Question: My mare sometimes curls then throws her head forward, pulling me out of the saddle. This happens mostly during walk and trot. What can I do to prevent this behavior?
Answer: Your mare is displaying a very common form of resistance. Ideally, she should respond to your forward driving leg aid by moving into the bit with a steady and even contact. When a horse does not move willingly forward into a consistent contact, one or more of the following can occur: The horse will lean or brace against the bit, creating a very heavy contact, or curl her neck toward her chest and drop behind the bit, creating a loss of contact. Or she will attempt to speed up or slow down, regardless of the rider's aids. These typical evasions result in a tight back. This tightness prevents the hind leg from stepping up evenly under the horse's body, thereby making it difficult for her to carry the weight of the rider correctly.
In all likelihood, the reason your mare is displaying this behavior is because she is uncomfortable. The resistance reflects her attempt to protect herself from discomfort and remain in control, enabling her to ignore your efforts to relax and supple her.
Check your tack to make sure it fits your mare well. Your saddle should be well balanced and assist you in maintaining the correct position. The bit needs to be the right size and thickness for your horse's mouth. I recommend a mild loose-ring snaffle. It should be solid metal, relatively thick and double jointed. I use this on all of my training horses. It is critical that your horse learns to willingly move forward onto the bit. Only then can you establish an elastic, even and consistent contact. Only when you have achieved the correct contact, can you begin to create the impulsion and suspension necessary to correctly develop strength and carrying power in your horse's body.
Also make sure that your mare is sound and healthy. If she is experiencing pain as a result of ill health, she will not be willing or able to perform reliably.
When you have ruled out health and tack concerns, you will be able to focus on what you can do as a rider to more effectively encourage your mare into a correct contact. After a short warm up at the walk, start your mare in the rising trot. Keep her in a quiet, controlled pace, maintaining a consistent tempo with a balanced, steady seat and leg. This will encourage your mare to relax and prevent her from speeding up and using that forward momentum against you. When she tries to pull you forward out of the saddle, use your lower back to firmly sit against her efforts. At the same time, further discourage her from bracing against the contact?without getting tight in your arms and shoulders?by using a little give and take to slightly move the bit in her mouth on the side where she braces until she softens. Immediately reward her by relaxing the contact and gently sending her forward into the same steady trot and even contact. Engage her hindquarters with your leg and seat to encourage her to be energetically active (not faster). This motivates her to step straight forward and connect evenly into both reins. At the same time, it discourages her from curling her neck, coming behind the bit and dropping the contact completely.
Now try a sitting trot. As long as everything remains the same, continue in a sitting trot. However, if the contact gets worse, go back to a posting trot until your horse is confirmed in her work. Once a nice sitting trot is established, you can begin to ask for a slight bend to the inside by using more inside leg and, or a moment, more inside rein. At the same time, keep your horse on the outside rein. Don't get tight in your arms and don't let the horse find too much contact (bracing or pulling). Use your outside leg as needed to keep the outside hind leg lined up with the outside front leg. This bend will further help prevent her from stiffening against the contact, which can happen with a straight neck.
Include frequent transitions between gaits to keep her attentive to your aids and stepping up from behind. The transitions need to be ridden from the back to the front. The hindquarters need to carry weight to achieve a correct balance in your horse. This is achieved by engaging them, causing them to step under. Try to create a soft contact during each transition. Remember that half halts prepare the horse for each transition. Your seat has to be the main aid to execute each transition. But all three aids (seat, legs and reins) are used to ride half halts and transitions.
When your mare stops resisting the contact, make her even more comfortable by letting her stretch her neck slightly. At first do this by going forward with both hands without losing the contact. How much forward depends on your horse's willingness to stretch at this point and the length of her neck, but try not to lose the contact. Remember to always maintain the contact. This will help her to develop a strong and supple back.
A horse is generally less resistant at the canter. Because of its three-beat rhythm, it is naturally a more comfortable gait for many horses. Oftentimes, the horse speeds up due to resistance. The quick two-beat rhythm at the trot and the associated quicker movement in the back will make a horse with a weak and/or sensitive back much more uncomfortable, and therefore, resist the rider more at that gait. The canter, on the other hand, being a three-beat rhythm, can be ridden more forward, making it easier to retain a good contact.
It is possible that your mare has developed some ingrained bad habits that might be best addressed by a skilled professional. That person may well be able to consistently reinforce correct movement and contact, which should help your mare to become more comfortable and a more trusting, willing partner.
Gerhard Ablinger is a German certified Reitlehrer FN (Master's degree) and a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) bronze, silver and gold medalist with more than 25 years of experience as a dressage trainer and instructor. He and his wife, Kari, operate a dressage training facility in Stillwater, Minnesota . Visit Ablinger Dresseage.