The Good: Flecha’s Human Seeks Guidance

We have our first sucker…I mean…brave and generous soul.  Haley, the human, has come with an open mind, willing heart and a passionate desire to do her very best by her horse, Flecha.  If anyone steps on her courage, even so much as a baby toe, I’ll rip them a new one…with a spoon (because it hurts more).


Haley has also offered to take all the input she gets from us, document her rides, and then do another video in about three months so that we can see her and Flecha’s progress.   How cool is that?


Haley writes:


Contact, Roundness and Correctness: What am I doing wrong?  How do I set my horse up for success?


I’m Haley, and this is my young mare, Flecha.  I’m currently training her in dressage and hoping to take her to a show mid-May.  We’re staying at intro level for now.  I want to move up to training level in the next year, but of course, I think we have some serious work to do before we get there.  Hence, crowd-sourcing The Hooves blog!


I would rate this video of the two of us as “okay”.  Then again, if she and I were perfect, there wouldn’t be much to evaluate!  I think the video demonstrates both some good, soft movement, and also some pretty resistant moments (especially through her transitions).


Right away I can see weaknesses in my riding that I need to fix: hands too low/uneven reins, rounding at the shoulders, and tenseness in my hip and leg that prevents me from following her trot.  After making this video and reviewing it, I had a session with my trainer and made a serious effort to pick up my hands, sit up straight and relax my seat.  These are things I technically KNOW I should be doing all the time; it’s not until I saw myself on film that I realized how often I lose my riding form!  A real eye–opener.


As for Flecha, I can see how much we have to work on in terms of 1) forward and 2) stretching.  Two days before this video we had a riding session where I kept her on a long rein and pretty much all I did was ask her to stretch down and hop over some trot and canter poles.  Flecha was VERY happy that night.  But in this video, on a shorter rein? Not so much.


Could the trick be to put in a month or so of riding in a longer rein and then gradually increase the time we spend on a shorter rein?  This is where I wonder about the physiology of roundness and being on the bit.  Is it too physically demanding for her?  Or am I confusing her by riding ineffectively?  I realize there are probably a myriad of different factors influencing this, so I’m very thankful to have some experienced horsepeople look at this video (and Flecha!) and help me help my horse.  Here’s some info about her to help complete the picture.


Flecha just turned 5 in March.  Her father was a young stallion with a gelding appointment scheduled, but who still managed to cover the two mares he was inexplicably living in a field with.  Later, all three of them came under the ownership of my barn manager, who quickly surmised the two mares were pregnant.  One foal she sold right away, the other was Flecha.  In spring 2009, the barn manager asked me if I’d like to adopt her, and being 20 years old and a little dumb, I said yes.  Fortunately Flecha was easy to start (under saddle about a year and a half now) and is a smart, sensitive sweetheart.  I think that with more time and physical conditioning, she could be a nice dressage horse.


She’s about 15.1 and lives in 24-hour turnout.  When she runs and plays in the field, she spends a lot of time with her head up, looking around like a telescope; so yes, staying low and round probably doesn’t come easily to her.  Conformationally, the greatest fault I can see is that she’s over at the knee.  I’m sure more experienced eyes can see other issues that might be affecting Flecha’s way of going.  She also used to have pretty square, balanced halts, and now tends to halt with her right hind stretched back (you’ll see in the video).  She was diagnosed with mild EPM last fall, which was cleared with a round of treatment.  Since then is when she started camping out that right leg.  Correlation? Causation? Not sure.  She is otherwise sound to the best of my knowledge.


I ride about three times a week on average, and probably we’d be farther along if I could ride her every day and see a trainer more than once every two weeks.  But this is what my budget and gas costs (I drive about an hour to the barn) can handle.  Maybe someday I’ll be able to ramp things up.  I love her and want her to be calm, interested and willing in her work.  Any advice on how to get her there is much appreciated.  Thank you all!


Ride Video

I’ll start us off since Haley originally contacted me for an article on the topic before I asked her if she’d be a guinea pig for the blog.

It’s important to start by knowing what we can expect from the horse in terms of athletic potential, as well,  what areas we might expect to encounter resistance or difficulty.


