A Stretch and Strengthen Canter Exercise

Need some "legging up" in canter?

Working in canter for an extended period of time (let's say, around 5 minutes) has many benefits, and if you want to know why, read the article that I wrote here. The exercise below is an awesome way to develop (you and) your horse's conditioning, work on suppling the horse over the back in canter, play around with balance and hind end engagement, and just work toward something as simple as maintaining a steady tempo.

This exercise is also good  if you find that your horse often drops his back (and "giraffe necks") when you transition to canter, or during the canter. We want to teach the horse to loosen through the back and allow it to move while in canter.

You will use the whole arena for this, with circles at A and C. Try to do this in an easy pace - not too fast, not too slow. You can always build up the horse's impulsion as he settles and begins to use himself better, without adding speed to it. The pattern sounds like it isn't much work, but there's quite a lot going on when you go around a few times and let it work you and your horse.

Start at A. Canter on the right rein.

1. 20-m circle

Start with an easy, softly stretching 20-m circle. Think of it as a half-stretch, so not really stretching down as you would for say, a 2nd level dressage test. But do make it a stretch, so that your horse can carry his head a little lower than usual, and stretch through the back a little more than usual.

Ride in half-seat yourself, and take most of your weight off the horse's back.

Keep a mild 20-m bend, keeping your horse on a large circle but watching the outside shoulder. Keep the shoulder straight and allow the bend to happen through the body, not just through the neck.

2. 10-m circle

When you get back to A, do another circle, this time much smaller. Make it a 10-m circle, with more bend, and this time, sit into the saddle and bring the horse up into a nice uphill outline. This circle requires more collection, so keep the canter active and strong but add in the deeper 10-m bend.

3. Canter on up the long side of the rail

After the 10-m circle, head into the corner and then go straight up along the rail. Go back to the half-seat, and ask your horse for the small stretch again, this time on the straight rail. The long side of the ring should allow you plenty of time to strengthen the canter (not speed up, though) and develop a nice, even tempo and stride length. 

Strengthen: If your horse feels good, isn't pulling down on the reins, and feels like he has good balance, ask for a little longer stride and a little more impulsion. Don't let the reins go longer and make sure you ease the horse into the bigger movement. (If your horse does pull down on the reins, just sit up a little and ease up on the canter, or even do a down transition to trot, and then canter on again. We want the horse to strengthen the canter, but not to end up on the forehand. So use trot transitions to bring the horse into balance again, as needed.)



You're feeling for a bouncier, more trampoline-y canter. You should also feel like you spend more time in the air than on the ground.

4. 20-m circle

Go through the next corner and back to a 20-m circle at C. Stay in the half-seat for the 20-m circle, and keep the horse in the mild stretch. The difference between the stretch here and on the rail is that you have to re-establish a bend (even though it's just a mild bend) so you're also working on the lateral suppleness on this circle.

5. 10-m circle

Now do a 10-m circle at C. Sit, prepare for the bend as you come back to C, and then bring the horse uphill again in his outline. Use this circle to let your horse do a little "carrying", have a higher and shorter outline, and use his now more active hind end to take some weight off the forehand.

6. Canter down the long side of the rail

Then ease out of the 10-m circle through the corner and down the next rail in the half-stretch (for him) and half-seat (for you) position again. 

And repeat! If you want, you can do this pattern several times in a row one way, and then take a walk break, and do it several times the other way. 

You can also do the whole thing in walk and trot, either as a warm-up or as a cool-down. The concept of stretching and then shortening the back is a great way to supple and strengthen the horse's back and hind end in all gaits.

If you like this type of exercise, or want more details on the aids and the hows behind the pattern, check out our Practice Sessions 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.

Click here to read more and to join one of the most complete programs on the Internet!

Horse Listening
Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published! Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Horse Listening Book Collection - beautiful paperbacks with all the excellence of the blog - in your hands! Click on the image for more information.

HL Five Years
HL Bundle
HL Goal Setting
HL Book 3
HL Book 2
HL Book 1

If you liked this article, read more here:

12 Riding Quick Tips – #11: Do A “Beginner Bend”

12 Riding Quick Tips – #10: How To Canter Instead Of Just Trot Faster

How to Fine Tune Your Canter-Trot Transitions

What Are The Leg Aids For Canter?

Drawing a Circle (in Sand)

Are You Learning The “Right” Way To Ride?

There are so many riding disciplines and styles of teaching. It's hard to distinguish between right and wrong, especially since there are so many different opinions and "paths" to "good" riding.  But everyone has a different opinion about everything in horse riding, from tack to theory to rider position to how to use your aids (or don't use them at all!) to everything you can probably think of! Am I not right?

