Blissfully Backwards by Horseback
By my instructor’s amount of hand wringing, you might have thought I had no idea how to back up my horse while mounted. To the contrary, I felt well schooled in the fine art of rein-back. But I had never backed horses up this much. Here in Portugal, it seemed like a fourth gait: walk, trot, canter, and backing up. And evidently there was a minutia of the movement that I failed to get right, although honestly I had no clue what it could be.
When our instructor Georges told us to back our horses up, which he did about a dozen times each lesson, I got my horses moving backwards no problem. Georges was still shaking his head, though, by the end of the first week. Finally, one day he asked me to get off the horse, to hope down to the ground right in the middle of what felt like a darn good rein-back.
Church bells banged in the hills around Alcainca, the warm sun fell around us, and I stood frozen in confusion. I had not been asked to get off a horse since I was a kid and riding so wretchedly that it was in kindness to my pony that an instructor plucked me off. But for flunking some hair-splitting details of a Portuguese rein-back? This seemed a bit much.
“Now, here, put your hand over mine like this,” Georges said, holding out his arm in a way that made me think briefly that we might waltz together around the arena. Then, I saw he held his fist more like the way a falconer gets his hawk to alight. Perplexed, I placed one of my hands over his sideways-turned palm.
“It’s like this. This.” Georges rocked me ever so gently back and forth on my feet by drawing my hand a fraction of an inch forward and then back. The whole time, he kept tipping his palm to keep my fingers stretching forward no matter which direction my body shifted.
“See? Like this, it’s like this.”
And suddenly it all made sense.
The horse needed to continue reaching forward with his body and energy even while he stepped backwards. That was what differentiated a really good rein-back from simply traipsing in a backwards direction. Georges guided me back and forth across the sand, my sweaty horse standing patiently near us, until I had the subtlety of movement in my body.
Since those early visits to Portugal, I have seen and ridden and experienced rein-back in entirely new light. It is a deceptively simple exercise that a rider can forever refine. And its gymnastic benefits for the horse cannot be over-stated. In addition to releasing tension from the lower back, it flexes the joints of the hind limbs—hip, stifle, hock—while toning the abdominal muscles and stretching the deep digital flexor tendon. It improves the horse a myriad of ways and makes him a far better athlete, especially when its minute nuances are accessed.
Originally appearing in Grand Prix tests from days bygone, this simple maneuver loosens the horse’s sacral region, enabling him to use his hind legs more powerfully and evenly. Ideally, the last hind hoof to step backwards is the first to move forward when motion is again initiated.
- From a square halt with the horse on the bit, ride four to six steps backwards.
- Immediately walk the horse forward four steps and halt again.
- If the horse is not square, take a few steps to square him up.
- Immediately, back up again for four to six steps.
- Repeat this sequence.
- Aim to create the feeling of a carousel horse cycling forwards-backwards, forward-backwards.
In step 2, you want him to surge forward as soon as you ask. His movements should be quick and light rather than lumbering or sluggish. If any resistance is encountered, it is best to tune up this movement from the ground off his back.
A Word About Dressage Exercises
The image of dressage horses prancing sideways might just seem like fancy footwork, but in reality these lateral movements are akin to physical therapy for the horse. From a conditioning standpoint the dressage exercises of shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass prove highly advantageous for improving neuromuscular coordination and proprioception. Obviously, they are most helpful when introduced only to the mature horse carefully and in small bouts, but many riders could benefit from learning what they do.
These movements activate muscle groups deep in the horse’s body that otherwise remain under-utilized, a state which causes dysfunctional movement. When ridden correctly, or schooled in-hand, they can be curative for horses with poor postural habits due to their effectiveness in recruiting deep pelvic stabilizing muscles, which play a cybernetic role for locomotion. You can think of these muscles as storing a whole new language for the horse’s body. As joints, muscles, and tendons learn to speak this new language, the horse becomes capable of fluid efficient movement.
In addition to the hip and spinal joints gaining better stability and range of motion through lateral exercises, the pectoral, groin, and gluteal muscles become stronger. These play a primary role in adducting the legs, plus improve forward reach and mobility of the forehand. As the gluteal muscles strengthen, the horse’s power and impulsion in the hindquarters also increases.
The extent of these positive outcomes relies on the quality of practice. Many riders introduce these movements too early, before the horse is physically mature or has a good baseline of general physical conditioning. This is a mistake that often leads to soreness, or to shortening the horse’s gait rather than improving forward reach. The horse in this case learns to shuffle through the exercises in a compromised way and does not recruit his cybernetic muscles for balance and control.
It is almost always better when training these movements to request just a few steps, and then allow the horse to travel forward. Repeat this sequence rather than try to hold the horse in the exercise for several meters at a time. And always before tackling these maneuvers, it is imperative that horse and rider can execute flawless turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches.