Keeping it in terms of the question posed, the traits we are most concerned about would be:

1)      LS joint placed a bit behind point of hip
2)      Back as long as we ever want to see it
3)      Ribcage doesn’t carry back as far as we’d like to see
4)      Withers don’t carry back as far as we’d like to see
5)      Loin longer than we like and lacking depth
6)      Downhill build
7)      Low neck set

The LS joint would be better served if it was located further forward in line with the point of hip, however, Flecha possesses a good length of hip to help compensate.  She loses a bit of coiling ability, but that nice length of hip, and the fact her femur is as long as her tibia (and I believe her hind limb angulation is at least adequate)…the LS joint placement isn’t a deal breaker and the potential for engagement remains quite good.

Her back is at the higher end of medium, right about 49%.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t get any added longitudinal strength from her withers or from her ribcage.  We might also expect her to struggle a bit with lateral flexibility through her torso with that shorter ribcage and longer loin.  The loin also lacks depth (perhaps broadness too) and therefore strength.  This combination of traits adds difficulty to training and riding.

The yellow line represents the spine, and as we can see Flecha is downhill built.  Note as well where the yellow line crosses the scapula line…just above 50% (around 52%) indicating that Flecha also has a low/medium low set neck (though structured well, which is a big plus).  These two traits are the ones that are going to present the biggest training and riding challenge in terms of the question posed to us.  Flecha will have to work harder to shift weight to her haunch and engage.  Lifting her base of neck will also require more strength from her scalenus muscle than if she had a higher set neck.

One other thing going on in this photo is that Flecha is standing with her front feet too far underneath her and thus is ‘leaning over her point of shoulder’.  This adds to the ‘downhill’ effect and also serves to close her shoulder angle.   This is not a ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ way for a horse to stand and if this is something that she does regularly, then there’s a deeper, bigger problem.  For starters, I don’t believe her front feet are balanced and are in part contributing to the stance.  I also note that her back is too tight and lacks fullness, but then her abdominals lack strength and her loin lacks depth…all indicating that Flecha doesn’t move with much engagement – ever, but rather travels hollow on a regular basis. 

When I consider her as a whole, the potential to move better (more correctly) and the potential to reach the set goals is definitely there, but it’s going to require a conscience (and consistent) effort on the part of Haley.  That she’s put herself out there and is asking the questions, tells me that the chance of success is very high.

Haley seems to have a really good grasp of what she needs to do as a rider and I think just the few changes that she’s already mentioned upon viewing her video will definitely make Flecha a happier camper.  The hands, currently, while quiet are too quiet.  They need to follow the horse’s mouth.  Yes, they are too low and yes, they are often uneven, but it’s mostly that they are ‘dead’ that is annoying Flecha.  Haley’s instructor should immediately insist on a hand correction.  On her own, Haley should walk her horse with her eyes closed, feel the motion of Flecha’s mouth in her hand and follow it.  Tying a couple of pieces of baler twine/ribbon in Flecha’s mane, Haley could grip a piece in each baby finger to help her regulate the unevenness of her hands.  Ultimately, she needs to ‘memorize’ a new feeling, which at first will feel wrong and awkward, and it needs to be done right off.

Additionally, riding from her core will correct the shoulder and hip issues.  Again, her instructor can physically position her correctly so that Haley can memorize a new body feel.

In some of my initial conversation with Haley, she was happy with her ride and Flecha’s response at 5:23-5:38 of the video feeling it represented ‘acceptance of contact’.  I disagreed and offered that the only time Flecha ever sought contact was at 3:30-3:32, and that what happened later  was just Flecha finding a combination of bracing and evasion that gave her a break.  I noted that for most of those 15 seconds Flecha tilted her head, which is an evasion.  She’s also taking itty bitty steps behind and the canter depart from the forehand at 5:39 clearly indicates that what was happening before it was incorrect. 

So here’s my advice:  Back up.

Neither horse nor rider is quite ready for ‘contact’.  Before all else we must have ‘forward’.  There are multiple times in the video where there is a distinct lack of forwardness.  Once that is established then we need rhythm and relaxation, followed by suppleness.  It isn’t until we have all of that, that we can have ‘acceptance of contact’.  And here’s the next thing that needs to happen; the rider needs to wait for the horse to indicate that she can take up the reins by ‘seeking’ contact – that is; stretching the topline, swinging freely and regularly through the back, lifting the base of neck and telescoping it, opening the throat, and physically and psychologically ‘looking for’, ‘wanting’, ‘seeking’ the support of the rider’s hand.  Only then should the rider pick up the rein and shorten it to the length which the horse indicates.  It is in that moment that you have ‘acceptance of contact’.  When a rider ‘takes’ rein before a horse ‘seeks’ contact, or takes up more rein than a horse has to give, the horse responds by inverting then shortening its frame, followed by either bracing against the unwanted hand or twisting to evade it.

