How often have you seen a horse and rider negotiate a change of direction, only to flatten out through the curve into a straight line, causing a sharp, imbalanced scramble far misplaced from the original intended location? In mild cases, the rider hangs on adeptly, perhaps unseated but still able to negotiate the inaccurate change of direction. However, the sharp turn always runs the risk of unbalancing the horse to the point of tripping or stumbling, and the rider falling off.
How often has it happened to you? If your horse is used to leaning into a change, or dropping a shoulder or cutting corners, then this article is for you!
Changing directions smoothly can often be as challenging as achieving any well-balanced transition. Most horses are stronger on one side than the other, much like their human counterparts. Suppling the horse enough to be able to bear weight equally on both sides takes time, quality practice and a solid understanding of how the aids can assist the horse in maintaining balance while remaining loose and athletic through a turn.
There are many types of turns - a change of direction across the diagonal, several changes of bend through a serpentine, a teardrop that starts toward the end of the ring and arcs back to the rail, and so many more. They can be done at all gaits and require the same sort of balance change regardless of location or type of turn.
The approach to any change of direction can be narrowed down to 6 steps that are similar regardless of gait or placement of turn. Let's use this most basic change of direction as an example. I call it the "S change" (because it looks like an S and spans from one end of the arena to the other). I'm assuming you are riding in a 20x40 meter arena but please feel free to modify based on your own needs.
Let's say you are approaching a change of direction at X (in the center of the ring). You are on the left rein at A and you will go through X to turn right.
1. Approach a straight line - still bent in the original direction.
This means that you are using your left turn aids - weight on the left seat bone and body pointing slightly left. At this moment, you are riding the turn more as if it were half of a 20-meter circle, even though it won't be a full circle. You do not go into the corner of the ring. You hit the rail just past F but then come off the rail withing 3 strides, back to the original 20-meter circle. However, instead of continuing on the circle, you head for X.
Your horse should be both flexed and bent to the left. Make sure he is looking in the direction of the turn (flexion) and also lightly bent to the left through the rib cage. Only flex and bend enough to be riding in line with the curve that is needed (in other words, don't overbend the horse).
2. Half-halt (usually on the outside rein).
Several strides before you come to X, apply a half-halt. This helps to rebalance your horse and lets him know something is going to change.
Now, instead of continuing on the original left circle, you are going to head right.
BUT - at this point, many people make a mistake. They often go directly from the left bend to the right. It's almost as if they are driving a car or a bicycle and turning the steering wheel (or handlebars) from left to right. This gives the horse no time to reposition his legs or carry his weight.
Instead of just switching your aids left to right, wait for a few strides. Straighten the horse and allow him to get his hind legs underneath him. As you go over X, be straight! If you give yourself 3-5 strides of straightness, your horse will be able to be much more balanced going into the turn. So imagine that you should be straight two strides before X and two strides after X. You can always cut the number of strides shorter as your horse gets better at rebalancing into the new turn. But at the beginning, give him plenty of room.
4. Half-halt (usually on the outside rein).
Yep. Use another half-halt at or just past X. There is going to be another change to the new direction. Again, the half-halt helps him rebelance to the hind end and gives him a hint that something new is coming.
5. Flexion and bend to the new direction.
I like to break this part down into two quick stages. First, use your new inside aids (right) to get your horse looking to the right. This is flexion. Then, use your turn aids to bend the horse to the right. Note: You are still moving straight over X at this point - do not actually turn yet.
Once you have your flexion and bend, simply allow the horse to complete the change of direction. The new bend should be in line with the new curve and you will proceed to hit the rail for 3 strides, then come off the rail. Don't go into the corner but head to C as if you are on a new 20-meter circle.
These six steps take a matter of seconds to complete. There isn't much time, so know what you're going to do ahead of the S, and then just do it!
I know what you're going to say. These 6 steps complicate matters far too much!
In fact, the steps simplify things for the horse. I know we all want to just sit there and let the horse handle everything, but when we can break things down into mini-steps, the horse almost always benefits - in a physical, mental and even emotional way. So riding actively, helping the horse navigate through the change of bend through a straight line, and rebalancing with half-halts invariably sets your horse up for more success in the long run.
Practice these steps in your changes of direction over and over again. If your horse has a habit of leaning into the turns, it might take a month or more of gentle repetition to see significant changes. But if you do stick to the plan, one day you just might notice that your horse flows through direction changes as if he were just born that way!
Try this over the next while and let us know how things went in the comments below.
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If you likes this article, you might also enjoy:
4 Steps to Help Your Horse Through A Turn: Very much related to the article above.
Riding Straight Through A Turn: Although it sounds like an oxymoron, travelling straight through a turn is essential in maintaining the balance of the horse.
Secrets To A Great Turn (Shift Out To Turn In): How to develop a balanced turn.
Where Does Your Half-Halt Start? Here Are Four Suggestions: Under most circumstances, the half-halt shouldn’t start from your hands.
What To Do When A Half-Halt Won't Do: Balance does not happen magically on its own.