What do you do towards the end of your ride?
Do you find yourself hopping off shortly after you're done with the "lesson" part of your ride? It's tempting to do a few minutes of walking just to loosen your horse up a little and leave it at that. But do you know that there are many excellent exercises you can use to cool off but also build on your skills and communication with your horse?
If you can make these exercises a part of your routine, you might be pleasantly surprised at how easily your horse will pick up the new skills, and how the repetition will help you in your position and use of the seat and legs. The more you practice, the easier the movements will become, and practicing them at the walk will set you and your horse up for having an easier time transitioning to the trot and canter.
Doing these exercises at the walk will give you time to better use your aids. They will also give your horse time to learn to respond. It's a win-win all around, and adding them to the tail end (pun!) of your ride on a regular basis will ensure that you actually do devote enough time to make good progress.
Leg Yield To The Rail
This one is a very basic movement that you can teach young and uneducated horses.
Come off the rail just after the letter C or A and head in a straight line parallel to the rail. Now apply your inside leg and ask your horse to step forward-sideways back to the rail. Be sure to keep the horse's body straight while you step sideways, as walking back to the rail in a diagonal line isn't correct.
You can have the horse flexed slightly to the outside (so you can see the corner of the horse's outside eye) but the neck should be straight. If the horse leans one way or the other, just abort the leg yield, reestablish your good walk, then try again.
Walk Up Center Line And Halt, Back and Walk
First off, walking a straight line without any walls to help you might be challenging enough. Then, practice halting. You can halt at different spots on the line each time, so the horse doesn't learn to anticipate. Ideally, you will use very little rein (half-halt preferred) and the horse should stop when your seat stops. Then count to 10 while standing still. Keep your reins straight and 'on" because you will back up in a moment.
After a stationary halt, apply your legs as you continue to hold the reins. The horse should give a forward-inclination before heading backwards in diagonal pairs of legs. Lighten your seat bones just a bit (not enough for an onlooker to see the difference in your posture) to invite the horse to use his back. Halt again after a designated number of steps (4 or 6 steps should be fine).
Then walk on. Make sure your new walk is straight and active. Continue until the end of the ring and turn.
Medium Walk-Stretchy Walk-Medium Walk
This movement occurs in many of the dressage tests but aside from preparing for shows, it's one of my favorite ways to teach the horse to swing through the back and then keep that loose back while re-establishing contact.
Start with medium walk. Come off the rail at the corner and head across the diagonal to change directions. Maintain an active walk, and use your seat to ask the horse to take the reins out of your hands. Note that you don't give the reins to the horse, but visa versa. The horse should stretch his neck down, head out and keep marching on in a forward striding, ground covering walk. Feel for the "trampoline" feeling of the swing of the back.
Then a few strides before the end of the diagonal, pick up the reins again, establish contact and keep marching. See if you can keep the swing you established during the stretch, even though the horse's outline is shorter now. Horses will often slow down or back off the bit as contact is being taken up, so it takes quite a lot of practice to teach the horse to walk into the contact and stay active through the corner.
I hope these three exercises will give you some structured ideas to add to your ride. If you do each of these exercises a few times each way, you can add 10 minutes or more to your ride, at the walk, allowing the horse to cool down physically and cool off mentally. They will also add a repertoire of skills and increase communication between you and your horse.
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