transfer his weight from one foreleg to the other, can he just shift his weight or does he need to move his feet? Once you can influence the front feet take a look at the hind feet. Is one hind leg a little to the side and is one leg further back? Ideally we want all 4 feet standing squarely underneath.  Try asking for the leg that is trailing behind to step forward a little. With time and patience you can start to influence the way your horse stands. However it does take time, patience and appropriate exercises – remember your own problems with your own proprioceptive system.

This is where working on a circle and asking your horse to step forward and under with his inside hind leg and lateral exercises in hand can really help. It teaches the horse to have awareness of his feet and how to engage the correct muscles without the added burden of the rider’s weight.

Once we’re in the saddle we need to take a further look at ourselves before we turn attention to the horse. Weighting the inside more than the outside of our foot can shorten the space between our hip and shoulder on that side. Whilst turning one foot out more than the other can increase the weight in the seat bone on the opposite side. Turning both feet out blocks our hips, as does carrying the weight on the outside of the foot. Rolling the weight to the outside of the foot also raises the heel and strains both the ankle and knee. In order to have both feet pointing forward with the weight equally distributed between the inside and outside of the foot we need to rotate our thigh bone (femur) at the hip. This can be done by standing in the stirrups and grabbing the inside of your thigh by taking your hand around th

e back of your thigh and pulling your inside thigh outwards and back. Do this and then carefully sit down allowing your knee to drop downwards. Initially the position won’t last – that damned proprioceptive system will ensure you go back to what is the norm for you. But by being aware of your own tendencies and making the correction on a frequent basis will eventually pay off.

Once we have sorted ourselves out, we can start to think of helping our horse become more aware of his feet. We all know the benefits of doing lots of transitions but you can take this a step further by stopping into individual hooves.

Obviously in order to do this exercise, you need to know how to feel the footfall of your horse and ideally how to stirrup step as well. Assuming you know both of these basics, ride at a walk on a 20m circle.  Think of your circle as a clock, to make this easier it is a good idea to place markers at 12 ‘o’ clock, 3 ‘o’ clock, 6 ‘o’ clock, and 9 ‘o’ clock.  The idea is that you are going to stop at each marker by transitioning to a halt over 3 strides of each individual leg. Start with the outside fore and half halt into this foot when that foot is on the ground. The half halt needs to be applied between the moments the foot touches down and before it passes the vertical. You can do a half halt either by using a stirrup step on the same side as the foot you are targeting, by using a slight drop in the pelvis on that side, or by the rein on that side (or any combination of the former). Apply the half halt twice (i.e. for two strides of the outside fore) and then on the third stride stop into the outside fore. Check if your horse has stopped square. If he hasn’t ask him to move the relevant leg or ask him to take a step backwards if your rein back is good.  Walk on again and this time, target the outside hind.  Check your halt and then walk on again. Now target the inside fore and finally the inside hind. Repeat the exercise a few times and then try it on the other rein. Do all the half halts and stops go through equally? Or is one foot much harder to communicate with? If your horse is weighting the opposite shoulder to the foreleg you are targeting, or not stepping through properly with his hind legs they won’t. This exercise can be used as both a diagnostic and as a corrective exercise and the half halts and stops should become more permeable with repetition.

Many people believe that a supposed weakness or bad habit must be overcome through some forceful routine. That is not true, awareness is the key and then we can target the issue with appropriate exercises. This way, our (or our horse’s) flexibility, balance and alignment will increase automatically.

All horses and all humans are asymmetrical to a greater or lesser extent. The muscles on one side of the body are stronger than the other, one side may be more flexible than the other and we (and our horses) are more coordinated with one hand or hoof than the other. So if we are all asymmetrical, why should care if we or our horses are straight?  Fundamentally the asymmetries of the horse and rider have a profound influence on each other which is why straightness or symmetry should be important to us as riders.

If you compete in dressage the chances are you will know that Straightness is the 5th element in the Dressage Training Scale, following after Rhythm, Suppleness (& Relaxation), Connection and Impulsion. As dressage riders we realise the importance of straightness or the lack of it, fairly early on, as we struggle to ride a straight centre line or stop falling in on a circle. Conversely many leisure riders don’t ever think about straightness and just assume that the way their horse moves is the norm or that they need to tighten their girth just a little bit more to stop their saddle slipping to the right.

However, the negative consequences of us not correcting both our own and our horse’s asymmetries can have a serious adverse effect on our horse’s soundness and well being not to mention our own health.

Let us look first at our horse and why crookedness should have such a negative effect on our horse’s performance, ride-ability, and health. I read a simile recently that compared our horse’s crookedness to a car whose chassis is bent after an accident or where the wheels are not aligned. If the misalignment is severe enough, the car will not steer well, it will veer in one direction, it will not hold its line of travel when you have to brake and the tires will wear very unevenly. The same principals can be said to apply to our horse.

  • He will make his turns smaller than intended towards his stiffer (convex) side and larger than intended towards his hollow (concave) side.
  • He will tend to veer away from the line of travel towards the stiffer side.
  • He will tend to stop with his haunches turned in or with the hind leg of the stiffer side out behind.
  • He will be difficult to bend towards the stiffer side.
  • He may have trouble cantering on the stiffer side. He will find it difficult to sidestep with the hind leg on the hollow side.
  • He will lean onto the rein of the stiffer side, while staying behind the rein of the hollow side.
  • He will overload the legs of the stiffer side, making them susceptible to repetitive stress injuries such as spavin, ring bone, and tendon injuries.

These are just some of the symptoms of crookedness that are caused by a misalignment of the horse’s feet. These problems originate because the hind leg on the hollow side does not step under the centre of gravity, but steps out to the side of the body, which results in that leg neither carrying nor pushing the body mass effectively. This then causes a chain reaction throughout the horse’s entire body.

One of the most serious consequences of the leg not stepping under sufficiently on the hollow side is that this overloads the diagonal shoulder, causing a loss of balance, which in turn leads to the horse leaning on the rein of the stiffer side and curving his spine towards the hollow side. In other words, the horse carries too much weight on his forehand and on the stiffer side of his body, which creates excessive wear and tear on the legs that have to carry more than their fair share of the weight.

This imbalance can also lead to muscle blockages as the horse will tense muscles to prevent himself from falling over. True relaxation and suppleness is therefore only possible when the horse is balanced, and balance is only possible when the horse is not crooked.

When the horse braces his muscles to prevent himself from falling over, his gaits are uncomfortable to sit. When the hind legs don’t flex and open at the joints sufficiently the back of the horse becomes tight, which prevents the back from swinging properly which in turn causes a roughness in the gait.

When a horse is stiff on one side and hollow on the other the rein contact can never be light, steady and even. The rein will always be heavier or harder on the stiff side. When our horse’s hips and shoulders are not aligned properly he won’t be able to bend correctly, which in turn has negative repercussions on his rhythm, suppleness, rein contact, impulsion, and collection.

