This picture shows Maria Eastman on her 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood/Thoroughbred cross, Brego. Maria describes Brego as a very big horse who was green to dressage when she got him two years ago. Transitioning from riding hunter/jumper and Western to dressage, Maria also had to learn new skills. They are currently schooling at Training Level.
In this picture, Brego is in the left canter. He has very long hind legs, which can give him elegant and big movement but can make it more difficult to lower his croup and step more under his rider’s weight for collection. Just like a person with a very tall body sometimes has more difficulty finding balance, tall horses need more time and help finding their natural balance with a rider.
This picture is taken in the landing phase of the canter, with the diagonal on the ground and the leading front leg just touching down. When judging the quality of canter, I always look at the diagonal pair of legs landing. The stability of this diagonal is important for a good canter. If the diagonal is not clear and the landing is not well-timed, the horse can show a four-beat canter.
Looking at this picture, I notice that Brego is on the left circle, but he is avoiding a true bend in his body. He brings his hind legs a bit inside and drops his outside shoulder out, compensating by bending more in his neck to the inside. It is most likely that he is doing this in search for balance. Balance is easier when standing with the legs wider apart. The closer the legs come together, the more fragile the balance gets.
Children who are first learning to walk waddle with their legs wider apart. Walking on a narrow track requires much greater balance skills. This is true for a horse as well. Young horses often become wider behind when they are not balanced or strong enough to stay in balance. Bringing the hindquarters inside and leaning on the outside shoulder is a way of widening the support base of the diagonal. In my experience, the issue is not that the horse is stiff but rather that he simply has more trouble balancing.
Maria’s seat reflects her years of riding in hunter/jumper classes. The forward tendency of her upper body is clear. I would advise her to sit more upright with her upper body and carry her arms more in front of her body, with the image of pushing the reins forward. This can help to deepen her seat and relax her hips more while giving the horse more freedom and direction for the shoulders.
To improve the left bend and the balance on the circle, my tip for Maria is to “think futuristic.” Once the horse has jumped off the ground, he has already decided where he is going to land. Interfering with the horse during the landing will only disturb his balance even more.
Maria can influence the horse’s direction only in the take-off moment of the next stride. She should look ahead and plan where both the horse’s front legs should land for the next, the next and the next stride.
Try this: To feel the importance of the outside aids for controlling the horse’s outside shoulder, place four cones around a circle and ride in the shape of a diamond. The quick interplay of turning and straightening will improve the horse’s balance and self-carriage so that he can more easily achieve an even bend later.
Sitting farther back on her seat bones and pushing with her hands toward the direction she wants to ride can provide a forward solution and improve balance and straightness in the canter for Brego and Maria. Discovering the world of balance is fun and challenging. Enjoy the journey together!