One of my clients is taking the next step in her riding education at the moment. She has a schoolmaster pony on loan and whilst they have built a partnership and the flat work is improving you can see that she is very much the passenger at the moment, directing her horse and controlling the speed, but otherwise leaving it up to him to stay in trot or canter or even walk, which means he favours his forehand and is a bit flat in his gaits. This will make it harder for both of them as we progress onto smaller circles or trickier exercises and lateral work.
After a quick warm up to check her position and remind her not to let her reins slide through her fingers I brought her back to walk and discussed the mechanics of her pony’s movement. I’ve touched on bits before, but she needed the revision.
I explained how the horse carries sixty percent of their body weight on their forehand but in order to utilise their body, muscles and skeleton, most effectively the hindquarters should be the engine and propel them along, rather than drag themselves along by their shoulders and forelegs. Using their hindquarters means their gaits are lighter, less stressful on the body, and their centre of gravity moves from their withers towards their pelvis. This more uphill way of carrying themselves makes jumping a lot easier, is more comfortable for the rider and allows them to balance themselves more easily in the harder school movements. I didn’t want to overload my client with information, but she had grasped the concept and I can now trickle feed extra facts over the next few lessons.
In walk, I recapped the elements of a good quality walk and explained how my rider should sit taller, make sure she had a rein contact and was carrying her hands, and then close her legs around the pony to push him into the rein contact. Some call this riding between leg and hand, but you have to be careful that doesn’t create a negative hand aid. I tell clients that they want to push the horse from their leg towards their hand and then forwards. If you imagine a cats cradle the leg is the end ball coming down and hitting the central balls, which are the horses body and then the energy flows through the balls to the hands (the end ball) which moves forwards. The end ball is the hand but it doesn’t represent the hands flying up the neck, it just represent the release of the elbow and fingers to allow the horse to move forwards.
The pony started to bring himself together a bit more, and not look so flat in his stride. Then I explained to my rider how she should feel that her pony is more underneath her, like a bubble of energy, rather than in front and behind her. So the leg is important here to stop the hind legs being left behind and the rein contact stops the forehand running away.
Once the walk had improved we took it forwards to trot and within minutes the whole picture looked much better. The pony, who tucks his head in regardless, lifted and softened his back slightly and looked rounder. The stride changed from flat, choppy and rough, to softer, flowing, rounder strides. We added in some transitions and circles and because my rider had started to connect the front of her pony to the back she found it a lot easier to correct turns, circles etc, and the overall standard of them improved.
We did have a quick look at the canter, but I want to focus more on that next time. She did start to use the leg to maintain canter whilst lifting her core and half-halting to get the forehand to wait for the hindquarters which led to a handful of lovely three beat strides. Hopefully feeling this she will be able to recreate it next time.
I love this stage of learning, when a rider begins to ride intelligently and can influence the horse’s way of going because it opens up so many doors in terms of what they can learn and the numerous lightbulb moments are rewarding to watch.