Improving the horse's movement is one of the first things we should attempt to work on from the minute we get on the horse's back. We should always aim to keep the horse happy, healthy and strong into his old age.
While there are actually other ways to improve the horse's movement, I've distilled it down to four basic steps so you can get started with your own horse. Even if you and your horse are farther along, coming back to these basics might be helpful for you at times.
1. Free Moving Gait
Elsewhere, I've called this "impulsion." But I also like to think of it as moving "freely" - strong, bold, not fast. When the horse moves freely with impulsion, you can see the horse stepping out at will, looking ahead, using the hind legs deeply underneath the body, covering ground effortlessly.
The opposite is the horse that takes short, stilted steps. The legs move but the back is tight and rigid (and maybe it feels like the gait is smooth because of lack of movement). The horse might be looking around, not focused and quick to stop.
The thing is, many horses aren't inclined to moving freely under saddle. It's tough work to carry the rider and propel through space energetically. As the rider, you have to learn how to get your horse to move better in each gait, how to be more responsive to the leg aids, and then YOU have to be able to ride that gait and not get left behind in the movement!
But with practice, most horses will move forward freely. It can be done.
In general, you always need this sort of forward energy in order to even begin to balance the horse. So it's the first step toward better movement.
2. Rib Cage and the Shoulders "In" The Body
After you have energy, you need to do something with it!
First off, let's consider the rib cage and the shoulders of the horse. If either is "bulging" (or not aligned with the body), there is a blockage of energy that results in falling in, drifting out, slowing down or even spooking. All of these problems are rooted in one cause: lack of straightness through the body.
So now that you've got some energy to work with, you can pay attention to the straightness of the horse's body. Do you feel the rib cage pushing on one leg? It could be either the inside or outside leg. If so, squeeze with the leg to "push" that side of the horse back into alignment.
Can you feel a shoulder stepping outward from the body? It could be either the inside shoulder reaching even more to the inside than the rest of the body ("falling in"). Or it could be the outside shoulder stepping farther out ("drifting out"). In each case, use a rein aid (open, direct or neck rein) to, in effect, "put" that shoulder back into the body. You want to feel each front leg reach straight forward into the next step, not sideways.
You will know you're on the right track if your horse suddenly feels like he's having an easier time moving on his own. When a horse straightens up, his balance improves and he becomes lighter on his feet. You'll feel that energy created by the hind end travel through the horse's body.
3. Straight Neck
This one is fairly easy to recognize and happens all the time! If your horse has his neck turned far into the direction of travel (called "neck bend"), or turned far outside the direction of travel, you will notice a significant change in his ability to maintain his balance. He will likely bulge through the opposite shoulder and end up traveling in that direction.
While there are possibly times when we might want to bring the neck "around" to soften the neck muscles or get better access to the jaw and poll, we should always be seeking to allow the horse to have a straight neck specifically to help with balance. Sometimes, riders might have to work at keeping the neck straight if the horse has developed a habit of holding the neck farther to one side.
But if the rib cage and shoulders are kept straight, it shouldn't take much to keep the neck straight at this point.
4. Flexion/Soft Poll
The horse should have flexion (the corner of the horse's eye) into the direction he is moving. So if you're going right, you should be able to see the corner of the horse's right eye. It is generally important for the horse to look where he is going. Also, by flexing the jaw a little to the side, the horse often relaxes and softens just a bit more through the head and neck.
You also want to teach your horse to move with a soft poll. Rather than moving along with the head braced and the nose pointing up and out (try it yourself to see how it tightens your neck, shoulders and upper back), you want the horse to respond lightly to your rein aids. When he feels pressure from the reins, he should soften and "give," bringing his nose to a "more" vertical position. As in, the nose can stay slightly above the vertical. The key is that the horse will respond to the rein aids and soften when needed.
A soft poll will allow the horse to release the whole connected muscle structure over the neck and to the back under the saddle. This release will help allow the shoulders to work better and the back to swing more.
Put It All Together
Well, it can get complicated to try to do all four steps in succession in movement.
So if you find it difficult, start with one step at a time. Go for the energetic gait first. When you can get a consistently strong gait, try to straighten through the rib cage and shoulders (this step may take some time to understand and master). Make sure you still have that energetic gait and straightness.
Try to straighten the neck soon after you're getting straightness through the body. You still should have the energetic gait and the straight rib cage and shoulders.
Finally, work on the flexion and poll. You still should have the energetic gait, the straight rib cage and shoulders, and straight neck!
You see how it builds together.
Take your time, try and try again, and feel for improvements as you go along.
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