Forward, Straight & Balanced, Part 3

January 16, 2012
Lynn Palm
Lynn Palm

In our last article, I introduced an exercise you can use to begin schooling your horse to improve balance. This month, I will give you some more exercises to help improve your horse’s balance. This material is taken from the four-part series that Cyril and I did for Horse & Rider with the magazine’s writer, Sue M. Copeland.

Exercise 2: Curve to Straight Line

In your riding arena or pasture, set up a double set of cones (wide enough apart so that your horse can easily travel through them) in a pattern that includes both curves and straight lines. Obviously if you are riding in a fenced arena, the easiest way to do this is use the corners for the curves and the straight edges for the lines. However, it is more fun for both you and your horse to be creative with your pattern and use the entire work area.

Ask your horse for a forward jog. Apply the bending aid you used on the circle in Exercise 1 (refer to last month’s issue for details) to guide your horse to the right around the curved part of your pattern. When you reach a straight portion of your markers, use the following diagonal aids to straighten your horse’s body:

1. Apply light right-leg pressure to straighten his hips from their bending arc,
2. Use a slight left opening rein to straighten his head and neck,
3. Maintain left leg contact to keep him moving forward with no change in cadence and to keep his hips from swinging to the outside, and
4. Use right rein as needed to prevent his head from tipping leftward. When he is straight, keep both reins and legs even so he stays that way.

Now keep him perfectly centered between the cones. It’s hard, isn’t it? If he drifts left or right, your aids are not active enough in that direction. For example, if he drifts toward the outside cones, use your outside aids more actively. You have also probably allowed his head to tip too far in and his outside shoulder to bulge out. If he is drifting to the inside, your inside aids are too lax, meaning his weight has shifted over his inside shoulder. Be aware that it’s natural for him to drift toward the gate, the barn, or toward other horses. Do not punish him as that is natural horse behavior. Instead, be more prepared with your aids to prevent the drift. Try to feel for such changes so that you can instantly (and smoothly) fix them.

If he speeds up on the straight portion, he is not balanced. Be sure you have his body in alignment and that you have used your aids as needed to maintain his cadence. If he continues to speed up, go back to the circle exercise until you regain your balance. Then, try again.

Speaking of alignment, some riders wonder how a horse can be “straight” on a curve. Remember, we are talking about his spine being in perfect alignment from poll to tail. A visual to guide you is that your horse’s hind legs should step exactly where his front legs took off. That is called being on the exact same track, and that demonstrates alignment.

Keep practicing until you can consistently ride the exercise with no change in rhythm, no drift, and so that your horse is perfectly aligned from nose to tail. When you reach this point, congratulate yourself.

Exercise 3: Walk-to-Lope Transition

Now that you can control your horse’s alignment on a curve and straight track, it is time to introduce collection (see Palm Partners Newsletter #11 for definition of collection) with a walk-to-lope transition. Transitions are a great way to teach your horse to rock his weight onto his hindquarters, round his back, and elevate his shoulders. In fact, before you tackle the walk-to-lope transition, be sure he can smoothly perform an extended jog-to-lope transition and a jog-to-lope one. Practicing both of those will help ensure success with this one.

These are the aids for a right-lead lope transition. Simply reverse them for the left-lead. Ask for an energetic walk on a straight line. To properly position your horse for the right lead, apply the bending aids you used on the circle so that his head and hips are slightly tipped to the right. If your horse over-reacts to your rein aid, he may go behind the vertical. You want to see your horse’s face on or slightly beyond the vertical. Otherwise, you are blocking his forward motion which in turn puts more weight on his forehand than over his hindquarters. If this happens, slightly lift your hands and increase leg pressure to get his now up.

To ask for the lope, I increase my left leg pressure to encourage his left hind leg to push off into the new gait. At the same time, I push with my seat from the back to the front of the saddle as if I was pushing a swing higher and higher. This reinforces my leg aids. You should now be in a lope. Relax your bending cues to straighten your horse by the third or fourth stride.

Keep practicing theses exercises until you can do them correctly on both sides.
Remember, if you want your horse to be light, relaxed, and responsive, communicate with him that way. After all, if you wanted to have a quiet conversation with a friend, you wouldn’t begin by shouting!

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