Each year, I try to pinpoint one essential rider problem that is prevalent with most riders. Two years ago, we discussed the outside rein, last year it was the leg aid and so this year, let's discuss something we all do or have probably done at one point in our riding career.
Admit it! You've probably tried it yourself.
Any direction will do, really. Up, down, open rein, closed rein, back to the thigh... we can get creative about it. The main goal is to get that horse to finally give, usually through the jaw, poll and maybe neck area, so that there can be less tension, or pull, or tightness through the head, neck and back. The horse also might level out into a frame that is desirable in your riding discipline.
Most horses do "let go" at some point and emulate softness. The only problem is that while the front end can contort enough to find the release from you, the middle and hind end cannot lie. The back drops or sags, the hind legs shorten stride, the hind end even "camps out" - essentially, the horse travels with a longer back than he might otherwise, precisely because through the act of pulling, we have blocked the energy that is travelling to the front of the horse.
But we do it anyway. (Trust me - been there myself!)
"Framing" a horse is one of those essential things we tend to obsess over once we can keep our balance well enough to be able to work on other things. By then, we can "feel" well enough to know that the horse is moving stiffly and with uneven steps. We can feel the tension radiate through the horse from the jaw to the back and into our very core.
Once in a while, the horse loosens up and we discover this tension-free, bouncy-floaty feeling that we know is right, but then, as soon as we turn to look the other way, the horse falls out of that riding heaven. We are left forever after wanting to emulate that feeling in every ride.
So we pull.
But there is another way.
In order to truly "round" a horse - versus "frame" a horse - you want the energy to come over the top line. You want to feel the forward thrust of the hind legs that seems to bolster movement rather than stifle it. You want to let that energy come "through" rather than stop it.
But you can't exactly let it all go either.
Aye, there's the eternal rub.
Regardless of your rein length, and your riding discipline, you can't "drop the connection" if you want to contain energy. Well, unless both you and your horse are at a level of self-carriage that allows you to control your balance with nothing but seat, leg and weight aids.
Let's assume most of us are not at that level.
Start with a half-halt. Use it to prepare your horse for the upcoming "go" aid.
After you half-halt, give just a little. The idea isn't to pull. It's just a chance for you to create a better connection before you send energy forward. Create the space but don't completely drop the horse.
2. Then Go
This is the critical part.
Instead of pulling back and reducing energy, you need to build up controlled energy. You need to bolster, encourage, engage.
Then, you need to ask your horse to do the same.
You might use just a seat aid. Or you might combine both the seat and the leg. Whatever you decide to do, the result should be that your horse steps deeper with the hind legs and responds with a surge of energy that might even give you a small whiplash effect. Be ready for it and go with the horse.
3. How to Round
If you just let everything go, and the horse did in fact energize, then he will either just run faster-faster in the gait, or fall to the forehand or both. Think of a tube of toothpaste as the toothpaste squirts out of the front end.
So to control that energy, and to transfer it over the topline of the horse and encourage the horse to round, you have to do something that will "catch" that energy and recycle it to stay within the horse. This is where a second effective half-halt becomes critical.
If your timing is right, you might feel your horse grow underneath you. You might feel him lift up like you imagine an airplane lifts - front end high, hind end low.
You will certainly feel the energy surge and a power you might not be used to.
If you're lucky, you might get a snort from your horse. Then you know you are on the right track for sure!
Finally, you might be surprised to discover that your horse naturally rounds when all the requirements are brought together. Suddenly, and apparently from nowhere, he might soften the jaw, thicken through the neck, round his back (and you will feel like you're floating along on a trampoline-like movement) and step deeper underneath with his hind legs.
And this will happen all at once!
This last part is something we don't often think about. Once we get "it", we assume that the horse will just stay that way because he loves us so much! 😉
But alas, we discover quickly that if we can't maintain the status quo, the horse's level of ability will quickly diminish to the base level of our riding skills.
To keep the roundness, you have to keep riding forward - with the half-halt, the go and then the no - in a cycle, round and round, over and over.
Then, and only then, will you have true "roundness" and a horse that moves happily, with strength, in a way that will help to keep him sound for years and years.
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Next time you go to the barn, give these four steps a try and see what your horse has to say about it. Then, let us know how it went in the comments below.
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If you enjoyed the article above, here are more:
Frame, Round or Collection? Do you know the difference, and in a pinch, would you be able to identify it in a moving horse?
In Praise of the (Horse Riding) Hand: How to develop hands that sing poetry in your horse’s mind!
What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.
Use the “Canter-Trot” to Truly Engage the Hind End: Many riders think that kicking the horse along and making the legs move faster is the ticket to engagement – but there is nothing further than the truth!
Breaking the Cycle: It Might Not Be What You DID Do…: … but rather what you DIDN’T do!