If you look at any arena you’ll see that the corners are built up, with a little track marking a quarter circle. Partly this is because it’s difficult to get into the corner with the harrow, but also it’s because us riders are a bit lazy and cut off the corners. Plus a lot of horses lack the balance to ride a dressage worthy corner, so cut them off as well. I remember getting out traffic cones and getting the kids to ride around them if the ponies and riders were getting too lazy. I also remember being a teenager and helping with lessons and having to pretend to be a traffic cone – my toes curled as the ponies scraped past me!
Recently, most of my clients have been working on improving their ability to ride corners by using poles.
Either using two poles to make a right angle on the inner track of the arena, or using one pole perpendicular to the fence on the long side, I created a right angle.
The aim is not to ride a square corner, as a lot of horses will struggle to do that. The aim is to ride a corner in balance.
Too many riders ride off the inside rein, especially when faced with an unfenced corner – such as in a grass dressage arena – as their horse is less likely to turn themselves. This results in horses falling onto the inside shoulder and jack knifing through their bodies.
Starting in walk, I asked my riders to walk the corner thinking about their aids and what they were doing. Then I asked them to think about what the horse was doing in the next corner.
We then revised the aids for turning; inside rein indicates the direction of movement, inside leg asks the horse to bend around it, outside rein supports the outside shoulder and guides it round the turn, outside leg pushed the horse round the turn. Rider is sat fractionally more on their inside seat bone and upper body turns around the corner. I had to remind some riders that they weren’t driving a car, and that the inside rein shouldn’t get heavier than the outside.
I challenged them to ride the corner of poles with as little inside rein as possible – some of this was a case of mind over matter as their hands tended to get involved before they’d even realised!
We then checked they were using their outside aids, and already they could all feel their horses staying in a better balance, and were straighter. When horses work with their bodies straight they create two parallel tracks, like train tracks. Even on circles. If a horse over bends on a turn, they’re like a train about to derail, shooting out the side door of the turn. By increasing my riders awareness of and ability to use the outside aids they could keep their horse on the tracks.
To some, it felt like their horse was too straight, and indeed some horses showed elements of counter bend. But, as I learnt on my Horses Inside Out day, with flexibility you have to have stability. If a horse bends too easily in one direction then by removing the bend and riding them akin to a plank of wood, they become more stable and balanced, and then you can slowly add in degrees of bend until you have the correct amount.
After riding the corners in walk on both reins we proceeded to trot, which tended to exaggerate any problems.
For a couple of riders, their horse moved around the corner and then some on one rein, so we focused on riding straight out of the corner a stride earlier and ensuring the outside rein and inside leg were supporting the horse so he could travel straight along the track. This tended to happen on the horse’s bendiest rein.
On the other rein (the stiffer rein), and especially noticeable when there was no fence line to guide horse and rider, the horses tended to go 90% of the way around the corner before drifting out of the corner with the outside shoulder. By focusing on riding the outside shoulder fully around the turn my riders soon solved this issue.
By correcting the way the riders rode the corners the horses soon started to stay soft and balanced. The inside hind leg was coming underneath them and they were using it to propel themselves along, rather than escaping through the outside shoulder and losing energy and momentum. The trot became more energetic because of the improved steps and balance. The horse can also move more economically as they’re straighter so their hindlegs work towards their centre of gravity.
For the more advanced riders, we repeated the exercise in canter, but for all of them we took the improved way of riding turns onto circles so they could feel the improvement in their horse’s way of going.
Below is a clip taken from one of the lessons. Here we were focusing on using the outside aids and keeping the mare straighter as she has a history of crookedness. You can see how they maintained the trot throughout the corner, not losing energy or balance. We can increase the bend through her whole body once they’ve established this straightness.
Incredibly helpful for improving your use of the outside aids, it also gets the horse working correctly without any fiddling and yanking, because once the inside hindleg is going where it should be and taking the weight of the horse they will start to tighten their abdominal muscles and round their backs and necks correctly.