Young Horse’s Balance and “Softness”
Editor’s Note: This Dr. Jessica Jahiel’s response to a young rider who has recently purchased a five-year-old TB mare.
Hi Jessica! I have recently purchased a rising 5 year old TB mare. She retired from racing a little over 1 year ago and has been going well and I am hoping to compete in dressage on her. She is exceptionally quiet and relaxed to handle and we have been getting on great.
I am 16 years old and have owned ponies for three years and Elle is my first real horse. I haven’t had regular lessons for a while due to lack of a suitable trainer in my area, but have dabbled in Parelli horsemanship and read many books on dressage.
Now to my question: I am riding Elle in a simple eggbutt and I try to ride as soft contact as possible. She has been getting the concept of dropping onto the bit, but as she does this she speeds up and usually comes above the bit again. In order to ask her to relax I reapply my hand and leg aids to ask her to come onto the bit. As she does this however, she tends to rush more. I don’t want to create an unresponsive mouth by checking her or using a stronger contact, but I find it difficult to slow her using my seat as I am light (approx 45 kilos – 90 pounds?) and she is 16.3 hands and strongly built.
How can I effectively slow her and keep her going soft without hanging onto her mouth as one instructor has suggested? I hope you can answer my question as I am unsure what to do.
Hi Claire! Your mare is tall and large, and she is also quite young and inexperienced. A year or two (at most) of racing, followed by a year in pasture, means that she is now ready to be started from the ground up, like the green horse she is.
Don’t worry, it sounds as though you have the situation – and your mare – well in hand. You aren’t dealing with a problem horse, nor do you have a problem. What you have is two different sets of expectations, and consequently a minor breakdown in communication.
Your experience is limited, but your heart is obviously in the right place, and you are thinking in terms of dressage, lightness, and self-carriage. You would like to ride a balanced horse that is able to carry itself well with lowered hindquarters, lifted withers and neck, and a very light contact. That’s an excellent goal, and if you are willing to take the time to teach your mare a new way of moving and a new way of responding to the rider, you will eventually reach that goal.
The problem you are having is a simple one. Your mare’s experience is also limited, and HER expectations (of you and of what you want from her) are based, very naturally, on the only sort of riding she knows – going forward, speeding up when asked, extending her stride at the gallop, balancing on the forehand (as is natural at speed) and taking support from the bit.
The solution is also simple. Begin with work on the longe (use the longest longeline you can find, at least 35′ long – or longer – and don’t hesitate to walk a circle of your own inside HER circle, so as to allow her to work on the largest possible circle. Keep her at walk and trot, with thousands of transitions, and focus on keeping her attentive, listening to you, and straight. As you know, “straight” in dressage terms means straight on straight lines, and conforming to the curve of the circle when on a circle.
As she progresses – expect to take about three months – her body will become stronger and more supple and more balanced, and she will find it easier and easier to assume the posture of a riding horse rather than that of a racehorse. As the weeks go by and she becomes more balanced and coordinated, you will be able to reduce the size of the circles – but make them no smaller than 20 meters in diameter, please.
When you work her under saddle, repeat the exercises she did on the longe. Large circles and ring figures, many transitions from walk to trot and back again, etc. When she is sufficiently balanced – toward the end of the three months on the longe – you will also be able to start asking for halt-trot transitions. These are wonderful for helping a horse achieve balance. They are best done on the longe at first; then, when the horse has achieved good balance and is able to use its hindquarters more effectively, you can begin doing the same halt-trot transitions under saddle.
As soon as possible, once you are working her under saddle, teach her to leg-yield. As soon as she can leg-yield easily in relaxation and good balance, without losing her impulsion, energy, straightness, and rhythm, you can teach her shoulder-fore. When she is similarly comfortable with shoulder-fore, you can begin shoulder-in. Shoulder-in is one of the most important tools in any rider’s “toolbox”. Again, the focus will be on balance, and on achieving good shoulder-in whilst maintaining relaxation, impulsion, energy, straightness, and rhythm.
