There is a general tendency in all living beings to conserve energy, to avoid conflict if possible, and to travel the path of the least resistance. When they move, they try to do so in the most comfortable manner and with the least possible expenditure of strength and energy (they are only human, too).
Water seeks the lowest energy level by flowing downhill, through openings, and around obstacles. Electricity always seeks the path of the least resistance. It’s a natural law that you can observe every day in countless manifestations.
The Principle of the Economy of Motion
In training horses I call this the Principle of the Economy of Motion: a horse will generally choose the gait, the tempo and stride length, and the posture that feels most comfortable under the current circumstances.
You can observe horses switching to a higher gait when the current gait becomes strenuous. For instance, when the engagement of the horse’s core muscles and hind legs at the walk increases more and more, there comes a point when the horse will offer diagonal steps because they require less strength than the 4-beat rhythm of the walk once you increase the energy output and the level of collection beyond a certain point. Once you have observed the specific context in which this happens, you can use it in a productive way to obtain a self-motivated transition into the trot or to create half steps and piaffe steps.
There are several typical scenarios in which the horse is likely to offer diagonal steps from the walk if you activate or accelerate the crossing hind leg while slowing down the opposite hind leg:
- shoulder-in at the walk, especially on circles or voltes
- renvers at the walk, especially on circles or voltes
- 2-3 steps of full pass left and right without stopping
- 90 degree turn on the forehand in motion left and right without stopping
- passade at the walk
When the engagement of the horse’s core muscles and hind legs at the trot increases more and more, there comes a point when some horses will offer a canter depart. The reason for this is that transferring more weight onto the hind legs creates more flexion of the haunches. In the canter strike off the outside hind leg lifts the body up into the canter and opens its joints. To the horse this feels like a relief. You can use this observation to prepare the canter depart: The more you flex the outside hind leg in the trot or walk, the happier the horse will be to canter.
The advantage of this strategy is that you don’t need to drive the horse into the higher gait with your legs or your seat, but you only need to allow the up transition and shape it, since the horse wants to do it anyway. If you have to use big leg aids to drive the horse into the higher gait, you will tighten your thighs and hips, or you will grip with your calves, which will create resistance and muscle blockages in the horse.
In canter half passes or canter pirouettes some horses change leads when the inside hind leg has to support more weight than it is able to do comfortably. The flying change allows the inside hind leg to reduce the burden by becoming the outside one. In the canter, the outside hind leg is the more pushing one, and the inside hind leg is the more carrying one. That’s why the flying change can start to look like a good idea to the horse when the inside hind leg has to carry a bigger and bigger share of the weight. Changing leads allows the old inside hind leg to open its joints, carry less, and push a little more.
The principle behind it is very similar to the canter depart from the trot. The outside hind leg lifts horse and rider from the walk or trot into the canter and opens its joints more after flexing them during the preparation for the canter. In the flying change it’s the new outside/old inside hind leg that lifts the horse into the new lead. As you can see, a flying change is like a canter depart in some ways.
If you flex the inside hind leg enough in the canter, the horse will start looking for a way out of this situation. If you offer him a flying change he may be grateful for this opportunity.
The same thing happens if you make the current lead mechanically more and more uncomfortable by not only shifting the weight into the inside hind leg, but by counter bending in addition. This creates a certain torque in the horse’s body that is similar to a rubber band that you twist against itself. When you release the rubber band, it will untwist until the tension that the twist had created is gone. If you’re cantering on the right lead, shift the weight into the right hind leg, and bend the horse to the left, you build up this torque. When you ask the horse to move his hips to the left, this request will feel nearly impossible or at least illogical to him. But the horse realizes that if he were cantering on left lead, everything would be easier, and it would make much more sense. Many horses then add 2 and 2 together and decide to change leads.
These are only some examples of how you can make the Principle of the Economy of Motion work for you in training horses. Once you understand the principle, you will start to see opportunities for its application everywhere. It increases the horse’s willing cooperation because he perceives the movement or transition you intend to ride as an easier, more energy conserving alternative to what he is currently doing. So he chooses this movement voluntarily. Since it is his own idea, the execution usually succeeds well, the horse remains relaxed and cooperates happily. Win – win.