Q: I’ve heard differing opinions on haunches-in (travers). Some say it’s beneficial, others say it makes the horse crooked, diminishing his training. What is correct? —Nancy Owens of Salt Lake City, Utah
A: Whether haunches-in is beneficial for your horse or not is bound by one key factor: Is your horse ready to do haunches-in? You will be able to determine this by researching and applying classical dressage principles. Haunches-in, or travers, is a collected movement. It is performed down a straight line with the horse having an even flexion from the poll to the tail into the moving direction. The half pass across a diagonal is exactly the same movement as the haunches-in, just without the wall and in a different location of the arena. If there were a wall down the diagonal, you could clearly see that the half pass resembles the haunches-in down the long side.
You should not apply this movement if you haven’t achieved a certain level of collection. To determine whether your horse’s training has advanced to that level, you must follow the training scale: First, is your horse moving at a steady rhythm? This means he should feel like he takes each step or stride at a steady pace and with the same distance.
Next, is your horse able to stay relaxed and move consistently into a steady contact? It is a good first indicator for a relaxed horse. So is the fact that he is willing to stretch with a lower neck into a not-too-light and not-too-heavy contact into both reins at any time if asked to do so.
Do you feel impulsion (the controlled power from behind with an evenly supple moving back)? A horse with good impulsion has lots of movement in his body but is still comfortable to sit because of loose but strong muscles.
Now, can you keep your horse straight, not only on a straight line but also on circles and in turns? This means your horse has a bend and flexion, but his hind legs follow exactly in the lines of his front legs. In addition, he maintains the straightness not only at the collected pace but also during half halts and, even better, during half steps (the pace between collected trot and piaffe).
If you can answer “yes” to all these checkpoints, you have achieved the level of collection needed to incorporate haunches-in into your training routine.
You shouldn’t ask for haunches-in before the above qualities are in place because it will make your horse crooked and teach him to avoid carrying weight on his haunches. In this case, it can diminish your horse’s training.
If you take a closer look at the haunches-in, you want to especially focus on the inside hind leg during a correct travers. Is the inside hind leg moving underneath the horse’s body and, therefore, carrying sufficient weight? This is the key factor, as the collection must be maintained. The horse has to stay together and be willing to carry weight on the haunches with you focusing on driving the inside hind leg forward and under during this movement. Haunches-in is not just a sideways movement with the rider using only the (sideways-driving) outside leg. Oftentimes, we see both hind legs traveling extremely sideways but lacking collection, which is measured by how much the legs carry weight by stepping under the body. In a correct haunches-in or half pass, the outside hind leg crosses over the inside hind leg and the inside hind leg is making a good effort to travel straight and forward underneath the horse’s body to carry weight.
This is not a simple task to consistently achieve. Therefore, if I teach haunches-in or half pass to a young horse who has not achieved the required level of collection, I will surely teach him that it is acceptable to travel only sideways without the joints in the hind legs flexing and the haunches lowering. The horse learns the movement incorrectly and, over time, his hind legs will make short steps and completely avoid collection.
If your horse has learned the movement that way and you are having a difficult time improving collection and the way the inside hind leg is traveling, try improving first the collected gaits on mostly straight lines with lots of half halts, as much as possible. Give it time. Slow, steady and continuous correct training will make your horse stronger and more balanced.
When your horse has achieved enough carrying power within the gaits, but is still trying to avoid staying collected during haunches-in or half pass, then try the following:
1. Ride a few steps of shoulder-in at trot or canter, making sure the horse’s spine is evenly flexed from the poll to the tail.
2. Ask for a few steps of haunches-in with very little angle.
3. Try riding your horse straight for a few steps.
4. Continue with a few more steps of haunches-in with little angle, then ride forward again at the trot or the canter.
This exercise works best at the half pass (down the centerline) rather than in the haunches-in (down the wall). Make sure your horse promptly responds to your inside leg, moving straight forward. Also, keep sitting into the moving direction to help your horse stay balanced and support the inside hind leg to carry more weight during this movement. You need to feel a sideways- and forward-moving horse.
Finally, remember that all movements and exercises require us to keep checking on the points of the training scale and maintain them in that order: rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection.
Gerhard Ablinger is a German certified Pferdewirtschaftsmeister FN (formally Reitlehrer FN) and has earned his U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) bronze, silver and gold medals.