So, how do you get to that point?  Haley needs to incorporate more transitions in her riding and at this point I’d particularly have her doing transitions within gaits and playing around with forwardness; shortening and lengthening the gaits while maintaining forwardness and without speeding up or slowing down.  Certainly she needs to do more transitions between the gaits, but I think within the gaits serves her and Flecha better in this moment.  Haley needs to learn about preparing Flecha better for gait changes and so transitions within the gaits teaches her the nuances of aids and communicating.  She can build on that and move onto transitions between gaits.

I also want to see Haley change direction more frequently and alter her circle size.  I’m not suggesting she do a volte, but playing with 15-20m circles would be beneficial, as well, adding some subtle spiraling in and out paying particular attention to the inside leg to outside hand.  Haley should be able to drop her inside rein at any given time and Flecha should remain on the circle.

The use of groundpoles and cavelletti consistently at this stage would also be beneficial.  It can act as a way to get Flecha to look down, thus causing her to stretch.  It also increases joint articulation that Haley can use to encourage a more engaged step from Flecha.  

I also thought that Haley should praise more during her ride.  Identify behaviors she wants Flecha to repeat and make sure that she offers positive reinforcement in those moments so that Flecha is more apt to try again and to try harder.   Some more spirited conversation between the two would be nice to see.

There are several other options that can be implemented to progress horse and rider that I’m sure others will suggest.  

This is a pleasant horse/rider combination.  They have accomplished much as a team and are close to having a major breakthrough that will propel them to the next level.

Thank you, Haley, for putting yourself out there and being such a good sport.   *Arming myself with a spoon…*


58 thoughts on “The Good: Flecha’s Human Seeks Guidance

  1. Unfortunately my computer does not let me see videos very well. But because I have very little formal training my comments will not be as technical as others.

    I could not see if you had a crop or if it was just the reins hanging down, but if you do use a crop, practice with using the crop in both hands, sometimes one one side and sometimes on the other. Work without stirrups will help you with any tenseness or rounding of shoulders. You must be aware of your horse’s movement from the ground up. That’s about the only way I can describe it. As you become more advanced you will use your seat more, but first you must develop that “velcro” seat. I am hardly an advanced rider, but I can sit a spook pretty well. My feet can fly out of the stirrups but my seat will not move.

    I do not know what Mercedes thinks of your bridle, your horse moves very well in it, but it does look like a crank with a flash. I would suggest trying different (or maybe no) noseband from time to time just to see how she likes it.

    I think you have a very nice horse, and a great start on your dressage journey.

    • I only have a problem with a crank noseband if they are CRANKED. I have one on my mare but I can place 3 fingers in it. I do not care for flashes though, I do not believe that a horse should have their mouths strapped shut. Haley could probably take it off, they are usually an attachment that come with the bridle.

      • The purpose of a flash is not to strap the horse’s mouth shut…never was. The purpose is to hold the bit in the ‘bit seat’, so that a horse can’t move the bit out of the bit seat, grab hold, and essentially take the rider for a ‘ride’.

        If a trainer/rider puts a flash on a horse to prevent mouth gaping, then that person a) doesn’t understand the purpose of the flash, and b) should be fixing the reason for the gaping mouth rather than trying to cover it up.

