Yesterday, I had one of those rides that makes me smile for a week. The kind of ride where my horse is light in the bridle, he bends properly around the turns and stays straight on the straightaways, his trot is cadenced and driving from behind, and he is happy. “Happy” is the most important part, in my mind. I always want my horse to be happy, no matter what we’re doing.
I truly believe that a horse isn’t happy unless they are light in the bridle and carrying themselves around the ring. A heavy horse is either:
- in pain
- poorly conditioned
- improperly bitted
Most of my daily work with my horse is done with the goal of lightness. He usually starts out slightly stiff and doesn’t want to bend evenly to the right and left. He tends to overbend to the right (meaning he’ll bend his body but not turn) and underbends to the left (meaning if I ask him to bend left, he resists, often leading with this left shoulder instead of bending his spine around the turn). He also starts out under saddle very “game” and heavy in the bridle. Below are some ways I counteract his stiffness and desire to gogogo.
It Starts with Flexibility
No matter how I’m working my horse (long lining, driving or riding), flexibility is a huge component to achieving lightness. I begin his warmup with large circles at the walk. Since my horse doesn’t bend as well to the left, I do more circles to the left than I do to the right (but on the days when he’s fairly even, the work will be even). Every stride, I’m asking him to curve his spine in the direction of travel. To the left, this means pushing his left shoulder and ribcage to the right, asking him to soften his neck and jaw, and keep his momentum. To the right, this means not allowing him to “rubberneck” but insisting that his shoulders and hind end follow his front end and he actively move in the direction of his face – not suck his shoulders in and move to the left. After he’s starting to respond to my aids at the walk, I’ll ask for a slow trot. Since he’s a Park horse, a slow trot isn’t always in his vocabulary – he wants to “show” when I ride him, so it requires consistency and patience to get him to slow down and not try to push his way into a show trot. But the more I do it, the more he’s figuring it out.
Once he’s doing large circles with a good bend at the trot, I will then increase the bend by asking him to spiral in and back out. The smaller the circle gets, the more important your leg becomes. A horse who is resisting a bend will start to trail their hind end. Their hips will move outside the circle and kind of “drift” around the turn instead of following the circle. It’s very important that you don’t allow this. Take the circle as small as the horse can go while maintaining a true bend with his body, and then grow the circle back to the original large size. The tightness of the spiral will be different for every horse – and it might even be different for every ride. I know there are days I wake up stiffer than others – so don’t push your horse beyond his physical abilities of that ride.
Note: It’s important that you give your horse breaks when working on flexibility. If you do too many circles or spirals in a row, you can stress their mind and body. You don’t want it to become a drill that causes tension, since the whole purpose of this is to relieve tension. I will often do a few circles on one end and either serpentine to the other end of the arena or go down the straightaway before I ask for more circling. I might even ask him to stop and stand in a corner or in the center. I frequently change the gait or our speed so there is more than just endless circles for him to think about. Let your horse regroup physically and mentally, and quit circling while you’re ahead – particularly if your horse is new to this type of work.
It Grows with Impulsion
Once my horse is bending satisfactorily, I will go to more traditional work. This means going around the arena all the way, asking him to bend in the corners just like I was doing in the circles, and then asking him to push out of the turns and power down the rail with a straight body. This is fairly typical of a show horse – we want them to come out of a turn with their ears up and somewhere to go. Having that “gear” available on command is a very useful tool, especially in a crowded show ring. But if this is all you do (come around the turn and “show”), you can end up with a horse that moves too heavily into their bridle, resulting in the loss of collection, headset and motion.
One of my favorite exercises to control impulsion is transition work. You can do transitions anywhere in the arena – straightaway, turns, cutting through the center – use your imagination and mix it up. I like to include focused transition work in our workouts 2-3 times a week, although transitions in general are a part of every workout. One of my favorite books that offers a lot of ideas on transitions is 101 Dressage Exercises for the Horse and Rider. For those of you with smart phones, it’s also available as an app. I highly recommend it!
Transitions are a simple concept (but not easy to do correctly). Ask your horse to power forward for several strides, and then ask him to come back to a slower version of the gait. Do this at all three (or five) gaits – including the walk and canter. If the horse becomes lazy in low gear, only request “slow” for a few strides before pushing back up into a higher gear. If your horse becomes heavy while extending the gait, only extend for a few strides and then ask for him to come back down a notch. Eventually you’ll be able to increase the number of strides at the problem speed until the horse can maintain it respectfully.