Remember that she is green, large, and accustomed to balancing on her forehand – if she gets “rushy” or quick when you apply the leg, it just means that she doesn’t understand what you want. On the longe line, you can teach her that “forward” means “reach forward with the hind legs”, not “go faster!”. Under saddle, you can teach her the same lesson, first at the walk, then at the trot. Shoulder-in will help immensely – physically and mentally.
Young, green, large horses, especially those trained for racing, will tend to go faster when the rider takes a stronger hold. Young, green, large horses, even if not trained at all, will typically ask for a stronger contact whilst they are learning how to move comfortably under the rider.
Even though your eventual goal is balance and lightness, you must always remember that the HORSE, not the rider, is the one to determine how much contact is appropriate at any given time. If your mare wants an amount of contact that you feel is excessive, don’t worry – this is a normal part of early work, and she will lighten the contact herself, gradually, as she learns to balance better, and as she learns to rely on your legs and seat for her security and signals.
Horses that become unbalanced – as young horses and green horses tend to do – will usually speed up, not slow down, when they lose their balance. Think of yourself walking down a steep hill – if you go a little too quickly, it will be almost impossible for you to slow down and balance yourself, but it will be very easy for you to lean forward and go into a sort of stumbling RUN down the hill. This is very much like what happens to a horse that loses its balance and puts too much weight on its forehand. The answer to the balance problem is – you guessed it – transitions!
Don’t use much seat with her. She doesn’t know what it means, and overuse of the seat is becoming a huge problem with far too many riders. Teach her, instead, what every horse needs to know – that the brief gentle application of calf pressure means “step forward from behind with more energy and more reach” rather than “hurry along”.
Keep in mind that at first she won’t know what you mean. Racehorses aren’t taught much about response to the legs, and have no idea what is meant by the application of leg pressure low on the barrel. Also keep in mind that once she learns what you mean, it will still be hard work for her. It is much easier for any horse (whether utterly green, out of a field, or race-trained) to speed up than it is to take longer steps and use its hindquarters more actively. She’ll need encouragement from you. When you get the response you want, praise her. When you don’t get the response you want, be still for a moment and then ask again – and THEN praise her when you get the response you want. It will take time for her to learn to offer the desired response, it will take more time for her to become physically able to offer the response easily, and it will take still more time for the response to become a habit. Be patient with her.
While you teach her to listen to your leg, and after she learns to offer the response you want, use your seat lightly. Sit lightly, allowing your thighs to carry weight. Putting all of your weight onto your seatbones, even if you don’t weigh much, makes the horse’s job much harder and much less pleasant. Your seat has several functions. It should never be used to push or grind into the horse’s back! Once your legs have indicated that you want an action from the horse, your seat either allows or blocks the action of the horse’s back. You can allow the action by sitting softly or by rising into a half-seat; you can block the action by sitting still and keeping your own body from accompanying the horse’s movement. But the most important function of your seat is as a listening device – use your seat to tell you, at every moment, how your horse is moving, what each of her hind legs is doing, whether her hips are tight or flexible, to what degree she is bending each of the joints of her hind legs, whether her belly-muscles are in use (allowing her back to lift and stretch) or whether her belly-muscles are loose and her back is being held tight and rigid.
Above all, be patient. You can, and should, allow her a longer time to react, especially at first, than you think she needs, and you can, and should, look for and reward even the tiniest try on her part. Take all the time you need – in two years, people will be asking you where you found your wonderful mare, and whether they can buy her, but I can promise you that not ONE person will ask, “did it take four months or eight months or sixteen months to make her look that good?”.
One last thing: Remember that your OWN position is all-important. Don’t compromise your own balance and position in an effort to “help” the horse – leaning forward to encourage her to reach with her head and neck, for instance, will just tip her onto her forehand.
Have fun with her, and let me know how she turns out!