How can you tell that the way you're learning to ride is the "right" way?

As they say, there are "many roads to Rome," and horseback riding is one of those activities that really fits that bill. As you learn more, you realize that there are many ways to teach the same end result to the horse, and when it comes down to it, we all walk, trot and canter or gait (according to our discipline and breed type movements).

But there are certain things you can look for that will give you absolute insight into the "correctness" of how you are riding and what you are learning.

Listen to your horse

One of the best indicators of the "right" way is your horse's response to what is being taught. While there is such a thing as challenging the horse and putting him out of his comfort zone, you will almost always know that you're on the right track because the horse will show you pleasure - through his bounding gait, through forward ears and eager expression, through his snorts and even (hopefully controllable) romps - when your horse feels good, you will know it. And you'll feel good too.

Improved Health of the Horse

So I know you already give your horse the best care you can, in terms of food, vet care, supplements, and even other professional care such as massage and chiropractic. But good riding and training techniques can be actually seen in the horse (and the rider, btw). With correct riding, the horse's musculature improves. The top line fills. The hind end rounds out. The hooves get bigger and wider (yes! it happens!). The coat starts to gleam. 

Better Movement

You will be able to recognize a "good" system just from feeling, or watching, your horse's movement. There is nothing more amazing than to learn how to go from a tight, stuck walk (or trot or canter) to a flowing, free gait that allows your horse to move to his potential. Even better is to watch your instructor get on and morph your horse to such great movement that you never thought your horse could ever do! 

Things Get Easier Over Time

While you may be continuously challenged with new skills or understandings, you can see clear progress in your development because the old "impossible" skills become easier and easier over time. Your body becomes more automatic. Your horse becomes more responsive. You can float through what was once an onerous task. 

Your Techniques Are Used By Other Respected Riders

We're all working in our own barn bubble most of the time. But if you stop to look around, and you recognize that what you're now learning and doing is being done by other well-respected, successful top riders in your discipline, then you're probably on the right track.

Maybe you've never heard of these people, but when you read about them, you recognize that you're already doing what they are talking about! So while you're still learning it all in perhaps the novice levels, you can see that what you're doing has plenty in common with people much farther along the path than you. 


Your Own Satisfaction

I'm not saying that every ride will be euphoric. Some rides (or many) might actually be tough and tiring. Some might be confusing. But if you come out of those rides with a sense of accomplishment, with the understanding of how to improve yourself so you can improve your horse, and maybe with an odd "aha" moment, then you know this is the path for you.

Other Riders

The proof of the pudding is to see how other people are doing in that system of teaching and training. In general, good basics create good riders. And the success I'm talking about is whatever you see as being successful. It can be success in showing, but not necessarily only in that venue. Maybe your vision of success is to have a calm, responsive horse that you can pop on the trailer at will, to go on a trail ride with your friend who lives an hour away. Maybe you want to ride your horse well enough to keep him sound into his later years. Is this what you're seeing done by the other riders who are learning from the same instructor?

Well, the horse industry is certainly not one-size-fits-all. It may take time for you to find that "right" path, but when you do find it, you will know! 

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.

Click here to read more and to join one of the most complete programs on the Internet!

Horse Listening
Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published! Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Horse Listening Book Collection - beautiful paperbacks with all the excellence of the blog - in your hands! Click on the image for more information.

HL Five Years
HL Bundle
HL Goal Setting
HL Book 3
HL Book 2
HL Book 1

If you liked this article, read more here:

10 Strategies For The Nervous Horse Rider

Maybe You Want To Be The Horseless Horse Person

“You’ll Ruin Your Horse!”

“You’re STILL Taking Riding Lessons?”

How To Get The Most Out Of Your Riding Lessons

When Feel Becomes More Important Than Technique In Horse Riding

Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

The beauty about horse riding is that feel can become more important than technique. The opportunity is there.

But before we can go on autopilot, we do have some homework to do. The rider with correct muscle memory is the one who can slowly let the body take over, and allow the mind to take a step back. The micro-movements of the rider's muscles have to be so automatic that there is no thinking involved. Simple as that.

It might not be so simple while you are in the learning stages. You have to think to use your inside leg at the same moment as the inside rein. You have to think that the horse needs impulsion - now! You have to think about the fact that you have to center your seat in the saddle rather than tilt through the turn. 

And thinking takes time. In fact, it almost takes too much time because by the time you've thought, then you've done -- the horse is already long gone into the next movement and you have to play catch up. But there really is no other way at first. 

