Troubleshooting – or listening to your horse

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.

The 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.