When you look at the silhouette of a well-ridden horse, you see a nice round shape from his poll to his tail. His chest and topline are well muscled, and he appears both physically and mentally relaxed. When he moves, he coils his loin muscles and raises the base of his neck, allowing his back and shoulders to swing freely and his hind legs to step underneath his body in long, powerful steps. And because he’s allowed to use his head and neck for balance, he travels in beautiful self-carriage and jumps with his greatest natural talent.
Unfortunately, I see far too many horses in shows and clinics with incorrect muscle structure caused by improper contact. Two dominant versions of faulty contact are horses traveling with raised heads and shortened necks and those who are overflexed at the poll while behind the rider’s leg. Both cause tension in the horse and a lack of back use, and they produce unnatural gaits, lackluster jumps (unless the horse is a real athlete) and unhappy attitudes. And in my opinion, they are one of several reasons why we live in an era of rampant drug abuse for both mental and physical soundness.
A horse’s muscle structure is affected by rein contact. Riding on contact when a horse is not physically strong enough or when a rider’s aids do not work as independently as they could are very common mistakes. Some people ride horses forward into a closed “front door”—strong, firm hands, forcing a fixed headset—or they use gimmicks like draw reins. In reality, the only way to allow horses to truly relax and swing their backs is to give them enough rein freedom to feel safe to stretch their heads and necks forward and down. Horses use their heads and necks to balance, and they can’t use their backs unless they lower their heads.
To encourage your horse to develop this longer, rounder structure, you first need to balance your own body so you never risk interfering with his balance and learn to let go. Allowing him to use his entire body and swing his shoulders freely will build his long muscles and help him begin to stabilize his balance. Whether your horse is young and green or older and in need of retraining, together you and he can learn to balance yourselves without using the reins to lean on each other and then gradually develop a light, noninterfering contact.
With patience and consistency, you can reach the ultimate goal of riding your horse from back to front: creating and channeling his energy primarily with your legs and seat and receiving it in a light, elastic rein connection.
In the following three exercises, I’ll talk you through the steps of this process.
Start by focusing on your own strength and balance. You can work a lot on this when you’re not even on your horse. The following exercise will improve your balance and align your shoulders over your heels by creating the correct angles and flexion in your ankles, knees and hips. This will help you to develop a functional, secure position in the saddle. I find it especially beneficial for people who ride only a few times per week.
Exercise 1: Ride Without Riding
- Stand facing stairs or a mounting block. Step up onto the bottom stair or the top of the block and move your feet backward until you’re balancing on the balls of your feet and hanging your heels over the edge as if you are preparing to do a back dive off a diving board. Hold your arms out to your sides for balance.
- Looking directly ahead with soft eyes and taking deep, slow breaths, bend your knees and hips as if you are kneeling down to pray. Lower your body until you’re simulating two-point position with your knee and hip angles closed, your ankles mildly flexed and your upper body slightly inclined. Focus on balancing your weight over the balls of your feet. Then hold that position for as long as you can comfortably. You may feel the muscles in your thighs begin to burn. This is a good sign—it means you’re building muscle tone. But don’t overdo it. Repeat the exercise several times a week, gradually lengthening the duration as your strength increases.
- When the exercise starts to feel easier, try holding the two-point position on the step while bringing your arms in front of you. Hold them horizontally with your elbows straight and fists closed. Continue to look ahead and keep breathing. This adds a core-strengthening component to the exercise. Again, hold this pose as long as you can comfortably, then gradually lengthen that duration over time.
Exercise 2: Balance In Two-Point
The next step is to transfer the strength and balance you’re developing on the ground into a secure, balanced position in the saddle so that you never feel tempted to use your reins for balance. At the same time, you can begin teaching your horse to carry himself.
- Sitting in the saddle at a standstill, soften your hands and allow your horse’s neck to lengthen. If he walks, keep breathing and quietly bring him back to a halt. Then visualize exactly what you want him to do—stand still rather than walk—while you soften your hands again. If he continues to have trouble standing still, carry treats in your pocket and offer him one when he halts and stands quietly. I don’t feed my horses a lot of treats, but I occasionally like to use them as a training aid.
- When you can trust your horse to stand still patiently with little to no rein contact, rise up into two-point position. Rest your hands halfway up his neck, but keep your weight balanced over your feet, just as you did in the unmounted exercise. Even standing still, look ahead with soft eyes. This will help you stay balanced. If you are strong enough, do this exercise without resting on your horse’s neck. Keep your hands in front of you with a straight line from your elbow to the bit, following his head and neck.
- Hold your two-point position as long as you can comfortably. Never push it to the point where you need to resort to a crutch—such as your reins—for balance. Concentrate on your lower-leg position. It should be steady and perpendicular to the ground. You’ll learn to confirm this without looking in a mirror or asking a ground person for help. Simply feel how your lower leg affects your upper body. If your leg slips forward, your upper body will fall backward. If it slips backward, you’ll tip onto your horse’s neck. As your lower leg stabilizes, your upper body will too.
- When you’re ready, try this exercise at the walk. Sitting in the saddle, soften your hands, allowing your horse to lengthen his neck as much as he wants. If he speeds up, take a breath, then slow him down to your desired pace, using gentle rein pressure if necessary. Always visualize what you want him to do first. When you’re happy with the pace, rise into your two-point position. Hold it only as long as you can comfortably. Meanwhile, keep the rein contact as light as possible. This may feel strange to you—and to your horse—at first, but you’ll both get the hang of it as you learn to balance independently of one another.