How can a rider go from technique-based riding to feel-based riding? Here are 6 steps.

Practice

At first, technique reigns supreme. You really do have to put in the repetition and time, in order to be able to develop the muscle memory in the first place. 

If you've already developed muscle memory, but it's hindering the horse... then you have to not only learn better muscle memory, but undo the old ones in the process. This takes even more time than learning things correctly in the first place. But many of us find ourselves in this group and really, there's nothing to do but get on with the correct practice.

Make The Mistakes

Invariably, we have to make mistakes. And each time we ride a new horse, we will learn new things and make new mistakes because of the opportunities that horse brings. But there is no getting away from mistakes, and instead of thinking of them as mistakes, think of them as learning stages. Because it's as important to know what NOT to do as it is to know what to do.

Correct The Mistakes

Then there's the whole learning what TO do after making the mistakes! The good thing about this stage is that as you learn, you'll begin to discover "good" feels! You might feel what a nice trot really feels like when the horse is finally ready for sitting trot. Or you might have that first "aha!" moment when you realize that you can open your seat into the direction of the turn - and the horse turns so easily!

These will fuel your motivation and keep you trying even harder because then you'll know that you're on the right track. Your horse will be happier with you (and happier with being ridden in general), and the movement will feel out of this world, especially at the beginning!


Get Faster

Over time, your body will develop quicker responses and it won't take as much effort on your part to direct and then stay with the horse. What used to seem almost impossible now becomes the norm and you will start to set your sights on new and even more complicated figures or movements. 

Think Less

You'll know you've "arrived" when you realize that you're not having to think your body parts into motion anymore. They just do what they need to do on their own, and you can let your mind just be. You'll have an easier time thinking ahead to the next movement, planning what's coming up, and you'll start to be able to look around and enjoy the atmosphere even while you and your horse are dancing along.

Let the Body Take Over

And then one day, you'll be able to feel the whole thing at once. Let's say you want to get a bend. You won't have to think about the inside rein, outside leg, etc. You'll just feel that bend into place. Then you'll feel the change of bend to the new bend.

What once was pieces is now a whole movement. Your movement is fluid, easy, and in time with the horse. And this is when people talk about being "at one" with your horse.

This is when riding becomes art. It's when feel becomes more important than technique.

I'm not sure if you can create "art" out of every ride. But I think you can approach art often, once you've found it.

And one more thing: I don't think you have to ride at the top levels to ride with feel.

In fact, I know I've seen many beautiful, artistic rides with horses and riders at even the most basic levels. It's just that they were so well prepared at that level, that they were working in the "feel" phase of their movements, and not in just the "technique" phase. Perhaps they were still working hard on acquiring good technique at higher levels. But they were able to ride in that "feel" zone at the level they'd already mastered.

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.

Click here to read more and to join one of the most complete programs on the Internet!

Horse Listening
Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published! Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

Horse Listening The BookIf you like this article, read more here:

Bold Transitions That Look Effortless And Feel Great

What “In Front Of The Leg” Feels Like

Try This to Feel “Forward”

How Do You Develop ‘Feel’ in Horseback Riding?

4 Steps To Better Movement

25 Ways To Make Impulsion Work For You

Impulsion
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Pretty much every ride, and every lesson, I'm reminded about the importance of impulsion and teaching impulsion to the horse and the rider. I use it myself all the time, and you'll see why when you read the list below. 

Don't get me wrong. It's true that there is such thing as too much energy, but I feel that impulsion isn't exactly the same thing as energy, although energy is a pre-requisite to impulsion. And it's also true that developing "correct" impulsion may take years to fully learn and understand. But that doesn't mean that even the most novice rider can't learn it at the basic level, and use impulsion to help counter or completely eliminate riding problems as they arise.

I've written quite a bit about impulsion over the years. If you want a simple, concrete way to get started, read How Two Strides of Energy Might Solve Your Horse Riding Problem, and Not Fast, Not Slow. So What IS Impulsion? to help with understanding the concept itself.

So why do I keep coming back to impulsion? It's not like I want to harp on the same topic all the time - it's more because the topic keeps coming back to me, through lessons and rides, and solving riding or training problems. So many discomforts of the horse are rooted in not being allowed to really move under saddle. And I love it when I can help an ear-pinning, tight-backed, short-strided horse morph into a bounding, longer-strided, bright-eyed, ears-forward version of himself in one lesson, because all the rider needs is a little encouragement and direction.

Here are 25 problems (or, shall we say, discomforts to the horse) that can be at least improved upon when thinking about impulsion, even while you're doing other things.