When only one hind leg steps underneath the center of gravity (point of mass), the haunches are unable to direct all their energy towards the center of gravity, which means that the horse can’t develop his full impulsion. Other issues caused by crookedness (or not stepping under) in our horse can include “sucking back” or being behind the aids, which in turn can lead to shying and even more dangerous behaviors such as bucking and rearing.

Crookedness or asymmetries in the horse can have an adverse affect on the rider’s position too. When a horse is unable to flex his hind leg, his hip on that side is pushed up. This means that the rider will be sitting on an incline and her hip on the other side will slide down into the “void” and cause the rider to collapse at their waist.

The tendency of the horse to brace on the rein on the stiff side encourages the rider to brace her hand as well. This bracing on the stiff side can also make it hard for the rider to maintain rein length. Her arm on the stiff side will tend to creep forward taking her elbow further and further from her hip, whilst on the hollow side the rider may well take her hand further and further back in an effort to find contact. And if the horse has a tendency to carry his hips towards his hollow side he will probably place his rider in the same position.

But it is not just the horse’s asymmetries that cause crookedness. A crooked or asymmetrical rider can cause crookedness in their horse.

If the rider’s pelvis is unlevel, so that one hip is higher than the other the horse will fill the void and lift his hip on that side and then the hind leg on that side will lose the ability to flex properly and carry weight. If one side of the rider’s pelvis is further forward than the other, the horse will find it easier to do a canter depart, haunches in and half pass in that direction and may well tend to travel in a haunches-in position at all times. If the rider consistently has too much weight in one seat bone, then the horse will tend to veer in that direction, as well as falling in or out on a circle in that direction. If the rider’s pelvis is always tipped forward and she sits with a hollow back the horse will sooner or later mirror that position and hollow his back. Whilst if the rider sits in a chair seat the horse’s back will sag and his hind legs trail out behind.

The asymmetries of horse and rider influence each other. Sometimes the rider’s crookedness can cancel out the crookedness in the horse but they are far more likely to exacerbate each other. In fact, in most cases the rider’s and horse’s crookedness become so intertwined it becomes hard to know whose crookedness is whose. The first step in straightening either ourselves or our horse is awareness. Just as our proprioceptive system lies to us, so does the horse’s proprioceptive system lie to him. His body will seek to take the easiest route which isn’t necessarily the gymnastically beneficial solution.

This is when it really pays to work with your horse on the ground first. Whether you chose to work on-line, in-hand, on the lunge or with long reins, the advantage of working off your horse’s back are manifold. You know immediately if your horse falls out or in that the asymmetry is his and not because of your seat. You can see how the horse moves his body and be in a better position to influence him and you can help show him a better way of moving without accidentally interfering with his balance.

Just as we need to work on our horse’s asymmetries we also need to work on ourselves too. Whilst a posture assessment on PI will help you become more aware as to whether you are a chair seat or hollow backed rider, sit more heavily on one seat bone or another and which of your hands tends to brace more, we need to make an effort to correct ourselves and teach our body a new and better way of moving. There are any number of ways you can help yourself, including taking up Rider Exercise, Swiss Ball, yoga or Pilates classes.

In extreme cases exercise classes or ground work may not be sufficient for either you or the horse. If one of you has a pelvis that is seriously “out” for example, it may well be worthwhile consulting a Physiotherapist, or getting a Bowen or Emmett treatment.

Once we have worked on our horse and ourselves separately we can start to use arena patterns as diagnostic tools/improvement exercises when we ride.  The arena patterns and movements that we ride can change the horse’s balance and posture, which means we can use certain patterns to analyse and then target specific muscle groups. Every movement or exercise requires the use of different muscle groups in the horse’s body. For instance, corners, turns on the haunches and voltes mobilise the shoulders.

So as you can see, Straightness, for both the horse and the human, is the one of the most basic requirements there is for riding our horse in harmony. Perhaps it should no longer be placed at the end of the Training Scale but at the beginning with Rhythm. After all it is the combination of Straightness and Rhythm together that enables our horse to find his lateral and longitudinal balance, which then allows the horse to relax, become “through” in his back, find a light, steady and even rein contact, bend correctly, and to develop impulsion and collection.

I hope that I have provided a pretty convincing argument for the importance of straightness. It is certainly something I work towards everyday because the price we and our horses pay for crookedness is high, and the rewards of straightness are more than worth the time and effort.

Being able to feel the footfall of your horse and knowing at any given time where each of your horses legs are, is or should be, the foundation of good riding. Unfortunately, for most of us, it isn’t something we are taught when we start learning to ride. Indeed for a lot of people, feeling the footfall or even knowing the exact sequence of the footfall isn’t something they consider important, or even relevant to the way they ride.

So why is feeling where your horse’s feet are so important? Fundamentally it is because so much depends on it. If you don’t know where your horse’s feet are, the efficiency and accuracy of your aids are compromised, not to mention your horse’s balance and straightness! Applying the aids at the right time helps the horse respond correctly to the aid, while staying in balance, whilst applying them at the wrong time not only violates the laws of physics it actually makes it impossible for your horse to do what you have asked immediately and forces him to either ignore or resist the incorrectly timed aid.

There are two dimensions to knowing where the horse’s feet are; the first is feeling if a certain leg is in the air or on the ground and the second is knowing where the feet are on any given line of travel. Telling if a certain leg is in the air or on the ground is important because a horse can only respond promptly to certain aids when the leg is in the air, while other aids can only be effective if timed to when the leg is on the ground. Knowing where the horse’s feet are in relation to the line of travel is equally necessary as this plays an important roll in improving your horse’s straightness and balance.

Knowing the theory of the sequence of the footfall at a walk, trot and canter can help you feel and understand which leg is moving. One of the most common misconceptions people have is in thinking the horse begins walking by moving a front foot. He doesn’t. He actually begins the movement with a hind leg, which (even if it hasn’t yet come off the ground) has to push the horse forward. This push from the hind leg means that the horse fractionally looses balance and so has to reach forward with a front leg to catch himself and reestablish his equilibrium. The sequence of strides in a walk are therefore left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore (or vice versa), which makes the walk a four beat gait with no moment of suspension. To feel the horse’s back at the walk you need to be sitting with your seat bones pointing downwards and your weight equally distributed between your left and right seat bones. Your balance and the freedom of movement of your pelvis will have a direct affect on the quality of your horse’s walk and whether you can feel each hind leg.

The movement of the horse is bilateral. If your hips are tight, you will find it difficult to follow the movement, which will probably result in your pelvis moving forward and backwards rather than left to right and make it more difficult for you to feel what each foot is actually doing. When the left hind hoof touches the ground and the horse starts to put weight on that foot you should feel his back rise and lift your left buttock. As his right hind leg swings forward, his back on that side will drop and his rib cage will swing inwards. Pay close attention to one buttock at a time. Feel each lift and drop. Notice the constant movement of your hip joints. The front legs are easier as you can see the movement of the front legs by glancing down at the shoulders. When the shoulder blade moves forward, the front leg on that side is in the air. When the shoulder blade moves backwards the front leg is on the ground. You can also feel the movement of the front leg moving forward in your thigh and knee as they will move forward slightly at the same time.

