Now that we're back to discussing horses, we can delve back into our training issues and begin to chart our horses' progress. This is a great topic for really Illustrating the whole theory behind "laying the foundation". When you have a horse who's inflexible, you'll never get a decent ride out of him. It's just a fact of life. I've covered lateral flexion, vertical flexion and slow work in the past, however, your best bet to accomplish having a balanced and supple horse is loping or cantering circles, figure 8's or serpentines.
Let's understand, if your horse isn't flexible at the jog or trot, he's not going to comprehend being flexible at the lope or canter, and if he's got an issue with flexibility at the walk, you can be sure that will be an issue at the jog or trot. Always remember to start from the beginning and build your foundation first. Remember also, that your horse needs to have good lope/canter transitions and know his correct leads before beginning these exercises. Every time you ask the horse to move forward, you want him to step up under himself with his hindquarters and lift his shoulders. This doesn't mean you pull on his face! In order to achieve elevated shoulders, a rounded back and a balanced hindquarters with impulsion, you need the horse to understand bending while moving forward. That's where your circles and figure 8's come in.
For the purposes of this article, we're going to use the Western terms of jog and lope. Begin by asking for a nice loose forward jog, you can either sit or post. Request that he stay straight until you encourage a slight inward bend when putting him into a 20 meter circle. By bend I mean his whole body, from his poll through his hips. What I don't want is for the horse to lean on my inside leg, or drop his inside shoulder. Putting your weight on your outside seatbone (and thus your outside stirrup) allows you to free up his inside shoulder and drive him forward with your outside leg. This will help him stay straighter and more balanced as you continue to ride your circles. After you have nice jog circles with your horse bent properly to the inside -- key words here are "bent properly" -- we'll start a slight counterbend while remaining in that same 20 meter circle, progressing into slightly more bend toward the outside.
After mastering the task of counterbending on a circle, we'll start riding 20 meter figures of 8 in that same forward jog. If you're posting, don't forget to change your diagonal! All a figure 8 truly is, is two opposing circles connected by a change of direction at the center meeting point. During your figure 8's, keep the horse on an inward bend by using your seat and legs. Then we move into serpentines (loops) doing the exact same. Once your horse is performing correctly at the jog, you can ask for the lope and continue enhancing his performance. Once again, you want to make sure he's got solid lope transitions and knows his leads. Those 20 meter circles while loping are very basic, as are the counterbent lope circles. If you've laid a solid foundation, the next steps are easy.
When loping figures of 8, we will utilize simple changes of lead ( even if your horse has flying changes). While you should already be familiar with them, a simple lead change is one where the horse drops down to a trot in the middle of the 8 before picking up the opposite lead. We'll do the same with our loping serpentines. On those simple changes, I only want 4-5 jogging strides at the very most, ideally just 2-3. But, there must be a clearly delineated jog. Why, you might ask, would you insist on a simple lead change as opposed to a flying change? Because our focus here, and thus that of the horse, must be on maintaining correct momentum, proper carriage and the right trajectory during this exercise. We're not working on the lope here, nor on the lead changes. We are focusing on the horse's body and how he carries himself.
Finally we will start counter canter work, which begins out of our circles down the long sides of our arena and requires a responsive horse that trusts his rider and will pick up the asked for lead regardless of the direction of travel. I've had horses thought to be highly well trained that would switch leads when asked to counter canter, but that's not correct! If we're traveling clockwise and I request the left lead, I want a left lead! So, by now you and your horse should have a clear concise idea about circles and bending. With the exercises outlined above, your communication and performance should be well on the way to being stellar.
Remember, training is a process and there is no end to it. We are constantly seeking to improve our horse's performance and our communication with the horse.