Routines for a Balanced, Engaged Horse
By Jec Aristotle Ballou
At some point, most riders have wished for something like a magic pill, a solution that will instantly alleviate nagging training issues. Since that is impossible, the next best thing is an arsenal of arena routines whose execution will improve your horse. The exercises in this article will give you a looser, more balanced horse, and will create engagement without excessive effort. Best of all, these results are achieved in the time it takes to ride the patterns. Even in the absence of a perfect riding position or expertly timed aids, these routines will give you notable results. They are as close to magic as you can get.
This is the secret all good trainers know: ask a horse to perform exercises that manipulate his body the right way, and results fall in your lap, often rapidly. If you have ever had the chance to string together a few key yoga maneuvers yourself, you have likely experienced this effect on your own body. Regardless of how perfectly you perform them or how deep your understanding of yoga runs (or doesn’t run), your posture, balance, and strength feel immediately improved. There is magic in the right exercises applied in the correct moment.
Exercises that incorporate frequent adjustments of stride, speed, and posture encourage suppleness, free-flowing movement, and lightness of the forehand. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
The following routines are worth adding to your toolbox because they are indisputably good for your horse. They are time-tested exercises from multiple disciplines, and their success is due to a chain reaction of postural changes produced in the horse’s body. First, they create motion in his spine, rather than allowing it to be a stiff rod or chronically crooked as is often the case. Next, frequent adjustments of stride, speed, and posture require the horse to recruit different muscle fibres at varying rates of effort, eliminating any tendency to become blocked against the rider, dull to the aids, or listless. Finally, the simple gymnastic patterns necessitate him reorganizing his body, which has the result of creating energy in the hind legs and lightness in the forehand while preventing the flat, heavy movement that arises from repetitive motion.
Because of the interconnectedness of the horse’s muscular and skeletal systems, relatively simple yet strategic maneuvers can have far-reaching effects on his body. I call this working smarter, not harder. Let’s jump in and get started. There are several ways to vary the specifics of these exercises while maintaining the overall theme. For purposes of clarity, I have presented them in their most simple version below.
- Develop working trot, tracking right.
- At A, turn off the rail directly toward E, riding a mini-diagonal line (do NOT ride in the corner before A and K).
- Arrive at the rail at E and proceed only one stride.
- Then turn off the rail and ride toward C.
- Continue to ride a diamond pattern with the third and fourth points at B and A (see Figure 1). If your arena lacks dressage letters, set up cones at the marks specified in the pattern.
Checkpoints for Success:
- Use your seat, not the reins, to turn your horse at each point of the diamond. At each turn, be sure to close your inside bending leg against the horse’s ribcage while positioning the outside leg slightly back and using light thigh pressure to turn the horse’s withers to your next focal point.
- Think of steering your horse’s withers, rather than his head and neck, where you want to go.
- To ride your horse accurately between each turn, ride as if you intended to ride straight through the fence at each letter. Do not start turning before you get there, otherwise your horse will drift out through his outside shoulder.
- Keep your rein contact absolutely equal throughout the pattern. A common error is to take up rein contact in the turns but then throw it away on the straight lines between the diamond points.
Once you are riding the figure accurately and hitting the markers, add the following challenge. At each of the four points of the diamond (A, E, C, and B), slow down to a slow jog as you round the turn and then immediately lengthen the trot stride between each point. Once you can ride this variation smoothly, try the same exercise in canter.
Without dispute, a horse’s ability to flex his sacroiliac joint and lower his haunches determines his progress and success as a performance horse. Flexion and strength here are critical, not only for collection, powerful movement, and advanced maneuvers, but also for the basic requirement of carrying the rider on a lifted and supple back. This flexion and suppleness come from a horse properly using his psoas muscles, those deep interior structures that stabilize his pelvis. The Clock exercise helps a horse achieve the appropriate tone combined with relaxation that is a cornerstone of correct training. It combines the elements of steady rhythm, bend, rounded topline, and balance, and can be ridden in trot and canter. I recommend riding this exercise ten times in each direction.