  2. Haley, I commend you for doing this, you and your horse are a lovely pair. You are a nice, quiet rider, and hopefully you will get a lot of good advice here. Already Mercedes has you off to a good start. It’s easy to go into a riding ring and just ride the rails, but, doing more circles and serpentines will help. One pattern that I like to do is a cloverleaf, I start in the centre of the ring with a halt and then go forward and start a turn to either the left of right and then go across the ring and do another circle in the same direction, then after that circle you will be going down the centre again and repeat at that end. When you are back in the centre agin, start with the opposite direction. You can do a halt every time you get to the centre mark. Do this at walk and trot and eventually at canter, you can also change it up and do one circle at a walk and another at a trot. As Mercedes said, rewarding your horse is the most important thing to do ( that and half halts, IMO ). Teaching him to stretch down and out with contact will help to stretch his back muscles and is a great reward and relaxing for him. You can do this at a walk and also at a rising trot. You can also vary the pace of your trot either by increasing length across the diagonal or the long side and then half halt before the corner and then shorten the stride on the short side of the ring. I doubt that you are throwing yourself to the wolves here and that you will get some awesome advice. And, Mercedes will not have to use her spoon : )

  3. I’m going to throw in a reply with my ‘western’ twist and will probably get hammered for being different. I agree that this mare lacks forward, she’s just kind of going along…not extending, not collecting. She’s moving without purpose, like a horse moving from one pile of hay to another. The first thing I would back WAY up and start from the foundation. First, I would teach the mare to yield to pressure in several areas from the GROUND. I would teach her to flex her nose to her ribcage in both directions with a narrow rope halter. I would hold, following her movement around me until she stops AND the line loosens then release and praise (lips will be licked). I would teach her to yield to poll pressure and drop her head in response to a steady, firm push. I would teach her to move her shoulders away from me and perform several steps of turn on the haunch, then achieve turn on the forehand. I would use pressure in the place where your legs will be used when mounted. Hip movement means the rear of her ribcage, about a foot behind the girth, the shoulders should move with pressure at or in front of the girth. Practice this until she responds 100% of the time. Then you can get on.

    I would ride at a walk and use the same pressure points to enact a response to the area pushed. Leg forward, shoulder should move away, leg back and the hip should move. Use soft pulsing pressure increasing in rhythm until she moves ONE step. Block forward with your reins. Reward, rest. Walk her in a diminishing sized circle on inside rein only until she gives you her face at your knee with a slack rein. PUSH her into the circle, PUSH her into that rein and release immediately when she gives to you and the rein weighs nothing. Stay seated straight, don’t let your body flop into the circle, sustain the pressure even when she fights the rein. Your release must be immediate and complete in the beginning. Use a mild snaffle or rope halter only. This should take 10 minutes, tops, for your mare to get the idea. Don’t be ridiculous about repetitions, once she gets it, move on.

    Next I would walk around the ring on minimal contact and use outside rein and inside leg to push her into the corners of the ring. Use the outside rein out and hip height, inside rein just enough to see her eye and inside leg bumping the shoulder to take a step into the corner, outside leg creating forward movement One step, then release. Rinse and repeat. She should now have an understanding that rein pressure means yield and you’ll want to keep the rein pressure until she gives. It doesn’t have to be a huge give but obvious. The exercise will give both of you a purpose to the cues, you can develop more feel, your mare can learn to yield to pressure.

    I would then work the trot with the least amount of contact you can use to guide her around. Have giving hands ready for her to take some rein. Push and bump in rhythm with her stride….think of it as keeping her lively. When it feels lofty, start adding more leg to your ride to control shape. Bump the inside forward, outside leg back, and PUSH her into a circle. When she drops her nose, give, give, give. Eventually, you take the ‘into the corner’ cues and apply to all gaits. You always PUSH, even push to a stop. You push her into the bit as if you’re asking for bend right, bend left at the same time – the two become halt on contact, halt balanced.

    As far as your position….I don’t want to be the pot after the kettle but something my trainer told me years ago taught me how to position for a sliding stop. Think of trying to pinch a dime between your butt cheeks to help your pelvis tip back and the small of your back will soften as well. Good luck and kudos for sharing your mare and your goals with Hooves!

  4. Some excellent tips on getting a horse to give to pressure. Very important to get a horse to give to pressure and then be rewarded for it. I’ve seen too many videos lately of riders not rewarding their horses in both western and dressage. The latest one was a Grand Prix dressage rider with a horse that was clearly confused and overwhelmed, at the end of the ‘training session’ it wanted to stretch down so badly and was not given the opportunity : (

    • People seem to forget about letting their horse stretch, and it’s quite unfortunate. Your horse does have to work to keep itself in the correct frame, people, especially the asshats who ride them behind the vertical, they need to be given breaks! Otherwise you can’t blame them for getting tired and ornery, I’d be ornery too if I was expected to work hard like that for an hour without a break.

