In the last article, I explained the mechanics of bending. Now we transfer the action/reaction, discussed in the last article, to long lines. The goal is to develop the horse’s ability to engage the inside hind leg so the horse can bend with balance.
Up until this exercise you have remained passive with your outside rein. Hopefully, by now you can automatically remain relaxed and passive with your outside rein. Your ability to relax your outside arm and allow it to follow the movement of the rein is important. If you haven’t mastered that skill, don’t go any further until you have.
This next bit can initially be confusing. Read it until you can picture it in your mind. Each piece is vital to the success of the exercise.
With your horse accepting the bit and contact on both reins, the outside hind leg will apply a half-halt (squeeze) to the outside rein as the inside hind leg leaves the ground and is in flight. The intensity of the half-halt is controlled by how much you resist the pull of the outside rein when the outside hind leg pushes against it. You can feel it happen in your outside hand and you can watch it happen as the horse’s outside hind leg pushes against the outside rein as the horse goes forward.
Make sure, when you apply resistance to the outside rein, that you keep your horse moving energetically forward. The outside rein is your speed rein. When you apply resistance, the horse will want to slow or stop. Verbally push the horse to maintain the forward impulsion.
The inside hand must maintain consistent, steady contact to support the outside rein half-halts. If the inside rein becomes loose or slack, half-halts on the outside rein will simply wiggle the horse’s nose/head and/or bend the head farther to the outside of the circle. Neither is productive.
Behind the half-halt is a release produced by the outside hind leg leaving the ground and stepping forward. Before your muscles can react and collect up the slack, the rein is loosened. If you do anything, briefly follow the release forward, toward the horse. This release lasts for just a fraction of a stride and is as important as the half-halt. The importance of the release cannot be over stressed. If the outside rein is not released, the outside of the body cannot lengthen, the outside shoulder has nowhere to go and the horse is physically prevented from bending. The release allows the horse to physically relocate his head and neck into the bend and, most important, allows the horse to stretch the outside of his body and gives him somewhere to put his outside shoulder.
The relocation of head and neck, during the release of the outside rein loosens the inside rein. If you have steady elastic contact on your inside rein, your arm will automatically take up this slack. When your outside hand reestablishes contact after the release, you will see that your outside hand is repositioned a bit more forward and your inside hand a bit more back than the stride before the half-halt and release. The horse has, in effect, stretched into your outside hand.
The one stride sequence is:
1) outside leg half-halts outside rein
2) outside leg releases outside rein
3) inside hand picks up the slack produced by relocation of head and neck toward the arc of the circle
4) outside hand reestablishes contact with outside rein
This sequence is repeated every stride until the inside hind leg has either reached its maximum engagement (usually between four and six half-halts) or you have received the degree of bend you desire. As you begin this work, you will have to experiment with different numbers of half-halts and with half-halts of different strength until you get the initial combination that will work for your horse.
In the beginning, especially if you are working a green horse, the amount of lateral movement of the inside hind leg will be very small. Instead of the hind foot setting down between you and the track of the front foot, the hind foot may actually set down in the track of the front foot. This is improvement! For the leg to move laterally under the body of the horse, the horse must have the muscles to lift the back and swing the barrel out of the way. Those muscles do not develop overnight. As we work, daily, to develop the supporting musculature, the lateral flexibility of the leg will increase and we will begin to see significant results. As time passes, if we are consistent with our work, the horse’s lateral flexibility will increase and he will be able to engage the inside hind leg on demand. The horse will gradually be able to maintain balance, impulsion and bend on a smaller and smaller circle.
Your goal is to bend your horse on the circle and have him stay bent on the circle. You need to take the goal one step at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. To bend on the circle requires muscles to stretch, become limber and strong. All this takes time. Gradually, your horse will give you more bend on the circle and you will be able to keep him more consistently on the outside rein. The worse your horse’s natural balance, strength and flexibility, the longer the process. Don’t give up. As you practice this exercise, your horse will more consistently stretch the outside of his frame. If he suddenly starts to fall in, then you have impeded the release after the half halt or you haven’t supported the half halt with the inside hand.
If, as you work, you get other things along with stretch of the outside of the body, praise them if they are good (lengthened stride, engagement) and ignore them if they aren’t so good (falling on the forehand, stumbling, bending out). The bad things will go away without any work on your part as your horse becomes stronger and more flexible. Trying to correct them out of existence will only frustrate you and irritate your horse.
When you first start this exercise you will probably get these responses.
The horse tries to bend to the outside of the circle. This is, perhaps, the most understandably response of all. If you have taught the horse to give to the rein instead of stretch to the rein, when you establish consistent contact and squeeze on the outside rein, the horse’s response may be to try to follow that rein, turning the head out. Remember that you must have a steady supporting inside rein. When the horse hits the inside rein in his attempt to follow the outside rein, confusion may result. If the horse has experience (ridden or driven), I usually maintain contact and push the horse through to demonstrate what I want. I, in essence, speak more clearly. If the horse is inexperienced, like Shak, or is inclined to panic, I lighten my contact with both reins, reconfirm contact with the inside rein and reestablish lighter outside rein contact. I then reapply the half-halt sequence with fewer and/or lighter/smaller half-halts. You’ll get the same result without discomfort, resistance or fear. It just takes longer. Remember, this is not a process that can be rushed!
