Your horse is going down the arena with his chin perfectly positioned over the top of the dressage arena rail. You know when you get to the end of the arena and have to turn the corner, your horse will fall through the corner, right in front of the judge, because there is no way you can straighten him out and get him bent correctly for the corner. If you straighten his head to point it toward the end of the arena, he will fall off the rail and you’ll hare off at an angle to the rail and miss the corner completely. Been there? I think every new driver has. Even those with years of ridden dressage training briefly face this dilemma when they first begin driving.
You drive your horse crooked because you don’t have anybody to help you to, literally, straighten him out. The problem isn’t the horse’s head position. One of three things is the cause:
- Your horse does all his work with his front end and his back end is just along for the drive. Because his front end does all the work, his hindquarters are carrying themselves and nothing else. They can swing from side to side and cause crookedness because they are not connected to the rest of the system. This one takes time to change but it is fixable if you are determined, patient and persistent.
- Your horse is one-sided and has one hind leg doing most of the work. This is easily fixable unless your horse has some underlying lameness that precipitated the crookedness, which will ruthlessly appear the minute you straighten him out.
- Your horse is unilaterally crooked (he happily puts his chin over the rail in both directions). This is caused by driving style and is the easiest of problems to fix. The muscles are already there, you just need to fine tune your technique.
The root of all three problems is the hind leg(s); the hind leg’s ability to support and propel the shoulders and your ability to get your horse to use both hind legs evenly.
The first requires retraining involving re-engagement of the hindquarters. Go back to the long lines and develop the horse’s ability to engage his hind legs. This one takes time, but the result is well worth the effort.
The second and third require an understanding of what the hind leg is, or is not, doing. The most capable hind leg does most of the pushing. Look at the mechanics. To do most of the pushing, the hind leg must center itself on the load. In centering itself on the load, it displaces either itself in relation to the load or the load (shoulders) in relation to the pushing hind leg. Instant crooked, no stirring required.
So, the key is your ability to move the shoulders back in front of both hind legs OR your ability to re-engage the loafing hind leg.
If all you need is a technique tune-up, you need to learn how to move your horse’s shoulders from one side to the other. This is not as tough as it sounds.
With the exception of the work on the straight the following is a iteration of the article On The Outside Rein. You need to use that exercise as a refresher.
Ok, back to the crooked horse on the rail. He’s hanging on your inside hand and is using his outside hind leg for most of the propulsion. Because he is using only one hind leg he is not supporting his front end, you are. If you pull back on your inside hand to straighten him out, he’ll fall into the arena because his inside hind leg is on unemployment and won’t hold him up. If you lengthen your outside rein nothing happens. The horse is not physically attached to it. Go back and read the serious of articles on longlining and putting your horse on the outside rein.
If you’ve prepared your horse correctly for the bend at the corner of the arena he will remain on your outside rein down the rail, body straight with shoulders in front of hind quarters. If he drops your outside hand (nose toward rail) establish stronger contact with the inside hand and squeeze and release every stride on the outside rein. The key is to get the inside hind leg back to work. Squeezing every stride will engage the inside hind leg and put the outside hind leg back behind the outside shoulder. The contact on the inside rein keeps the shoulders off the rail.
School this at home before you take it to a show. The first few times you use it, you will get interesting results. You will make lovely shallow serpentine loops down the rail and hare off for sites unknown. It will take some time for you to convince your horse he really has to apply himself equally. Then, it will take some time to develop the muscles he needs to carry himself evenly.
Once you have gotten him straight, hold him straight as you go down the rail. Correct him every time he begins to drop your outside hand (disengage his inside hind leg). The only way he can come off the rail is if he comes off your outside hand. As he becomes used to carrying himself straight, you will be able to use less visible aids to keep him straight.
If your horse is relatively sensitive and athletic and uses his muscles to advantage, your outside rein will quickly improve your ability to place your horse correctly both in the dressage arena and while driving hazards and cones. If your horse is less sensitive and/or less athletically able, this lesson will be used to improve those attributes. Time and consistency are required to develop the muscles needed to maintain the inside hind leg’s driving and carrying ability.
If your horse is big, strong, insensitive or out-to-lunch, your half-halts may have to be quite large. The response you get is the key. Remember, aid for the response you want. DO NOT, EVER, JERK.
If you get your horse on your outside rein and straight, you will have the hindquarters engaged. As the hindquarter muscles develop you will find yourself attached to POWER. Controlling the POWER is a different issue you have to work through.
A final note
Just recently I’ve run into two horses who were unable to engage one of their hind legs due to misalignment of the pelvis. Regardless of the direction of travel, they kept the same hind leg behind the load. In listening to their movement, the hind legs were audibly and visually landing differently. If you think this may be the case with the horse you’re working with, get thee to an equine chiro. This is not a problem you can fix by yourself and no amount of physical therapy or training is going to make it anything but marginally better. Then, don’t expect the change to happen overnight. You’ll have to do the physical therapy necessary to build the muscles for both hind legs to work evenly, but the wonderful new movement and relief to your horse are well worth the money, time and effort.