by Jenna Santos
What is it that’s makes us feel safer on a horse with limited get up and go? As a self-confessed nervous nelly, I certainly do not enjoy a horse than rushes around, as I feel less in control than I do when I must continually push them on. And I know I am not alone. You have all seen those wanted ads from people searching for more whoa than go. Why is this so common? Why do we feel safer?
To maintain relaxation, both my horse’s and my own, I have been guilty of allowing him to move with far less energy than he should, and it costs me in the dressage ring. I have always worked under the theory that an unmotivated horse is less likely to bolt and shy, because that would require effort and he simply can’t be bothered with it. But something Vicky said to me recently destroyed this theory completely. “Horses won’t spook when they are with you.” In other words, when a horse is neither behind you nor running away in front, but right underneath you (on your aids), he won’t leave without you as you have his complete focus. My false sense of security has been blown out of the water and I have never felt so motivated to get my horse moving and learn how to keep him under my seat. So how does one achieve this?
Firstly, I think it’s important to define what it means to have a horse underneath you. Many trainers and riders will refer to this as being in front of the leg, but Vicky says that concept can be a little confusing. In front of the leg does not mean the horse is forever running and needs to be held. That is not the idea of dressage, which is meant to be about a harmonious partnership between you and your horse. A horse should move by itself with its own momentum, which is the concept of being in front of the leg, but it also needs to be reactive in the correct way to leg aids (i.e. go and slow when asked). Having a horse underneath you is like setting the cruise control in your car. You set the speed and then the horse maintains it until you tell him otherwise. Your car doesn’t just decide it is going to lurch forward or drop back without your say so… and neither should your horse.
When I first get on my horse, he certainly is not underneath me. At the start of the ride, my horse is a little like I am first thing in the morning; sluggish, disinterested, and slow to react. It takes a bit to get him motivated. Getting him to move requires effort on my part, and anytime I don’t put the effort in, he drops “behind the leg.” The less energy he uses, the more I must use, and I’m not into it. It is like nagging your kids in the morning to get them ready for school. It is not a fun time. To get myself going in the morning, I use coffee. But I’m not so sure that would work for my horse. So how to fix this? Firstly, let’s look at the two biggest mistakes I make when it comes to getting my horse to gain and maintain momentum.
#1 Keeping my legs on
I am guilty of keeping my legs on my horse to keep him moving. If every time I take my legs off he drops back, the logical answer is to keep my legs on right? Wrong. If you always have your legs on your horse, soon he’ll learn to ignore them completely. And then how do you plan to keep him moving?
#2 Anticipating the mistake
This is something I do across all aspects of riding and Vicky pulled me up on it just the other day. “Don’t correct a mistake he hasn’t even made yet.” If he consistently makes the wrong decision, I will try to cut him off as the pass, by correcting a problem that hasn’t even occurred yet (i.e. by keeping my legs on to stop him dropping back). But if he never makes the mistake, he will never learn what not to do. For all he knows, I’m keeping my legs on because I don’t know how to take them off (which used to be the case). Maybe that’s just how I ride! If I never give him the opportunity to drop back, then he’ll never learn to stay underneath me.
So, if you can’t anticipate and correct and you can’t keep your legs on, how do you keep them from continually dropping behind your leg? Let’s go back to the car analogy. When you are learning to drive a car, and you want to set the speed limit, you accelerate to increase the speed. If the accelerator is a bit touchy, or you’re a bit heavy footed, the car might shoot forward. If this happens you learn to be a little lighter with your foot. The same theory applies with your horse.
If your horse has dropped behind the leg, you need to do the following:
#1 Check your position
When a horse drops back, you first must ask yourself why this happened. If a horse loses balance he may dive onto the forehand, hit the bit, and misinterpret the rein pressure as a slow down aid. If you inadvertently change your balance, you might be causing your horse to lose balance. Or perhaps he is the one that loses balance first, tipping you forward as a result. Either way, it is important to correct this before you ask him to go on. Vicky says we must be disciplined in correcting our own bodies, so we can learn to remain stable in our position. Elite riders don’t need to use their legs as often as those of us who are still learning, as they remain stable in their position, and can help their horses find balance, preventing them from diving onto the forehand in the first place.
#2 Ask him to move forward
Once you have corrected your own position, give your legs a gentle squeeze and ask your horse to move forward. If he does not respond, give him a good ole pony kick or back it up with a tap of your whip. Don’t worry if he overreacts and shoots forward, as that is far better than no response at all. Next time, just adjust your aid like you would do with a touchy accelerator, until you find the reaction you were looking for.
#3 Release the aid
As soon as you get a reaction (even an overreaction) release the aid. By releasing the aid, you are letting your horse know he has found the right answer. The quicker you release, the quicker he’ll learn.
If your horse immediately drops back, repeat steps 1-3. Over and over if necessary. You may have to release and repeat a few dozen, hundred or thousand times until they understand the path of least resistance is maintaining their own momentum. But think of it as good practice. You are practising your position, learning how to effectively use your aids and speed up your reaction time. It’s a win all round. And most importantly, you will eventually find that perfectly balance between go and whoa, so you don’t have to use your legs all the time!
I am happy to report by doing what Vicky has taught me, I have seen a remarkable difference. Callisto still occasionally struggles with the concept of staying underneath me, but I no longer keep my legs on him to keep him moving. I feel far more confident than I have in years knowing the key to spook prevention is keeping him with me… which is something I can control with persistence (unlike the neighbour’s dogs). And my legs no longer feel as though they are going to drop off after every ride (though I may need to up my leg workouts at the gym to compensate for the lack of work they’re getting when I ride).
Having a horse right there with you is an incredible feeling… I highly recommend it! And remember if you’re struggling, you don’t have to go it alone! Find yourself an awesome coach and listen to what they are telling you… maybe immediately rather than a decade down the road.
Have a horse with more go that whoa? Stay tuned for the next episode of An Amateur’s Guide to Dressage: How to Whoa.
Dr Victoria Hamilton is an icon in the Western Australian Equestrian Community, with a wealth of experience as a veterinarian, coach, breeder and international dressage competitor. As one of Australia’s top dressage riders, her love of horses is contagious and apparent in everything she does.
Jenna Santos is a business marketer, events manager, writer, mother and an amateur dressage rider.