  • Crookedness: You might be amazed that most of the horse's dropped shoulders or hind end crookedness can be improved upon by a straight-positioned rider and a little (maybe not even a lot) of impulsion. Energy that is allowed through the body can straighten the body.

 

    • Down transitions: A horse that is truly forward is better connected through his body and to the rider's aids. And so, balance is better and the horse can respond better. Instead of having to pull the horse into a downward transition, you might only have to use a little leg and half-halt and transition down yourself through your seat
    • Up transitions: If your horse only moves faster in the original gait, and runs/stumbles/pulls your arms forward until you get the gait change, chances are that you needed more impulsion before your upward transition. If the horse has more energy, he has better balance and the hind end is more underneath the body, which will allow a light, skipping transition into the next gait.
    • Maintenance of tempo: If you feel your horse go fast and slow and fast and slow, chances are that you have to maintain impulsion through every step.
    • Shoulder-in or shoulder-fore: Moving the shoulders takes a lot of energy and strength for the horse (especially in the learning stages) and you might find your horse losing energy when you ask for shoulder-in or shoulder-fore. Ask for a little impulsion before the movement and it might be easier to move the shoulders.
    • Hollow back: Allow a little more energy through your horse to begin to send the energy "over the back". This will give the horse better strength to allow the back to swing and move with his strides.
    • Haunches-in: The inside hind leg bears more weight with the haunches-in. Ask for more energy going into the movement and your horse will have an easier time staying in balance.
    • Halts: Wow, can impulsion improve the halt! I usually don't get too fussed over a horse that doesn't halt square, because I know that once the rider learns to power into the halt (and stay straight herself), squareness will just happen.
    • Collection: Well, we all know that collection requires a high amount of energy and strength. In order for the horse to actually tilt the pelvis, those hind legs have to go underneath the body more and bear more weight. You can't collect without impulsion.
    • Lengthens: A lengthen can only be as good as the collection that came before it. So impulsion plays a huge role here too.
    • Leg-yield: One of the most common problems with leg-yield is a loss of tempo and energy through the movement. Add a little impulsion, maybe even every three strides or so, and see what that will do for your leg-yields.
    • Circles: Many horses slow down when coming off the rail and into a circle. Circling requires balance and energy in order for the horse to continue to move freely with a swinging back. Enter: impulsion!
    • Bend: The inside hind leg plays a large part in allowing the horse to bend around your inside leg. To help the horse with balance and subsequent suppleness, add a little impulsion.
    • On-the-forehand (combined with half-halts): Add some impulsion before your half-halts to help your horse develop better uphill balance. You create energy, and only then you "recycle" it to the hind end.
    • Half-halts: It's very difficult to have half-halts that help to balance the horse when there's limited energy. So in all cases, add that little bit of impulsion before the half-halt.
    • Balance: It's so much easier for the horse to truck along on the forehand than to carry weight to the hind end. Use your two legs for "go" and see if he has an easier time staying off the forehand thanks to the extra energy.
    • Mouth "issues": The first time I saw impulsion do magic with a horse's mouth problems was at a Stephen Clarke clinic. He was absolutely not worried about the mouth (and head tossing). He just worked the rider and got more impulsion, and soon enough, the horse calmed, the mouth softened, and they had a great ride. I've used this strategy many times now and it seems to work with many horses.
    • Rooting the reins: Horses can only pull down and forward on the reins if they are leaning to the forehand. Before the horse gets too far, use two legs and encourage forward movement. You might be excited to notice that the horse's head comes right up and away you go.
    • Lack of rhythm: Rhythm in horse riding is all about getting the footfalls to be timed correctly for the gait. So a trot is a 2-beat rhythm, the canter a 3-beat rhythm and the walk is 4-beats. If you have trouble keeping rhythm, just add a little impulsion and maybe a few half-halts.



  • Ear pinning/tension: The horse that is pinning his ears is generally looking and thinking backward to the rider. Send him forward and look for the ears that show that the horse is looking ahead and not behind.
  • Bucking/rearing/kicking out: The horse can only do one of these moves when there is little to no forward energy. Feel it coming on? Teach the horse that he can move ahead, and use his hind end.
  • Spooking: Spooking feels very energetic sometimes, but can only happen if the forward energy is replaced by sideways (or otherwise) energy. So send the horse forward at the slightest hint of a spook.
  • Stopping/balking: These two problems are almost the same as spooking. The horse simply can't stop if he's going forward. It will be your job to teach him that even before he thinks about stopping.
  • Bracing the jaw or poll: Horses often brace in the jaw or poll when the rider holds on too long or with too much pressure. Some learn to lean into the pressure and just truck along. If you ask for impulsion when this happens, you'll find that suddenly there is room in the reins (as long as you are not actively pulling backward at the same time). Then you can go ahead with a half-halt if needed, and the small release after that. If you can do this often enough, the horse will learn to soften.
  • Rushing: This one sounds counter-intuitive, because how can rushing be corrected with more energy? But it does work that way with riding, because in general, when a horse rushes, he is on the forehand. And when he's on the forehand, he's NOT using his hind end. So again, asking with two legs and then using a half-halt might help to slow the legs down, increase the stride length, and develop better balance.

