Bending and balance

If a horse doesn’t have good self-carriage at slow speeds, he will only have more trouble at faster gaits.

Question: I ride a 4-year-old gelding for a friend, and I always longe him before I work him under saddle. Lately I’ve noticed what I think is a balance issue, and it really stands out when I longe him. He moves on a circle nicely around me with a good bend, but as his speed increases he often leans against the longe line. At a canter, the line is taut between us and I’m straining to “hold him up.” Sometimes he leans so hard it feels like if I suddenly let go he would go flying off the circle and possibly off his feet. I’ve also noticed him speeding up under saddle to compensate when he feels unbalanced. I feel confident that I’m doing my job staying balanced myself, and I’ve been giving him as much support as I can. I hoped you might have some specific suggestions for how to strengthen him over time and help him support his own weight, especially at speed and around turns.

Answer: That’s a great question. And you’re right, balance is the key. If a horse doesn’t have good self-carriage at slow speeds, he will only have more trouble at faster gaits.

I recently had a student at one of our James Creek Ranch Horsemanship Camps who was dealing with a similar issue. Her name is Lauren and she had brought her 7-year-old Friesian, Dante. Lauren does dressage with Dante and has been very successful at shows, but she had had some challenges at home, especially doing circles at the canter on the longe line. Dante would lean out on the circle and end up dragging Lauren from the center.

When a horse on a longe line bends heavily to the outside, he is thinking away from the handler. Or wishing he could leave altogether. This is easy to understand from a horse’s point of view because pressure is coming from the handler on the inside of a circle.

There are two forces at play in this situation. When a horse wants to leave more than be with you, it is called “drive”—the desire to be away from you. On the other hand, what we need is called “draw”—the desire for a horse to come to us. If these two ingredients are out of balance, you will end up with too much draw or too much drive. Too much draw and a horse will run you over; too much drive and he will drag you away. The answer is to establish balance.

In the accompanying photos I demonstrate the success plan I gave to Lauren, which is composed of exercises to help the horse achieve balance on the longe line and then under saddle. With these steps, I show how to slow things down and direct the horse’s attention to the inside of the circle. These are techniques that Lauren—and other handlers—can use to help a horse achieve bend and balance on the longe line.

1. When I sent Dante out on a circle to the left I could see his issues right away, even at the trot. The first clue is where his attention is focused—his eye and ear are directed toward the outside of the circle. This is common and understandable from the horse’s point of view. When the person asks him to go faster, he may see this as an effort to send him away. Dante is physically on a circle but not mentally. By the time he gets to canter, he would be dragging Lauren around and elongating the circle. To avoid this, you need to learn to use your aids to send a horse forward rather than away.

2. From this perspective, on the other side of the circle, you can see why Dante will have a hard time at the canter. Not only is he looking hard to the outside of the circle but he is bent to the right and falling in to the left. His inside legs are fully weighted, especially the left front. If asked to canter at this point, Dante would be out of balance and likely to take the incorrect lead.

3. Now for the solution: I slow things down to the walk and initiate an exercise to create a left bend and to move Dante off of the inside. I cue him to move his body diagonally to the right until he looks back to me. He must not think he’s being driven away from me. I pay close attention to where he is looking and to his feet, looking for them to cross over. I stop and reward him when he even crosses his hind and forelegs, as well as when he looks at me. Remember, a horse learns when you release pressure, so make sure to stop asking when he does what you want.

4.  After practicing the previous exercise, I allow Dante to be a bit farther away and to start taking more of a step forward on the circle. I position myself so I can push the bend and balance he will need. Dante is now freer on the inside and in a better position to canter in balance. But we aren’t there yet! He needs to get very good at the walk, then the trot, before he can maintain this position with ease.

5. After only a few circles, I bring Dante in for a nice rub. This creates a draw, which is a desire for him to be connected to me while on a circle. I want him to think his comfort is to the inside of a circle—in other words I want him to think of me as his comfort. That’s a challenge because only a second ago I was driving him to move out. I go back and forth between sending him out to get moving and then, after a few laps on a circle, bringing him back in for a rub and some relaxation.

6. As he progresses in the next few minutes, Dante has a much better position. The lead is slack; he is connected to the left and balancing more over to the right. Because he is more balanced and comfortable, he starts to stretch nicely over his topline. Only at this point would I increase the distance and speed up to the trot. He must master the trot before beginning the canter transition.

7. Now it’s time for Lauren to give it a try. Here you can see that the rope is slack and Dante is connected to her. Lauren is raising her stick toward Dante’s inside rib to show him she can create the bond and balance. 

About the author: Jonathan Field is a trainer and clinician from Abbotsford, British Columbia. His program, Jonathan Field Horsemanship: Inspired by Horses, teaches the skills necessary to build a relationship with horses. Field grew up riding both English and Western and worked as a cowboy on one of the largest cattle ranches in Canada. Field regularly does presentations at events like the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento, California.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #462, March 2016. 




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