The word "engagement" is second to none when it comes to horseback riding. All the disciplines ask for hind end engagement, from western performance to dressage to jumping to endurance riding - there is no other way to move than from the hind end!
We know why we want engagement: if we can get the horse moving "from the hind end", the horse can stay sound even while ridden into old age. With more weight shifted to the hind end, there is less dragging on the forehand. There is better weight bearing over the back, and the lighter footfalls save the joints and tendons. Energy from the hind end is the prerequisite for horse riding heaven and we all know that! 🙂
However, we might not be quite as accomplished when it really comes down to figuring out how we can develop hind end engagement. Many riders think that kicking the horse along and making the legs move faster is the ticket to engagement - but that is nothing further than the truth!
The key to engagement is to initiate the movement from the horse's hind end, not the front end or shoulders. (Click here to tweet that if you agree!)
So if faster isn't the answer, then what is?
We need to find out how to ask the horse to reach deeper underneath the body without throwing their weight to the forehand, and without speeding up the leg tempo.
There are many methods to teaching engagement but the "canter-trot" is relatively easy for both the horse and rider. It also accomplishes the main purpose of shifting the weight to the hind end and waking up the horse's rear engine muscles.
How to "Canter-Trot"
Start from any gait (even a reverse)
Canter (no more than three strides)
Before you get insulted by the seemingly simple instructions above, please take note: it's not as easy as it sounds!
There might be several unwanted responses you will have to redirect before you get the desired result.
1. The horse wants to canter off into the sunset.
Many horses transition into the canter but then resist breaking back into the trot. There may be many reasons why but invariably, horses have an easier time staying in the canter (and eventually getting heavier and heavier to the forehand). This is because it takes a lot of hind end work to break the momentum of the canter!
Remember that this exercise is not intended to be a canter exercise. It is a canter-TROT exercise, so the horse has to break back into the trot within one, two or three canter strides.
2. The horse trots faster.
To engage the hind end, the horse must take a few canter strides. Just moving the legs faster into the trot is completely counterproductive to establishing hind end engagement.
If the horse just trots along faster, half-halt into a slower trot rhythm, and ask for the canter again.
3. The horse shows discomfort.
There might be ear pinning, tail swishing, teeth grinding, hopping... you name it. Basically, the horse is indicating either physical discomfort or mental stress.
First, ensure that there is nothing wrong with the tack, and there is nothing otherwise physically bothering the horse. If the horse is demonstrating confusion or frustration, you are likely taking him out of his comfort zone (comfortable = riding on the forehand?) and asking him to do something that he honestly finds difficult.
In this case, be gentle, calm and patient but be firm! Many horses get used to working on a heavy forehand and initially resist bearing weight on the hind legs. If this happens to be the case, then teaching the horse hind end engagement is even more essential than you think!
Keep trying for the canter and when you get it, trot.
What happens after the canter?
After the few canter strides, break back into the trot. This trot should be very different from the trots before the canter. It should feel more active, bouncier and even slower. If the hind legs are truly reaching farther underneath the body, the stride might become longer and more ground-covering.
At this point, you might want to enjoy the trot you have and move into further trot work from here. You might want to develop even more engagement and do a few more canter-trots in a row.
Alternately, you might want to move into a completely new movement that benefits from the deeper engagement you just achieved.
Play with this a few times, and then let us know how it works for you in the comments below!
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