Well! If you're still here, thanks for reading all that! I hope this helps you in your riding journey. The role of impulsion in riding cannot be overstated. If you can think of other ways that impulsion can change your ride, let me know 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.

Click here to read more and to join one of the most complete programs on the Internet!

Horse Listening
Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published! Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

Horse Listening The BookIf you like this article, read more here:

12 Riding Quick Tips – #6: Developing Impulsion

How You Know You Don’t Have Impulsion (Yet)

The Power Of Straightness – And A Checklist

Why We Dressage: The Horse

What To Do When Your Horse Loses Balance

The Power Of Straightness – And A Checklist

Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

I don't like to get too heebie-jeebie about anything to do with horses and riding, but in a way, if there's something you want to go overboard about, it's straightness.

Straightness is critical to everything that has to do with horses and riding, but really, it's mostly for the horses. Because when the horse isn't straight, he's crooked. Which generally happens all the time, and is often not recognized. If we don't recognize crookedness, how can we even begin to work on straightness?

Now, to be fair, riding truly straight is not as easy as it sounds or looks. There is so much that goes into being straight, that it's yet another one of those things that riders spend their entire lives on: achieving some success, then falling apart, then getting even better, then finding new problems as they get better, and then re-establishing what they had before... it's never-ending. And the better they get, the more there is to learn.

But that's what makes achieving skills such as straightness so great! There's so much to it, until there isn't!

So how is straightness powerful?

Well, that's it, really. Being straight is being powerful.

The energy "goes through" - the power from the hind end can be transmitted all the way to the front end. Crookedness takes the power away.

The weight is evenly balanced - so every limb carries equal(ish) weight. This helps to alleviate stress on any one part of the horse's body, whether it's the shoulders, back, hips, or particular feet.

The straighter the horse, the easier it is for him to reach underneath with the hind legs, which means easier to begin to work on collection.

The body is in alignment, which allows the horse to maintain better balance all around. He will have an easier time with responsiveness.

The straight horse will have an easier time with rhythm and tempo. Both become more deliberate, more intentional.

And suppleness. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the odd thing about straightness is that it helps with left to right flexion and bend. And suppleness helps with straightness.

I'm sure there are at least another hundred benefits to straightness! But I think you're probably getting my point already.

Straightness Checklist

The intention of this checklist is to give you some concrete, practical points to look for when you're actually at the barn and riding. Print it off and take it with you!

While you're working on straightness, these are things you're looking for. Again, there's much more to be said about the topic. This is only a place to begin.

 

Rider's Position

Weight is even on both seat bones

 

Shoulders straight (or parallel to the horse's shoulders) - no leaning or collapsing

 

Head looking in the direction of movement (through the horse's ears), chin level to the ground

 

Legs evenly draped around the horse

 

Tall upper body

 



 

Rider's Aids

Inside leg to support the inside shoulder from dropping in

 

Outside leg to support the horse's hips from falling out

 

Inside rein slightly open for flexion as needed

 

Outside neck rein or direct rein to keep the horse's outside shoulder "in the body" (no bulging or drifting)

 

Seat, leg and appropriate rein (inside or outside, but usually outside) used for half-halts

 

Horse

Impulsion from the hind end (use two legs for go!)

 

Rib cage straight (not bulging one side or the other)

 

Shoulders are aligned with the body (not bulging)

 

Neck is straight (not over bent in one direction)

 

Head is straight and looking in the direction of movement (no twisting, or one ear lower than the other)

 

Horse is stepping straight with each step (legs do not deviate off the line)

 

Horse's hind leg footsteps follow along the same line as the front leg footsteps

 

Well, I think this should be enough to get you started. Even if you can improve on one area over the next little while, it will help you along your straightness path. For example, maintain your position while keeping the horse step straight with each step. That should take a fair amount of dedication to start with!

Now there is one thing I haven't mentioned yet.

