Making your horse more supple doesn’t just mean cranking her head around to your knee. Nope, it’s about softness, responsiveness and willingness.
Whether you plan to show western pleasure with your horse or gallop her around barrels, she needs to be able to bend and be flexible. You won’t always be traveling in straight lines, will you?
A stiff, resistant horse isn’t going to perform well, so you need to spend plenty of time in the saddle doing exercises that increase your horse’s suppleness. These exercises don’t include flexing your horse’s neck from one side to the other over and over. Why? Because doing this particular exercise can make your horse over-bent and sore.
Your goal is to have a horse that bends her body from head to tail easily in both directions, as well as being able to follow a curved path, like a circle or serpentine, smoothly at every gait.
If you work the following exercises into your schooling rides, you’re sure to see an improvement in your horse’s suppleness. Have fun!
The easiest way to teach your horse to bend properly is by doing circles. Lots of them. In both directions. In all sizes. When your horse circles correctly, she bends her whole body from her head to her tail. How much she bends depends on the size of the circle. Little circle, lots of bend. Large circle, not so much bend.
If your horse is bending correctly, her head should be turned slightly toward the direction of the circle, as if she’s looking where she’s going. Her neck will have a curve that follows the curve of the circle. Look at your horse’s inside eye. You should be able to see her eyelashes.
To ask for the correct bend on a circle, sit up straight and tall. Keep the same amount of weight in both stirrups and sit evenly on both seat bones. Keep an even contact on both reins but shorten your inside rein slightly. Your outside hand should hold the rein close to your horse’s neck. The inside rein controls the bend, while the outside rein prevents your horse from over-bending.
Your inside leg should be at or near the cinch to give your horse something to bend around. Your outside leg should be slightly behind the cinch to prevent her hindquarters from popping out.
Maintain this position while asking your horse to walk around the circle. Bump or squeeze her with your calves to keep her moving forward at an active pace. If you’re having trouble getting her to bend her neck, squeeze on the inside rein to get her attention and apply pressure with your inside leg.
If she pulls against you, give a little tug or two on the rein to break her resistance and then resume your regular contact. The instant your horse responds by turning her head and neck, reward her by softening your hand.
The next exercise to add to your schooling rides is figure-eights. Your figure eights should look like two circles connected in the middle with a straight, not diagonal, line. Start at the walk and ask your horse to head down the center of the eight. Keep your hands even on either side of her neck, about 10 inches apart, and both of your legs on the cinch.
As you head out of the line and on to the circle, bring your outside hand closer to your horse’s neck and ask her to bend with your inside rein. Shift your outside leg behind the cinch. If your horse is green, you may have to exaggerate these movements a bit, but as she grows more experienced, your cues can be more subtle. Look down at your horse’s inside nostril. It should be tipped in and leading her body around the circle.
As you head back to the straight part of the figure-eight, move your hands and legs back into position for walking in a straight line. Then swap your bending cues and head in the other direction. Once your horse masters bending at the walk doing figure-eights, give the jog a go.
Missy Jo’s Cone Exercise
Missy Jo Hollingsworth of Saddle Lake Equestrian Center in Camp Springs, Ky., has come up with an easy cone exercise she uses to help her students teach their horses how to bend properly.
Set up three cones in a triangle about 30 feet apart and incorporate them into your schooling rides.
Begin by walking around one cone. Ask your horse to bend around the cone with the normal bending aids. Think about turning your hips slightly in the direction you want your horse to go.
After you’ve gone around once, head toward the second cone. Even up your reins, place both legs next to the cinch, straighten your hips and ask your horse to walk straight toward the cone. Missy says that your legs should still be touching your horse’s sides, but not asking her to bend.
“When you aren’t using your legs, think of them as wet dish towels hanging on your horse’s sides,” explains Missy. “Don’t let them stick out.”
As you approach the second cone, start asking for a bend again.
“Keep your inside leg at the girth,” says Missy. “Support your horse with your outside hand, but stay soft.”
Ride around all three cones and then reverse and do them in the other direction. After one or two tries at the walk, try it at the jog.
As your horse gets more experienced, reduce the distance between the cones to ask for more bend from her.
This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!