Q: My sitting trot on a circle has become pretty good. My horse is on the aids and feels round. When I sit the trot on a straight line, however, he starts to come above the bit and feels less soft in his back. What are ways to solve this problem?
Name withheld by request
Kirsi Nevalainen-LaCorte: You are definitely not the only one struggling with the suppleness of the horse when riding on straight lines. Many, even more advanced riders, may face this kind of problem every now and then. It is wonderful of you to ask for advice instead of using any gimmicks to get over this dilemma.
No wonder the great masters in the past and present teach us about the benefits of riding on the circle. Riding on a circle is a brilliant way to help bring a horse onto the aids. The reins, the legs and the seat (the combination of these three), guided by feel and your mind, are the tools to control and supple your horse.
There are many possibilities that could affect your horse’s roundness and softness. You have to become your own detective and think what might be the reason why you are having trouble on a straight line. Perhaps your aids are too strong or not strong enough. Maybe the timing of your aids is not correct. The half halts you give might not go through. Your horse may speed up or take longer strides and fall on his forehand. This may cause you to stiffen your torso and legs. Your horse feels your tension and comes above the bit.
If your horse stays round in rising trot but becomes difficult when you sit the trot, your seat might not be as independent as you think. If that is the case, you may consider asking a trainer to work on your balance and coordination on the longe line.
Enough said about the possible causes. Now, let’s think about what you can do to fix the problem, assuming you have an independent seat (e.g., you don’t have to balance yourself by holding the reins or by grabbing with your legs).
1. Ride a circle to get your horse onto the aids. When everything feels good, follow the rail. When you feel your horse coming above the bit, ride onto another circle to get him back onto the aids. At the beginning, your straight line might be a few strides only. Lengthen your straight line little by little. If you can get your horse feeling round by posting the trot for a few strides, try alternating between sitting and rising trot.
2. Instead of riding a circle, ride a 20-meter-by-20-meter square (you don’t literally have to make 90-degree corners). Ride a 10-meter circle into each corner. Pretty soon you will be able to skip the circle in the corner because your half halts and the turning aids before the corner help keep your horse round. Lengthen your 20-meter lines on the long sides of the arena.
3. Ride a transition to walk as soon as you feel your horse coming above the bit. (It would be best if you could feel and do it before your horse comes above the bit.) In the walk, organize your horse. Then, ask him to trot. It is OK if he trots slower and takes shorter strides.
4. Ride your straight lines in shoulder-fore position. When riding shoulder-fore, you bring your horse’s shoulders and front legs about a half to one hoof-print distance in from the rail while his hind legs follow the rail normally. This gives you a chance to use aids that are similar to riding on the circle while you are on the straight line. Remember to ride the front end in, instead of pulling it in with your inside rein. It would be good if you had a trainer to teach the shoulder-fore to you to make sure you understand it correctly.
Remember to be patient. Your horse is not stiffening and coming above the bit intentionally to make your ride difficult. Instead of expecting instant perfection, having an appreciation for the learning process will feel the most rewarding in the end.
Kirsi Nevalainen-LaCorte is a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level. For the past 32 years, she has run several successful dressage barns in the U.S. Currently she is training and showing in Europe. Her training operation is based at Pinewood Stables in Mantsala, Finland.