If you can’t feel the hind leg touching down you may be leaning to far forward or hollowing your back. It could also be that your horse is not moving with enough energy so that the movement of the hind leg is too small. An easy way to help you learn is for you to put both reins into your outside hand and place your inside hand on the point of your horse’s hip. Feel the movement of your horse’s pelvis with your hand and once you have the feeling memorized place your hand on your own hip and try to feel the same movement pattern there. Eventually you will be able to feel the movement just with your pelvis.

Once you know if your horse’s legs are in the air or on the ground you can start to time your aids to make them more effective. For example if you wish to enlarge a circle you should time the sideward driving aid of your inside calf to coincide with when the inside hind leg is in the air. Equally if you wanted to move the shoulders of your horse to the inside, your horse will find it much easier to comply if you time your request to when the outside front leg is in the air. Half halts can only really be effective if you time them to coincide with a leg on the ground. So if you wanted to stop into the outside hind leg you could, for example do the following; half halt when the outside hind leg touches down (one stride), half halt when the outside hind touches down (second stride), halt (when the outside hind touches down (third stride).

When it comes to knowing if your horse’s feet are deviating from the line of travel it helps to give yourself some navigational markers, such as arena letters, trees, posts or anything else that can help make your straight lines really straight and your circles really round. This way you can tell if your straight lines are straight and your circles round. For instance I use small cones to form gateways at strategic places along my intended line of travel.  Then, if my horse steps on a marker I just have to ask myself, which leg it was. If it was a front leg, it means that my horse’s shoulder has drifted to that side and I haven’t framed my horse’s shoulder sufficiently with my knee and rein on that side. If it was a hind leg, it means that the croup has drifted in that direction and that I either didn’t frame my horse sufficiently with my calf or my horse ignored my aid. Of course drifting out through a shoulder or falling in with the croup can also be caused by the horse’s asymmetry as well as a rider fault but the more precisely I ride the lines the better balanced my horse will become.

Obviously we have only looked at the walk in this article but once you have mastered the walk and know the footfall sequence of the trot and canter, mastering these is relatively easy.

When done properly the “Turn on the Haunches” or “Pirouette” is one of the most effective gymnastic exercises for your horse that you can do. A correctly executed pirouette is a thing of beauty, a masterpiece of collection, impulsion, suppleness, strength and balance. In canter, it is one of the most physically demanding movements we can ask of our horse. It is a test of the rider’s ability to develop self-carriage and of a horse that is completely attentive and responsive to the aids.

The pirouette is a movement that fills many riders with awe and apprehension, a movement that too many feel is “not for me” because it is “beyond my abilities”. But as I mentioned in my introduction, it is a movement that has huge bio-mechanical benefits for your horse and whilst a perfectly performed canter pirouette may well be too advanced a movement at present, a walk passade is also extremely gymnastically valuable and can be learned relatively easily.

As with so many of the lateral movements there are a plethora of names to describe the same or similar exercise(s). Basically the “Turn on the Haunches in Motion” and “Passade” is one and the same, as is the “Turn on the Haunches” and “Pirouette”.  In either of these exercises the horse is bent in the direction of travel and is expected to retain the rhythm of the gait with all 4 legs. Which means the inside hind leg has to keep moving. They therefore differ considerably to the Western “Spin” in which the horse just pivots around his inside hind leg.  In a practical setting, such as bull fighting or herding cattle, pivoting is much faster. In fact prior to the 1850s a pirouette pivoted around the inside hind leg too, but as sword fighting became a thing of the past the pirouette evolved as bio-mechanically maintaining the footfall sequence is more beneficial.

Both the passade and pirouette are excellent exercises to improve your horse’s suppleness and mobility, help free his shoulders, engage the pelvis and hind legs, strengthen the abductor and adductor muscles and improve collection and uphill canter transitions! The only real difference between a passade and the pirouette is the size of the circle. When done properly, the passade is a very small turn in a quarter or half volte, with the hindquarters describing a smaller circle than the forehand.

It is a good idea to teach the passade on a slightly larger circle as if the circle is too small the hindquarters are apt to lose the rhythm or even come to a standstill. Probably the best place for your horse to learn the passade is in the corner of the arena, with the centre of the circle set some 3m to 5m behind the horse. When executed in the walk this is probably the easiest of the “side stepping while bending in the direction of travel” movements to learn and is a great preparation for renvers, travers, half pass and of course, the pirouette.  You can make things considerably easier for both yourself and your horse if you teach the exercise on-line or in-hand first.

Before you can begin to teach the passade on-line you will need to have taught your horse the cue to move his outside shoulder and outside hind leg across with the stick. Once you have that cue firmly established, walk your horse round on a 10m volte in the corner of an arena. After passing the corner come to a stop at the 5m point. Stand just in front and slightly to the inside of your horse, with your toes pointing towards the horse’s hip (approximately 45°).  Gently ask for flexion towards you. Start walking sideward and backwards around the arc towards the 5m point on the other side of the corner, drawing your horse’s chest towards your belly button. Ask for the shoulders and quarters to move as required by raising or pointing your stick.  Look for just one step initially and reward. Then ask for 2 steps and reward. Allow a little forward drift to make things easier for your horse and to give him room to be able to cross his outside legs in front of his inside legs. In fact you may like to ask for one stop forward and one across initially as this helps to keep the horse active and the gait pure.

While executing a walk passade, the horse’s body should be bent in the direction of the turn from ears to tail, in a harmonious curve. It should not be over bent or crooked with the neck going in one direction and the quarters another. This means that your horse needs to be supple and his muscles elastic enough to accommodate the extending of his body on the outside of the bend and the contracting of his muscles on the inside of the bend.

If your horse is stiff and his muscles are not supple or his tendons and ligaments are tight, he will find it difficult to bend well longitudinally, flex the joints of his supporting inside hind or extend the joints of his outside hind leg to step over and around his inside hind leg.  It is therefore important that you listen to your horse, are sympathetic to any difficulties he encounters and only ask for baby steps initially.

However, once both you and your horse find passade on-line in the corner easy on both reins it is time to try it in the saddle. At the 5m marker after the corner transfer your weight to the inside of your horse by rotating your pelvis. At the same time bring your outside shoulder a little forward. Your inside leg stays at the girth and keeps the inside hind leg active whilst your outside leg prevents the hindquarters from swinging out and supports the outside hind leg moving across.  The inside rein leads the horse into the turn whilst the outside rein defines the position of the head and neck and asks for the horse’s shoulder to move over as does your outside knee. The inside rein aid should be the most passive.   Break the movement down into tiny steps, and think inside calf to move forward, outside calf and hips to move the quarters across, then outside rein and knee to move the shoulders across.  A little trick that can help us get into the correct position whilst we are learning to do the passade is to turn and look at the inside hind leg of our horse. By doing so, we rotate our body in the way it needs to rotate and lean in towards the turn. You see this slight tilt of the torso a lot with the Spanish and Portuguese riders although it tends to be frowned on in conventional circles.

