The gymnasically more useful way of moving takes time to develop and can be difficult for some horses, especially those with conformation issues. The horse will ‘avoid’ bringing the hind leg further under the body and using it to push. These evasions could be due to a lack of straightness, loss of balance, lack of coordination, lack of strength or physical conformation.
Like some humans, when there is hard work to do, they may try to find what they think is an energy saving way of going. This is why we need to school the horse into a more economical, balanced way to move. Think of it as a table with the legs too far apart; the centre weight bearing area of the table becomes weak. But with the legs under the table and supporting, the table becomes stronger.
The 5 most common evasions I have found are:
1. Bulgeing the shoulder sideways – this causes crookedness so the horse falls in (or out) to avoid pushing forwards and stepping under with the hing leg.
2. Throwing the haunches in – again causes crookedness because the hindlegs no longer follow the front in a ‘corridor effect’ . They lose the ability to push and carry correctly.
3. Lowering the head and leaning on the riders hands – this loads the weight on the forehand and the rider holds them up. The horse is then pulling itself along as the hindlegs straighten and trail. Some horses depending on their conformation may curl up behind the bit.
4. Speeding up and rushing – this usually follows the above as tbe horse loads the forehand and runs along ‘flat’, unable to re-balance and hold themselves up. The horse can sometimes misinterpret the need of more impulsion for speed and avoids the transfer of weight back onto the hind quarters.
5. Slowing down – the horse doesn’t go forwards from the leg. Again the horse bimbles along dragging itself on the forehand and hindlegs trailing. The horse usually doesn’t track up, particularly in trot and often in walk. When the horse lowers its head and neck (also seen in 3 and 4) the hind leg will straighten and the weight of the head and neck help leverage the weight off the hindlegs and onto the forehand. The horse has to learn to go forwards first before being able to bring them back onto their haunches.
Being able to fine tune our focus onto where exactly the horse is putting its hindlegs and shoulders is the first step to correcting the problem. Riding the horse in a ‘corridor effect’ where the hind legs follow the the forelegs, as well as the riders shoulders, legs, hands and body position all follow accordingly.
I have found some horses may try all of these evasions one after the other, some just one or two. By understanding what is happening underneath the rider and recognising these common evasions, you are already one step ahead of your horse. Happy schooling 😉
If we watch horses in the wild, or just in a group turned out in a field together, how do they communicate their feelings to one another? Those who have a close relationship will nuzzle and groom each other. Some might put ears back or shove the other to move them out-of-the-way. Only if there is conflict does the ‘touch’ between two horses get hard or brutal even.
When we first start to train our horses, we give praise by either voice or a gentle pat. Even the great horse whisperer Monty Roberts says to ‘give your horse a gentle rub on the horse’s head as a reward.’ But why is it that in competition, the excitement of a great test or jumping round do we see some horses being slapped quite hard across the neck or even hit on the head?
Seeing the expression of shock on the horses face (even fear in some) makes me ask myself ‘What does that communicate to the horse?’ It must be confusing for a horse to jump to the best of its ability, and although sensing the riders pleasure with the effort, is subsequently hit around the head.
A horse can take firm pressure and quite enjoy it in the form of a massage or physiotherapy. But even when doing a massage we build up the pressure slowly, starting with long gentle strokes to relax the horse and the muscles. We don’t dive straight in with firm pressure, as this just causes tension and discomfort for the horse.
It has certainly made me look at the way I praise my horses. I do still pat them on the base of the neck or shoulder but in a gentle way, sometimes choosing just a long stroke down the neck and a friendly scratch on the withers. When I start off the young horses they are patted all over with a cupped hand (which makes noise but will only send a gentle vibration through the muscle) to help desensitise them. Firm pressure is only used to reprimand unruly behaviour and should be used sparingly but in a sympathetic manner.