The horse stretches into the outside rein, making the circle bigger without altering the bend. This is the most encouraging responses. To make the circle larger the horse must step up under the center of the body with the inside hind leg. Eureka! Hip hip hooray! Reward this response in the most effective way possible for your horse. Follow the horse as it moves out. When the half-halt is removed the horse should return to the original sized circle. Next time you want to influence the bend you should be able to get satisfactory results with fewer/smaller/lighter half-halts.
You will have noticed that your horse is more able in one direction. You may have gotten the sought for response on one side days or weeks before you can get it on the other. Don’t get frustrated. There is a two-fold reason for this.
Unless you are totally and perfectly ambidextrous, you give aids with different intensity and duration with each hand. Your brain may tell you that you’re giving the same aid but your horse will tell you differently, perhaps even interpreting your aids differently on each side. Secondly, your horse is left or right ‘handed’ and can physically accommodate your request more easily on one side or the other. The only cure for this is to be acutely aware of the response you are receiving and aid for the response you want.
As you fine tune your aids, the response to those aids will get closer and closer to matching from one side to the other. School the more difficult side with care. It takes time to develop the muscles and flexibility needed for your horse to be even and respond evenly. If you push too hard or too fast you will create physical and mental resistances that take longer to fix than going as slowly as required by the needed change in physical development. Don’t work ‘harder’, work more consistently, more intelligently, more often. The proverb ‘haste makes waste’ applies.
Patience, perseverance and observation are the keys. You may need light/small half-halts in one direction and strong/large half-halts in the other. Work consistently. Force will not produce lasting results. A forced horse is tense and a tense horse is not flexible. You may get an obedient horse with force, but you won’t get that little bit extra that a happy willing horse is able to give. If you push too hard today, you will have to take a step (or more) backward tomorrow.
It is important to note that you must base the strength of your aids on what your horse requires at that minute, on that day. Whisper when you can, yell if you have to. Do not ever jerk.
As your horse develops lateral flexibility, the number of half-halts required to bend your horse on the arc will decrease to one or two preparatory half-halts followed by stretching the outside hand forward the amount necessary for the degree of bend required. You may need half-halts in your warm-up, but by the time you get in the arena you may not need them at all! Each horse is different. Communicate, see what your horse needs.
Now that you have taught your horse to respond to the half-halt, move out on the circle, engage the inside hind leg, come ‘on to’ your outside rein (pick one), you can expect at least one evasion. I can pretty much guarantee this one. The more athletic your horse, the sooner you will get it. You have supplied your horse with a new tool. There is no guarantee that he will decide to use this new tool only for your benefit. One day your horse will move out on the circle when you apply the half-halt and keep right on moving out on the circle after you remove the half-halt. The evasion will usually be toward the barn or the horse’s buddies or the rail! This is the same evasion you get when you’re trotting down the road and a ferocious mail box or huge rock threatens your horse. Instant shoulder-in, no baking required.
This evasion is easier to fix than you might think. If you catch it correctly the first couple times it’s offered, it will die a swift and natural death. Pick up and hold a little more contact on the outside rein (capturing the outside shoulder) and squeeze and release the inside rein every stride until your horse comes back on the circle. That means each time a front leg leaves the ground. The idea is to retain the bend but get the shoulders moved back onto the circle. If your horse keeps on moving out, your squeezes were not big enough, you did not support the squeezes with the opposing (outside) rein or you did not release. Release means no contact, loose rein. A horse cannot lean on a loose rein. Usually four or six squeeze and releases are all that is needed to get your horse to come back on the circle. (A really persistent horse may require a few more squeezes). As the horse is never a believer after only one correction or example, the next time, make the same correction. After a couple of fixes, this evasion will disappear. As before, do not jerk. Squeeze, releasing completely between each squeeze. Pick up normal, elastic contact once the evasion stops. Remember, a little squeeze is with the fingers, a medium squeeze is with the fingers and wrist, a big squeeze uses the whole arm. A squeeze doesn’t work if it isn’t supported by the opposite rein.
When you can get enlargement of the circle at will (more contact on outside rein without loss of bend) and you can stop your horse from enlarging the circle at will, you are ready to transfer the lesson to your vehicle.
A FEW FINAL NOTES
This entire process takes practice, patience and perseverance. Don’t lose patience and don’t get frustrated with your horse. If you can’t figure it out, how can he? If you hit the wall, get someone else to watch and see if they can tell what you’ve missed. Your horse is probably trying to tell you something you aren’t hearing. Sometimes, someone not quite as focused or as close to the problem can see it when you can’t.
Your relationship with your horse is supposed to be symbiotic, not parasitic. If your relationship is mutually enjoyable and rewarding, it will bring you many hours of joy.
As the horse becomes consistent on the outside rein and develops lateral flexibility, stretching both reins forward, lightening but not releasing contact, becomes vitally important. Our goal is self-carriage, which we cannot achieve if we are holding the front of the horse in or the neck of the horse up. Relaxing both reins forward after every adjustment we make or aid we give to the horse will insure the horse is allowed self-carriage and gives us a check that we are not inhibiting the horse.