Common rider faults consist of

  1. Using too much inside rein.
  2. Too much outside leg.
  3. Collapsing the inside hip.
  4. Wrong placement of weight (onto the outside of the bend).

These faults frequently happen together and may cause the horse to step backwards and flex incorrectly.

requent horse problems include

  1. Incorrect bend, invariably towards the stiffer side, which may well be caused by the horse not stepping forward enough with the inside hind leg.
  2. Going backwards. The passade increase the amount of weight that the inside hind leg has to carry, so the horse avoids this by stepping backwards. Alternatively this could be caused by the rider error of using too much rein.
  3. Throwing the haunches out against your outside leg. This tends to happen when the inside hind leg struggles to flex; as the leg straightens it throws the haunches out. Throwing the haunches out can also be caused by the rider turning their pelvis the wrong way, e. taking the outside hip forward and down rather than the inside hip.
  4. Pivoting on the inside hind leg, this normally happens because the inside hind braces against the flex/additional weight. Use your inside calf to establish a forward step, then ask for the quarters to move across, then ask the shoulders, then ask forward.

Once you have mastered the passade in the corner you can progress to passade along the long side of the school to change the rein. You want to aim for the passade to be performed in the same rhythm as was performed in the walk immediately prior to and after the turn.

As your passade develops you can reduce the size of the circle until you eventually perform a half pirouette.

The stifle is the largest, most complex joint in the horse, and probably one of the weakest.

The bones that make up the stifle are the femur (thigh), tibia (shin), and patella (kneecap). A thin capsule surrounds the entire stifle joint that has a specialized fluid to help with shock absorption and lubrication. There are also a number of ligaments  that  provide stability.

In the centre of the stifle joint are two large crossing ligaments (the cruciate ligaments). These two ligaments form an X inside the joint by attaching to the femur and tibia. They prevent the leg from bending excessively but can unfortunately they can easily be torn or damaged.

While standing, the horse is able to lock his hind legs by shifting his weight and rotating the patella. This action which locks the three patella ligaments over a ridge located on the femur allows the horse to sleep while standing. However some horses are find it difficult to release these ligaments once engaged, hence the condition – locking stifle.

A weak stifle is often due to a general lack of muscle tone in the hind limbs and pelvis. This can be compounded by poor confirmation (very straight and upright hind legs), poor shoeing or trimming (too much toe or extended heels), arthritis or cruciate ligament injury.

Anatomically the stifle corresponds to the knee joint in humans. In humans it is well established that strengthening our gluteal muscles, along with our quadriceps and hamstrings plays a pivotal role in maintaining proper knee function. The same is true of the horse.

So just as a doctor will prescribe physiotherapy to a human after a knee injury or recommend pilates to someone suffering from arthritis, so our horses with weak stifles need more movement, not less (unless your vet specifically recommends box rest).

Research into stifle injuries showed that the affected horses are often clumsy, lack balance and are overweight. It was also noted that they frequently had weak abdominal and gluteal muscles. So we need to help address the horse’s balance and to tone muscle.

The more balanced, supple and flexible the horse is, the easier it will be for him to build correct muscles. When a horse becomes supple, he will relax in his work, which alleviates tension, allowing him to stretch further and become even more supple.

There are a number of exercises that can help strengthen the muscles that support the stifle these include rein-back, hill work and lateral movements.

A quality rein-back that is slow and precise will build strength in the hind end. A few even steps backwards during regular sessions will improve muscle tone in the horse’s haunches and hind legs. This exercise can be done under saddle or in-hand. However it is important that you avoid pulling on the reins to back your horse, as this will causes him to raise his head and hollow his back which in turn will restrict the hind end. Either gently raise each rein individually, or use a rope around the base of his neck to help him move more correctly. If working on the ground you can use a whip to lightly tap against his chest. A rein-back in a straight line will work on both hind legs equally whilst a rein-back on a curved line will work on the inside hind more.

Working over raised poles (cavaletti) either under saddle or in-hand is also great for weak stifles or hocks. The slow action of lifting the hind legs up and over the pole will strengthen the abdominal muscles and pelvis as well as the Tensor muscle and Long Digital Extensor which are responsible for the stability of the stifle.

Other exercises that work really well are enlarging a circle whilst retaining bend and turn on the forehand in motion.

Whether we are talking about humans or horses a strong and supple core is required to support the spine and reduce wear and tear on the joints. For riders a strong core is essential, as an engaged core holds us in lateral and longitudinal balance and gives our seat stability.

Pilates, yoga and Swiss Ball exercises all increase our core stability, strength and body awareness and help redress imbalances so that our body can become more symmetrical.  Core stability and suppleness are as important to our horses as they are to us. Developing our horse’s posture and balance not only improves performance but can also help reduce the risk of injury.

Stimulating and strengthening the core muscles of our horse is possible through groundwork and skillful use of ridden movements such as using arena patterns and targeting muscle groups with certain exercises. By performing specific exercises, the core muscles that make for good posture, a strong back and assist in carrying the weight of the rider can be strengthened. These include the deep internal muscles of the abdomen, pelvis, thoracic sling, and back together with the more superficial muscles of the trunk.

The following ridden exercises, performed at a walk and repeated on a regular basis will help target and strengthen your horse’s shoulders, thoracic sling, abdominals and hips.