These simple but often overlooked turns require the foundation elements that lead to success in lateral exercises—bend and responsiveness, hindquarter engagement, proper sideways movement, roundness. Be absolutely certain that your horse’s gymnastic turns are as good as they can be, and practice them frequently, before tackling lateral movements. Whenever there is a loss of quality in one of your lateral movements, often you can return to schooling these turns to fix the problem. If there is a glitch in your turns on forehand/haunches, there will assuredly be a glitch in your lateral movements.
Why Let Dog Owners Have all the Bliss?
Why Let Dog Owners Have all the Bliss?
I watched the slender older lady lean against the fence observing her fluffy white dog. Both looked marvelously content, she huddled inside a hoodie sweatshirt in the fog and he nosing around the wood chips off-leash. I studied them with curiosity because I have often wondered about the purpose of dog parks like this one.
A few dog owners I know take their pets to these enclosed public spaces so they can romp around and get exercise. Or at least that was what they told me, the emphasis being exercise. Watching this lady’s sweet dog mosey around the corral, I was unconvinced that he was getting any more exercise than if he had gone for a leash walk. Two other dogs arrived at the park with their owners, sauntered free of their leashes, and set about some slow motion sniffing of the perimeter. Both owners found a seat, folded hands in their laps, and adopted the same serene expression of the older lady. I noted the complete contentment that came from watching their beloved animals without any of the challenges or focus that accompanies the hands-on training for skill or behavior.
As I watched this woman in her Zen-like state basking in her dog it struck me what the real point of these parks was. I’m not a dog person. But all of the sudden I wanted to share in this world. I wanted a place to take my horse Corazon someplace I could do nothing but observe him in all his awesomeness amidst a group of inferior steeds, all while convincing myself he was getting exercise or some other positive training outcome.
I have known horse owners who found great pleasure attending competitions for the chance to lean against the show ring and watch their horse strut his stuff. Their satisfaction is not contingent on being the ones on-board competing the horse. They are plenty happy to allow some other competent rider this role. For them, it’s the stress-free seat on the sidelines watching that brings them more enjoyment. But horse shows involve a lot of logistics, time, and money. Would it not be better if we had a version of dog parks instead? A place we could indulge in watching our horses prance around but without the hassle of showing, or hiring a trainer, or teaching him special skills? A place void, really, of any competency requirements?
The longer I observed the older lady and her fluffy little dog, the more I regretted previously scoffing at people like her, even privately. I had scoffed because I assumed the dog park was an owner’s lazy replacement for hands-on exercise and training. Now I saw it was a marvelous space where owners can sit Buddha-like and let their insides smile from the sight of their non-verbal companions. In the challenges and time expense of our daily hands-on training, we can sometimes forget why we got our animals in the first place. Maybe dog parks protect that joy for us.
Personally, I know that the casual moments of hanging out with Corazon around the barn or tied to the trailer remind me how smitten I am with him when his training might be in a frustrating phase. If we had the equivalent of a dog park, I just might be swooning all the time. I could find a comfy seat, forget about his balky half-pass, and watch the sunlight highlight his shiny dappled coat. I would watch him flip his excessive mane around, assess himself as prettier than the other horses. I would swell up with pride for no strong reason at all, except that I can claim him as my own. And the person next to me would do the same for hers. So, think about this. Why let dog owners have all the bliss?
Here we Grow Again
It never gets old. Maybe it owes to some obsessive wiring I have, but I could find satisfaction schooling shoulder-in every day. The finesse and precision and challenge of it never tire me. Fortunately for my horses, though, I’m prudent not to indulge that satiating sameness day after day. I’ve come to accept this as a crucial element in responsible stewardship of horses.
So much of the time without realizing it, we humans repeat exercises and training concepts more for our own sake. But we convince ourselves we’re doing it for our horses. For instance, I had a student who swore her Quarter Horse gelding was afraid of tarps. She believed the sight and sound of the plastic startled him. So she set about walking over, around, and near tarps on a weekly basis, long past the point her horse had grown so bored with them that he shuffled over them half asleep. My student still insisted on the consistent tarp practice, failing to recognize that it was for her own sake, and a phobia she had developed, not for her horse.
Another student committed to refining her groundwork with her horse well past it being already very solid. Almost daily, she put her horse on a 12-foot line and trotted her around in circles ad nauseam, changed directions, made more small circles. After six months, the horse could have done it in her sleep. The mare was uninterested, un-challenged. Some days she acted out; other days she offered hardly any effort. I encouraged my student to see that it was time to leave behind this foundational phase of training and move on. Otherwise, negative outcomes can result from horses performing by rote. The clever ones can begin entertaining themselves with games that turn in to behavioral problems; the quieter ones can become duller, detached.
