Have you always bent your horse to collect him? Me, too. I used to do endless dressage-type lateral work--shoulder-in, shoulder-out, haunches-in, haunches-out, leg-yield, half-pass--all to move my horses' hind ends around so I could "get" their mouths. Even so, when I tried to collect on course, sometimes they stuck their heads up or fell behind my leg. (Part of the reason: I was raised on hot horses who didn't need or want much leg, so I tended not to use enough to bring the hindquarters under. Another part: I'd learned to avoid having too much horse at the end of the course by using very little leg at the beginning.) The bottom line: For all the hours of lateral work my horses and I were doing, they just weren't as broke and trained as they should have been.
A Light-Bulb Moment
Then one day, I was talking to grand prix rider Todd Minikus. (His horses appear nicely broke; when he asks them to collect into a shorter frame--and they can canter in place or turn and jump from one stride--they come into flexion and give in the mouth.) He reminded me of something we all know: that you never want a horse to go crooked to a jump.
"When you're going down a line to a second jump and you need to slow down," Todd said, "you can't collect your horse by first bending his head or body. You have to collect him by keeping your leg on and pulling on the reins so he flexes and stays straight at the same time." His secret for getting his horses to do that? He trains them to flex and collect by going forward and back on mostly straight lines.
That encouraged me to...
Narrow Down and Simplify
I stopped relying on so much lateral work. I began working on collecting and lengthening my horses without the crutch of bending to get them to flex or give their mouths. Although I'll never have a "Germanic" leg, I started using a more supportive and consistent leg all the time--and, surprise, even the hot horses went better.
In fact, all horses jump better when you can add leg at the jump; they just need to know what you mean and accept the leg. Professionals are always trying to get their horses trained enough and quiet enough that they can apply leg at the jump; amateurs tend to want to be dragged around. But the quality of your performance is far better when you can add leg.
My "straight-horse adjustability program" relies on...
- straight lines and figures like serpentines and big--not "overbent"--circles
- immediate responsiveness from your leg into your hand (and in the long run, it'll give you a better jump)
- support of the outside rein (I've often said that, in my teaching, I could use a recording of my voice saying, "Hold the outside rein, hold the outside rein, hold the outside rein." As you school, imagine that tape playing)
- transitions within gaits (such as collected trot to lengthened trot and back again) and between gaits (canter to trot is my favorite and the one I'll show you here)
- counter-canter, once of the most useful exercises I know, because it makes you take hold of both reins and use leg in a way that seems acceptable to even the hottest horse.
Canter to Trot
Photo 1. Here I'm making everything about my collected canter soft: I have soft contact with my calf on Bergerac's side, just enough to keep him kind of bouncy. My leg and hand are just "there," not hanging on him, and I'm going with him a little bit.
Photo 2. As I pull my shoulders back over my hip, putting more weight in the saddle and (I know this sounds weird) creating almost a little bit of a longer leg, I can start to close my thigh and my calf. And you know what? My hand doesn't have to do anything; he's balancing himself up.
Photo 3. As I bring my shoulder back a little more and close with my leg, taking his mouth a bit more strongly for a prompt transition to trot, he resists by raising his head. Now the important thing is to stay steady: If I hold my position, keep my leg contact and maybe add just a few ounces of hand, he'll be pulling against himself--and he'll give in. But if I start seesawing and jerking, I'll give him a reason to hold his head up there. (In downward transitions, keep your knuckles above the withers. If you touch the withers, you're pulling down on the mouth--and you're not effective enough that way.)
Photo 4. Bergerac gives me the transition but runs into the trot a little; again, I wait it out. My hand stays the same, my leg stays the same. This is where an amateur might let her horse ramble on in the canter for 20 or 30 steps--or, if she's strong enough to get the transition and he puts his head up, jerk on him, thinking he's too strong. Bergerac is strong, he is resisting, but my leg, back and hands stay the same. All this is happening in three or four steps; if I stay smooth and steady, he'll give in.
Photo 5. And here he softens, so I soften--but I don't drop the contact. I keep both reins very even, just lighten the number of ounces, and keep the same leg pressure. (My leg has stayed the same all the way through this; gently "there" with both calves and both thighs.)
Kim Prince steers you step by step through a challenging turn in a speed class in the April 2005 issue of Practical Horseman. This exercise is excerpted from "Adjustability" in the June 2001 issue of the magazine.