  1. Volte – mark out a 10m circle with so that you can be precise with your line. Riding a small circle has a suppling effect on your horse’s lateral abdominal muscles. Ride around the volte, encouraging your horse to step forward and under with his inside hind leg. Make sure you follow the movement of his back and don’t block him with a ‘driving’ seat. Use your inside hip to create the bend you need and be as precise as you can to maintain the correct line. Notice if your horse falls out or falls in. Repeat the pattern until your horse feels fluid and willingly stretches down and forward into the bend. Change the rein and repeat the exercise on the new rein.
  2. Leg Yield – Bending against the direction of movement. This stretched leg yield with bend encourages the hips to move freely and stretches the muscles on the outside of the bend. Flex your horse against the direction of travel and use your weight in the direction of travel. Ask for the inside hind leg to step forward and under when it is in the air. This movement can be conducted on the long side of the arena or as an enlargement of the circle at a specific gateway on the volte.
  3. Turn on the Forehand in Motion – Bending against the direction of travel. This exercise works on many levels and when perfected later on, the horse will work in a very fluid outline. It teaches the horse to move away from a light inside leg which is the basis of straightness control, lateral work and precise cornering later on. It also builds the lateral and rotational pelvic control muscles, as well as engaging the abdominals and simultaneously lifting the spine. This can be a really difficult move to start with so only look for one or two correct steps initially. Start the exercise approximately 5m away from a corner of an arena.The idea behind the exercise is that you will ask your horse to perform an arc through the corner of the arena with his hind legs describing a larger circle than his front legs. The horse must step under his body with the inside hind leg and his quarters must move more than his fore end.  Flex your horse against the direction of travel. Take your weight in the direction of travel and gently ask for a slight forward/sideways movement with your inside leg. Back up the inside leg aid with a gentle whip aid, if needed, to get the first steps and watch out for evasions such as stepping backwards and falling out on the outside shoulder.
  4. Turn on the Haunches in Motion – Bending in the direction of travel. This exercise supples the shoulders, develops range of motion in the thoracic sling and encourages the horse to raise his withers. Start the movement 5m after the corner of an arena. The idea behind the exercise is that the horse performs an arc through the corner with his forelegs describing a larger circle than his hind legs. Flex your horse towards the direction of travel. Take your weight in the direction of travel and gently ask for a slight forward/sideways movement with your outside leg. Your outside rein and outside knee can ask the horse’s shoulders to move across. Your outside calf asks for the outside hind leg to step forward and under. Back up the outside leg aid with a gentle whip aid if needed. Watch out for evasions such as stepping backwards, throwing the haunches out or pivoting on the inside hind leg. This movement is not only a great precursor to the half pass and pirouette, it can be used to improve canter transitions.

It is important that great care is taken when introducing these exercises to your horse. Remember to reward the slightest try and appreciate that a “NO” may mean a “I CAN’T”. If you experience any difficulty try the exercise on-line or in-hand first.

The turn on the forehand in motion is one of the first lateral movements that you can teach your horse. The movement is not found in any dressage test, and as such the exercise is generally undervalued and under utilised.  The turn on the forehand in motion is invaluable in helping develop your horse gymnastically, as it teaches the horse to step under the point of weight with his hind leg and helps supple his hips. The skills involved in the exercise are also good preparation for future movements for both the horse and rider and it helps the trot become rounder.

The turn on the forehand in motion can be performed either in the corner or round a marker.  Unlike the standard turn on forehand, in the turn on the forehand in motion, the front legs also need to move to prescribe a small circle, with the hind legs, prescribing a larger circle. The spine of the horse, which is bent against the direction of movement, should remain parallel to the radius of the circle. This exercise is far more beneficial bio-mechanically to the horse than the standard turn on the forehand, where the inside front leg barely moves, which has little gymnastic value.

A pattern that works really well for teaching this movement either on-line, in-hand or under saddle is setting up a 10m volte in a corner of an arena with gateways or markers at the 4 points of the circle (12, 3, 6 and 9). Ride the 10m volte until you reach the 5m marker on the short side. Change bend and do the turn on the forehand across the corner from that 5m marker on the short side to the 5m marker on the long side, and then walk the 10m volte in the opposite direction, before repeating the turn on the forehand on the opposite rein.

If you have never done a turn on forehand before I suggest that you teach it to your horse on-line first. Obviously you will need some basic on-line communication in place, but assuming this is already established, walk your horse on a volte to the left, asking for a little flexion and stepping under with the inside hind. Stop at the 5m marker and ask your horse to change flexion and bend, so that the horse is flexed to the outside of the school. If you have walked around the volte beside your horse’s shoulder you will need to move in front of your horse’s head before asking for the turn on the forehand. Hold your cavesson line with your right hand fairly closely to the ring so you can use your hand if necessary to help your horse stay flexed against the direction of travel. With your stick in your left hand ask your horse to step to the right, remembering you need to ask his hind legs to step further then the front legs, so that his spine stays parallel to the radius of the circle. You will need to walk sideways, crossing your legs, round the small arc in front of your horse’s nose. Don’t ask for too much to start.  Accept one or two steps initially, reward and then walk back around the volte in the opposite direction. Repeat. The beginning of the movement is always the hardest. Remember you are looking for the inside (inside of the bend) hind leg to step in front and across the outside hind leg, and the inside front leg to step in front and across the outside foreleg.

This move can be really hard for your horse. If your horse is tight in his hips he may only be able to step next to his outside hind leg or even behind it. If one end of the horse moves faster than the other it is a form of crookedness, so you will need to slow down the end that is moving faster. If your horse tries to push forward it is a sign that his outside hind isn’t flexing sufficiently and is pushing too much. Equally if your horse drifts backwards it is probably because he is trying to cross behind the inside hind with his outside hind in an attempt to avoid the weight and flexion required on the inside hind. If your horse inverts, it is because his hips are tight and he is unable to step under with his hind legs, try and increase the bend slightly to ask him to soften. If your horse finds it hard, don’t get harder. Slow it down and accept one step at a time.

Once your horse is comfortable doing the movement in-hand you can try performing the turn on the forehand in movement under saddle.

Remember the outside of the movement is the outside of the bend of the horse, not the outside of the school. At the 5m market change the bend of your horse, so your horse is flexed to the outside of the school. Your outside hip (old inside) should come forward and tilt fractionally as you are taking your weight onto the outside seat bone in the direction of tra vel, and your inside hip should move back. However your inside leg needs to remain at the girth to ask the horse’s inside hind leg to move forward and across and your outside calf needs to be back behind the girth to prevent the horse’s hind quarters from escaping. Your outside rein should frame the horse’s outside shoulder. Your inside rein does very little. Ask the horse to start by using your inside calf so that he moves his inside hind leg forward a half step and then ask him to step across as the hind leg is in the air. You can help flex the outside leg by half halting or stirrup stepping into that leg whilst the outside hind on the ground. You can also ask the horse’s shoulders to move across with a nudge from your inside knee as the inside foreleg is in the air. In principal, although this all sounds horribly complex, and both the rider and the horse can find it really difficult to do initially it is worth pursuing.  The exercise teaches us how to control all of our horses feet individually and as I mentioned before has superb gymnastic benefits for our horse. Once we have mastered the movement it should be a delight and easy to ride on just an adjustment of our pelvis and weight.

One of the biggest concerns many students seem to have after attending a lesson or a clinic, is how they can continue schooling by themselves. Of course, I understand it much easier to train if you have your trainer there watching you and offering helpful advice but the goal for every instructor should be to furnish the student with the information to continue to improve by his or herself. Now don’t get me wrong, we all need those eyes on the ground to see things we can’t see for ourselves, but we should be able to feel confident enough to continue our schooling between lessons.

So how can we set ourselves up so that we can continue to learn and improve between those lessons? Well the number one thing is you still have your best teacher with you – your horse. By learning to listen to him and what he says you will really be able to improve your own riding and help him gymnastically.

