Once you’ve learned to make changes to your horse’s gait, adjusting the speed and balance, you can start to address the accuracy of shapes within a test. Accuracy comes down to control which, in turn, comes down to correct riding, engagement and balance.
Before starting to work on lots of shapes and movements, warm your horse up with an easy amount of impulsion. You shouldn’t be riding for his best movement from the moment you get on because it’s too much, too soon. Let him relax beneath you, and check that he’s supple and willing to bend his body around each of your legs. Later on in his training you can develop that into more spring and cadence using transitions between and within gaits, and by asking for more swing with your seat, but focusing on those things now will get in the way of teaching him the importance of accuracy.
If you’ve been following this series from the beginning, you’ll have worked on improving your transitions by simplifying your half-halt. You should have the following skills in your toolbox to progress to this month’s lesson…
- adjusting his gait using your seat
- hands-free half-halts
- encouraging a higher degree of engagement
One of the most valuable things you can do with your horse is to start every schooling session by riding into and out of the corners of the arena. If you read the first part of this series, you’ll know that cutting corners is a particular bug-bear of mine. You have to be brave enough to ride straight into the corner and let your horse take responsibility for turning before he hits the wall. This re-establishes the balance that you’ve been creating with transitions and half-halts, and sets your horse up to be able to pick up any movement out of the corner. You’ll be able to turn onto the diagonal without having to use your inside rein to pull your horse off the track, because his balance will be such that you can turn your body and he’ll be ready to react accordingly.
It’s all about balance. At each level of training and competition, a horse’s balance is changing. Balance comes from strength, whether it’s equine or human balance. For example, if you have a lot of core strength you can stand on one foot for 10 minutes, but if you’re not so strong, you’ll only manage 30 seconds or so. It’s the same for your horse – he can’t balance himself without having the strength to do so and he can’t balance himself if you’re unbalanced on his back.
Round we go
Circles are where any accuracy issues will be most noticeable to a judge, so it pays to think about each step. Locate the absolute central point of your circle – if it’s 20 metres, this is on the centre line, if it’s 10 metres, it’s on the quarter line, and if it’s 15 metres, it’s halfway between the centre and quarter line. Don’t take your eye off this central point – turn your head to look at it, and your body and balance will align to encourage your horse to move uniformly around it.
Now that the parameters of the circle are laid out, you can focus on riding your horse for increased engagement as you execute the movement. In trot, use your rise as a springboard. Create movement and bounce off the ground by emphasising your rising and springing out of the saddle. There should be a distinctive energy and exaggerated movement through your seat, but you should remain relaxed and, most importantly, shouldn’t settle for driving with your aids because it will encourage your horse to lengthen his frame and disengage his hindquarters.
Exercise 1 – Controlling the shoulder
For a more advanced horse, you need a more advanced degree of control to ride accurate figures. I like to use a counter-canter exercise to work on moving the horse’s shoulders.
How it helps: The main premise of this exercise is adapting your position in order to problem-solve balance issues.
How to ride it: Pick up counter-canter – this is usually easiest to do on a serpentine or across the diagonal – then ride down the long side. If you get to the corner and your horse falls in, it indicates that your balance is on the wrong side and your weight is over his shoulder rather than his haunches. You need to try to ride his haunches at all times, because then you can sit in the driving seat and move his shoulders at will.
Ride the long side again but, this time, ride his outside shoulder towards the outside of the arena. Focus on sitting centrally rather than loading his inside shoulder in an attempt to maintain the counter-canter. Count out the rhythm, use your hip motion to add energy and decrease his neck bend. This will encourage him to take bigger steps behind and balance himself.
Exercise 2 – Decreasing circles
How it helps: This deceptively simple-sounding exercise is actually a great test of control and very hard to do.
How to ride it: Begin on a 20-metre circle in walk or trot. Feel the length of your horse’s stride and make micro-adjustments to it without using your reins. Decrease the circle by two metres to 18 metres, then to 16 metres. Keep doing this until you can get the circle down to 10 metres. Practise increasing the size, too. For example, go down two metres, then down another two, then up two, then down again. It’s very easy to go from 20 metres down to 14, but taking it down incrementally without losing the rhythm or accuracy is much harder.