Do you have a horse that seems to regularly trip or stumble, either in the front or hind end?
The footing is good. The path is clear. There were no sudden changes to your direction.
The horse is sound and you know the tack fits well. His feet are trimmed. There are no other underlying physical issues that you are aware of.
Yet your horse stumbles here, trips there, and as time goes on, you learn to just quietly ignore it. After all, the horse is trying his best and there's nothing you can do, right?
If you listen carefully, you might even discover that you are more a part of the equation than you give yourself credit for.
It might be something you are doing. Or it might be something you are NOT doing!
Be an active rider so you can help your horse through these moments. Your strong problem-solving skills are just the ticket to helping your horse develop better balance during riding.
Reasons for Stumbling
The root problem might be one, or a combination of these ideas.
1. Horse is heavy on the forehand.
We know the tell-tale signs for that. The horse is heavy on the bit. The front leg strides are bigger than the hind leg strides. The horse might even feel like he is on a downward slope, leaning in to the ground rather than up away from it.
2. Horse's outline is too long and low.
This might come hand-in-hand with #1. Often, we feel we are being "nice" to let a horse stretch his neck up and/or down, because we are taught that a longer rein leads to a softer, lighter contact that is kind. What we aren't always told is that the horse might have to brace his back and tense his muscles to hold a longer body position, especially in order to deal with the weight of a rider in the saddle.
Add to the "strung-out" outline - a hind end that is no longer able to support the weight (because the hind legs have stretched beyond the horse's croup, thereby not allowing for adequate weight carriage) - and there you have it folks - the stumble!
3. Horse speeds up faster and faster in the same gait.
A horse that tends to move his legs faster and faster when you ask for more impulsion or a gait change is a good candidate for a stumble. Again, his weight (and yours) falls forward and the front legs have to carry the majority of the impact.
4. Inadequate engagement.
The opposite can also be true. The horse that "sucks back" is bracing with his front end, effectively pushing backward or lacking enough energy to maintain balance while progressing forward in space. This active tension can be a cause for stumbling.
5. Horse needs extra help on one side.
A horse with a weak side (for example, a weak left stifle) could have trouble bringing that hind leg up with the same amount of strength and fluidity as the rest of the body. After the true source of the problem is identified and addressed (i.e. call a veterinarian!), you can support that side with more active riding aimed at building up the muscles around the joint.
6. Horse is overly crooked.
Some horses are particularly stiff to one side. This might be influenced by a natural cause (born that way), or from previous incorrect riding. In either case, much attention needs to be given to at least straightening the horse (even if it is too difficult to get a true bend) while he is moving.
7. You shift your weight to the horse's forehand.
Riders often lean forward in movement. As bi-peds, it is what we are naturally programmed to do! However, "listen" carefully to your horse when he stumbles. If he tends to trip when you lean forward, you know the reason why. In this case, you will need to hold your weight back, even if you want to ride in two-point or go over a jump. You can hold your weight and change your posture - just be aware!
4 Steps to Prevent Stumbling
1. Leg on for impulsion.
Even the fast-footed horse can be disengaged and needs to bring his hind end underneath him. So put your legs on and be ready for more movement! Lighten the contact as you apply the legs.
2. Commit your body to the energy surge.
The horse should lurch forward a bit. This is good. Go with him. Be sure you don't stop the forward inclination by pulling back on the bit.
3. Straighten the horse (if needed).
Use the energy surge to straighten the horse, left or right as needed. Just guide the energy into straightness, don't stifle it.
This is key. Without the half-halt immediately after the energy surge, you tell the horse to run away. You don't want your horse to flee your aids, so within a moment after your legs and straightness, you half-halt should come on (brace your seat, back, arms momentarily) to control the energy you just created.
The idea is to re-balance that energy surge to the hind end rather than let it run out the front end. Think half-halts and use them as often as necessary to help your horse maintain balance. Constantly work on that re-balance - you may need to do the whole thing three, four, five times in a row, in rhythm with the horse's strides, to help the horse understand he needs to sift his weight backward.
This might be very difficult for a horse (and rider) that is not used to working from the hind end. But it is essential, first, to prevent the stumble, and second, to keep the horse sound long-term. Good luck!
Did you try this? Let us know how it worked out in the comments below.
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