You've probably been in this situation at some point in your riding career. No matter what you do, it seems like you simply can't lighten the pressure on your reins.
If you pull, your horse pulls. And as they say, the horse (no matter how small) can eventually out-pull the rider. Some horses (saints) get used to the amount of pressure on the bit and will carry you around even with relatively heavy pressure on the bit.
So what can you do about it? Even if you can re-educate your body to stop pulling on the reins, you might still need to help change your horse's balance to the hind end. Here are some ideas to try.
If your horse has a tendency to grab the bit and go, this one might help a lot.
When your horse wants to power up, you ask for a power down. If you're in trot, make it more of a jog. If you're in canter, make it a slower, smaller strided canter - or just go to trot if that doesn't work.
When you power down, your horse has a much better chance of taking all that energy and using it in the hind end. The slowness and the reduction of pushing power will help the horse maintain better balance. The hind legs will have a chance to slow down and therefore go more underneath the body. The front end will have less energy coming to it and therefore won't HAVE to be on the forehand as much.
You might suddenly feel a lightening of pressure on the reins. As long as you still have some connection, you want the lightness and so now your job is to maintain it through the rest of the movement.
One word of caution - don't stay in under power. Once your horse has better balance, and you feel the lightness, start to slowly allow the energy level to come "through" again. Make sure you're not just blocking the horse in the front end, because that will result in disengagement of the hind end and then you'll have the same problem, just from the opposite cause!
2. Get Better Impulsion
So we'll talk about that scenario next. Many horses become heavy on the bit because the rider isn't asking for enough impulsion or power. So in this case, you need to "Power Up"!
If there isn't enough energy, chances are that the horse is long in the body, and the hind legs are not underneath the body. This is what we call "strung out". The problem with the hind legs being out behind is that the horse then HAS to balance on the front legs. All the movements begin in the front than the hind, and therefore, you feel the weight in your hands.
So in this case, you have to create more energy, and then learn to contain it.
I have written a lot about impulsion here on the blog, but this is the best one for this purpose. If you want to read more, take a look at the links at the end of this article.
2. Move the Shoulders
One of the best ways to get weight off the forehand and onto the hind end (to work toward your goal of better balance) is to move the shoulders. Lateral movements help the horse to shift his weight back naturally and by doing so, he will invariably have to take the weight off the front end.
So you would do lots of shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, leg yields and half-passes if you are at that level. Walk and canter pirouettes will also help build the muscles needed for better balance to the hind end. By adding in the lateral work, you might notice that your horse becomes lighter and lighter, especially as he becomes better able to get off the front legs.
3. Give to Half-Halt
This is more of a standard re-balancing technique. It's a great way to set your horse up for any transition or change within a movement. But because of its effect on balance, it might also be helpful in getting your horse off the forehand and lighter in the bridle.
The key, aside from the half-halt, is the give at the beginning. It's not a throw away rein, because if you do a sudden release while the horse is heavy on the reins, the horse will fall to the forehand (can't help it). Just give a tiny amount, say an inch. Enough for the horse to not be restricted and to be able to power out of the first half-halt.
Then use the half-halt to contain the energy forward and help in re-balancing the horse's weight to the hind end. I've written about the aids in much more detail here.
4. Many Down Transitions
If you find your horse sort of running away with you, down transitions can be extremely helpful in redirecting the energy. In trot, do walk transitions ideally before the horse gets too heavy. In canter, do trot transitions.
Then transition up to the original gait again and be ready to ask for the down transition again. Practice until your horse relaxes and the down transitions become easier.
5. Leg Yield Out/Transition
Finally, you can use the leg yield out to a transition up to help engage the inside hind leg.
So at the walk, head down the quarter line. Leg yield out to the rail, and then pick up the trot.
In trot, leg yield out and then pick up the canter.
The leg yield is an excellent way to get the horse to begin to respond to leg aids, move the body sideways and forward, and have the inside hind leg positioned for the transition. Combined, they might help to get the weight more to the hind end.
Well! That was a lot of information.
If you need ideas for exercises that would address these needs, consider joining my Practice Sessions. I have an excellent basic Quality of Movement exercise for exactly the purpose of moving the shoulders. The Practice Session exercises work on many of these tips - and they're all prepared for you! Click here for more information.
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