I make this point not to poke criticism. I, too, catch myself wanting to practice the same exercise or routine with militant regularity until I catch that I’m doing it for myself and not for my horse. This brings up an open-ended philosophical conversation about training horses. Mainly, do we have a responsibility to continually engage our horses and leave behind exercises that have grown comfortable like a pair of bed slippers? Or is it okay to focus on the same things again and again?
It might be that there is no overarching imperative to this question. Where a person stands on this might be entirely individual. But what matters is that we DO stand on it. To be a clear and responsible leader for your horse, you need to have a plan. That plan needs to take an honest look at your approach to your riding and training. Do you tend to focus on things that you need or desire or have made habit? Or are you always assessing and adjusting the arc of your horse’s development?
In my own personal approach, I say, yes, responsible stewardship involves helping our horses to the next step and the next and beyond, improving them in every physical and emotional way we can. This means, as difficult as it can be, leaving behind each training stage as you out-grow it. On this point, I want to cite the succinct advice of jumping trainer and Olympian Peter Leone. He summed up what I view as an ideal approach to owning, training and enjoying horses. In his book Show Jumping Clinic he writes:
“ It is our job to establish a routine and at the same time make the daily ride interesting to our horses. Always try to reinforce with routine and stimulate with the unexpected. Each ride should combine a mixture of expected daily exercises with unexpected questions.”
When I first read this a few years ago, I felt a clear commitment rooting in me, one that requires daily focus. By sticking to this philosophy, we avoid the behavioral challenges and performance plateaus that result from boredom, disinterest, or dullness. While I still enjoy schooling shoulder-in whenever the horse might need it, I avoid schooling repetitively or comfortably past any point of value. I encourage you to reflect on this in your own riding life.
Western Dressage Exercise – Spiral Two Ways
If you have seen anatomical drawings of the horse’s upper neck, you have witnessed the vast number of important muscles inserted there. Most of these small muscles play significant roles during movement: stabilizing the shoulder, turning the neck, suspending the ribcage. This explains why lateral flexion creates softness throughout the horse’s whole body.
By loosening and balancing the poll, the horse is able to organize the rest of his muscular-skeletal system better. Not only does lateral poll flexion maintain critical spacing between spinal vertebrae (allowing them to rotate and flex better), it helps stretch the spidery web of tiny muscles behind the horse’s ears that otherwise become knotted and tight, leading the horse to brace his neck, jaw, back.
When most horses arrive for training they are difficult– if not impossible- -to bend easily on circles and lateral work. This is not due to them failing to understand my aids; it is from tightness and/or crookedness in their neck carriage and muscling. To resolve this physical restriction, I use the following two exercises, often alternating between each. This keeps horses responsive to my aids instead of performing with anticipation or evasiveness. With both of these exercises take your time to fully achieve lateral flexion each time through and then to ensure this degree of flexion is equal as you repeat them in each direction. Most horses have one direction where you will find the flexion trickier to establish. Continue to ask yourself, “Can I see his inside eye?” Any time the answer is no, cease the pattern briefly and re-establish lateral flexion before carrying on. Both of these patterns are best executed when followed by energetic forward riding to refresh the horse’s energy.
Spiral In to Turn on Forehand
- Develop working walk on a 20meter circle to the left.
- Begin to spiral inwards, reducing your circle size approximately three meters on each revolution of the circle.
- When you get down to a tiny circle and cannot shrink it any further, stop your horse’s front feet.
- Establish left flexion so you can clearly see the horse’s left eye.
- Then immediately execute a full turn on the forehand using your left leg.
- After a 360-degree turn, begin forward movement again and ride back out to your initial large circle.
Once polished, the two parts of this exercise should flow smoothly together so that your turn on the forehand begins fluidly as soon as you spiral in to a small circle. In the beginning it will be necessary to pause for a moment between spiraling in and doing the turn on forehand in order to organize your aids, develop lateral flexion, and so on. But after a few repetitions, they should flow together.
Spiral In, Leg-Yield Out
As I mentioned earlier, this exercise is a good one to ride after each repetition of the one above because it keeps your horse listening to and bending around your inside leg beautifully.
- Begin on a large circle to the right in working jog.
- Being sure to keep the horse’s poll flexed right, spiral your way down to a smaller circle.
- Aim to gradually shrink your circle until it is approximately 10-12 meters in diameter.
- Keep asking yourself, “Can I see his inside eye?”
- Ride once around this smaller circle. Maintain the energy of your jog, no slowing down!
- Then use your inside leg to leg-yield back out to your initial large circle. Maintain a steady rhythm in the leg-yield, no speeding up or slowing down.
It should take no longer than leg-yielding once around your circle to arrive back at the larger one that you started on. If it takes more than this, you will want to tune up your horse’s leg-yield cues.