Straightness is not JUST about travelling in a straight line. So you can be straight on a circle. You can be straight on a bend. You can be straight in a movement, like leg yield or walk pirouette. You can even be straight on a half-pass, even while the horse is bent in the direction of movement while travelling diagonally across the ring.

This is because straightness is about the alignment of the horse's (and rider's) body. So even while the horse is bent into a direction, he has to maintain "straight" alignment through the hips, ribs, shoulder, neck and head. If he isn't straight, then he'll have a bulging shoulder, or rib cage, or hips swinging out.

And now you can see how straightness permeates pretty much everything we do with a horse, from the beginning levels all the way up. And the secret is that it's not always necessary to work on trying to straighten single parts of the horse's body. In fact, you want to develop the prerequisites of straightness: rhythm (and tempo), suppleness, connection (and contact), impulsion... all of the basics that are discussed in the dressage Pyramid of Training. The better you get at the basics, the quicker and easier  it will be for the horse to move correctly, and eventually, straight. 

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.

Click here to read more and to join one of the most complete programs on the Internet!

Horse Listening
Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published! Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list.Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Horse Listening Book Collection - beautiful paperbacks with all the excellence of the blog - in your hands! Click on the image for more information.

HL Five Years
HL Bundle
HL Goal Setting
HL Book 3
HL Book 2
HL Book 1

If you like this article, read more here:

Riding Straight Through the Turn

The Three Basic Rein Aids Explained

4 Steps To Better Movement

How to Fix Your Horse’s Crookedness

A Simple and Effective Horse Riding Warm Up (Exercise)

Why We Dressage: The Horse

Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

While most people think of the competition ring when they hear the word "dressage," there is so much more to be gained from the system of dressage than originally might meet the eye. I mean, it's only walk, trot and canter (with the occasional lateral movement thrown in), right? 

But there is a secret about dressage. Because the focus, especially at the lower levels, is on developing quality movement, there is much to be gained for riders of other disciplines to learn and then develop these skills in their horses. Which discipline doesn't want the horse to move as well as it can?

So here are 11 reasons why we dressage the horse. 

1. The Path

First off, the dressage "levels" and the training scale give riders a well thought-out path to follow when training their horse. While not everyone aims to learn the exercises and movements in order to compete, the organization of all the skills into levels allows every rider to follow a sequential order of progression, from the very basic to the advanced. It's not all about the horse, either. Rider's skills are also progressively addressed so that the rider can effectively influence (and balance) the horse.

2. Inside Hind Leg

You might hear somewhat of an obsession about the inside hind leg among dressage enthusiasts. There is good reason for this. When we ride a horse in the ring, the inside hind leg carries the balance of the horse. The inside hind leg that can step deeper underneath the horse will always be able to carry the horse and rider's weight better, maintain a better rhythm and tempo, and use the musculature of the horse's body in a way that allows the horse to move stronger with less constraint.

3. Swinging Back

The back is another area of obsession because without a supple and swinging back, the horse will always move in tension and rigidity. Done over the long term, the tightness of the horse's back transfers into every part of the horse's body, and can eventually be the root cause of a variety of lamenesses. And so... we try and try some more to move with the horse, encourage better movement through the back, and allow the energy "through".

4. Rider Education

Dressage isn't all about the horse, of course (well, it is, really). Because if the rider doesn't know how to create these flowing, going movements, even the kindest, most accommodating horse will inevitably suffer. And so in order to dressage the horse, we need to dressage the rider too.

5. Rider Position and Effectiveness

The rider can look "pretty" on the horse, but in order for the horse to look pretty, there must be more than just holding the body in a certain way. And so in dressage, you will get into "the effectiveness of the rider," because without that, the movement will always suffer, even in the most talented horse.

6. Quietness of Aids

One of the most common observations about good dressage riding is that it looks like the rider is doing nothing; the horse is just moving merrily along and the rider moves not an inch! Well, if you know riding at all, you'll know that the quieter the rider looks, the more work she has done to get to that place. We're talking about muscle memory, coordination, balance, timing, and so much more. And it's not really that the rider wants to appear motionless - it's more that the rider wants to become "at one" with the horse - the ultimate place to be!

7. Suppleness

Nowhere will you hear the word "suppleness" more than in the dressage ring. This is because in order for the horse to be able to do anything with ease, he has to learn to flex left and right, and over the top line. This is something that needs to be learned early and then maintained as the horse becomes more fit and educated. All horses, in all disciplines, benefit from suppleness in their work.

