Question: My new 16-year old Thoroughbred has been a show hunter all his life and has had two years off doing nothing. Although he has been trained up to medium-level dressage, I’m going back to basics to find out how he has been trained and to reestablish everything after his time off while also getting him fit again. The problem I’ve encountered is that he is just terrible about leaning on the inside rein. I have had his teeth done with no improvement. Could you give me some exercises or suggestions that might help?
Answer: When a horse leans on the rein–one or both reins–he is showing a lack of throughness, balance and suppleness. Horses are lefties or righties, just like people. For many different reasons including physical limitations, a general lack of suppleness or rider imbalance, one hind leg is generally stronger than the other, creating the tendency for the horse to lean on the rein on the opposite side. In dressage, we work to make both hind legs equally strong, revealed most easily by the evenness and elasticity of the contact.
First, concern yourself with the physical well-being of the horse. For example, horses that are stiff behind due to arthritic changes may lean on the inside rein, as they are unable to step under and carry themselves with their hind legs. Many modern therapies are available to lengthen and improve our horses’ useful career. For the welfare of the horse, if training issues exist that are not understood, please contact your local veterinarian before starting a training program.
Review your horse’s conformation. Dressage can be beneficial to almost any horse, but not every horse’s conformation facilitates dressage training. For example, a horse that has a high croup or long back will have a harder time stepping under himself and carrying his weight with his hindquarters, creating the tendency to lean on the bit. Given time, these horses can be taught to carry themselves forward into a more even and elastic contact.
I am happy to hear you’ve already considered teeth in the equation, but the mouth itself cannot yet be ruled out. In many other equestrian disciplines, harsher bits are sometimes used. This creates a horse with a less sensitive mouth that leans on the rein. With time, patience and proper bitting, these horses can become more sensitive to simpler and kinder bits more typically employed in dressage.
Rider position is the next possible culprit for the stiffness. A crooked rider, always sitting to the outside of the horse, tends to push the haunches to the inside, blocking the carrying ability of the inside rein, and creating a horse that leans on that rein. This is not something easily assessed alone. A qualified instructor would be best to help you. Get yourself videotaped moving on straight lines going both to the left and the right and away form the camera at all three gaits. Your shoulders should appear level with your legs hanging evenly down. You want your spine straight and aligned over the midline of the horse. Failing a camera, a friend can stand behind you for assessment purposes.
To correct position issues, longe line lessons with a qualified instructor are almost imperative. However, if a good longe horse or instructor is not available, riding without stirrups on a calm horse can help. You can do one of my favorite exercises on a calm horse without stirrups at the posting trot. Take both reins in your outside hand and stretch your inside arm from your shoulder straight ahead toward the horse’s ear so your arm is parallel to the ground. This exercise should be repeated in both directions, helping you maintain an even balance in the saddle. This helps you feel your straight spine, especially when raising the arm on the side of your body that tends to collapse.
Finally, your horse may just not have been ridden in a way to promote balance and suppleness. Luckily, dressage offers many wonderful exercises that help create a more supple and elastic connection through the horse’s back to the bridle. These exercises help the horse develop strength and suppleness of the hindquarters, allowing increased engagement or carrying power of the hind legs. When his self-carriage improves, then the contact in the bridle will also lighten and become more elastic.
First, we need to make sure your horse understands the connection from your inner leg to your outer rein. Turns on the forehand are very good for helping clarify this concept in your horse’s mind. At a halt along the wall, apply your outer leg and, at the same time, gently close your fingers, or “restrain” your horse’s front end from walking forward. If your horse is not used to this exercise, he will want to go forward rather than sideways from your leg.
Be patient! If he should step forward, close your fingers more firmly, and allow him to halt quietly again before asking him to move over with your outside leg again. Hotter horses sometimes have a very hard time with this. In this case, start by facing the wall at a 90-degree angle, and allow the wall to keep him from walking forward, rather than wrestling with the bridle. The horse will show you he understands this idea by stepping readily away from your outside leg with his hind legs and inscribing a quarter or half circle with them around his front legs marching in the same spot. As you work this exercise, you may notice your horse starts chewing the bridle more softly and becomes lighter on your inside rein and “rounder” on your outside rein.
To help your horse become more supple and engaged while moving in a forward direction, spiraling circles are a very good exercise. Starting with a large circle, reduce it to a smaller one, and then drive the horse laterally back out to the original. Make sure your circles never get so small that your horse cannot balance easily or maintain his nice steady forward rhythm.
As you spiral your circle inward, your inside leg should be closed at the girth and your outside leg should be just behind the girth, keeping the haunches stepping forward rather than outward. Your inside rein should be softly positioning the poll to the inside, yet not bending the neck so far that you lose sight of the outside cheekpiece of the bridle, and your outside rein is quietly ready to receive the connection, offered by the bend.
The bending aids should stretch the horse forward around your inner leg into the outside rein so that the contact in your outside rein starts to improve. As you spiral you horse back out onto the larger circle, concentrate on actively pushing him from your inside leg into the outside rein, and catch the energy in the outside rein in a restraining rein aid. As the outside rein connection becomes more consistent and elastic, you will be able to use it in recycling your horse’s forward energy back to his hindquarters in the form of a half halt.
Leg yields also are helpful in teaching the horse to move from the inside leg to the outside rein. You can try leg yielding from the centerline to the wall, from the wall toward the centerline, down the wall facing either in or out or in a zigzag, leg yielding in one direction, then changing the horse’s positioning and leg yielding back the other direction. As in the previous exercise, the focus is on moving the horse away from the rider’s inside leg, getting the horse to step under and carry more weight with his inside hind leg, lightening the inner rein contact and improving the connection on the outside rein.
In the leg yields, the body of the horse should be fairly straight, with only a small amount of positioning of the poll to the inside, just enough that you can see the inner eyeball. Your outside rein helps maintain the straightness of the horse’s body and keeps the outside shoulder from popping out, giving the horse the feel and appearance of being crooked. Too much outside rein will block the engagement of the hindquarters and make the horse step too sideways with his hind legs, causing the hindquarters to lead and lose the clear trot rhythm. Use your outside leg just behind the girth to help support the forward movement so he can keep stepping more under himself. If you should try the more difficult zigzag exercise, make sure you allow your horse a moment of straightness and balance before changing direction in his lateral movement.
There are many reasons for the phenomena you describe and many ways to fix it. Perhaps the most difficult task will be identifying what is causing your horse’s “stiffness.” But once you’re on track, the horse will let you know by offering the lovely elastic connection that we all work hard to achieve.
Cindi Rose Wylie is a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Certified Instructor through Fourth Level who has earned USDF bronze, silver and gold medals. A graduate of the USDF “L” Program, she won the 1999 Region 8 ABIC/USDF Grand Prix Championship. Based at Quarterline Dressage in Hamilton, Mass., she and her husband, Michael, maintain the website quarterlinedressage.com.
Ask the Experts is a monthly department in Dressage Today magazine. Email [email protected] with your toughest questions.