Treat every session as a 2-way conversation, between you and your horse. There is no such thing as you (or your horse) doing something wrong. What we have is our horse showing us signs of a blockage or weakness either in his own body or in ours. All we need to do is a) identify the problem, b) find a possible cause, c) decide on a possible solution (an adjustment in your position or an exercise for the horse) and d) test it out.

Let’s imagine you are riding a 20m circle and your horse raises his head and hollows his back.  Don’t panic it is not the end of the world, take a deep breath, calm yourself and remind yourself the head being raised is not a real problem, it is just a sign that the horse is using to communicate to you. Or you could say it is a symptom and not the cause. As your horse’s trainer you need to work out what your horse is telling you. Or in other words you need to look for the possible cause of the problem, so you can formulate a working hypothesis to solve the situation.

So as I mentioned you need to look for possible causes. In this instance it could be a) the way you are sitting, b) the way you are moving, c) a tight back or d) a hind leg not moving under sufficiently. Having decided what you think the cause is you can now design an exercise to address the cause or adjust your position to test the hypothesis. If your horse improves with the exercise or the adjustment of your position, you can be pretty sure your diagnosis was correct, if he gets worse or is no better then you were wrong and you need to come up with an alternative hypothesis.

The following questions may help you ascertain how your session with your horse is going and get to the root cause of any problems.

Where is my line of travel? What line am I trying to ride? Is it the whole school, a 20m circle or a diagonal?  You need to be precise with your line of travel for your horse to follow the line precisely.

Where are my horse’s feet? Are the feet following the line of travel or is a foot (or two or even more) next to the line of travel? This fundamental criteria is really important as it is only the correct placement of his feet that allows your horse to balance himself laterally (left/right). Are all the feet loosing the line of travel or is it only part of the horse. Most horses are more likely to lose the front foot (shoulder) on the stiffer side and the hind leg (haunches) on the hollow side. Knowing which foot your horse loses will help you recognize his stiffer side so you can help supple him.

Which leg of my horse is supporting the majority of his weight? Now this will vary depending on the movement you are asking your horse to do; so for example on a canter depart you would want the main weight bearing to be on the outside hind or for a corner, to be on the inside hind but you wouldn’t normally want the main weight to be on the front leg of the horse’s stiffer side. So you need to train yourself to see where the weight is so you can help the horse address the situation before it turns into a train smash.

Another question to ask is whether the tempo is steady. Some horses have a natural rhythm and others don’t. Those that don’t are normally more challenging to ride. Tempo is important as it helps your horse find his longitudinal balance between front and back. Horses that rush normally do so because they have lost their balance. Combine tempo with a precise line of travel and the two together help a horse find balance, straightness, relaxation and rhythm. Once your horse can keep the line of travel and tempo you will be able to develop collection. Another question to ask on the subject of tempo is whether the tempo that you are asking for (or being given) is appropriate for the horse you are riding. You need to find out what tempo is best for your horse. To do this you will need to experiment; try asking him to go a little faster or slower. Does he get better or worse? If he gets better, ask a little more – is it still better or worse? If he starts to get worse you have pushed too hard, so slow it down or speed it up and ask for a little less or more. As your horse develops gymnastically his natural tempo will change.

Is my horse’s energy level appropriate, or is it too high or too low? Does it feel as though you are riding a slug or a time bomb? On some horses you need to build the energy up and on others you need to slow them down. If you need to build the energy up do quick transitions between the gaits, do lots of changes of direction and plenty of turns. If you are able to, switch from one lateral movement to another – such as counter shoulder-in to travers, or shoulder-in to renvers. To relax your horse, spend time following his movement just walking 10m or 20m circles, if you are able to, ride long straight lines of shoulder-in or other lateral movements or if your horse really needs to move his feet, trot steady circles until he settles.

Another question to ask yourself is whether you can feel your horse’s hind legs in your seat and your hands. If you can’t feel anything in your seat it may be that you are sitting with either a hollow back or in a chair seat or are just too tense, so check out your own seat first. But if you are sitting well and still can’t feel the movement with your bottom or the pulse of the rein (assuming your reins are the correct length, neither too short or too long) then the chances are your horse isn’t moving his hind legs sufficiently underneath himself or they are being left too far behind. If that is the case then you need to do something about helping him bring his hind legs further under his point of weight which you can do with a number of lateral moves, such as leg yielding against the direction of travel, shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in and turns of the forehand.

The next question to ask is if your horse’s back is moving and if so, is it moving up and down, forward and backwards or side to side? Once you can feel the movement you can start to influence it. Ideally we want an upward movement, so feel it, support it and then influence it.

Next look at your rein contact and consider how it feels. Is it light, steady and even? The reins can tell us a lot about what the rest of the horse is doing. So we don’t want to ride around with our reins so long that we miss out on a lot of information that the horse is sharing with us. Equally we don’t want to ride around with our reins too short; cranking the head in, in a mistaken belief we are getting an outline but actually restricting our horse’s head movement and causing the hind legs to trail behind. Assuming our reins are the right length then let us look at what they are saying. If they are light, then the chances are our horse has self-carriage. If the rein contact is heavy, then our horse is on his forehand. If the reins are steady, then out horse has a steady tempo. If our reins go slack and then tighten, then there is something wrong with the rhythm and there is stiffness somewhere. If the reins are even it is a reflection on our horse’s straightness whilst if he is heavier on one rein then it tells us he is crooked.

Does your horse’s whole body feel supple? Check out his different body parts with different exercises. Can he move his poll and neck, can he move his shoulders, can he move his rib cage, can he move his hips, and can he flex a hind leg? You should be able to target each specific body part with an exercise to test its suppleness. All of the various body parts are connected, so a tightness or blockage in one muscle group will cause blockages or tension in another area of the body. Supplying of a stiff muscle will cause a release in other muscles and help to improve the movement.

Check out to see if your aids go through, can you ask your horse to side step with your calf, can you ask your horse to flex with a rein aid into a specific leg, or can you half halt into a specific leg? Observe if the aid goes through or if it doesn’t, where it blocks. Do you feel that your horse tries to yield but actually moves a different part of his body, such as you ask for flexion and he falls out on a shoulder? If you find a blockage deal with it, use exercises and arena patterns to help your horse improve gymnastically.

Finally make sure you have your timing right, your horse can only respond to you if you time your aid correctly. A leg can only be redirected when it is in the air or flexed when it is on the ground. Practice telling where your horse’s legs are. You can see the movement of the front legs by glancing down at his shoulders. When the shoulder blade moves forward the front leg on that side is in the air. When the horse’s hind leg touches down your hip on the same side rises slightly, which you may feel as a slight bump under your seat bone.

he most important thing is have fun and practice. If you have problems let me know, if you have successes let me know. If you want more information, feel free to contact me or come along for a private lesson or attend one of my clinics.

The ability of a horse to bend depends on his suppleness and flexibility.

Although we often think about a horse bending from poll to tail, this actually does not happen evenly along the horse’s spine as the neck bends more easily than the thoracic spine, where the apparent bend is actually caused by a slight rotation of the rib cage.

