How many times have you halted and felt your horse’s quarters step to one side? Are you pleased with your canter to walk transition until you realise he’s swung his quarters in at the last minute? He must be tight in his back – right? Think again.
If your horse is tight in his back he can’t use his hocks correctly. He’ll tip forward onto his shoulders. Downward transitions will be rushed and unbalanced but not necessarily crooked. From the ground it will be obvious that he isn’t tracking up. (When moving forward correctly a horse’s hind feet step into or beyond the prints of its front feet)
If your horse is tight in his shoulders he doesn’t need to use his hocks correctly. It may look like he’s tracking up but this is because his front feet are taking such small steps. The paces look ‘pretty’ but lack real energy. Downward transitions are abrupt as the shoulders stop quicker than the quarters. To allow for this he has to swing his quarters to the side. Sound familiar?
The trouble with this tightness in the downward transitions is the rider’s reaction often makes matters worse! As the horse goes down to the next pace it feels as if it has stopped and then surged forward again. The rider will often take a pull to correct this surge. The trouble is the root of the problem is the rider’s hands.
Your hands affect everything in front of your saddle. Tension in your horse’s shoulders stems from tension in yours. This tension travels right down your arms to the bit. Imagine something restricting in your mouth. You’d shrink back away from it and your jaw, neck and shoulders would become rigid.
Your horse may feel light in your hand, as if he’s just behind the bit. But if he’s not in your hand how can they be the problem? It’s a defence mechanism. He’s learnt to carry himself in this way to avoid the tension from your hands.
You may feel as if your horse isn’t giving you everything. You may kick on harder or even chase him with your whip. This won’t remove the cause. Still tight he’ll run quicker. Whilst the rhythm is regular its speed (the tempo) becomes hurried.
You can see your horse is tight in his shoulders by looking at his ‘bottom line’ – the underneath of his neck. This should be loose. When you’re on a circle his top and bottom line should follow the line of the curve. If he’s tight in his shoulders you’ll notice no matter where his top line is his bottom line will be solid and set straight.
So what can you do about it? Loosen up your shoulders. This will have more effect than anything else. Pull your shoulders up under your ears and tighten then for as long as you can. When you release them let the weight drop down through your elbow. You’ll find your shoulders are more relaxed and feel heavier than before.
Now tighten your arms in riding position. Make them both as rigid as you can. Hold that amount of tension for about a minute and then relax. Feel how soft your wrists and elbows are. This is what you’re aiming to achieve when you take up the reins.
There are many exercises to help loosen shoulders. Demi-pirouettes, shoulder-in or even pole work. Anything which makes your horse stretch his shoulders will help.
Try this -
A great exercise is yielding on a circle. It’s not technically leg yield because of the curve but the theory is the same. You’re asking your horse to step sideways away from your inside leg. The idea is he steps across with his front and hind feet. It’s this stepping and stretching across that loosens the muscles.
Ride a 10m circle in walk around X. It’s important NOT to over bend your horse to the inside. This exercise will only loosen up his shoulders if you keep them together.
Ride with your arms as soft as possible and your hands together and level. Keep an even weight in both reins. This is the most important part of the whole exercise. If you lose your horse’s shoulders he won’t stretch he’ll fall out.
Ask your horse to take one step to the outside using your inside leg by the girth and catch (stop) him with your outside leg. Stay on the new size circle for a few strides and then ask him to step over again.
Your aim is to take him one step at a time out onto a 20m circle. There is no benefit in doing it quickly. His strides will be short and hurried. You want him to take the biggest steps across that he can. He can only do this if you keep control of his shoulders and take your time.
Initially your horse’s steps will be small. Don’t worry. Focus on keeping your hands together and your arms relaxed. This is more important than his steps. As he understands the exercise and you grow in confidence you can push harder with your inside leg to encourage him to stretch further across.
If you’re wondering why you don’t just leg yield on the straight it’s because it restricts the time you have to ask your horse to step over. After one or two steps you reach the end of the school and your horse’s concentration is broken. Riding ever increasing circles gives you time to think.
Tension in backs and shoulders is only caused by one thing. You! Whatever you choose to do make sure you stay as soft and relaxed as possible. That’s what you’re asking him to do after all.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.