I have been working with Chip for the past couple of years on just relaxing in the arena. You might know from reading his case studies that he is more of a trail horse than an arena horse. When it comes to arena time, he used to brace his body constantly. He was taught collection as a young chap, but without doing much arena work for many years, his muscles had become weak in a lot of areas.
While he has relaxed overall in the arena, he shows me where his weaknesses are by arguing when I ask him for more thoughtful, collected movement. His behaviors are not extreme by any means—the worst he has ever done is try to zig-zag across the arena and offer some weak back-end bucks. On the other hand, though, he is far from supple.
His prior collection training has been a puzzle to me. Chip will, at times (on the trail, ironically), slow his tempo way down to a slow, prancy trot, and tuck his head back. I absolutely love it. However, there is something about it that seems stiff and unnatural. Like he’s trying to force his body to do it instead of stretching into his back and through his neck.
I am grateful that Chip knows collection, but I have not seen anything but the frame. All that I know of correct collection indicates that it is supposed to be natural: a combination of strength and suppleness. So, a frame is not collection at all, it is an idea that alludes to collection. A starting point, perhaps, but not the final goal.
Towards the end of collection, I have tried several approaches:
- Loose-rein walk and trot circles, working particularly on bend and light, bare-minimum contact with the bit. I use my seat and legs to shape his body.
- Bringing him into a frame the way he knows it—a lot of bit contact—then easing off the bit and bending from there.
- Extra lunging sessions to just build up his lateral muscles (small and large circles) and his hindquarters (trot-to-canter transitions)
I have been alternating between these three approaches, relying most heavily on loose-rein circles. I like how these circles simultaneously help him develop his muscles and think on his own how to carry a rider while bending and reaching his hind end underneath him. Yet there has been something missing, because he will periodically shoot his head up, even when focusing on bending. I don’t like pulling his head into the “correct position” because it takes too much bit contact.
So, the key to get him to drop down his head naturally, and reach his neck through his back to engage his hind end had remained a mystery. That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when I was looking at my own riding and wondering if my posture was affecting him. This should have been my first question, before going around these circles, literally and figuratively.
A Simple Shift in Perspective, and A Quick Riding Fix
That day, I didn’t even take the time to put a saddle on him. I just groomed him, threw his bridle on, and started to warm him up bareback in the arena. After several laps at a walk, I went back to our loose-rein circles.
I decided this time to just focus on my posture, weight distribution, sinking deep into my heels, and breathing deeply. This helped with his temperament, but he still carried his head high and his back hollow. I don’t know what dawned on me to try this, but instead of focusing my attention on his head and the reins, and whether or not he was swinging his rear out, I looked up.
I focused on where I wanted us to take the circle, opened up and pulled back my shoulders, and drew my hands with the loose reins like wings out by each side. Either hand stretched at least six inches out from my thigh. Then, I brought my hands down—closer to my thighs—and just relaxed. I had less rein control, but my posture was more balanced, and I paid much closer attention to my seat and legs.
Without even expecting it, Chip began to reach his head downward. His tempo was still strong, but slower and somewhat melodic. It was as though his motion was now intentional and powerful, not just trying to get through the exercise. Amazed, I enjoyed this sweet moment of victory that came at the most unexpected time.
All I had done was stretch my shoulders open and backward, which caused my whole upper body and hips to open up. I realized that the former hip position was pinching him a few inches behind his withers, because I was hunched forward. Opening up my shoulders also caused me to roll my weight backward and bring my head up, moving more inertia towards his hind end. I was simultaneously relaxing and focusing on my seat, which kept me more stable on his back and my hands away, unable to rely on his mouth.
It Was Me, All Along
My focus had changed from him to me: his weakness to my weakness. And as it turned out, it was my weakness all along that was keeping him from moving forward towards collection. My poor posture was preventing him from accessing the muscles he needed in his back. I write here a lot about acting in the horse’s best interest, and pride myself on “listening to the horse,” but this experience showed me a blind spot, and reminded me that no matter how many years we have been riding, there are always ways we can improve our listening skills and our riding practices. We are, after all, asking them to do the work, not the other way around.
What is the most recent riding victory you have had? I would love to hear it at email@example.com