Q: I need help energizing my 9-year-old gelding, whom I’m schooling at Training Level. My veterinarian says that he’s fine, but at all gaits he is sluggish. Squeezing or giving sharp kicks with my legs either produces a couple of strides with energy or nothing. Tapping with the whip just causes him to ball up. When I ask for a rounded-frame trot, he rounds easily but gradually comes to a stop. I have become tense, because I’m always pushing. What can I do?
A: Creating energy is a common problem. When a horse shows such resistance and a veterinarian doesn’t turn up any problems, including dental problems, check the fit of your tack to make sure that it is not causing pain. Also, ask for professional advice on your feed program. You need to look into other management issues, such as whether your horse is getting the right amount of turnout as well. If all of these areas are OK, we can proceed with a training and riding program.
Begin by making sure you are riding in a way so as not to interfere with your horse. First, work on your seat, position, balance and your ability to go with his movements.
When you’ve accomplished this correct seat and position, clarify what you want from your horse. Teach him to respond to your seat, and practice using it as a driving aid. Use only your seat to signal him to move forward. To drive with your seat, change the angle of your pelvis by contracting your abdominal muscles and slightly rounding the small of your back. This brings your sitting bones forward, underneath you. In this position, maintain the vertical alignment of your ear, shoulder, hip and heel. Also, don’t pump with your body. Horses react more to body position than to pressure. Incorrect pressure with the body will restrict your horse. To understand what I mean, imagine a child clinging onto you piggy-back style. If he squeezes tightly with his arms and legs, you can’t move. If his grip is relaxed, you can move more easily.
Now your leg can aid your seat. Stretch your legs down, deep into the stirrup irons, and close them around your horse. As you do this, keep your buttocks relaxed and your seat aid clear. Do not grip with any part of your leg in a way that will lighten or push your seat away from your horse. You should contour your legs around your horse’s barrel. If you do this correctly, you will feel your seat deepen and your horse’s back rounding underneath you.
If there is not enough reaction from the use of your legs, a reinforcement must be used. My first suggestion is a spur. The length of spur is determined by the anatomic compatibility between horse and rider. Begin by using a blunt spur until you assess your horse’s sensitivity. Ask a trainer to help if you’ve never used spurs before.
Once your seat and leg aids are coordinated, check your rein contact. Make sure you are not restricting your horse with your hands. The reins should be short enough to allow you to maintain contact with your horse’s mouth while following the movement of his head—in other words, an elastic contact. Not restricting his movement allows him to flex his pelvis and step underneath his body with a longer stride, creating impulsion. A sufficient amount of impulsion is needed for him to give a sufficient connection from back to front and stretch over the topline into your hand. There should be an even, longitudinal roundness throughout the topline, tail to poll. If your horse is rounded correctly, his neck will not be rounder than the rest of his topline. If it is, you’ve rounded him incorrectly from front to back, which will only increase your lack-of-impulsion problem.
You mentioned that tapping with the whip causes him to ball up. Your horse may be active but not moving forward. The whip activates the hindquarters but won’t necessarily produce forward. The seat and leg direct him forward but won’t necessarily produce activity. At the moment he goes in front of your leg, tap him with the whip. If his back is up, hind legs striding under and the topline stretched to the bridle, a tap of the whip should produce activity of the hind leg and send him forward. The solution is a combined use of your seat and leg with your allowing hand, so you can get a correct reaction from the whip.
When your horse is moving forward in connection, he can be made rounder through the topline more easily. Then you can achieve a degree of suppleness, producing swing. These are the steps that will create your basic connection and lead to further development. Later, you will want to begin half halts to further engage him and start collection. With all this in mind, remember to be focused and systematic in your training.
This article first appeared in the May 2000 issue of Dressage Today.
Tom Noone is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. He has held the regional and/or national championship from Training Level through Grand Prix. He teaches and trains at Free Gait Farm at Long Meadow Farm in Scituate, Massachusetts.