8. Transitions

In dressage, we live in transitions! And transitions help the horse with engagement, impulsion, and all the good things that come from reaching deeper underneath the body with the hind legs. Transitions also get the horse and rider tuned into each other, helping to develop better communication and responsiveness between them. 



9. Power From The Hind End

You simply can't "dressage" the horse without working on increasing the power of the hind end. The stronger the horse can become in the hind end, the better he will maneuver through his discipline-specific movements. 

10. Off The Forehand

The reason we want the horse's hind end to strengthen is so that he can learn to "balance back" - and take some of that weight off the forehand. The fit and balanced horse is much better able to carry the rider. He also puts much less weight on to the front legs and shoulders.

11. Dancing

Finally, this is where the magic happens! Because once all the above areas are developed, the horse and rider will have the skills and relationship to play at will. And this is what riding is all about!

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.

Click here to read more and to join one of the most complete programs on the Internet!

Horse Listening
Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published! Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list.Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Horse Listening Book Collection - beautiful paperbacks with all the excellence of the blog - in your hands! Click on the image for more information.

HL Five Years
HL Bundle
HL Goal Setting
HL Book 3
HL Book 2
HL Book 1

If you like this article, read more here:

What Bend Really Means

When We Want To Actually Ride From The Hind End, But Get Stuck On-The-Forehand

12 Riding Quick Tips – #5: How To Prevent An Upper Body Collapse During Transitions

Dressage As A Healing Tool

Feeling Like A  (Dressage) Queen

An Easy Way To Start Counter Canter

Counter Canter
Photo Credit: J. Boesveld

You're doing great at the canter! Your horse is able to strike off at will, maintain a strong but balanced canter, stay straight and transition down. You can pick and choose which lead you want. You can maintain a steady, even contact in canter, and you can even improve your "connection" by asking the horse to move forward even while in canter!

Just when you think you've finally got it all down, you discover that it's time for something new - the "counter" canter! Since when is it ok to canter in the wrong lead?!

Well, as you likely know, the "wrong" lead and the counter canter are different in two distinct ways.

First, the wrong lead is "wrong" because you asked for the true lead and got the opposite answer! So in fact, it was an incorrect response to possibly incorrect aids.

Second, the wrong lead will likely be imbalanced. The horse possibly drifted to the outside from the shoulder, or from the hip. The body is probably not bent in the direction of the lead. And so the horse is moving along at a choppy three-beat gait, which looks and sounds like a counter canter, but is brought on by lack of strength or balance.

While counter canter and the "wrong" lead are one and the same, the way you arrive to each is the distinguishing factor.

So how can you start riding a counter canter, in a way that doesn't disrupt the horse's balance too much, doesn't put too much mental strain on the horse, and allows for continued forward movement, all at the same time?

The "Loop"

The loop is a standard dressage figure, used often in trot and canter. The trick to the loop is that it starts with one bend, changes to the other bend, and then ends in the original bend - all along one rail length! 

You can start the loop in trot first, until you have a good understanding of what you need to do.

In dressage tests, the middle of the loop is placed at X, which requires the horse to do a fairly steep diagonal line (the green dotted line in the image). But when first training the loop, I like to start with the "shallow" loop (pictured here in red), mostly because it does not require as much engagement and left-to-right suppleness.

The midpoint of the shallow loop lands on the quarter line. The shallow path is usually easier for horses or riders that have not tried the loop before. Over time, I make the loop deeper until we can use X as the midpoint.

After you've made progress at the trot, you can start working in the canter. The idea is that you start in the true lead (left lead at F), and travel off the rail toward X, stay in the same lead (counter canter) as you head back to the rail, and finally end up in the original balance at M, heading now toward the short side of the arena.

The relative straightness of the line is the reason why this exercise is a fairly simple way to introduce counter canter. The straightness helps the horse maintain almost the same amount of power in the hind end, and there are only a few strides of actual counter canter before the horse goes back into the true bend.

Now, I just mentioned that you want to change bends in trot when you go over the midpoint of the loop. So if you started with a left bend, you'd switch to the right bend over the midpoint.

In canter, it will be different, because in general, you will stay in a mild left bend to help the horse to keep his left lead through the counter canter section. As you get better at it, you can "approach" straightness, but in general, we stay in the same bend throughout the loop.

The Aids

Because you're essentially just travelling in canter along a series of bends, the aids are common to the turn aids:

Inside leg at the girth (to prevent the shoulders from falling in)

Outside leg behind the girth (to prevent the hips from swinging out)

Inside rein slightly open

Outside neck rein, or direct rein for half-halts and straightening the outside shoulder

Weight is on the inside seat bone

Rider's shoulders are parallel to the horse's shoulders

In The Beginning

When you first start a horse on the loop in canter, you might get two results.