- You will need four ground poles, ideally wood ones that do not roll when knocked.
- Mark out a 20-metre circle in your arena and on this circle place a ground pole (lying on the ground, not raised) at 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and 9 o’clock (see Figure 2).
- Place each pole such that you will ride directly over the centre of each while riding around your circle.
Checkpoints for Success:
- As you ride around the circle, remember to look up and cross the CENTRE of each pole. Many riders find themselves crossing the outer edge of the poles. You must plan your line well ahead to avoid this.
- Now, count the number of strides between each pole, making sure that the number is exactly the same between each pole.
- Keep your hands steady and low on the reins. Keep a soft contact with the horse’s mouth over the poles so he crosses each pole smoothly without raising his head and neck, or hollowing his back.
- Make sure your horse bends to the inside around the entire circle.
This deceptively simple Clock exercise usually takes riders several repetitions to really master. Once you are riding it smoothly and consistently, there are a number of ways to vary it. You can try riding it in faster and slower tempos, making sure to keep a consistent beat in whichever tempo you choose. Eventually, you can also raise the poles up off the ground to a height of six to eight inches. I consider this exercise a great foundation tool. I use it with young horses to secure basics before moving on to more complicated gymnastics, and I return to it with advanced horses to reconfirm the basics.
Most riding exercises are geared towards reaching an elusively perfect execution, but sometimes when developing the horse we need to let things get a little messy. We need to create movement that is free-flowing, creative, and causes the horse to be accountable for his own balance rather than relying on the rider for constant input of aids. By asking a horse to think on his feet like this, we help him dissolve the restrictions and stiffness that limit most riding horses. The horse then gains agility and better symmetry between both sides of his body.
Especially for horses needing to undo longstanding postural habits, change can happen quickly with exercises like the Ground Pole Square. The quick adjustments of balance in this pattern mean that your horse will recruit muscles at varying rates of speed and intensity. This prevents him from plodding along with gaits that are stuck in one particular balance rut. It shakes things up a little, encouraging him to release tension in his back and thereby promoting more flexion in the hind legs. The bottom line is that this simple pattern helps the horse use his whole structure better and the ground poles help him be more accountable for balancing himself instead of relying on constant help from the rider.
- Lay four eight-foot ground poles on the ground to make a square box. The ends of the ground poles should be touching at each corner.
- Begin by walking or trotting through the middle of the box, making it the centre of an elongated figure of eight (see Figure 3A).
- Next, shift your figure of eight so that you are circling around each corner of the box in a continuous serpentine (see Figure 3B).
- Finally, ride a cloverleaf figure, passing through the centre of the box after each leaf (see Figure 3C).
Checkpoints for Success:
- Check your positioning each time you pass through the box, making sure you are crossing the centre of the poles and not sneaking out to the edges.
- Above all, do not obsess about where your horse’s head is positioned. At first he may not be perfectly on the bit and his frame might bobble when you begin the pattern. Do not despair. Remember that the purpose of the exercise is to teach him to reorganize himself.
- Just as in the Arena Diamond exercise, think about steering the horse with your outside leg, and about guiding his withers, rather than his head, where you want to go.
- Maintain rein contact when crossing the poles. Many riders tend to push their reins away and abandon their connection with the horse. To help his topline stay rounded, keep your contact quiet and connected.
After you have ridden the suggested routine, go ahead and get imaginative. Challenge yourself to use the square as creatively as possible and see how many different figures you can make using the box. Can you add transitions of gaits as you approach and leave the box, or when you are inside it? Can you create and control different speeds of walk, trot, and canter patterns that cross through the box? For example, you can ride through the box on a diagonal from corner to corner. Or you could trot into the box, halt, and then turn on the forehand and trot back out of the box. Have fun and see what you can come up with.
Main photo: ©Nikki Tate/Flickr