How to Develop Self Carriage by Establishing Boundaries
With Lindsay Grice, Equestrian Canada coach and judge
Q: My horse is heavy on my hands and legs, especially at the canter. My instructor says he’s “disorganized.” I would like him to be lighter and more adjustable for equitation and horsemanship classes.
A: Boundaries. When dealing with kids or horses we do them a favour by establishing limits and expectations. When boundaries shift or are not well communicated, dullness, distraction, and resentment can arise.
As decision makers in the horse-human partnership, riders must clearly define their expectations of the pace, path, and package they want their horses to travel. How long a canter stride? How fast a walk? Exactly how deep into this corner will we ride? How much of a bend in the horse’s body? Short or long frame/outline? Lowered or raised neck and head?
What kind of a “box” do you draw around your horse? My box, for example might look like this: “In the serpentine shape we’re cantering, I’d like a consistent seven foot stride (collected) in a medium frame, with straight body alignment going across the arena with an arced shape around the curves.”
Imagine a three-dimensional box around your horse. When the horse stays within the perimeter of the box without you having to hold him there, he has achieved self-carriage.
When my horse extends his stride to seven and a half feet, he meets the front of the box. If he steps off the “balance beam” across the serpentine, he encounters the side of the box. When he elevates his neck and ventures above the bit, he feels the top of the box.
Keep it simple and clear. At first, your aids might feel exaggerated and visible, but eventually they will become more subtle. In fact, if your ground person can’t see a definite closed fist and backward movement of your elbow for a slowdown, you’re likely being wishy-washy. She should also see a noticeable softening of your reins (think wet pasta noodle) for a correct response. If your horse tries to break gait, initially your heel may nudge up into his side, followed by a spur, tap, or cluck until you get a forward response. Reinforce this acceleration with a lowered heel – dull horses result from riders who babysit them with a constant driving leg.
When my horse stays inside the perimeter of the box without me having to hold him there, he has achieved self-carriage. There’s freedom and peace within the boundaries. He’s discovered, by trial and error, the perimeters of the box, encountering my aids (leg, hand, voice and seat) when he makes an unauthorized change. He finds release, or negative reinforcement, within the box. With a lighter, more responsive horse you won’t feel like you’re getting a workout! And in equitation classes, you’ll be able to focus on your position and poise instead of keeping your horse organized
Main photo: A horse that moves in self-carriage is light and responsive to the aids, a true pleasure to ride. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography