If your horse falls in or out do you bend him to the outside? Many riders do. In fact some seem to spend more time ‘flexing’ than they do riding forward. It works, of course, but why? It’s all to do with your contact on the outside rein – or lack of it. You take it up to flex him, balance out your contact and straighten him up. So if you’d had an even contact to start with … you get the idea.
Unlike you your horse doesn’t have a collar bone. His shoulders can go in two directions at the same time. Whatever you do with your hands he’ll do with his shoulders. Allow your hands to drift apart and so will his shoulders.
Wherever your hands point your horse will go. Things get complicated if they point in different directions. If your left hand is ‘pointing’ to the inside but your right hand is pointing straight on that’s what he’ll do. His inside shoulder goes left but his outside shoulder (and the rest of his body) goes straight on.
If your hands are together but your rein contact is uneven it has a similar effect on your horse. If the pressure is stronger on your inside rein he’ll lean towards it. His outside shoulder has nothing to bring it round so it carries on up the track. Eventually it has to turn but by then it’s too late. In a dressage test it’s a 4. In a round of jumps it’s probably 4 faults.
If your horse falls in he turns inside the line you want him to take. It’s caused by an uneven rein contact (a stronger inside rein) or by moving your inside hand to the inside. Turn your body to show him where you want him to go. Keep your contact even in both reins. Turn his shoulders before you turn his head by moving both hands together not by putting pressure on the inside rein.
If your horse falls out his head and neck turn before his outside shoulder. He takes a wider line than you wanted. It won’t matter how much outside leg you use – if you haven’t got a contact in your outside rein he’ll still fall out.
It can seem illogical keeping hold of a rein you want your horse to move away from but think of your reins as a pair of tram lines that keep your horse’s shoulders together. Keep his shoulders between those lines and whether you want an accurate turn, a square halt or a shoulder in you’ll have a much better chance of getting it.
Don’t use your hands to make corrections to your horse’s body or quarters. Use both legs. The more forward he is the straighter he’ll be. Increase the pressure from your outside leg if he doesn’t leave the track when you ask. If he tries to cut the corner a sharp nudge with your inside heel should pick him back up again.
Practise in walk and trot on a figure of eight. Use the two long diagonals rather than two circles. The two ends of the figure of eight are half circles but forget about asking for an inside bend. Focus on keeping an even amount of weight in both reins and pushing your horse forward to it from both legs.
As you reach a corner marker turn your body towards the marker at the end of the diagonal. Your horse will copy what you do and turn. Your contact shouldn’t change. Make a conscious effort to close your fingers around your outside rein as you leave the track.
The second your horse turns onto the diagonal straighten your body and hands to straighten him. Squeeze both reins to tell him to stop turning and push forward. And don’t get any ideas about lengthening his strides! Get him back on his hocks and into your hand. Leave the medium for another day.
As you reach the other side don’t do anything. The diagonal naturally takes him onto the new rein. Hold your contact and push him forward. He’ll go into your hand and – more importantly – his shoulders will turn onto the track together.
In canter ride half 10m circles between the ¾ and ¼ lines. With a younger horse ride half 15m circles from the track to the ¾ line. The lack of track or fence will make you aware of his shoulders and straightness.
As you start the half circles focus on holding both reins. Turn your body onto the line you want to take bringing your hands round in front of you. And look where you want to go! There is no better way of getting somewhere than looking at it.
Keep your horse’s head and neck straight in front of you until you’re sure you have total control of both sides. When you do introduce an inside bend do it by increasing the pressure from your inside leg NOT by increasing the pressure on your rein.
Many schooling problems are caused by lack of control of the shoulders. When things go wrong don’t panic. Forgetting about bend and getting your horse straight isn’t a backward step. It’s a giant leap forward towards a far more exciting level of riding.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.