Getting correct bend

If you have successfully performed the last exercise, it’s time to transfer your long lining lessons to your horse while hitched. There is a lot of text and video available on hitching, so I won’t cover it here. I do have one piece to add. Don’t use any auxiliary devices when you hitch your horse. No tie downs, no overchecks, no side checks, no running side reins. These gizmos are crutches that will interfere with your horse’s ability to tell you what is going on and your ability to become the best driver you can be. Rarely is there a problem that patience and awareness won’t fix. If you need one, or even think you need one, use a kicking strap. I do whenever I start a new horse or when I teach an upside down horse to be right side up. Horses can morph into exuberant and recalcitrant little children when they first discover the power of their hindquarters.

The physical – The Bit

Before you hitch, a word about your equipment. I don’t use a jointed snaffle because, too many times, it will pinch the horse’s bars or will poke the horse in the top of the mouth when pulled on. Morgans, especially, have a flatter upper palate than other breeds while Arabs and some warmbloods can have a fleshier than normal tongue. I don’t use a straight bar because it acts almost exclusively on the tongue. I don’t use a high port or a roller bit for the same reasons. The kindest bit I’ve been able to find is a mullen wrapped in sealtex or a medium ported bit used on the snaffle setting and wrapped in sealtex. This protects the horse’s sensitive mouth from my, sometimes necessarily aggressive, half-halts. If you are using a driving bit with shanks, for this series of exercises, try to use the snaffle ring. If your horse reacts badly or tensely to the bit you are using, try something different for three or four works and see if that helps. Sometimes the right bit is a matter or trial and error. If your horse has never had a sealtex wrapped bit it its mouth, start with two wraps. If it’s too much, you can cut it off and start over. Expect the horse to try and spit the bit out. Although sealtex is virtually tasteless, its texture is strange to the horse at first.

The vehicle

It is vitally important that your horse have enough room between the shafts to physically bend his body from nose to tail. If the horse is reaching up under his body with his inside hind leg, the outside of his barrel has to have someplace to go. If both horse and vehicle are on the arc of the circle, the outside shaft is closer to the horse’s body than the horse and vehicle are straight. If there is nowhere for the barrel to go, then the leg can’t get up under the body and the bend can’t happen. If you try putting your horse on the outside rein and it just isn’t working, unhitch and see if your horse has an oblong scuffed/sweaty spot on his barrel level with the shaft. This is a dead give-away for narrow shafts. Don’t try to proceed until you can fix the problem. The lesson is a physical impossibility if there is no room for the horse to bend.

If your horse bucks or complains when you try to put him on the outside rein, check for the scuffed/sweaty spot on the barrel. He is physically being pinched against the outside shaft and is complaining the only way he can. Don’t punish, fix the problem. If he isn’t being pinched by the outside shaft, and you and your favorite ground person can’t find the problem, put a kicking strap on and work him through the resistance.

If your horse keep popping up, just when you get him on the outside rein, check for the scuffed/sweaty spot on the barrel. If there isn’t one, than you are doing something wrong or you need to rethink your bit. If your horse is doing anything that makes no sense at all, check for the scuffed/sweaty spot on the barrel first. It may not be really visible until closer to the end of the lesson. Watch, or get your passenger/navigator/favorite ground person to watch, the barrel’s relationship to the shaft during the exercise if you get evasive or reactionary responses from your horse.

It is very important to note, the weight of the vehicle increases the difficulty of this lesson. The lighter the vehicle, the easier the transition from long lines to harness. Use the lightest vehicle you can beg, borrow or steal.

If you still have problems with this engagement exercise, there is one more physical thing to check. Is your single tree restraint loose enough to physically allow your horse to stretch his outside shoulder forward and his inside shoulder back? If your horse rubs his chest and shoulders every stride because the single tree doesn’t have enough movement, he will quickly fix the problem by decreasing his shoulder movement. This is not your option of choice. Watch the single tree. If it is coming up against whatever was put there to restrain it, it doesn’t have enough play. Take the restraint completely off and watch the single tree as you work. How much does your horse move it’s scapula during extended trot? During 20 meter bends, 10 meter bends? How tight a bend will your horse do in the middle of a hazard? If you think you don’t have to worry about this because your horse wears a collar, think again. The collar rests on the scapula, which moves every time the leg does. Same problem, same solution.

As your horse’s strength and flexibility increases, so will his ability to bend and lengthen, providing you have set the equipment up to allow for it. In not allowing your horse to bend you are forcing your horse to fall in. Remember, as the driver, you are responsible to the horse for the comfort and function of the equipment. If there is a problem, 99% of the time it’s the driver’s fault. Elimination of any equipment problems will allow you to concentrate on learning and growing instead of fighting and fixing problems.

The mental

If you elect to bypass the long line lesson and want to start here, expect the lesson to be fraught with setbacks. The foundation has not been laid. Remember, the easier you make the task, the quicker the horse learns the lesson. By bypassing the long line lesson, you miss key pieces of the exercise. You don’t get the timing and feel of the half-halt as supplied by the horse in long lines and the horse doesn’t get the benefit of learning the exercise and developing the muscles without the added difficulty imposed by the vehicle.

