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Teaching your horse self-carriage isn't always easy, but it's an imperative skill for Western pleasure competition. Often horses learn to rely on their riders to "hold them together," and therefore haven't learned to work off their hindquarters while keeping their shoulders lifted to maintain carriage on their own.
Without self-carriage, a horse's cadence is naturally going to suffer, as he'll typically drop his head well below the vertical. This will cause his shoulders to also drop, pulling much of his weight onto his front end.
To teach your horse how to achieve and maintain self-carriage, you need to make the "right" think comfortable for him and the "wrong" thing uncomfortable. After awhile, he'll choose the right way on his own.
(Note: At this level in your horse's training, I suggest you use a mild curb bit with medium shanks. He'll likely respect this bit more than he would a snaffle.)
In the following photo sequence, I'll demonstrate several techniques to encourage your horse to achieve self-carriage. First, you'll notice my horse is standing still with her head dropped down below the vertical. I'll give her a bump by pulling one rein straight up, with my hand extended out in front of me. You'll see after a few repetitions, how she responds to my cueing by lifting her head and rounding her back.
Then I'll show you what I call the "rattling" technique, in which I draw both reins up so my mare feels them on her neck. The rattling of the bit back and forth in her mouth will eventually teach her to lift and come back to me merely by the draw of the reins. Thus, the actual cue is the draw of the reins, and the reinforcement is the rattle or "bite" of the bit if she doesn't respond to what I'm asking of her. If she reacts correctly from the rein draw, then there's no need for me to rattle the bit. If she doesn't, I'll rattle until she makes the correction.
Press the button on the top to play the sequence automatically all the way through at the speed of your choosing, or use the individual buttons on the right to proceed one image at a time.
-- Photos by Roger Gollehon
To read more about developing self-carriage in your horse, see Team Horse & Rider Problem Solvers, "Head Too Low At Lope," in our February 2010 issue, or read Team H&R's Private Lesson with Robin Gollehon, "Keep Those Shoulders Up: Mastering Self-Carriage." To order back issues of Horse & Rider, call 877-717-8928.