In these exercises you’ll explore rhythm, length of stride, and how the give-and-take of your rein and leg aids increases and decreases your horse’s stride.
We’ll Start at the Walk . . .
. . . where I’ll go into the most detail, and you can freely experiment without feeling rushed: an experience that will help quieten your thinking at the speedier trot and canter. Maintain normal rein contact: George Morris describes it as “the weight of your hands in your horse’s mouth” — which means the pressure of your hand on the reins equals the pressure of your horse’s mouth on the bit, so your hand is taken along by his bobbing head.
Pressure also applies to normal leg contact: firm enough for your lower calf to feel your horse’s side and maintain an energetic, marching walk, but not so firm it tells him to trot. As you walk, feel his back and sides moving under your seat and legs.
Listen to his breathing. Hear the plip, plop of his bell boots, the crunching of the dirt beneath his feet, and the regular, marching one-two-three-four of the walk.
Now lengthen stride for five seconds (to give yourself a sense of increase, count one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three, one-thousand-four, one-thousand-five”). Urge your horse to a longer, more fluid walk by squeezing your leg and following the quicker, deeper bob of his head with your hands.
Go on! Get him to step longer, larger, and faster across the ground. Get it done! I want to see a lengthening, and you only have five seconds, so make it happen!!
Now shorten and slow his stride for five seconds — ease your leg aid and smoothly increase your hand aid.
Keep the motion regular. It should never stop, or get so fast that it’s “past” your hands. If the rhythm gets wandery or dull when you shorten, ease your hands forward and maintain your leg.
If your horse trots when you ask him to lengthen, or gets hurried or irregular, increase your hand pressure and decrease leg pressure. It’s very basic, really. Your legs control his rhythm from his tail to your body, and your hands regulate his rhythm from from your body to his mouth, which leaves his balance and his responsiveness right under you.
Nothing Changes at the Trot . . .
. . . except the rhythm which is faster, so close your hip angle — “tick” it like the second hand on a clock — and bring your upper body slightly forward for the acceleration.Post by touching the saddle lightly with the forward part of your seat bones, then allowing the rebound from your horse’s motion to push you out of the saddle.
Hold your hands at a forty-five degree angle to one another, about an inch or two above the withers, with your thumbs up and your forearms totally independent, as if your elbows are shock absorbers — they’re so elastic that your hands, forearms, and elbows stay with the relative stillness of your horse’s head and neck while your upper body, upper arms, and legs follow the motion of the trot.
Canter Doesn’t Mean . . .
. . . going hell-bent for election! Canter is part of the same adjustable deal — so if you fly around the ring because your horse is insensitive to your aids, or your leg and back aren’t strong enough to hold your position, stop, go back and trot and canter without stirrups, and do canter-walk transitions until you have the sense of being IN your horse instead of ON him, and of being able to slow him down with a “simulated” walk aid.
Now search for five seconds each of longer, faster canter stride — maintain a tall upper body, ease your hands forward, and close your leg — and of a shorter stride — close your hands and forearms, firm your lower back, push your belly button forward, stay tall, squeeze your shoulder blades, and relax your leg just enough to stop sending him on but to still support his forward motion, so he doesn’t falter and walk.
When you’re pretty confident in your control over his stride at walk, trot, and canter, you’re ready to begin work over ground poles as a preamble to finding your distance to actual fences.
This piece was excerpted from the series “How to Find a Distance” in the December 1996/ January 1997 issues of Practical Horseman magazine. In the magazine’s November 2003 issue, Ray Texel airs his views on what needs fixing in the children’s and adults’ jumper divisions — and how to fix them.