Q: When riding on the left rein and doing a turn on the haunches to the left, I always lose bend and my horse gets stiff. When this happens, I ask my horse to finish the walk pirouette, but it doesn’t feel right. What strategy do you recommend to fix this problem?
—Marian Mendez of Joliet, Illinois
A: Without being able to see the problem, it’s difficult to determine the root of the issue. With that being said, I’d like to break it down from the beginning.
Let’s begin with the definition of a turn on the haunches. The horse’s forehand moves in even, quiet and regular steps around the horse’s inner hind leg while maintaining the rhythm of the walk. The horse is bent to the inside and needs to keep an active, clear, four-beat medium walk. It can be performed in 90, 180 and 360 degrees. The turn on the haunches is preparatory for the walk pirouette.
In the half turn on the haunches, in which the horse turns only 180 degrees, the inside hind leg is allowed to travel up to 1 meter and the horse is not required to step with his inside hind leg in the same spot each time it leaves the ground, but may move slightly forward.
The walk pirouette should be ridden more or less on the spot with the inside hind leg stepping up and down as the shoulders are turned. In the walk pirouette the horse is bent to the inside, but the pirouette is performed from a collected walk and only a half meter of travel is allowed. Like the turn on the haunches, the walk pirouette can be performed in 90, 180 and 360 degrees.
To begin, make sure that your horse understands what you are asking him to do and that all your basic aids are in order—left leg means move right, right leg means move left and both legs mean move forward. Sensitivity and balance are key to riding a good turn on the haunches, as the movement should be ridden by changing the balance in your body and not by pushing and pulling. For example, if you push too hard with your outside leg within the turn on the haunches or pirouette, you will push your horse sideways and out of balance. Address your horse’s sensitivity level if you feel that is a factor.
When riding a turn on the haunches or a walk pirouette, think of cutting a piece of pie. Your outside rein and leg work together to say, “Move over,” and then your inside leg says, “Step forward.” Think of your inside leg as being a pole in the ground and your horse has to wrap himself around the pole, but not lean on it. Note that any half halt given needs to be proportionate to the amount of impulsion and leg you have. At the walk it is usually no more than a closing of the fist and the calf to avoid disrupting the horse’s balance.
Walk pirouettes and turns on the haunches require a tremendous amount of balance from the rider. It is your job to guide your horse and initiate the movement by using the smallest of aids in order to keep and maintain the balance. It is critical that you address any issues in your position. If you collapse in a hip or sit crookedly to either side, it will prevent you from turning a good pirouette. Imagine a ballerina pirouetting. It would take very little for her to fall out of balance. The same is true for your horse.
Sit facing the direction you are turning/traveling while maintaining equal weight on your seat bones. Think of a Barbie doll. Twist or rotate your core where your belt would be located, bringing your arms with you and keeping them an equal distance apart as you do this. Then, to exit the turn on the haunches or pirouette, all you have to do is straighten your core. If you have too much weight on your inside seat bone, your horse might stick/stop the motion and pivot with his inside hind leg. If you sit to the outside, your horse is less likely to step forward and under and will most likely step out with his outside hind leg.
Keep the distance from your hip to your underarm the same on both sides. It is also critical that you don’t pull back with your inside rein, but rather guide your horse’s shoulders to the inside by shifting your hands slightly sideways, allowing your outside rein and a very small half halt to initiate the movement. If you pull back on the inside rein, you might get resistance. This resistance can show up in the horse by exhibiting a short neck, a dropped poll, stiffening, loss of rhythm and an unsteady contact. Also be sure not to allow him to pop the outside shoulder.
Once you have your horse on the aids and have addressed any issues in your position, check that your horse is equally supple on both reins. Schooling leg yields, haunches-in, shoulder-in and renvers at the walk and trot helps get a more even connection. Ask yourself if you have control of your horse’s shoulders and haunches in these exercises. Is your horse in balance and aligned as you are executing these movements? In the shoulder-in are your horse’s haunches underneath you or is he stepping to the outside?
In the haunches-in be sure your horse is truly bending, not escaping through his shoulder. Take note of which side is easier and where else you notice the issues you describe. It is easier to address the problem by utilizing these other movements mostly in trot. The walk is one of the hardest gaits to address and you want to be sure you do not make a bigger problem in attempting to fix the one you have.
It sounds like your horse is not connected from your inside leg to your outside rein and that might be why you are losing suppleness. One way to address this issue is by schooling quarter turn on the haunches. Ride an imaginary square with the corners as the quarter turn. This exercise will reinforce the use of your inside leg to your outside rein. The moment you feel your horse stiffen, abort the pirouette and turn it into a leg yield, softening the horse’s barrel off your inside leg and reconnecting it to the outside rein to establish suppleness and a better contact.
When you take your horse into the leg yield, be sure you do it in balance and keep his alignment. When you get comfortable with this exercise, take it to the next step, riding a quarter turn, then go out in a shoulder fore. In the turn on the haunches, make sure not to over-bend your horse. The amount of bend should be equal to the bend in the midline of the horse’s chest/body. If you feel like your horse becomes dull to the leg, trot out of the quarter turn. Remember it’s important that your horse is always forward thinking.
It also sounds like your horse might be stepping wide/out behind rather than forward and under. Another exercise you could try is riding a haunches-in at the walk on the rail, then turn it into a half 10-meter circle to centerline then ride straight down the centerline all the while maintaining the haunches-in. This will help your horse to think forward and sideways, improve the connection from the inside leg to the outside rein and inhibit the overuse of the inside rein.
In general, when you lose suppleness, abort the movement—in this case the turn on the haunches—and address the real issue of connection. Never make an issue within a movement as this can make your horse tense and then riding the movement can become a bigger issue.
Kristina Harrison is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. In 2003 she won a Pan American Games team gold medal. She has ridden the PRE Rociero XV to numerous Grand Prix successes. Based in Burbank, California, she operates Angele Farms.