Why train horses at all, you might ask?
Horses are as fragile as they can be strong. Seeing them play on the meadow, when they act all imposing and full of energy always fills me with awe. That’s what they are made for, playing, dozing (a lot), eating (even more) and walking – in the wild 30 – 50 km per day.
What they aren’t made for: carrying the weight of a rider on their backs.
And this is precisely why we need to train them accordingly, we simply owe them.
A well-trained riding horse is not only well muscled in its neck, back and hindquarters, ideally it is perfectly balanced with all four legs perpendicular to the ground, can stretch its neck forward-downward in a relaxed way without falling forward and shows self-carriage under the rider as well as without.
To form a well-balanced, strong and self-carried horse with a great posture, we work a lot from the ground. But a thought-out riding session can also help your horse improve:
5 – 10 Minutes: Arriving together
Take some time with your buddy to arrive where you want to be, with him/her. Cuddle a little or do some leg stretches, then walk around the arena together and get tuned in to each other. As much as you might still be with work issues in your head, your horse isn’t much different.
- Walking together: The great advantages of walking together is that you can give your horse the chance to loosen up its back and most importantly produce joint fluids that are vital to avoid injuries. Don’t forget that a horse in captivity is mostly just standing around and usually rather stiff when you pull it out to go for a ride.
- Ground exercises are a great way to gain your horses attention and interest before getting into the saddle as well as loosen up the musculoskeletal system.
10 Minutes: Getting the juices flowing
- Getting in the saddle:
Use this as your standing ritual to practice standing still with your horse, don’t kick it into a walk as soon as your behind hits the saddle. What’s it going to learn from that? Well, probably not standing still and patiently until you are ready. This becomes especially important for save dismounting and mounting out and about on the trail.
- Please do yourself and your horse the favour to use a mounting block whenever you can, even if your horse isn’t that tall. It will spare its probably still stiff spine from being pulled to one side by the rider’s weight and when practised regularly gives them a “target” for standing patiently for you to mount.
- Warming up at the walk: Choose big figures and light exercises, for example leg yields (I explain more about this further down), big serpentine lines to do initial bends on. As a rule of thumb: walk your horse straight to start with, then go into wide bends, avoid tight bends and turns before your horse is fully warmed up.
15 Minutes: Warm-up
- “Jogging round”, trotting exercises (relieve the horse’s back through posting to the trot, stepping on the stirrups), again first on straight lines, then bended lines.
I encourage all my pupils to make the jogging rounds a fixed routine in their riding, at the beginning and at the end of each riding session. Horses feel save and relaxed with routines they know. And there’s no point in working a horse that isn’t relaxed.
- After 5 – 10 minutes, ask for lots of walk – trot, trot – walk transitions to soften your horse. This also builds strength in the haunches and the lumbar region of the back and improves their self-carriage. Be patient with the downward transitions in young horses and use your voice in combination with your seat with all requests, and only then the reins.
Watch out for active hind legs, a relaxed top line and frequent neck stretching – this should make up most of your session.
10 Minutes: Short bursts of work at the trot
- First, a little definition of side-step exercises:
1) Leg yields: can be ridden on the long side or diagonals, more challenging on circles or bent lines in walk, trot and even canter.
Leg yielding means asking your horse to step sideways with its front and back legs. The horse is straight in itself, with possibly a little positioning of the head towards your inside leg (if you do it on the long side, your inside and outside leg switch around in this exercise). Do not override the angle, maximum 45° towards the arena wall.
2) Shoulder in: long side or big circles (+ counter shoulder-in to the outside of the arena) in walk, trot and canter.
With a shoulder in, you are asking your horse to to keep its hindlegs in a straight forward movement on the same track (be careful not to push the hindlegs out), meaning its hindlegs should step straight and forward and not cross! The head is slightly positioned inwards with a minimal neck bend and its forelegs are on an inside track crossing each other, with the inside foreleg crossing over the outside foreleg. From the front you’d ideally see three legs, as outside front and inside back legs align – this isn’t the most important part though, more important with this exercise is to keep the hindlegs straight and forward stepping.
3) Haunches in: long side or diagonals (also called traverse) in walk and trot, – leave the “bended sidesteps” in canter to the pros as this requires your horse to take a lot of weight on the outside hindleg. The counter-exercise here is called renverse.
This is in effect the opposite of shoulder-in when it comes to your horses footfall: the forelegs are on the original track stepping straight and forward, the haunches come on an inside track (mind that front outside shoulder, don’t let it pop out) and the outside hindleg pushes forward and crosses over the inside hindleg. What stays the same compared to shoulder-in is your very soft positioning and slight neck bend to the inside.
I recommend doing haunches-in only with well-carried and strong horses, not a beginner’s lesson as it isn’t productive when not executed out correctly.
! Very important for a harmonious and sustainable training routine:
Alternate all collection work with stretching exercises and relieving the horse’s back through posting to the trot (stepping on the stirrups) frequently in between or giving them a walking round after an exercise well done.
Your horse does not have to put its nose into the sand for a correct and beneficial forward-downward movement, however, always look out for active hind legs and a relaxed top line.
5 Minutes: Halt exercises (from the ground or in the saddle)
Now, these can also be done very well from the ground and should definitely be practised first time from the ground. I can only recommend getting off your horse in the middle of your riding session, it gives it a chance to get the blood flowing in its back muscles again and will have a great effect on your horses’ interest in your requests. They get bored easily!
- Turn on hindquarters (“walking pirouette”) = the forelegs move around the inside hindleg. If done correctly, meaning not letting the horse’s front legs walk away from the hindlegs and “leaving” the pirouette movement, this is a great exercise to form the muscles and self-carriage necessary for collection.
- Turn on the forehand (“counter pirouette”) = the hindlegs move around the inside foreleg. This exercise improves flexibility and strength in the hindquarters, especially in the lumbar back, pelvis and croup area.
Tip: Rather do leg yields with youngsters as the counter pirouette inhibits forward movement and might lead to stress.
5 – 10 Minutes: Gallop work
- Start on a wide circle, slowly and controlled decrease the size of your circle but maintain the horse’s forward tendency to ensure a correct start of collection, then increase the circle again. Tight but smooth turns and bends, like volts or serpentine lines help here, too.
- Counter gallop exercises help straighten your horse, vary tempo and use the middle line (off the sides) frequently to check for straightness.
- Flying changes are a great way to work those back, shoulder and hip muscles. You may want to start doing these over ground poles first.
5 – 10 Minutes: Cool down
- Posting trot jogging round = make this a routine, your horse will quickly learn that jogging rounds are there for it to relax and leave the session with a good feeling.
- Wrap up: dismount, say thank you, loosen the girth and walk a few rounds together.
- Don’t forget, especially when it’s cold out: Blanked the horse when sweaty until dry!
*My time indications are, of course, recommendations:
- 5 – 10 Minutes: Arriving together
- 10 Minutes: Getting the juices flowing
- 15 Minutes: Warm-up at the trot
- 10 Minutes: Short bursts of work at the trot
- 5 Minutes: Halt exercises (from the ground or in the saddle)
- 5 – 10 Minutes: Gallop work
- 5 – 10 Minutes: Cool down
For rehab candidates, youngsters and older riding partners I recommend long warm-ups and very short work intervals.
As a rule of thumb: Try not to ride longer than an hour.