Updated: Apr 8, 2020
When a horse is ‘falling in’ on a circle or cutting the corner, the common idea is for: “more inside leg”. But this is often not solving the problem. Getting stronger with our inside leg can even make it worse, as riders often tend to ‘fall in’ with that pushing leg.
I was riding for many years before discovering the logic and usefulness of balancing and straightening a horse with the help of neck reins and weight aids. So, I’m keen to share it with you. It’s not a secret I’m sure. But it somehow managed to by-pass me… and many other riders I come across.
Many of you will have experienced the impact under-saddle of a horse’s asymmetry. Also referred to as their laterality. Like us – they are easier one side than the other. In addition, a horse can often widen the circle on one side of the arena and cut it short on the other side. They may ‘fall out’ on the side closest to home, and ‘fall in’ on the opposite side.
As an example, an asymmetrical ‘right bent’ horse tends to ‘fall in’ to the left (i.e. “drops the left shoulder”). To do this he will tend to shift more weight to his inside (left) shoulder, tighten or pull down into the left rein, place his head and neck to the outside (right) and swing his quarters to the right, bulging his belly into our left leg. Like a banana bend, but the opposite bend to the curve we are on. See below: (i.e. circles to the left become smaller, while to right they seem easier or become bigger).
“When turning to the right, a horse which is hollow to the right tends to enlarge the curve through its shoulders. To the left it turns short, and falls on its inside (left) shoulder”. (Philippe Karl)
If we push more with an inside leg to physically force the horse to move over, we also become part of the problem. A light inside leg at the girth can be a useful reminder aid for the horse to move away from pressure. But when the horse ignores an inside leg aid, pressing stronger with an inside leg is missing the point. If something is not working, doing more of it doesn’t make sense! Either the horse doesn’t have the balance to do what you want or he doesn’t understand what you want.
To become part of the solution we need to think about the balance mechanics of what is happening; the cause and effect of the horse’s natural asymmetry. The horse cannot be blamed for being born “right bent”. But we can help him find better balance by teaching him specific rein aids and in particular the “neck rein” to realign his balance more equally over both shoulders.
“Neck rein assisted by an opening rein is useful to create balance & straightness”.
(Images Philippe Karl’s – “Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage” )
When this is done with the correct aids it is quickly effective, but it needs to be supported with equal tension in both reins, with upward - sideway actions of both hands, (not backwards, not pulling, not see-sawing). Aiming to keep the middle of the bit in the middle of the mouth, and at the same time sitting back and to the outside, so your weight aids assist the balance you need. That is, balance into the direction you want the horse to go to encourage the horse to follow your balance.
However, the horse needs to be flexed slightly away from the direction of travel – that is, in counter bend. Because, biomechanically, this makes it easier and more natural for the horse. The horse’s neck is like a lever, it naturally transfers weight opposite to the way the head is flexed or bent. When the head is bent left, the horse can more easily shift weight to the right shoulder, and tends to go that way. If you are a visual learner, like me, you might want to go and get something bent, like a banana or something like play dough to ‘see’ the logic of this.
The balance and weight aids are important. If the horse ‘falls in’ to the left, shifting weight into his left fore, we can help him correct this by transferring more of our weight to the right fore. The rider stays upright, but sits and balances to the right with more weight down into the right stirrup and right seat bone.
If the horse resists, you can add whip tap/s on the inside shoulder to encourage him to come off that shoulder. To re-balance his load, the horse is then more inclined to move underneath our weight - to follow our weight and move to the right. Bingo, that is what we want. Praise and reward with a softer rein and a little break as soon as you feel the shoulders move towards the outside.
You will know if it’s working because it will feel much easier and softer in those moments when the horse shifts the weight over, like you have unlocked a blocking resistance. Keep testing, repeating, and rewarding, until the horse well understands the neck rein and change of weight. You may need to use a slow walk to help the horse find confidence to use his body differently, and to listen to your corrections each time he falls back into old habits.
It’s a little like us trying to do things with our non-dominant hand. It’s difficult! It takes time and practice to change. But, with balance, comes straightness and rhythm. Without these we cannot progress to more advanced work.
When a horse ‘falls in’ going left, often our first instinct is to turn the horse’s head to the outside (to turn its nose to the right). I see this a lot, but it doesn’t help, because it puts even more weight to the inside shoulder and effectively causes the horse to ‘fall in’ more.
It is more effective to focus on taking the shoulders and the withers to the outside, using the inside neck rein and outside opening rein to keep the head and neck bent a little to the left. The bio-mechanical leverage of the horse’s neck naturally becomes its own solution.
A simple way to start this is in the pattern of spiralling out of a circle. Flexing the horse’s neck to the inside, and using neck reins and weight aids to widen the circle. Ensure your inside leg isn’t going back behind the girth – as it is not about moving the quarters out – as it’s the shoulders that control the steering, we need to keep the inside leg at the girth and think about shifting the balance of the shoulders to the outside
A common mistake is that the rider tends to give away the outside rein, the outside elbow and arm escape forward away from the body, and the outside seat-bone comes off. Without support of the outside rein and weight aids, the horse tends to over-bend the neck but not shift weight to the outside shoulder.
As the horse starts to understand how to rebalance the shoulders to the outside it’s then good to teach shoulder control on a diagonal line - from the three-quarter line to the long side. On the left rein, turn up the three-quarter line for a few meters, then with neck reins, and weight aids, ask the shoulders to yield back to the track. With left flexion, send the shoulders and withers to the right. Your right hand guides and leads the shoulders back to the track. Your left hand follows against the neck. As in the diagram.
It’s a similar pattern to a leg yield but in this exercise it’s a ‘shoulder yield’. Stay parallel to the long side but don’t be tempted to take your inside leg back – as that talks to the hind quarters and will confuse the balance. Think of this as a shoulder yield – asking the horse to take wider steps, the front legs crossing over each other, to the right and across to the fence/wall.
Progress to trot. It’s a nice feeling when it works, and easy in trot to use the weight aids while you are in the air. If you are finding it easy, a more advanced pattern is to ride a figure of 8 but keeping the SAME bend & flexion, while changing the direction. i.e. one circle in true bend and one circle in counter bend. If you can master this you will have progressed well with shoulder control, and your circle shape and size will be more accurate.
In a short time you will no longer need the counter-bend, and a light touch of a neck rein with a slight shift of your weight should be enough to correct any loss of balance or straightness. This way you will really feel how your balance leads the way and the neck reins control the shoulders. It’s a breakthrough to relaxation in rhythm, a stepping stone to lateral work and a prerequisite to collection.
NOTE: Often we are working on shoulder control under saddle, but it is good to keep in mind that these corrections are best started from the ground work, in leading, lunging and with in-hand work in the bridle. Without the extra burden of a rider, this work can all be done in-hand to help the horse become equally strong and balanced left and right. Let me know how you go.