  5. What a cute little mare! I agree that forward is going to be key to your success. I do think it is important to distinguish forward from fast. Think power trot, not quick trot. In addition to the ground pole and cavelletti, I would suggest some hill work if you can find a good hill to work on (safe footing, not too steep). Be careful not to overdo the hill work it takes more strength than you think! Starting with walk work really think about getting her to push off her hindend going up the hill. Encourage her to stretch down and forward with her nose by following the movement with your hands (Mercedes gave you some great tips on this). Going down the hill use half halts to help her balance herself. As she learns how to handle the incline you can add trot work up the hill; I’m pretty cautious about when I add the trot downhill because it requires so much strength to do well. A lot of times just 5-10 minutes of consistent hill work after a warm up before or after your regular ride can transform a horse. Plus it gets you both out of the arena for a while. : )

    As far as relaxing your seat goes, there is nothing like dropping your stirrups to prevent bracing. If your mare is quiet enough (and she seems like she is) I would warm up and cool down in the walk without them every ride. Feel each of your hips lift individually as she walks forward. As you become strong enough/confident enough (and you may already be) incorporate some trot and canter work without them as well. In all your trot work be definitive about whether you are posting or sitting.

    I would also recommend looking around for a copy of Centered Riding by Sally Swift. She offers some excellent visualizations for developing a good seat (and other things too!). You can find some of the pages free on Google Books.

    I second what everyone else has said about riding inside leg to outside hand, oodles of transitions within gaits and between gaits, more schooling figures, and more halts. When you get good the basics start combining things to make them more interesting for both of you (ex: add halts before and after ground poles).

    I would also caution against doing everything everyone suggests all at once, you will overwhelm yourself and burn out on the whole project, Pick one or two things initially that really strike you as meant for you and your horse (or is said repeatedly by people) and move forward from there. Riding is an art, not perfection, and always remember it is supposed to be fun! If a day feels too stressful on your journey go for a trail ride, or hack around bareback and remember why you love your horse.

    I know I’m looking forward to seeing your progress in the next three months! Good luck!

  6. I agree with mostly everything people have said here, especially blondemare! Don’t assume because it’s western advice it won’t work on a dressage horse. My horse is western trained and we doing hacking and dressage in english gear and an english frame. I found a lot of the western techniques are really quite useful for suppling and increasing flexion. I was always taught inside leg, inside rein to increase bend and flexion. On a 15m circle you should just be able to see your horse’s eye.

    I don’t think I can add much more to what’s already been said except to add wholeheartedly that you should take rid3r’s advice – be careful not to burn out. Not just yourself but your horse as well. Each ride, pick one or two things you want to work on. Do you want to work on transitions today? Or speed control? Extension? Flexion? Don’t try and do everything at once because your horse will get confused and you’ll get frustration. Work on one thing at a time and make sure you always reward when they get it right – I was always taught that the best reward was a rest. Get an awesome halt? Just stand for five minutes or something, give her a pat and let her know she did good.

    Good luck!

    • Completely agree not to overwhelm the horse (or self) and keep things simple. Very important to rest after every new success. They learn from the release, not the pressure. A rest can be 5 seconds or 10 minutes depending on the effort the horse has to give. Resting also keeps them happy when they’re learning, they licks their lips and soak up the lesson and can be quite proud of themselves too!