Once your horse can be elastic in his gears, giving you slow (but not lazy!) when requested and then pushing into a strong gear (but not heavy!), then work on transitions between gaits. Most Saddle Seat show horses are taught to trot from a walk, and canter from a walk or a halt. But your horse can do so much more. Trot from a halt. Trot from a canter. Canter from a halt from a trot. Canter from a trot. (I can hear most of you gasping right now – “but he might learn to do this and then break in the show ring!” Not if you give him clear, distinct cues. Don’t just run him into it or let him “fall” into it from an over-collected trot – it must be a CUE, not an accident.)
But whatever you do, don’t become predictable. Don’t use the arena as an aid so your horse starts to anticipate a transition in a particular location.
It Blooms with Strength
A strong, sound horse can carry himself. But making a horse “strong” is more than just working it 6 days a week. It’s more than wearing stretchies and chains. The flexibility and impulsion exercises above are great components to making a horse strong, but there are several additional exercises I like to add to my horse’s workouts to increase strength in areas that aren’t targeted by the above or by a typical show ride.
Stifles: The stifles are a big part of what propels a horse forward and upward. In Saddle Seat, we don’t ask the horse to push his body off the ground like a jumper or a dressage horse (i.e. suspension). Instead, we want him to lift his feet up as high as he can. The muscles used to lift the legs are different than the ones used to propel the horse upwards and forwards, so we often focus on a different set of muscles. That’s not wrong, but it’s leaving out an important piece of the self-carriage puzzle. Strong stifles are a big contributor to lightness, so I believe it’s very important to include exercises that target them. At least once a week, my horse’s workout is focused on strengthening the stifles.
Some of my favorite stifle exercises are walking and trotting up hills, working over cavaletti (from lying flat on the ground to up to 6″ off the ground), backing the length of the arena, backing over cavaletti, transition work, pulling the ring drag, and jumping. This last one might not be suitable for most show horses, at least while they’re shod, but in the off season the horse can jump – even if it’s just in long lines!
One thing perhaps conspicuously missing from the above list of strengthening work are action devices. Now don’t get me wrong, my horse occasionally wears chains on his hind pasterns – but I don’t use them for strengthening. I use them to encourage him to use his full range of motion. Active range of motion exercises in humans are very important for joint function, and I believe they are also beneficial in horses. But as I said above, activities that “lift the legs” don’t strengthen the parts of the body the horse needs to propel himself forward. Use them judiciously.
Loin/Back: I believe the loin and back are two areas that are often forgotten about when conditioning a show horse. I’ve heard people say that Saddle Seat riders want their horse to “drop their back” and I cringe every time I hear that. Continually working a horse with their head “set” and asking them to “drop” their back will cause the back to weaken. The back is what carries us, and if it’s weak, the horse will look “broken in half” with trailing hocks. It will look like it’s pulling itself around with its front end, and will probably have an inconsistent head carriage and way of going because it doesn’t have the strength to maintain a headset for long periods of time while carrying a rider. Eventually, if the back becomes sore, the entire ride will deteriorate and you’ll have an unhappy horse.
While it might sound counter intuitive, I’ve found that working the horse primarily with its head lower will result in a better headset (as long as your horse has the conformation to achieve the headset you want). Now I’m not saying to turn your horse into a peanut roller. I’m saying don’t work your horse “set up” all the time. I always long line and jog my horse without any kind of check, allowing him to lower his head to whatever height he is comfortable with. When he tries to raise up, like a Saddlebred will often do, I immediately request that he lower his head back down. I want him working with his back rounded up, not dropped. This active rounding of his back builds muscle – muscle he needs to carry a rider with his head up and his weight on his hind end. The only time I ask my horse to raise up and set his head is when I’m riding in a full bridle. All other times, I want his head low and his back engaged.
A flexible, strong horse with well controlled impulsion will be light. He will be happy. He will be able to achieve his best gaits and his best headset, sometimes even beyond the limits of his conformation.
Do you have any tips for Saddle Seat riders on achieving lightness? Leave them in the comments below!
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