In this excerpt from “Ride Better with Christoph Hess,” FEI ‘I’ judge in dressage in eventing, Christoph Hess explains our responsibility as riders when it comes to certain kinds of lameness.
Q: My five-year-old mare is slightly lame on her left front; not all the time, but it reoccurs. My veterinarian cannot determine a cause. Our riding instructor believes that she’s rein lame and advises me to hack out as much as possible and to ride more forward in our dressage work. What should I do?
A: “Rein lameness” is a phenomenon that is problematic for many riders—sometimes even on different horses. At first glance, it appears the problem is with the horse. But if horse and rider are observed for a longer period of time, one can often draw this conclusion: the rider is the problem, not the horse. Rein lameness is often a problem that originates with the rider!
Often this problem occurs with horses and/or riders who have become “bogged down” in positioning the horse. If this is the case, first try to back off on positioning the horse. Instead, develop a correct, light positioning through the use of leg-yielding and diagonal aids, through which your dominant inside leg is followed by a giving on the inside rein.
The End-All and Be-All: Balance
You should ask yourself if you are truly able to follow the movement of your horse without hanging on the reins, if your horse is securely in front of your driving aids, and if both of these elements apply at all three gaits—walk, trot, and canter. If you’re unsure about the answer to these questions and, at the same time, have the impression that you’re not sitting independently from your hand/reins and able to influence the horse, then there’s also a good indication that you’re not balanced enough in the saddle and by extension on your horse’s back. Therefore, the balanced seat of the rider is also the first step toward over-coming the horse’s rein lameness.
I advise riders who are having problems with balance in the saddle to regularly take longe-line lessons and allow themselves to be corrected by a trainer. As you do so, it’s helpful to ride as long as possible with eyes closed, in order to internalize the movement patterns of your horse more and more, and to auto-mate moving with the horse. Again and again, I notice that many riders have problems here. If this is not deliberately addressed, the rider will always bring the horse out of his natural balance and, thereby, reinforce and worsen the rein lameness. If not resolved at the source of the problem, rein lameness can easily develop into an actual lameness with a diagnosis from your veterinarian.
Hacking Out—The Wonder Drug
Hacking out in the open on uneven ground and going up and down hills is helpful for every horse. This is especially true for horses that are regularly ridden on excellently prepared footing most—or even all—of the time. To be ridden out in nature will improve their surefooted-ness and natural balance. In hill work, the horse must open up enough up front so that he can use his neck to help balance his whole body. In terms of position, the rider should post the trot or choose a light seat in all its various forms whenever possible. The more she (regularly!) rides her horse this way out in the open, the better and sooner the horse will find balance and, thereby, overcome rein lameness.
Ride Your Horse Forward
When riding outside the arena, you’re more likely to ride your horse more forward than you might do in the arena. This fresh riding-forward helps the horse to balance. As many riders have trouble sitting with the horse’s movement when the horse is more forward even in the dressage arena, I recommend that you ride in posting trot or a light seat when hacking out.
When a horse has a recurring lameness that the veterinarian can’t find a reason for, it’s not uncommon for “rein lameness” to be the cause. In these cases, the rider’s incorrect influence, especially hard hands, causes the horse to experience cramps or blocks in his muscles. This shows itself through anything from uneven movement to severe lameness. In this way, a rein lameness can eventually cause a veterinary issue.
This can be avoided by instituting consistent training for horse and rider before it is too late. For the horse, it’s important to establish and confirm rhythm, relaxation, and contact. For the rider, you need to ensure that you can go with the horse’s movement while remaining balanced and supple. If these points are not addressed, you’ll only worsen the current problems with further training.