  7. Transitions, transitions, transitions. Lots of them.
    Go back to basics, and ride from the back forward.
    As far as your hands go, it looks to me like they’re not as soft as they could be. It looks like they’re fixed and braced, which in turn is annoying your horse. They should be lifted slightly, even, and supple so they flow with the movement of your horse. Work on sponging the reins (tighten your fist around the reins, then release) instead of a direct pull. Direct pulling will only give her something to resist. Remember, as soon as she moves to respond to your request release the pressure.
    I never really understood how to soften my seat until I rode in a clinic many moons ago and spent the entire time on the lunge. I rode for an hour with no stirrups and my eyes closed. Riding this way made me relax and ride without bracing myself. If your horse is good on the lunge and you have someone to help you I suggest you take some time to practice this exercise, even if you only do it once or twice.
    I noticed in your video at the trot she often travels with a hollow back and her head up, this is particularly so when you take up a sitting trot. This is usually due to the horse’s hind quarters are not engaged. As others have mentioned she looks like she is just moving without purpose, there isn’t much propulsion coming from behind. When a horse moves with energy and propulsion coming from behind he begins to round through his back. (also make sure you aren’t gripping with your knees and bracing yourself against her back, lots of no stirrups work will help with this as well)
    So, to begin you’ll want to work on encouraging her to work long and low until her back and abdominals are strengthened, then work on slowly bringing her back together. We can’t expect her to carry contact and herself until she is strong enough to do so. Once she has gained strength in her hind end, then you can work on bringing the front end together.
    Play with circles, serpentines, figure-8s: when a horse is bending they are naturally more inclined to travel under themselves. Also use trot poles during your rides. Also as someone else suggested: hills. Find a nicely sloped hill with good footing and ride up first at a walk, then at a trot. Though be careful, hill work can quickly wear them out, it takes more strength than you might think.
    And just to mention it: it would be good to ensure your saddle fits properly and isn’t pinching anywhere, and to make sure her teeth have no jagged edges.
    You two are a super cute pair. Kudos to you for reaching out for advice and guidance. I’m interested to see how things progress with you two!

    • Question for you (and whoever else): my arab has a pretty upright shoulder and an almost impossible to sit trot. I would love to do more work without stirrups, but that trot just KILLS us. Any advice to get similar results without forgoing the irons?

      FYI: my dressage trainer got on and agreed that it was the most “jack-hammer” of a trot she had ever ridden *sigh*

      • First, don’t blame the straight shoulder for that kind of a trot, as it’s not the trait to be blamed. There are a number of traits that can contribute to a jackhammer trot, but I have no idea which one/ones your horse possesses. We’d have to see a conformation picture to determine that.

        However, increased engagement will improve the trot and make it easier to sit as long as the rider is supple in their lower back.

        You are better off, though, at this point to borrow another horse to work on the trot work without stirrups. Improve yourself and then look to changing the training of your horse to improve her trot.

  8. I’m going to go outside the box of what has already been mentioned here and go to a few things I have found helpful in the past, especially with young or newly acquired horses: check the teeth and check the fit of the saddle. Even a seasoned horse is going to have difficulty doing what you want him to do if those two things are causing pain. You mention your horse is five, and that is a very good time to be checking for retained caps and wolf teeth that need to be pulled. (I personally have checked earlier, but by now your horse should have shed all baby teeth.) Also, have a fitter check your saddle…hard for me to see on the video too, but it appears to me that it may be an older saddle that may be a bit “dead” and hence might need to be flocked or refitted if that is possible. A chiropractic exam wouldn’t go amiss either.

    I know this might all be a bit overwhelming but these are things that can be NOW fixes and not stuff to be built up to over time and many lessons and training sessions. They can allow for major improvements to happen and they could also add bonus mileage to those sessions if something is awry.

  9. What an awesome resource this blog is becoming… 12 comments in and pretty much everything I had to talk about has been covered!

    I really want to underscore the point about hands because this is something that I struggle with myself. I see this rider trying to be soft in her hands by being soft with her fingers… but meanwhile her elbow is absolutely still. A soft hand doesn’t come from relaxed fingers, it comes from a following elbow. It’s quite astonishing how much movement in the arm it takes to create a quiet hand, because the arm has to move to follow the horse’s head. An exercise that I find helpful for developing this feel is to carry my hands in exaggerated positions – such as up high and out to the side – so that my arms get away from my body, they’re floating in the air a bit, and that makes it easier to get them moving and following the mouth.

    I second the recommendation to pick up Centered Riding by Sally Swift – fantastic resource for all riders.

    And finally, I absolutely agree with the recommendations to get professional checks on teeth, saddle fitting, chiropractic, etc. for your horse – but also consider having a professional check on YOU. It amazes me how good horsepeople, when our horses struggle with something, are usually quick to realize that might be a physical cause and to check into that. But when it is ourselves we don’t follow the same advice. If there is something in your riding that you consistently struggle with, something a coach ends up nagging you about and you just can’t seem to fix it not matter how much you want to – there is probably a physical reason. Most of us end up with weaknesses, tightnesses, crooknedness and imbalances in our bodies… caused by so many things (falls, strains, poor posture, too much sitting at a computer, having babies, sports injuries, growth spurts, on and on). It’s well worth having yourself checked out by a physiotherapist, chiro, etc. especially if you can find one who knows riding.

