Do you ride your horse into a corner – set him up so he stays balanced? Do you push on coming out of one too? Most riders do but stop and think about what you do halfway round that same corner. Or what you don’t do …
Imagine you’re cantering a 20m circle. See yourself doing it – sitting in line with the curve of the circle; back on your seat; riding forward into a steady contact that’s even in both hands. You’re on a continuous curve and you wouldn’t want to break the flow of your canter so there’s absolutely no reason why you’d want to take a check or interfere, is there? Which is absolutely right.
Now imagine yourself going large. Your canter is in full flow as you approach the corner. You’ll probably take a bit of a check and use a bit more leg to get your horse balanced for the corner. Without realising it you’re breaking the flow of the canter. What’s worse is as you ride round the corner you probably stop riding forward.
There are a couple of moments on a short side where most riders sit absolutely still. Not as you ride into a corner (you want to sit up and steady then right?). Not as you ride out of it – there you must want to keep your horse between leg and hand so he doesn’t flatten onto the long side. But halfway round – between corner markers and A/C. The thing about this is if you rode these few strides your horse would be better balanced into, round and out of the corners and you wouldn’t need to interfere at all!
It’s important to point out that you’re using your legs to encourage not to give your horse a sudden surge of energy. As you ride large or through the corners, your calf muscles should rest against his sides and squeeze on each stride. A sudden flurry of heels or whip would have the opposite effect – he’d shoot forward and lose rhythm.
On a 20m circle, you’ll ride every stride in the same way without thinking about it. So why the big freeze in a corner? It’s often unintentional. You may relax after setting him up for the corner. Or perhaps subconsciously you’re tense because you think he’ll lose balance. In actual fact the less leg you use the more likely that is to happen!
Practise cantering a 20m circle at A or C. Focus on riding the curve between the four tangent points of the circle. (A/C, X & unmarked points on the track at 10m) You should touch the track for a stride and leave. Ride at least three circles so you ride forward and concentrate on maintaining the rhythm and flow of the canter.
Riding forward to a steady contact does two things – it keeps your horse straight and balanced. It also helps him to relax and breathe. If your contact and your legs are consistent he knows where you are and what you’re asking so he doesn’t have to think. When you take your leg off or freeze up – even for a single stride – it’s enough to make him hold his breath in anticipation of a new aid. Every time he holds his breath in that way his body tightens – as yours does. This interrupts the softness and flow of his strides which is exactly what happens on the corners.
With that in mind, canter a 20m circle at A or C and start to square off the corners on the short side. Focus on the flow of your canter around the open side so you can maintain it as you reintroduce the corners.
Riding forward round the short side takes practice. You need to nag at yourself to keep riding. The average horse will take five strides between corner markers and A/C so count them. As you count squeeze with your calf muscles to remind yourself to keep riding. You’ll be surprised to see how many strides you usually miss.
Riding corners is an important part of test riding but it also affects jumping and lateral work. Anything that interrupts the flow of your trot or canter will have a knock on effect on everything you do on the next long side. Next time you ride think about what you’re doing around the whole arena. These little things can have a bigger effect than you think.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.
In memory of author Lorraine Jennings