Biz Stamm shares some exercises designed to help your horse shift its center of gravity backwards, thus lightening the front end.
Hey there, Horse Nation. Over the summer I wrote an article on what the word collection really means (“Collection Demystified”) with the promise of an article describing some exercises to help you and your horse achieve this… ahem… lofty… goal. Pun totally intended. Well it looks like I’m finally going to deliver on that promise. In order to illustrate these exercises, I used my one of my client’s horses, Pilgrim.
As I mentioned in my previous article, a round back is an essential component of collection. To achieve a round back, your horse needs to relax his topline and contract his abdominals. To encourage relaxation over the topline, spend plenty of time riding your horse in a long and low frame. Be sure to keep your hands quiet and inviting so that your horse is not afraid to reach forward and down. This is a great frame for warming up, and also a very effective way to encourage a tense horse to relax mid ride.
Secondly, we want to increase the load-bearing capacity of your horse’s hind end so that when we ask him to shift his weight backwards, he has the muscle to do so. One of my absolute favorite ways to build hind end strength is hill work. This is probably the easiest ways to get your horse to carry more weight on his hind legs and improve his movement in general. I recommend trotting, cantering, and every so often galloping up hills to build your horse’s strength. Aside from being great for your horse, hill work is really fun! Thundering hooves beneath you, the wind whipping against your face, an army of Dothraki soldiers in your wake… oh wait… maybe that last part is just in my head. Moving on!
After our horse’s hind end is engaged and strong, we want to encourage him to begin to lift his shoulders. There are literally hundreds of exercises to do this, but I’m just going to share a few of my favorites. The halt-trot-halt which is exactly what it sounds like. Trot your horse, come to a halt, preferably with no walk steps, and then trot off, also with no walk steps. If your horse is particularly heavy on his forehand, you can throw in a back step before you trot off. Just be careful not to do so every time you halt or you’ll create a brand new bad habit. After many repetitions, you may notice that your horse has a bit more spring in his step, and that he is lighter on his front end.
Volte circles, both at the trot and canter, are another great way to encourage your horse to lift his shoulders. A volte circle is generally six meters in diameter, but for a horse just learning to collect, six meters might be a touch on the small. Make the circle as small as you possibly can without your horses haunches of shoulders falling out of the circle. Two common mistakes riders often make when riding volte circles is over bending at the withers (think rubber necking) and dragging their horse around the circle with the inside rein. To remedy these mistakes, be sure to control the amount of bend in your horse’s neck with your outside rein, and feel free to let go of your inside rein by opening your ring finger or pushing your hand forward from time to time if you feel like you’re being a bit heavy with it.
And lastly, the be-all-end-all of dressage movements: shoulder-in. If you have never ridden a shoulder-in before wait until you have an instructor or experienced ground person to help you out. Getting the geometry correct is important and can be kind of tricky initially. The reason this exercise is so effective at lifting the shoulders is because you are essentially bringing the hind end closer to the front end, so the front end needs to be light enough to get out of the way of the hind legs.
Working towards collection requires a lot of work and a lot of patience. You may only get a collected step or two at a time initially. Be sure to reward your horse for each and every one.
I want to thank Pilgrim’s owner, Jean, for allowing me to use him as my model and also for taking all of these beautiful photos.
P.S. I would like to welcome back Pi’s fitness advice segment “Ask a Rabbit.” After checking his browser history, however, his internet privileges have been revoked. So please send your health and fitness related questions to [email protected] and I will relay the message.
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