  1. The horse might break stride at the midpoint, where the change of balance occurs. In this case, just balance the trot, and canter again as soon as you can. The next time through, try to ask for more engagement with your outside leg to help keep the horse's outside hind leg active.
  2. The horse might do a flying change at the midpoint. Many horses learn to do flying changes based on balance changes, and this is what the loop will help you to overcome. You want to teach the horse to respond to the aids rather than just switch leads every time he changes direction. So if your horse changes leads, calmly transition to trot, and canter off in the left lead again. 

In both cases, consider making your loop even more shallow, like the blue loop in the diagram. This might help your horse stay in better balance and not feel like he has to make that flying change.

Well, there is so much more to say about the counter canter! But this might give you a solid starting point that will help you begin to explore all that there is to learn about canter, and the canter leads. Enjoy!

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.

Click here to read more and to join one of the most complete programs on the Internet!

Horse Listening
Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published! Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Horse Listening Book Collection - beautiful paperbacks with all the excellence of the blog - in your hands! Click on the image for more information.

HL Five Years
HL Bundle
HL Goal Setting
HL Book 3
HL Book 2
HL Book 1

If you like this article, read more here:

12 Riding Quick Tips – #10: How To Canter Instead Of Just Trot Faster

Wrong Canter Lead? 5 Ways To Fix It!

How To Improve YOUR Trot-Canter Transitions

How to Fine Tune Your Canter-Trot Transitions

7 Essential Aids For An Epic Canter Transition 

10 Things You Should Never Tell Your Non-Horsey Friends

 

Want to keep your non-horsey friends?

Then take my advice. Keep most of your horsey habits to yourself, because no matter what you say or how often you try, you won't be able to explain away the things we take for granted once we walk through those barn doors. 

Which habits?

There are likely too many to list here, but let's start with the ones below. 

You spend more time cleaning your horse and tack and stall and tack box and tacking up than actually ride!

Which may not be a problem if you're like me and enjoy any contact with horses! But really, the Hollywood glamour of riding that steed into the sunset dissolves after a year or two of riding (or even earlier) once you realize all the work that goes into doing anything worth doing with horses!

Every gelding must have regular sheath cleanings!

Never mind getting into the nitty-gritty details of how far your hand goes up the sheath, feeling around for "peanuts", and how you can even talk your wonderful gelding into accepting his spa treatment. All of this is better left unsaid!

You're a dedicated poop inspector.

Well, if you've ever had the misfortune of having had a horse colic (or even watched someone else's horse colic), you know how important the poop patrol can be! In fact, you're likely an expert poop-deciphering detective - but who really needs to know, right?

Your horse matters to you more than your friends.

Well, you really don't want to advertise this around, now, do you? Just because it's true doesn't mean that you should rub it in when hangin' with your fellow humans.

Your horse matters more than your home.

While we're on the topic, let's not forget that it's way more important to clean and organize everything to do with the horse, barn, tack or horse supplies than anything to do with your home. I mean, your home will always be there. So you might as well do what fulfills you first!

You have no issues with eating out of your dirty hands.

Because horse dirt isn't really bad dirt, is it? And after all that work, you're starving! Picking out manure-filled horse feet and then having a sandwich takes more priority than worrying about a little bit of possible bacteria. Do you think they'd understand?



You do your best to not be seen as you stick your hand down your under-clothing!

Because there's hay in there and it scratches! And it happens all the time.

You spend more on your horse's vet bills than your grocery bills.

Well, that goes without saying! You gotta have your priorities straight. Horses first, always.

You can easily lift anything in the 40lb range (feed bags, anyone??).

In general, though, you try not to make a big deal about it. But you sure can be a strong extra hand when needed.

You can, in fact, easily chew gum, tap your head and rub your belly at the same time. 

And probably even stand on one leg while you're at it. Because one thing that horse riding does for us is to teach us balance and coordination.

I'm sure you can add lots more to this list. Just post 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.

Click here to read more and to join one of the most complete programs on the Internet!

Horse Listening
Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published! Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Horse Listening The Book
Click here to learn more

Available as an eBook or paperback.

If you like this article, read more here:

8 Ways It’s More Fun To Horse Around With Friends

17 Wise Reflections – Straight From the Horse’s Mouth!

HL on the Dressage Radio Show? Yes!!

42 Ways to Play, Learn and Grow With Your Horse

5 Common Horse and Riding Myths

Horseback Riders Do Nothing Anyway!