I often watch riders pulling up on their reins to ask their horses to raise the head and neck. While we don't want the horse to trudge along with all their weight on their front legs, just pulling up on the rein is not the answer.
The horse might lift his neck in response to the discomfort in his mouth, but invariably, he drops it again within a few strides because a horse simply cannot lift the head and neck if the rest of the body is tending toward being on the forehand and strung out (not engaged in the hind end). He may try to please you by cranking his neck up, but that movement will only put more weight on the forelegs and tilt the horse's body more to the ground.
So how do you lighten the forehand, using the horse's "natural" biomechanics, especially in the late novice to beginning intermediate stages of training? Try this amazing transition exercise and see how your horse feels after several repetitions.
This exercise is a good one for several reasons:
First, it "tunes in" your horse to your aids, mainly because there are many things going on in succession. It also makes you stay active and balanced through the sequence of movements.
Second, it works on helping your horse bring his balance back to the hind end, while lightening the forehand.
Third, it requires more impulsion which in turn helps the horse round his back and strengthen over the topline.
Fourth, it adds "spice" to your flat work, which is nice for everyone!
Start At Canter
Get to the canter, preferably from a walk. If a non-progressive transition is too advanced for you or your horse, do trot before the canter but make it as short as possible.
Canter several strides - let's say 20 strides. You can make it longer or shorter depending on your needs.
Transition to Trot
Once you have an active and rhythmical canter, do a downward transition to trot.
Do not stay in trot for long. Ideally, go back to the canter within three to five strides. If you can't make it that quickly, do as many strides as you need, but keep working toward three to five as a maximum.
Transition to Canter
Immediately ask for a new canter departure. If your horse slows down the canter tempo a little, accept it and slow your seat down too. You want to encourage any attempt your horse makes to "carry" rather than run. If his neck comes up, accept that too, because as he tucks his hind end under, his front end and neck will naturally elevate. Don't catch him in the mouth or pull on the reins or make him drop his head. Simply continue riding with the newly elevated forehand.
Transition to Walk
This one may be the most difficult, after all the energizing you just did. But it's well worth the effort.
Ideally, you would canter right to the walk, and then march out of the down transition in a forward flowing, active walk. However, it might not happen that way for a while until your horse understands. He might trot before the walk, or fall heavily to the forehand as he lurches to a walk.
That is ok. Just keep trying, keep feeling for and adjusting your timing of the aids, and use half-halts in preparation for each downward transition.
Continue the sequence with a new transition to canter after 3-5 walk strides, and start it all over again.
It is easier for the horse to do this exercise on a large 20-meter (or bigger) circle to begin. As you get better at it, you can do the transitions on a straight line (more difficult). If you get really good, you can do it on a circle, then on a line, then change directions to a new circle - all the while, going through the transitions.
The key to this exercise is to minimize the trot and walk sections so that the horse's weight shifts back and frees up the front end. The canter encourages the hind end while the trot and walk help to prevent the horse from falling to the forehand.
You can change the sequence to keep things fresh: canter-walk-canter-walk, canter-walk-canter-trot, canter-trot-canter-trot. It's really up to you, how your horse feels and what you want to get out of the exercise.
Keep in mind that this exercise is fairly taxing and requires a lot of muscular effort. If your horse isn't very fit, don't do too many in a row. Break it up with some walking or other low impact work before trying again, or do just a few each day for a while until your horse has a chance to build up stamina.
I like the canter-trot-canter-walk because of the walk at the end. It gives us a chance to gather ourselves up, take a breath and prepare again for the canter. I also think the walk-canter transition is very helpful in getting the horse to work from the hind end, which is always one of my major goals.
If you do try this exercise, let us know how it went in the comments below.
Finally! The Ultimate Rider-Centered Program!
Ready for something completely different? If you liked what you read here, you might be interested in the new Horse Listening Practice Sessions.
This is NOT a program where you watch other people's riding lessons. Start working with your horse from Day 1.
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Read more here:
How To Fine-Tune Your Canter-Trot Transitions: A detailed breakdown of the aids.
7 Essential Aids For An Epic Canter Transition: How to improve your trot to canter transition.
Use The "Canter-Trot" To Fully Engage The Hind End: This exercise is a little more basic than the one described in today's article. It's a good place to start.
How The Not Canter Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: Good for a horse that rushes or gets tense in the trot to canter transition.
An Awesome Over-The-Back Suppling Warm-Up At The Walk: This is a terrific low-impact exercise to use in warm up at the walk.