leg aids to canter
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

What happens when you ask your horse for more energy?

The simple answer is that he should reach further underneath his body with his hind legs, go straight and energize within the gait. The hind legs reach deeper underneath the body, the energy "flows through", allowing for a rounder top line, a more active back, and a bouncy, straight feeling. Your horse's response to the bit should improve all on its own. However, it's easier said than done.

As you probably already know, there are many different unwanted things that can happen when you use your leg and seat aids to ask for impulsion.

You will likely discover that there are a variety of responses to your request. Most of them won't be what you're seeking - the straight, strong and true gait that you are asking for. However, the horse doesn't know any better, and it is your job to know exactly what you're looking for, and to teach the horse correctly from the start.

You might think this article comes from a negative perspective, but in my experience, it is as important to know what you don't want, as it is to know what you do want.

As Edison is quoted as saying, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Here are 7 things that can happen instead. The quicker you can recognize these miscommunications, the sooner you can address them. In fact, it would be best if you could correct these mistakes as they happen, before the horse loses more balance and then has to completely regroup.

1) Inside shoulder "drops."

This is what we sometimes call the "motorcycle lean." It happens on a circle or turn. Along with cutting the turn short in an awkward angle, your horse will likely fall into the circle, making it smaller than you want it to be. The horse will lower the inside shoulder and you will feel like you are hanging on an angle.

If this happens, try to stay upright yourself despite the horse's lean. Also, you can use a little leg yield and outside rein half-halt to improve the horse's balance.

2) Outside shoulder "drifts."

This is the opposite of #1. In this case, the horse will step outward, making the circle or turn larger than it should be. He will also often have his neck bent to the inside, while he continues to step in the opposite direction from your active inside rein.

In this case, shorten and straighten your outside rein to catch the shoulder. Avoid using more pressure on the inside rein. If your horse's flexion goes to the outside because of your outside rein, finish straightening the outside shoulder and then go back to flexion toward the inside after the correction. Once again, keep your own body upright and balanced. Don't lean along with your horse.

3) Hind end shifts to the outside.

The horse points to the inside with the front end while the hind end points to the outside. This can happen on a straight line off the rail. Sometimes, the rider causes the horse to move on an angle because of an overactive inside rein.

To correct, your inside leg can ask for a small leg yield, just like in #1. Use your direct (straight) outside rein to ask the horse to bring his shoulders to the outside. 

4) Hind end shifts to the inside.

Many horses do this as they transition into a canter. It is also common for young horses to collapse through their hips even in trot, mostly because they are still weak and uneven in the pushing power from each hind leg.

Sometimes, a little extra impulsion may be all it takes to get the hind legs working more evenly. 

5) Faster gait.

This is the most common response you'll get from young and older horses alike. Often, the rider doesn't recognize the increase in leg speed and so the horse just moves along faster.

A series of well-timed half-halts will help keep the horse's tempo the same even while you are asking for a little more power from the hind end.

6) Change of gait.

Horses will also change gait in response to a leg aid, mainly because it is often easier for them rather than to loosen more through the back and let the energy go "through" the body.

If your horse changes gait when you ask for more impulsion, gently transition back down to the original gait and keep on riding. Try again with your leg aids but you might want to add the half-halts in so that you can discourage a gait change before it happens.



7) Short stride/hollow back.

Some horses might tense in response to the leg aid. There may be many reasons why a horse will change his posture - whether because of lack of balance, discomfort, falling to the forehand, rider balance errors, or other problems that require the horse to tighten through the top line.

In this case, make sure that you are not causing the horse's tension. Adjust leg pressure, rein length (sometimes longer, but also sometimes shorter, depending on the horse's needs), balance (make sure you don't lean forward when applying your leg aids) and do use half-halts after the leg aids. The horse might tense just because he feels like he has to run faster.

I'm sure there are other things that can happen when you ask for more energy. In any case, you should be "listening" carefully enough to identify what the response was, and then take steps to correct any errors. Keep in mind that you're looking for a deeper stride in the hind end, a more bouncy, energetic back, a softer top line and better overall connection.

When you know what you don't want, you will find what you do want quicker and more consistently. 

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7 Comments

  1. And when you ask for more energy and nothing happens? More leg again or a quick wake up transition?

  2. please help!! when cantering and trotting, i ask my horse to bend round my inside leg, instead he speeds up like hell! so then I half halt and then he takes it more seriously on my inside rein and therefore literally cuts into the circle. So then i use my outside rein more or only and he comes out of frame and sticks his up and to the outside! i have no idea how to tackle this as it goes in a continuous cycle! please help. Mahalo (hawaiin thankyou)

    1. There are a lot of things going on in your scenario. First off, the horse should understand that leg doesn’t mean to go faster (especially one leg, which should elicit a lateral response). I think I’d start with that first and forget about the rest. You might need an educated eye on the ground to help you with all the variables. Join my Practice Sessions group if you want to get more personal feedback from me in the future. 🙂

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