Is your horse one sided? Most have a stiffer side. He may choose one canter lead over the other, have a diagonal that’s more comfortable or go round corners on one rein with his head stuck to the outside but whatever it is don’t be so quick to blame him!
Think about the way you’re sat in the chair right now. Are your legs crossed? Which leg is on top? Is it always that way? 9 times out of 10 you’ll do one rather than the other. That means one hip gets more exercise than the other. If you have a drink at the computer which side is it on? Do you find it more natural to turn to the left or the right to pick it up? How about if you go upstairs? Or climb over a fence. Which leg do you lead with? (Chances are it’s the one you’ve got on top if you’re sitting with your legs crossed!)
How about when you’re riding? Do you find it easier to turn your body to the left or the right? One way is always easier. When you warm up which way do you go to start with? Left or right? Do you go back to that rein for your first canter? Given the choice would you turn left to a fence or right? These are little things but things that you can change to help your horse.
Make a conscious effort to change the way you do things. Cross your legs the other way, put your mug on the wrong side of the desk for a week and lead with your other leg when you run up the stairs. By doing that you’ll even out your body and help your horse to even out the way he uses his.
When you’re out hacking you probably carry your whip between you and the traffic. Why wouldn’t you? The problem with that is your horse will naturally bend around that whip putting him in a permanent right bend. Is it any wonder he’s stiff to the left?
When you ride out try to carry your whip in the left hand when you’re off road. Use both diagonals too. It’s too easy to opt for the ‘good’ one but use the uncomfortable one often enough and you’ll find it hard to tell between the two. You don’t have to be on the bit to do these things. There’s no need for your horse to even realise you’re schooling him. Keep it simple and he’ll even out without knowing you’re trying.
How often do you see someone bending and flexing their horse one way and then the other? It’s OK if you really understand what you’re trying to achieve but if you’re doing it because you think it will ‘soften’ your horse’s stiff side you’re unfortunately wasting your time.
If your body was stiff to the right no amount of neck bending would loosen it up. You’d need to bend through your waist and stretch the muscles on the other side which aren’t used to working. So does your horse.
Don’t think you can get rid of your horse’s stiff side by working on that rein the whole time. Imagine if someone stood over you and made you write with the wrong hand. You may start off with good intentions but it would be hard work and uncomfortable – eventually, your enthusiasm would dwindle.
Think about how you’d feel if you had to write with the wrong hand and you’ll understand why your horse needs to be schooled in stages on the stiffer side. You can’t just turn his head in that direction and kick him through the stiffness. He can’t bend because he’s struggling not because he doesn’t want to! You have to gradually increase the bend you ask for bit by bit.
In the school use serpentines so you use both sides. On a three loop serpentine ride it so the first and last loops are on the easier rein when you start off. When you turn onto the middle loop keep your horse looking straight forward in his head and neck and concentrate on pushing his body out. The more he stretches the outside of his body the more supple his back will be. Bending his neck won’t do that.
Riding your horse straight is more beneficial than riding with an exceptional bend on one side and stiff and stilted on the other. Figures of eight using long diagonals are ideal. This way your focus is on keeping him straight across the school, asking for a slight bend around the half circle and then straightening him up again. When he’s balanced you’ll be able to stretch his body from your leg without tension.
The slower your pace the better for your horse on his stiff side too. Imagine having to write a sentence with the wrong hand at speed? By concentrating and writing slowly most people could at least write legibly. Your horse needs you to be understanding and patient. Little and often will win the day. Change your ways as much as you want him to change his and you’ll be surprised what a difference it makes.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.
In memory of Lorraine Jennings