Bending our horse is of vital importance, as basically correct bending leads to straightness, impulsion and ultimately collection. Bending is the equivalent of a Pilates workout for your horse. It helps mobilize his ribcage and spine and improves suppleness in his shoulders, torso, hips and hind legs! It is really the first thing we should teach our horse. We can work on our horse’s bending on the lunge, with groundwork, either on-line or in-hand or under saddle.

To improve our horse’s bend we can work on curved lines (circles, voltes, figures of 8, loops and serpentines) and lateral movements. For the curved line to be beneficial to the horse, our horse needs to align himself on the curve. For example, if you were riding a 20m circle you need to be able to have a mental image of your horse’s spine conforming to the line of the circle.  This means we have to be particular as to where our horse places his feet, riding imprecise circles is of no gymnastic benefit to the horse.

If we are riding on a circle to our horse’s hollow side, the chances are our horse will either lose his outside front leg outwards or his haunches will fall in. In either case one of his legs leaves the line of the circle and it is our responsibility to be aware of this and bring the leg back in to line. If we are riding a circle to our horse’s stiffer side we will probably find that it is the inside front leg or the outside hind leg that we lose.

The better your horse can bend the better the quality of the circle is, but the more precisely you ride the circle the better your horse’s bend becomes. This is where marking out an arena with carefully measured gateways (cones) at each of the quadrants really works. You can use the gateways to check if you are on the correct line, or falling out or in.

To be able to bend properly your horse will need to bend and flex his inside hind leg under his centre of mass. If he cannot do this then he will become progressively more and more crooked, so you have to look at how you can help teach your horse to do this and this is where lateral work really helps.

The more easily your horse can bend, the easier he will find lateral movements. Equally lateral movements improve your horse’s bend, so introducing them fairly early on into your horse’s training makes sense.  If you only ever ride on a single track your horse will over time, become stiffer and stiffer.

Lateral movements can basically be divided into two categories, side stepping and bending against the direction of travel and side stepping and bending in the direction of travel. The former, is for most horses, the easier movement to begin with. But not all horses have read the manual – so if your horse finds side stepping and bending in the direction of travel easier, start with that.

Enlarging the circle, leg yield, turn on the forehand in motion, shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in and full pass against the direction of travel are all exercises that combine side stepping and bending against the movement of travel .

Haunches-in, renvers, half pass, turn on the haunches, passade, pirouettes and full pass with bend in the direction of travel are all exercises that combine side stepping and bending in the direction of travel.

The rein aid can also be used to check out any resistances or problems with your horse’s bend. The rein aid not only influences the poll, throat lash and neck but others parts of his body too. By timing the rein bending aid into a specific leg you can check out where a blockage is occurring. Try targeting the bending rein aid when the inside front leg is on the ground, link this with a stirrup step and analyse if there was any resistance. If there was, the problem could well be in the pectoral muscles or the shoulder. Next check out the inside hind leg by applying the bending rein aid and a stirrup step when the inside hind leg is on the ground. Any resistance here could be caused by a problem with the croup, hip or oblique muscles.

We all know that horses and humans are naturally asymmetrical – and our lifestyles and injuries exacerbate that asymmetry. Obviously we can ignore our (and our horse’s) asymmetry as many people do. But if we do so, it is at our peril. We (or our horse)) become progressively stiffer on one side, weight more on one leg etc. etc – which brings about joint and muscle pain and perhaps even worse.

Working on our own bodies is hard enough – but by actively participating in classes like Rider Fitness, Swiss Ball, Pilates or Yoga we create an awareness of our own bodies and can then start to target certain muscle groups to improve our symmetry and suppleness.

Working on horse’s body is much harder. Of course we ride our horses, but this doesn’t necessarily help with one-sidedness, indeed if we inadvertently sit with more weight to one side we can compound the problem and make it even worse. We may even sit in lateral (side to side) balance but if our horses consistently invert (hollow their backs) when we sit on them, this can lead to “Spinal Crowding Syndrome” which in turn, can lead to “Kissing Spine”.

When a horse carries a rider, the weight placed over the middle of his spinal column causes it to hollow, or dip slightly unless the horse engages his psoas and other core muscles. Depending on the severity of the hollowing it can be either extremely obvious or virtually invisible to the eye due to the presence of a saddle. If you aren’t sure if your horse hollows, check out the underside of his neck, if the muscles re well developed then the chances are your horse is hollowing.

The biggest problem with hollowing, is that this inverting closes the gaps between the vertical spinous processes of the horse’s thoracic vertebrae. To try and limit this discomfort the horse will tense his back muscles and ‘lock’ the area. As horses (like us) are creatures of habit, once this defense system begins it is likely to continue until we isolate and work with the appropriate muscles through specific exercises.

One sidedness (or stiffness on one side) of our horse can also cause all sorts of issue. It invariably causes a horse to fall in on a circle in one direction, and out on the other. It can cause the horse to brace on one rein, or have trouble moving his shoulders or his hips over.

Correcting our horse’s body can be done under saddle using arena patterns, but for most us it is much easier for us (and our horse) to start with either on-line or in-hand groundwork  to improve his core muscles and lateral and vertical flexion. Just as human body conditioning disciplines such as Rider Exercise classes, Swiss Ball, Yoga, and Pilates help work on our deep, stabilizing muscles and teach us body awareness so do ground work exercises for the horse.

Before we start training our horse we need to appreciate that all body parts are connected to each other and that a tightness or blockage in one muscle group can have a direct affect on a totally different part of the horse’s body. Supplying of a stiff muscle (or muscle group) can very often cause a release in another muscle as well. Sometimes a muscle is tight because another muscle hasn’t engaged sufficiently and it is working too hard to compensate for the muscle that isn’t working properly, so in order to help the horse release and relax the tense muscle we have to encourage him to engage the ‘partner’ muscle.

I have therefore listed the key body parts of the horse and how they correlate with each other.

  1. The Poll :- Stiffness or lack of flexion in the poll and throat lash area can affect the hip on the same side or the shoulders and base of the neck. A blocked poll can lead to evasion of a shoulder and over bending at the base of the neck.
  2. The Neck:- Lateral leverage of the neck affects the hindquarters laterally. If the neck is over bent to the right the hindquarters will fall out to the left or vice versa. Longitudinal leverage of the neck affects the hindquarters longitudinally. If the hind legs are able to flex at all 3 joints (stifle, hock, fetlock) then the sacrum of the horse can tuck backwards, which will raise the neck of the horse. Conversely the opposite does not hold true, if you raise the neck without the legs being able to flex under the horse the horse will hollow his back. However by releasing muscle blockages in the neck we can help encourage the back to lift and the hind legs to move more freely.
  3. The Shoulders:- Mobilising the shoulders can release muscle blockages in the neck and poll.
  4. The Abdominals:- The oblique and psoas muscles affect the hind legs. Tight muscles block the hind legs from being able to step forward and under the horse’s point of mass.
  5. The Back:- Tightness in the back affects bend, hind leg movement and the position of the neck.
  6. The Pelvis:- Pelvic position and hind leg confirmation affects the back. If the pelvis is rotated backwards the back rises, if the pelvis is rotated forwards the back hollows. When the pelvis is neutral the back is level.
  7. Hind Legs:- Longitudinal hind leg flexibility affects the ribcage and back as well as the position of the neck. The flexibility of the hind legs can also affect shoulder alignment and shoulder freedom.
  8. The Hip:- The hip affects the poll on the same side.