- Gradually build up to riding in your two-point at the trot and canter on light to no contact.
Progressing through these steps may take time for both you and your horse. Particularly if he is accustomed to being held together with the reins, he may feel like a drunken sailor, wavering and unsteady, as you begin to feed him the reins. For many horses, learning self-carriage can be mentally and physically challenging. Be patient and as consistent as possible. Use the following exercise to guide him in the right direction without taking away his newfound freedom.
Exercise 3: Create Three Speeds at Each Gait
This exercise will help you ride more with your legs, seat—and eyes—than with your hands. By practicing adjusting your speed within each gait, you’ll increase your horse’s adjustability and responsiveness to subtle aids.
- Start at the walk with little or no rein contact. Visualize a dotted line stretching out in front of you along the track you want to ride. Imagine that your horse is a bicycle that you need to keep centered and upright on the dotted line. Hold your arms out in front of you—as you would to steady the bicycle’s handlebars—with your shoulders back and square. Walk forward purposefully, asking your horse to maintain his momentum just as you would pedal to keep the bicycle upright.
If he slips off your imaginary dotted line with either his shoulders or haunches, keep your eyes focused on the line and ask him to go forward from your legs instead of correcting him with your reins immediately. If this doesn’t bring him back on track within a few strides, use gentle diagonal aids to nudge him in that direction. Think of yourself as an X, with your body in the center and your aids connected in diagonal pairs: left leg to right hand and right leg to left hand. So, for example, if he drifts off the track to the left, guide him back on with your left leg and right hand.
- As you walk, feel the four-beat rhythm and try to focus specifically on your horse’s hind feet. Soften your reins to allow him to stretch his neck forward so you feel like you have more horse in front of your legs than behind them. Then ask him to lengthen his stride for four or five strides. Think of riding his hind feet forward into bigger, more powerful steps. This will create more movement in the saddle than you may be used to so keep breathing, allowing your body to relax and follow the movement.
If your horse breaks into a trot, don’t correct him immediately. Training horses is not a game of Simon Says. Our goal is more about producing quality movement than instant obedience. So if it’s a nice balanced trot—he’s not rushing forward or leaning on the reins—breathe, relax and allow him to continue for a few moments. Then visualize a downward transition, take a breath and ask him to come back to walk. This is “opportunistic riding”: reinforcing quality work even when a horse produces it accidentally, a term I picked up reading Charles de Kunffy’s The Ethics and Passions of Dressage.
- After the few strides of a bigger, longer walk, bring your horse back to a regular walk. Visualize the transition first, take a breath and think of your upper body as a sail on a sailboat, helping to control his speed and direction. As you take the breath, your upper body fills up the sail to slow down your horse; you don’t need to immediately go to your rein aids. Think about relaxing into your positional angles—ankles, knees, hip and elbows—which absorb the power and energy of the horse. If your horse doesn’t slow down, follow up with gentle rein pressure, but always use the reins as a last resort.
- After several strides of regular walk, ask for a slower pace. Again, visualize the new pace before using rein aids, if necessary. Use only as much as you need and then soften the reins so he can stretch his neck and balance himself at this slightly slower pace. Proceed for four or five strides before asking him to go forward again to a regular walk.
As your horse learns to make these transitions with less and less rein input, you’ll find yourself riding more off your leg—controlling his pace with mild adjustments in your leg pressure and shifts in your weight, but with very little rein contact.
Play with these three speeds within the walk until your horse is responding primarily to your legs and seat. Then try the same thing at the trot and, eventually, the canter. Whenever he overreacts to your aids—breaking to canter when you’re asking for a forward trot, for example, or breaking to trot when you ask for a more collected canter—check his balance. If it’s good—he’s not leaning onto your reins or losing his momentum completely—go with the pace he gives you. Allow him to take a breath and relax, then go back to the gait you’d intended.
In all three gaits, relax into your balanced position, feeling your horse’s hind legs step underneath you and allowing him to stretch his neck forward and down. As he does, the base of his neck will lift and his loin muscles will coil, creating a rounder, more through frame—channeling his energy from his hindquarters through his entire body. Once he has stabilized his balance and strengthened his long muscles, you may be surprised by how readily he puts himself in the bridle—seeking a nice light contact with your hands. This is the happy result of riding a horse correctly from back to front.
Work With Your Horse
Progress ends whenever you start working against your horse instead of with him. At the beginning of each ride, evaluate his mood and energy level. If he feels a little fresh, let him walk at his own pace for a few minutes instead of trying to direct and control him. Then quietly ask him to halt and stand still for a moment. Soften your hands and ride him forward into walk from your legs. Repeat this two or three times until you feel him reset—take a deep breath and relax. Now he’s ready to focus on the ride.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, if your horse starts a ride on the sluggish side, practice your transitions within the gaits to create more energy. As you put leg on to ride him forward, always think “power” rather than “speed.”
Hunter trainer, clinician and judge Anne Kenan has worked in the horse industry for more than 40 years. As a partner in Hunter Hill Farm, Inc., she co-hosted both local and A-rated shows in the Atlanta, Georgia, area for a decade. She has also bred, raised and trained national champion show hunters and taught young riding stars, such as Olympic show jumper Laura Kraut and leading hunter rider Holly Orlando. A USEF R judge for 20 years, Anne has expanded her equestrian services to include consulting and video reviews. To learn more, go to www.annekenan.com.
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.