Does your horse feel a bit flat? Are you going through the motions but struggling to set the world on fire? He may feel fairly light in your hand – perhaps he moves from your leg too – but if that’s the case why aren’t you getting better marks at dressage and why is your canter so flat? You need to get better connected.
Your horse has two ends and a middle. Those three parts are joined together by bone, tendon and muscle. Tendons and muscles are meant to stretch but allow them to get too far apart and you’ll struggle to keep him together. When he gets strung out it’s impossible for him to push himself forward correctly. Push on and you’ll generate speed but no power. Both ends will move faster – just not together.
You can tell a disconnected horse because his back is long and flat. He may not be on his forehand but he’s not sat back on his hocks either. He may have a ‘4 time’ canter too. It’s often overlooked as it feels similar to an ordinary canter. You may just think something’s not quite right but be unable to put your finger on it. Listen carefully to the beat of the canter and you’ll hear four beats, not three because the inside hind and outside fore isn’t moving as a pair.
To improve a four time canter the last thing you need to do is canter! Get your horse working between your leg and hand in walk and trot first and he’ll be better balanced and able to canter correctly.
Riding around the school trying to push your horse forward to your hand won’t work. It’s human nature to try too hard. You’ll end up pulling too hard and tightening his back or pushing him on so much that he falls onto his shoulders and rushes. You need to give him something to do which does it for you. Try this.
Direct transitions from trot to halt and halt to trot are perfect for pushing your horse together. Learn to use your thigh and knee to bring him back to you. The less you rely on your hand the better. If he’s relaxed in his mouth he’ll soften and round his back and work correctly.
You may be using halt but this needs to be a forward thinking exercise. Ask for your transitions on a long side at E and B so your horse has had time to get straight and balanced and has room in front of him to feel he can go forward again.
Turn onto the long side and focus on riding forward from both legs into a steady contact in both reins. Keep your hands level and in front of your body to keep your horse’s shoulders pointing down the track. Make sure, if you’ve had an inside bend, you always straighten him up on the long sides.
Never back off a downward transition – especially one to halt. Halt needs to be full of energy so your horse is back on his hocks and ready to move on again. Ride forward towards E/B and look up. Never underestimate the influence your weight has on your transitions. The further back you lean the more weight you’ll put on his hocks.
Two strides before E/B squeeze with your thighs to warn your horse the transition is coming. On the marker push your knees in as hard as you can and sit back on your seat. Keep your lower leg on to keep his hocks under his body. Come out of the saddle at this point and you’ll tip him into his shoulders and lose all the energy from your trot. Keep your contact in both reins.
Once your horse has settled in halt move straight into trot again. Don’t shuffle your seat in the saddle, shorten your reins or move your legs – you haven’t got time for that! Halt and move on again. Get it sharp enough and you’ll feel your horse rock back onto his hocks in readiness for the trot again. That’s where you want him.
The upward transition should be as sharp as the downward. Sit back, look up, take your knee off and use a nudge with both heels. If your horse doesn’t go the instant you ask, tap him up with your whip but don’t lean forward! That will put all your weight over his shoulders and make it impossible for him to engage his hocks.
You will never improve an upward transition by loosening your reins – just as you won’t improve a downward one by taking your leg off. Keep your contact even in both reins. Be careful you’re not focusing on an inside bend. Do that and unwittingly you’ll pull back on the inside rein. That sends your horse off to the inside. A crooked horse can’t use his hocks correctly to push himself forward.
Don’t just ride a couple of half decent transitions and move on. Spend the whole session doing them. Start on the long sides. When your horse is really halting and moving off with the slightest touch of your knee or heel you can move on to different places. Turn across the school, halting over the centre line. Ride figures of eight with halt transitions at X. Turn down the centre line and halt at X. Do anything you can to keep him thinking.
By the end of a good session, you should feel your horse is more in your hand. You’ll have more weight at the end of your rein but in a positive way. He should be bouncier in his trot and itching to go forward when you halt. That’s connected. And the four time canter? Well that will be better but do yourself a favour. Leave it for another day.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.
In memory of Lorraine Jennings from School Your Horse