Before we start ground work exercises with our horse we need to find out where any blockages are and help our horse understand some fundamental instructions/movements. It is really important that you remember you are asking, not telling. Remember a “no”, may well mean a physical blockage or tightness not a “won’t”. If you are not sure how to do the following, ask someone who is experienced in groundwork.

I believe the questions we should ask our horse are:

Can you?

  1. Flex the poll and neck.
  2. Shift your weight from your right pair of legs to the left.
  3. Shift your weight from your left pair of legs to the right.
  4. Shift your weight from your front legs to your back legs.
  5. Move your shoulders to the left.
  6. Move your shoulders to the right.
  7. Shift your rib cage (rotation) to the left.
  8. Shift the rib cage (rotation) to the right.

There should be no make with any of these requests, at this moment in time all you wish to do is find out where any stiffness or blockages are.

Once you have a basic dialog in place you can then start to work on a series of exercises and patterns to help the horse. As the exercises are performed in partnership with you, they not only produce the physical conditioning and supplying that the horse needs but also dramatically develop the psychological and physical bond between the two of you.

One of the things I talk about at my clinics is how important awareness of our body’s posture is for both us and our horses. Whilst most people accept that their proprioceptive system may need some help, somehow it is much harder to realize that our horse may also need help in improving his awareness of his body and his alignment.

The main aim in improving our (and horse’s) posture is not just about looking good; it is about the body being in the best position it can be for our physical well being. This is because when we (or our horse) are in neutral or correct alignment our joints (or our horse’s) are in a position/state whereby there is minimal strain and misalignment.

Our first step in improving the horse’s posture, body awareness, coordination, and balance, is to teach the horse to distribute his weight more evenly, place his feet differently and to possibly use different muscle configurations than he has before. In other words do a Pilates workout with our horse.

To start with it is easier to teach our horse from the ground as this way your weight doesn’t influence your horse. Equally it is easier to see exactly where your horse is placing his feet and what is happening in his body. By working on the horse’s body alignment, positioning of feet and asymmetry we can improve his balance, and reduce posture-related pain. You can do this work on-line or in-hand.

You can train the horse’s body awareness through certain exercises by asking him to perform slow and large movements. Slow movements allow the horse to think while he is doing them, so he is aware of what he is doing rather than just letting his legs move mindlessly. All new movements are unfamiliar and strange to the horse at first. He therefore needs time to understand what it is you want him to do and how to do the movement without falling down or tripping over. You may well have to stop and give him a chance to process the last step or two before asking him to move on to next one. Remember too, the importance of positive reward, reward the slightest try lavishly and your horse will try harder and harder.

Large motor skill type movements are easier for both humans and horses. It therefore makes sense to start with large, slow movements and only get faster (and smaller) gradually.

I like using 90 degree turns on the forehand and on the haunches in both directions as well as a few steps of full pass in each direction to start getting the horse to think about his feet and weight distribution. We have no right to expect our horse to be able to move his hips or his shoulders one hoof breadth to the left or to the right in the trot and canter under saddle in order to become straighter if he isn’t able to do a turn on the forehand or a turn on the haunches without the weight of a rider!.

Before we start to do any of these movements , or I ask you to read any further, I think I should explain a little more about what is meant by the terminology “ sidestepping against the direction of travel” or “in the direction of travel” and why these movements are so beneficial to the horse.

When a horse side steps against the direction of travel, the horse is slightly turned away from the direction of movement (as in shoulder-in) and the movement helps bring  the inside hind leg forward and underneath the horse. In a side step in the direction of travel the horse bends toward the line of movement (as in half-pass) and the movement helps flex the inside hind leg so it carries more weight. It is important to note here that the term ‘inside’ refers to the inward curved side of the horse and not the arena. By teaching the horse to first of all step forward and under and then flex his hind legs we teach out horse how to shift his weight from his front legs toward the hind legs, which in turn will enable the horse to use his back more effectively under the saddle and find better balance.

In the turn on the forehand the hind legs move on a circle around the front legs. This draws the horse’s attention to his hind legs as to perform the movement the inside hind leg needs to cross in front of the outside one. In order for this to happen the outside leg needs to flex at the joints and take weight. The turn on the forehand in motion also mobilizes the hips as it supples the adductor and abductor muscles of the hind legs, and the oblique abdominal muscles. It is important that your horse ’thinks’ forwards as a common mistake is that the horse will try to evade the weight on his outside back leg by moving backwards. This movement is normally performed with the bend against the direction of travel.

In the turn on the haunches the front legs move in a circle around the hind legs. This draws the horse’s attention to his front legs. For the exercise to work well the inside hind leg needs to accept the weight and flex in its joints and the horse bends in the direction of travel.  To do the exercise correctly (in the Classical or English manner) the inside leg should maintain the movement of the gait and the horse should not pivot on the inside hind as in Western Riding and many of the Natural Horsemanship programmes as this looses the biomechanical advantages of the exercise. To help prevent this it is beneficial to start with a Turn on the Haunches in Motion  (Passade). The turn on the haunches mobilizes the shoulders of the horse as it supples the pectoral and shoulder muscles.

In the full pass the front and hind legs should move sideways simultaneously in equally large strides. So, the horse has to focus on both ends of his body at the same time and coordinate them with each other. You can bend your horse in the direction of travel or against it, although many horses find movements against the direction of travel easier to start with. The exercise only works properly gymnastically if the hind leg that’s located in the direction of travel accepts the weight and flexes its joints, so that the other hind leg is able to cross in front of it. The full pass also supples the hip and shoulder muscles. Common faults include over bending at the base of the neck and falling out over the outside shoulder, drifting out with the haunches or generally losing the line of travel.

The 90 degree turns in both directions require the horse to yield to the aids on one side of his body without ignoring and running over the aids on the other side. Instead, it should be possible for those aids to stop the horse and send him back in the opposite direction. This requires the horse to transfer weight from one side of his body to the other, which many horses find difficult at first. The same thing applies to the full pass, if you ask your horse to move 3-4 steps to the right and then the same to the left.

These three elementary movements form the seeds of all the lateral movements. You can combine these three elementary movements in any way you can think of, which creates many interesting exercises that improve the horse’s balance, coordination, and body awareness. And once you can perform these movements easily on the ground, you can try them mounted.