Q: “Cutting in,” “popping shoulder,” “falling in,” “leaning in”—are these all referring to the same condition, e.g., front-end balance problems? What is a foolproof and easy way to fix this problem?
Name withheld by request
Heather Blitz: One of the most challenging aspects in dressage is finding the right words to describe a situation that makes sense to each person. All of these phrases are most likely describing the same basic problem, but they may mean different things to each reader or listener. We’ll assume they are referring to a lateral balance fault, much like a gymnast on a balance beam falling off one side.
You cannot isolate the balance problem only to the front end of the horse. I like to imagine my horse’s balance is kept in his middle third, between the front third and the back third, or right underneath the saddle. Then he is level like a teeter-totter with a person of the same weight on each end. In this longitudinal balance, if the front end is out of balance, so must be the back end. In trying to remedy this issue, the biggest skill to learn is the difference between turning and bending. Even though in a finished product a turn works in conjunction with bend, riders should learn those skills separately in order to understand lateral balance control.
Bending should not be a necessity to turn your horse, and a turn shouldn’t be necessary when you bend. Think of the difference between how a school bus makes a turn and how a truck with a trailer on it makes a turn. One bends and one doesn’t, but they both make the turn. Obviously, the front wheels of a bus make it turn either right or left, but it doesn’t have to change its shape when turning a corner. The front wheels also make the truck pulling a trailer turn, but there’s a bend in the shape as it makes a turn. Next, let’s say if your horse is out of balance, he’s unstable, as if the ground is slippery while driving your vehicle. If you turn with bend on unstable ground, you’re more likely to go out of control than if you turn without allowing bend. In other words, it’s easier to control the steering of the school bus than the truck and trailer when the ground is slippery because there are fewer factors to deal with. The same can be true when learning to control your horse’s steering, which is essentially keeping the shoulders (or front wheels) from falling or leaning in or out.
You can practice turning without bending simply by riding a square in the walk. Make each side of the square absolutely straight. One trick is to line up your horse’s wither, mane and forelock so that each side is the same length and you can see both of your horse’s eyes at the same time. Before the corner of your square, make a halt. To ride the corner, make a quarter turn on the haunches without losing that wither-mane-forelock lineup, and try to feel your horse’s front feet step in the direction of your turn without letting him bend. After your quarter-turn, halt again and then ride a transition into walk for the next side of your square. Practice that to both directions and you will gain a very good sense of controlling the lateral balance of your horse’s shoulders or front wheels.
When you feel you and your horse have a new awareness of steering from the square exercise, you can add bending back into your turns. After the work on the square, you may find that your horse already has changed his balance pattern in turning. If he’s still falling to the left in your left turn, for instance, think of what it took to steer your horse’s front wheels more to the right. If that’s not enough to fix it, abort the left turn and go immediately back into your square where you kept him straight and balanced by doing quarter-turns without bend. Then try the quarter-turns with bend again. Given enough practice, your skills to steer the front end in either direction in a turn will mesh with your ability to bend your horse and you can move past the error of falling in/leaning in during your rides.
Heather Blitz has won many national and international awards, including team gold and individual silver medals at the 2011 Pan American Games and a gold medal in the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special at the CDIO Wellington, Florida, in 2013, riding Paragon. She has successfully competed in Europe and is based in Loxahatchee, Florida (heatherblitz.info).