Keep calm to ensure a much more responsive horse… It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of nagging a lazy horse. Imagine this: you get on and struggle to canter because your horse isn’t travelling forwards. So you compensate by squeezing every stride to make the trot more active and then using your whip whenever you have to canter. Your horse does canter, but now you have to work double as hard to keep him from falling back into a lazy trot. So you resort to kicking every stride when you canter.
Not only is it tiring and frustrating, but you’re actually making your horse lazier with every ride.
Having your horse in front of the leg is absolutely crucial to your riding success. It’s very difficult to ride any discipline with a horse who has to be kicked every stride.
Riding a horse who is perpetually behind the leg also makes it nearly impossible to have an effective seat as you need to motivate the horse constantly and can’t sit quietly.
As Charlotte Dujardin has said before, lazy horses need to work with the leg off while hot horses need to work with the leg on. If you have a horse who’s naturally quite laidback, getting them responsive to a light aid is the main goal.
The main concept to understand is that by always asking the horse to go forwards, they quickly switch off. If a very quiet person suddenly yells at you, you’ll take notice. If a very noisy person who is always shouting yells at you, chances are that you won’t pay any attention.
If your leg aids are constantly shouting, your horse won’t be paying attention.
So your goal is to be able to ride quietly enough that when you do use your leg, your horse is ready to react in a heartbeat. Always be completely honest with yourself.
Getting your horse in front of the leg
So, how do you get your lazy horse in front of the leg? It’s actually quite simple, as long as you are fully committed. You’ll need to carry a long whip for this exercise.
Before you start this process, here’s one quick tip. If your horse likes to buck or your seat isn’t completely steady, add a neck strap or saddle strap before you start this exercise. You need to feel confident to really send your horse forwards and ride through any potential exuberance.
Start in a halt. Give your horse the very lightest squeeze possible and ask him to trot on, simply by slightly tightening your calf.
If there is no response (which there probably won’t be!), immediately give a much harder kick with your leg. You want the horse to really jump forward, ideally to an energetic canter. Make completely sure that you don’t pull the horse in the mouth inadvertently here. This is where a neck strap can come in handy.
If your horse moves forward but doesn’t react electrically like above, flick the dressage whip behind your leg straight away to back up your aid. The aim isn’t to hit the horse, but use it effectively enough that he shoots forward.
As soon as your horse reacts positively, praise him lavishly. Lots of pats and verbal praise is key
Go back to a halt and repeat the process again. Always, always start with a very light aid, so that you give your horse the chance to respond to this gentle squeeze. Your horse might need you to repeat this a few times, but most will get the idea within the first ride.
You can then do this in other gaits. From trot to canter, for instance. The process remains exactly the same regardless of the transition you’re asking for.
This also applies to keeping your horse at a steady pace. Once you’ve asked for trot and had a satisfactory reaction, keep your legs quiet and expect your horse to maintain his pace until he is asked to change something. If he slows down, a very gentle squeeze should be all that is needed to top up the energy.
You will quickly get to the stage where a light squeeze gets an instant reaction from your horse.
When this happens, you can begin to refine the process. As you tighten your calf, your horse should be saying “should I gallop?” so that you can say “no thank you, just trot.”
While this is, theoretically, a very easy process which works for almost every horse under the sun there are a few things to be mindful of. The first is that you need to be sure that your horse isn’t lacking impulsion due to a physical condition or pain. As always, expert opinions from vets, dentists, and saddle fitters are important.
If you are sure that your horse has just been schooled to be behind the leg, it is up to you as a rider to lay down the law! Keep the following in mind at all times:
- Horses respond best to clear boundaries, so you have to be fully committed to really making sure your horse JUMPS forward when you ask. A half-hearted response isn’t good enough!
- It is crucial that after your horse goes forward from the “big” aids, you praise and then repeat starting with the very light aid. If you don’t re-test the reaction, you have simply taught your horse that he only needs to go forward with a big kick and possibly use of the whip too.
- Be very strict with yourself about keeping your leg still and quiet. Once your horse is going off the leg, his reward is you being soft and quiet without leg pressure.
- Finally, remember that it’s very easy to fall back into old habits and let your horse get away with a handful of lazy transitions. Before you know it, this will have escalated and you’ll be working twice as hard as your horse all over again.
Always be completely honest with yourself about whether your horse would immediately spring forward with energy if you put your leg on. If not, you might need to revisit the exercise and be more aware of your riding habits going forward.
If you do this, you should have a horse who is in front of the leg and a pleasure to ride in no time at all!
Check out our Teach Me section for more great tips…
Words by FEI writer Sophie Baker.