I was teaching a client this week about awareness of her horse’s bend, and how to adjust it. In it’s most basic sense, it was just about her feeling the bend throughout her horse’s body and beginning to think about asking for more bend in circles and turns. Until now I’ve been getting her to turn her body, use her seat and leg aids correctly to manoeuvre her horse, but the focus has been on the correctness of her as a rider. So now is the time to put these skills to the test and use them to improve her horse’s suppleness whilst getting her to think more about her horse’s way of going.
My rider could identify which rein was her horse’s stiffer, and we discussed how to ask for a bit more flexion by opening the inside rein and using the inside leg to push the horse into the outside bend. Here, we met a problem.
Where my rider, due to learning in the 80s, grips hard with her knees, her lower leg swings back. We’ve spent time working on correcting this, but when she isn’t thinking about her leg position they wander back. Which means that the inside leg isn’t working on the girth. So she’s inadvertently asking for counter bend.
I threatened, in a joking way, to tie her stirrups to her girth to prevent her leg swinging. Before I knew it, her helpful husband had produced a bit of string!
I took my client’s inside foot out of the stirrup, and tied the inside of the iron to the girth securely. My rider could barely find her stirrup to put her foot back in.
Immediately, she was aware of how her leg swings back each time she applied the leg aid. After walking a circle, we tried trotting a few circles. Once she’d gotten used to rising with a stable lower leg, and keeping the heel below the hip, she could feel how easy it was to use her inside leg to ask for more inside bend. There were a couple of lightbulb moments when her horse had the correct bend, engaged the inside hind and softened through his back and neck.
There were many moans because the position felt so alien, but as my rider could feel the benefit she tried to keep her leg still.
When we were ready to change the rein, I swapped the string to the other leg. This is because the new rein was the more supple, and the outside leg needed to be able to move behind the girth. However, I thought it would be beneficial for my rider to develop an awareness of the instability of her lower leg, regardless of rein.
I’d quite like to warm my rider up next time with string keeping her stirrups at the girth as this will improve her position and awareness, as well as training her muscles. Then when I take the string away, she’ll be able to use the inside leg on the girth to ask for the correct bend.
You have to be quite careful not to do the exercise for too long as her muscles will complain, and you need to have a reliable, steady horse to reduce the risk of her falling off or getting her foot stuck. Ideally, and I’ve used them when I’ve done a similar exercise with kids, you want safety stirrups because the foot can come out of the iron more easily. I think giving my rider physical restrictions on her stirrups highlighted far more than me repeatedly telling her, or moving her leg in halt, how much her lower leg swings and how much it affects the horse.