Softening Over The Back

I teach a new horse-rider combination who are getting to know each other. The horse is highly unfit and lethargic in his way of going, and the rider has ridden on-off for a couple of years so getting back into it with a project. A big project at that!

I knew the rider before, with her previous loan pony, but I first met the horse when she asked me to give her a lunge lesson. That is, a lesson to teach the horse to lunge. He already knew, but was rusty, so my job was to re-establish the basics with him and make sure his rider was doing the right things. She wanted to lunge him to help improve his fitness as under saddle she found he was very dead to the leg and fatigued quickly. We did put the Pessoa on as he is basically front end drive, and I wanted to demonstrate the correct usage of it so that his rider could bring it into her lunge sessions as he got fitter.

Since then the lessons have consisted of getting the horse to respond to the leg – akin to the blog post Another Analogy – and improving his basic trot and canter with hundreds of transitions and circles. He`s quite stale in the school so we`ve used poles and jumps to help incite him which has worked to a degree.

Then last week I sat on him. Immediately, it was obvious to me why he didn`t go forwards at all. His back was completely rigid. That meant that there was no way he could use his hindlegs to push forwards so relied completely on his shoulders and forehand. That also explains the pottery hindleg action and why he doesn`t have a very big stride anyway, because he`s not using his body properly! I did a bit of work on getting him to accept my contact and then stretch his neck out an inch or two, which released the muscles over his back so for a stride or two. Obviously this was hard for him, so we alternated between the two ways of going for much of the session.

In the next lesson, I sought to teach this to his rider, so that she can help get his back more relaxed and softer so that he finds it easier to move, and then we can further improve the gaits.

Initially I got her to think about the hindlegs in the warm up trot, because ultimately we want the inside hindleg to step under and take the weight of the horse, which will mean he has to lift his back and wither, and drop his nose to accommodate this. Corners are the easiest point to feel the inside hind leg action. A lazy horse will avoid taking the weight on his inside hind leg by falling out of the diagonal shoulder, so my rider had to think about her outside rein being a safety net, supporting the outside shoulder on all the turns, whilst the inside leg encouraged the inside hind leg to step under.

After a brief discussion about pulling the horse`s head in versus Charlotte Dujardin`s positive hand position and rein aids, we started to ask for a little more rein contact in the walk. Previously I`ve just wanted them to have a very light rein contact so that the handbrake is completely off, just to get the horse moving. Now the reins needed to stay positive, so the hand was held out in front of her, rather than in her lap, but held a little more firmly. She didn`t want to think of drawing the horse`s head towards her, but rather giving him a boundary and then using her leg to push him into the reins.

Combining the rein contact with the leg, the horse dropped his nose down and in. But it was all about looking pretty, there was no change to the rest of his body. When he dropped his nose down and in I asked his rider to encourage his head and neck out slightly by closing the leg and following him down with a slight extension of her arms (partially straightening the elbow without locking it). Then his back softened for a couple of strides before he came above the bridle and reverted to pulling himself along. She had to react immediately to him in order to maintain his way of going. After explaining and practising this for a few minutes we had a canter. I wanted to keep him fresh, hopefully loosen up some different muscles and make the trot easier when we came back to it.

I was pleased with the canter, the transitions were more instantaneous and they stayed in better balance round corners as well as maintaining the canter for longer.

Remember, this horse is still very unfit, so we needed a good walk rest before picking the trot up again. Using plenty of twenty metre circles to get the inside hindleg working a bit more, the rider using the rein contact to support his shoulders and ask him to soften his neck and then stretch it forwards. The work was intermittent, but hopefully you can see the three stages the horse goes through in the photos below. Now he needs more work like this to strengthen him and get him a bit fitter so that he can maintain the softness in his back which will enable him to open up his stride a bit more and eventually start swinging over his back as he moves.


Above, it is all about the forehand, you can see he’s above the bridle and the hind legs have a much shorter stride than the forelegs.

In the above two photos he has tucked his head in, behind the vertical. The hind leg stride has increased slightly, but he is still not using his hindquarters to push himself along, and his neck is tight. Unfortunately he tucked his nose in at awkward angles for my filming, so these pictures aren’t the more illustrative.

Here, he as taken his neck forwards so his nose is on the vertical, and he has come off the forehand slightly. The hind leg action has improved marginally, but you have to remember that he is now carrying more weight on them so we are making the task far harder, which means it will be a while before we see a substantial improvement.

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