Round Pens: training for good posture…or bad?
Believe me when I tell you that I love freedom as much as anyone. I love trimming away boundaries, living widely in each moment. And, yes, I love to watch a beautiful horse running free across a meadow with his legs surging and his expression content. That, to me, is a wonderful sight. On the other hand, a horse careening around a round pen with his neck twisted sideways and his body misaligned disgruntles me.
The reason it disgruntles me is that this practice forms—and strengthens—poor movement mechanics that can have pretty significant consequences. Primarily, when a horse travels around the round pen with his head turned slightly to the outside of the circle, he ends up catching his balance every stride by planting his inside foreleg harder. This tightens and strengthens his shoulder girdle on that side, embeds crookedness in addition to limited range of motion in the scapula.
When a horse has spent a fair amount of time in this incorrect balance, a few of the results can include: chronically cross-cantering, balky behavior under saddle, stiffness and lack of responsiveness to the rider’s leg cues when ridden. The problem is that the undesirably tight scapula muscles contributing to these problems have been made stronger by the round pen work.
I absolutely believe that round pen work has a valuable place in every horse’s training life. Much of the value comes from body alignment. The round pen is not a place to chase around a loose horse while ingraining poor habits. Unless you can 100-percent affirm that your horse’s ENTIRE spine (head to tail) follows the curve of the circle prescribed by your round pen, then you are far better off to have a line attached to his halter/cavesson/bridle.
Any exercise undertaken without a complete inwards arc of the horse’s spine to match his line of travel creates postural imbalances that become stronger each session. These imbalances are manmade and easily avoided.
Somewhere along the way, many of us have become besotted with liberty work, or exercising the horse without any reins, longe lines, etc. Liberty work IS a delightful concept, but it often comes with irony. The irony appears when students wish to change a particular movement pattern (i.e. fix a canter lead, solve a persistent crookedness) without realizing that their liberty work has contributed greatly to the problem they wish to resolve.
When it comes with the outcome of developing comfortable and functional posture for your horse, attaching a line is a gift we can offer him. It allows you to guide the horse to correct posture inside the round pen, enabling his inside scapula to rotate upwards and back each stride, which in turn allows his topline to lift and swing.
Sure, there are a small percentage of horses with fine training and balance that are able to work at liberty in a round pen while maintaining correct posture and bend. In these wonderful cases, there may be no need whatsoever to have the horse on a line. But let’s not be overly generous in our self-assessments. Far fewer of us are in this camp than we might wish to accept. A closer look at most round pens reveals the horse’s head turned slightly outside the circle, and to that I say put on a line. Allow your horse to experience his freedom in other ways, but not at the expense of solidifying poor balance.
Shoulder-in…a.k.a “Abdominal Therapy”
Believing that I was offering some insightful coaching, I nearly assaulted my student with picky corrections about her leg-yield. Make him straighter, I urged. No, now get him bent more. He needs more energy. Wait, not too much—now LESS energy. She rode a few more attempts and I kept picking them apart.
Finally Kay stopped, put down her reins, and gave me a wise smile. “You need to realize that I am happy just to be going sideways at all,” she admitted. Sure, all those other details sounded like worthy goals, but for now the plain act of getting her horse to move sideways when she asked seemed pretty great.
What a good reminder. Exercises like lateral work can be so complicated and nuanced to master that for many learners it feels good to be doing any semblance of them. I remember that stage of tackling the complexities of shoulder-in. Heck, some days, I feel like I am still IN that stage. Like my student, I remember being grateful to have my horse sort of bent, mostly trotting, and kind of moving laterally up the track. Whether or not it was anywhere near exquisite mattered much less.
Today of course I am fixated on nuances and standards of shoulder-in. As I have learned to appreciate its gymnastic effect on the horse, I am grateful for these high standards. Often called ‘abdominal therapy’ by therapists, shoulder-in is not just a classical dressage tool whereby a horse’s balance is elevated and tested. It also served to equalize muscle tonicity on both sides of his body, engages his abdominals, and strengthens adduction muscles in the fore- and hindquarters.
A few days ago, I found myself bouncing through my checklist while riding shoulder-in. It went like this: angle of horse’s body, rhythm, my own posture, poll flexion, line of travel, my position again, frame of horse, angle of his body again. This all happened in about 7 seconds and even though I mostly passed the checklist sufficiently, I broke out in laughter. I could feel my forehead very pinched in concentration, my lips squeezed in a tight line. I was on quality control overload.
I wished momentarily that I could return to that feeling of raw bliss when my horse was doing what felt to me like something unfamiliar and therefore probably a shoulder-in but my instructor was barking: not quite it, not quite it! After indulging in the recollection of that learning curve, I recalibrated my present schooling. I relaxed my forehead and mouth, remembered to be less uptight.
Wherever you fall in the journey of mastering shoulder-in, here are some of my best tips:
- Shoulder-in can be equally effective for your horse when schooled in-hand from the ground and ridden under saddle.
- When riding, keep your hips parallel with the horse’s hips and your shoulders parallel with his shoulders.
- Nine times out of ten, you need to refresh your horse’s energy immediately following a shoulder-in. Think about stepping on the accelerator as you ride forward from the shoulder-in.
- Some horses’ improve their lateral movement and freedom when the rider posts the trot as opposed to sitting it. Try both to find out.
- Do not over-school shoulder-in with a young or unfit horse. It taxes the stifle, which then strains the lumbar region.