Regardless of your horse’s experience, keep your contact and aids light and elastic. Be ready to correct and support but don’t hang on. Suggest, don’t demand, but be persistent. Keep asking until you get the desired response. Horses learn by trial and error. Persistence will fix a problem and teach a response faster than force. Keep your aids light and be conscious of taking small, progressive steps toward your goal. Rome wasn’t built in a day. A little bend today, more bend tomorrow. It is crucial, if you expect your horse to love the sport that you love, that you don’t cause the horse to hate or fear driving by forcing him faster than he can physically and mentally adapt.

The outside rein

One of the most valuable assets drivers have is the use of the outside rein. The outside rein is more important than the inside rein. If you have taken the time to do the lesson on outside rein on long lines, you know how this aid works. In ridden dressage, the rider ‘puts the horse on the outside rein’, using a combination of weight, inside leg, outside leg, outside rein and, possibly, whip.

In driving, despite fewer aids, we can do the same. Nothing done with the whip can effectively replace the outside rein. Properly supported by the inside rein, the outside rein controls speed, arc of the bend, lateral movement and more.

Physically, the horse is concerned with maintaining his balance while propelling whatever he is pulling. The horse/driver relationship is limited by the driver’s ability to provide the proper cues and incentive, the horse’s ability to understand the request of the driver and the horse’s ability to physically perform the request. In developing this relationship, we must use as many naturally logical aids as possible.

To the hitch

At this point, it is time to harness up and take the next step. When you’ve spent a few lessons getting your horse accustomed to being hitched, you are ready to proceed. Wait to proceed until your horse has accepted the vehicle and the work.

On the outside rein

When your horse is calm, and accepting of the vehicle every time you hitch, you are ready to start. Warm your horse up at the walk. Don’t try to put your horse on the outside rein until his muscles are warmed up and flexible. Make sure the walk is a brisk, forward and marching. Include a brisk, forward trot in both directions in your warmup. Return to the brisk, forward, marching walk to finish warming up. If you allow your horse to dawdle or shuffle along, the muscles will not be warmed up and stretched. When your horse is ready to go to work, trot on a 40 meter or larger circle.

To make this exercise work, you must coordinate your aids to the horse’s inside hind leg. Spend time nodding your head from side to side or some other rhythmic action that will help you physically connect with the movement of the hind legs. Mentally work through the aids before you actually perform them. Then, as the inside hind leg leaves the ground, half-halt on the outside rein. As the inside hind leg is returning to the ground, release the outside rein. Release means the rein is completely slack. Immediately reestablish contact and repeat as the inside hind leg again leaves the ground. If you did your long line work, the sequence, timing and feel of the aids will already be familiar and comfortable.

This lesson is more difficult for you, as a driver, because the horse cannot do the work for you. You must be able to coordinate your aids to the correct leg. Long lining has taught you the feel, you must supply the timing.

Each time you half-halt on the outside rein, the horse will bring the inside hind leg up under the body. Each time you release the rein after the half-halt, the horse will stretch the outside of his body. If the horse offers you slack on the inside rein, take it. If the half-halts are too strong, the horse may move out on the circle. When you feel the horse stretching into your outside hand, seeking contact, stop half-halting and give your horse steady elastic contact on the outside rein. The amount of contact you hold on the outside rein is directly dependent upon the horse, the minute, the movement. If you overdo the contact the horse will pop off the bit or move out on the circle. If you under do the contact the horse will pop off the bit or move into the circle. Adjust your aids to suit. Practice makes perfect.

In the beginning, the aids for the less developed horse who understands the lesson may be quite large, coming from the elbow, and possibly, may be quite strong. Or, strong half-halts may be needed on one side only. The size and strength of the half-halt is dependent upon how much help your horse needs to relocate the inside hind leg. Remember, you must aid for the response you want. This coordination of aids is repeated, in the beginning, every time the horse is prepared for a turn or change of direction or every time the horse loses balance and comes off (loses contact with) the outside rein. As the horse develops understanding, balance, strength, flexibility and agility, the half-halt is no longer needed to the extent that it is used in the beginning. The aid will be reduced to a mere tightening of muscles in the fingers, hand, wrist or arm followed by a softening/release.

When your horse will engage his inside hind leg and bend at your will, the half-halts that were strong, large and/or visible at the beginning of your work, will quickly become minute and invisible. The finesse and awareness of the driver is the key. As the necessity of strong half-halts lessens, the horse will become lighter in the hand, traveling more in self-carriage, requiring fewer, lighter half-halts to regain self-carriage when it is lost.

Circles can begin to be made smaller without loss of balance. Your horse becomes confirmed in self carriage. Changes of direction become fluid and balanced. Corners can be driven properly bent and without loss of impulsion. As you begin to make the circles smaller and drive more deeply into corners, check to see that your horse still has enough room between the shafts. The increased bend pushes the outside of the barrel farther out in relation to the shaft. Remember that the bend must come from hind to front. If we limit the body’s ability to bend in the shafts the horse will compensate by bending the head and neck, exclusive of the body or the horse will compensate by bending the wrong way.

A few final notes

Do not proceed to the next portion of this exercise until your horse will maintain the bend and stay on the outside rein consistently.

It is very important that you remember to release your horse forward after every correction or instruction. If you don’t, your horse will get shorter and shorter in frame, lose self-carriage, start providing resistance, stop bending and/or start transferring weight to the forehand. None of these are things you want. Remember, release forward.