How to improve your horse's body awareness
One important aspect of horse training is that in teaching a new movement or a better posture the rider first has to improve the horse’s body awareness, coordination, and balancing ability. This includes teaching the horse to place his feet differently, to distribute his weight differently, and to use different muscle configurations than he has been up to now.
This only works, if the horse knows where his feet are, of course.
This means creating neurological connections between the brain and these muscle groups, so that the horse learns how to find them and activate them.
The next step is that the horse has to practice these new movements and postures, so they become easier and more automatic.
Finally, these muscles have to be strengthened and conditioned so that the horse is able to maintain these movements for longer periods of time.
You can train the horse’s body awareness very well through certain exercises by asking him to perform slow and large movements. Slow movements allow the horse to think while he is doing them because his legs can’t move faster than his brain can think. All new movements are unfamiliar and strange to the horse at first. He therefore needs time to understand what it is the rider wants him to do and how to do this movement without falling down. Sometimes you even have to stop and give the horse a chance to process the last steps and to prepare for the next ones.
Large motor skill type movements are easier for humans and for horses than fine motor skill type ones.
It makes sense, therefore, to start with large, slow movements and to make them faster and smaller only gradually.
For this purpose, I like using 90 degree turns on the forehand and on the haunches in both directions as well as a few steps of full pass for the following reasons:
- We can’t expect our horse to be able to move his hips or his shoulders one hoof breadth to the left or to the right in the trot and canter in order to become straighter if he isn’t able to do a turn on the forehand or a turn on the haunches from the halt.
- In the turn on the forehand the hind legs move on a circle around the front legs. This draws the horse’s attention to his hind legs as well as to the crossing of the inside hind leg in front of the outside one. The exercise succeeds well only if the outside hind leg accepts the weight and flexes in its joints. The turn on the forehand in motion also mobilizes the hips, i.e. it supples the adductor and abductor muscles of the hind legs, and the oblique abdominal muscles.
- In the turn on the haunches the front legs move in a circle around the hind legs. This draws the horse’s attention to his front legs. The exercise succeeds well only if the inside hind leg accepts the weight and flexes in its joints. The turn on the haunches also mobilizes the shoulders of the horse, i.e. it supples the pectoral muscles and the shoulder muscles.
- In the full pass the front and hind legs move sideways simultaneously in equally large strides. So, the horse has to focus on both ends of his body and to coordinate them with each other. You can bend in the direction of travel or against it. The exercise only succeeds well if the hind leg that’s located in the direction of travel accepts the weight and flexes its joints, so that the otherhind leg is able to cross in front of it. The full pass also supples the hip and shoulder muscles.
- These 90 degree turns in both directions require the horse to yield to the aids on one side of his body without ignoring and running over the aids on the other side. Instead, it should be possible for those aids to stop the horse and send him back in the opposite direction. This involves a weight transfer from one side of the body to the other, which many horses find difficult at first. The same thing applies to the full pass, if you move 3-4 steps right and left.
These three elementary movements form the seeds of the lateral movements, since there either the hind legs follow the line of travel while the front legs are moved to one side (shoulder-in), or the front legs remain on the line of travel while the hind legs yield to one side (haunches-in), or all four legs move sideways (half pass). You can combine these three elementary movements in any way you can think of, which creates many interesting exercises that improve the horse’s balance, coordination, and body awareness.
If these exercises are still too difficult under saddle, you can practice them very well in hand. Under saddle you can proceed slowly, step by step, allowing the horse to stop briefly after each step to think and process.
Try these exercises and observe which one of the three exercises your finds easiest and which one is the hardest.
In which direction is it more difficult for your horse to move his hips or his shoulders?
Which exercise created the biggest improvement?
Is your horse hollow right or left?
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