Improve Your Horse’s Engagement and Power

Heather Blitz critiques Patty Carley and her 4-year-old Canadian mare.

This is Patty Carley and Lazy M Dawn Usona, her 4-year-old Canadian mare. They are training for driving and dressage. My first impression from this photo is that there isn’t enough uphill balance or engagement. This mare may be built with front legs that are slightly shorter than her hind legs, making her prone to the unlevel balance you can see in the photo. You see this balance issue with many young horses that haven’t finished growing (many won’t stop until they are 6 or 7 years old). It is caused, in part, by the fact that their wither hasn’t developed yet, their bodies still look young and they are narrow in their chests.

Patty Carley has started to train her 4-year-old Canadian mare, Lazy M Dawn Usona, in both dressage and driving. (Credit: Courtesy, Patty Carley)

Even though I mention the lack of engagement in this photo, I am not stating that the mare needs to be in collected trot as you’d expect at Third Level or higher. I just want to see a touch more engagement and power within the mare’s body in this trot. Here are some of the things I think will improve that quality.

Based on the horse’s age and level, I am guessing that Patty is in posting trot. The stride is in its fullest extended moment, so she should be at the highest point of the post. To be effectively promoting a more engaged and balanced trot, Patty needs to be getting to the top of the rise with more definition and power from her gluteal, thigh and core muscles. At the top of the rise, her shoulder, hip and knee should be in a straight vertical line. Her balance at that point should be such that she could almost hold this position if I told her to freeze there. In this photo you can see her knee is still bent and her balance hasn’t gotten to that point.

Patty needs more power to push her pelvis over the pommel of the saddle. I suggest that she become more aware of the strength in her body by engaging her abdominal and back muscles simultaneously. This will make her feel more dense and stable in her lower body. 

One way to lower your center of gravity and make yourself more assertive in getting to the top of the rise is to learn to bear down. Put one hand on your stomach muscles and one on your lower back muscles. Press inward with both hands and then expand to try to push your hands apart, but don’t make the mistake of holding your breath to do this. It’s a feeling you get in your core if you clear your throat or blow your nose. Bear down should become a consistent and constant part of riding in all moments. It’s a passive, persistent stabilization quality that your horse will feel in the same way you might get a good reading from a person by the firmness of his or her handshake (or lack thereof). 

If Patty develops a stronger bear down, I think she’ll see a different quality because the missing link in this photo is the power of both horse and rider engaging their bodies and having higher tone.






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