    • THIS, times 10! Good hands do not come naturally and need to be especially following at the walk and canter. A quick and dirty to improve following the rhythm of the horse is to ‘rest’ your hands on the pommel of the saddle. The saddle rocks with the neck and head and will give the right flow. I have a gal who rides with me and she has a bad habit of using reins to cue for canter which is blocking the horse front cantering! Some time without reins on the lunge line is fixing this and she rests elbows on the saddle to develop the feel. We can be our own worst enemies!

        • “Resting the wrists” on the pommel may work because it naturally follows that the elbows and shoulders would then be allowed to relax, too, since the hands are not being ‘held’ anywhere by the rider. This is a good thing! The foundation of good hands – or good anything – is farther ‘down’ the body. 😉 Hands are the last bit to become ‘good’ simply because they require everything else to be good first: so working on your legs, seat and so on is actually work toward better hands.

  10. I agree that the problem is not “forward” enough, by which I don’t mean speed per se, but rather the engagement of the hind end. In particular, Flecha isn’t “tracking under” with her hind legs. Her hind hoof should be landing at or in front of her front hoofprint at all gaits, and this isn’t happening, except very briefly twice: in the downward transition from canter to trot, before you get her settled (around 3:30 on the video) and for a bit of changing directions across the arena on a loose rein at the walk (around 4:19). Otherwise, it’s “pony trot” all the way. This is something that I have been working with extensively with my horse, who initially preferred to go around with her head in the air, pony trot, and didn’t understand contact. What has worked for me are techniques I’ve learned from my instructor, who is in the Philippe Karl “School of Legerete” teacher’s training program, which is reviving ideas from classical French dresage. I’ve learned a series of neck flexions sideways from the ground and the saddle, and a technique called “action/reaction” that has taught my horse to extend her neck downwards and seek contact with the bit — and, eventually, to sustain that contact. It’s a refinement on the old classical dressage idea of “combing the reins” that I remember reading about as a teenager in some old dressage manual reprint that turned up at the feedstore… I haven’t seen any other technique that actually teaches the horse to seek contact; at best, other instructors just say to wait until the horse asks for it. The idea of the “action-reaction” is teaching a slight upwards movement of the hands that the horse takes as an inviation to stretch down and curve the neck, curve the back, take contact, and step under with the hind legs. Once that’s solidly in place, you can start asking for the poll and raising the head (we are starting that a bit now). But the big thing to look for all the time is how the hind end is moving. If the hind legs aren’t stepping under, then the movement is impeded, the horse’s core and abs aren’t engaged, and you are setting yourself up for damage to the sacral joint and stifles (this is what other posters are referring to as being “upside down”). I don’t feel qualified to give detailed instructions in the PK method through a blog post, but there are PK DVDs out there, there are some open clinics this year in different parts of the US, and some instructors nearing completion of the teacher’s training program. I’m not sure how much sense it would make just from DVDs, though; you can’t really learn timing and feel from a video, I find. But even without the PK technique, I’d say to encourage her to lengthen her stride, lower her neck, step out, and for you to get a feel for when she is tracking under and moving forward properly. It’s probably also never to early to start lateral work, shifting on the forehand, spiral circles, shoulder in, from the ground first and then the saddle. This helps the horse step under itself.

  11. Oh and a tip to help with rounded shoulders… get an exercise ball, actually, get two, one for at home, and one at the barn. Lay back over the ball, on your back with your arms up over your head, and just lay there, letting the position stretch and open up your back and shoulders, for a couple of minutes. Shift around a little to move the ball to different positions under your back until you feel like you’re positioned so it’s really stretching you out. Feels great and helps undo the upper-back/shoulder tension caused by computer/office work. If you can keep a ball at the barn to do this stretch right before you get on to ride, it will really help. Doing it at home every day is great. This is a perfect example of what I was talking about above about physical issues – my coach can yell “shoulders back” at me until the cows come home, but when I’ve just spent 9 hours at work hunched over a keyboard and my back and shoulders are tensed and tight, then it’s physically hard for do what my coach wants. A few minutes of stretching makes it way easier.

  12. I’m having trouble with a horse that is TOO forward and insanely strong. I was working her in a square arena working on transitions, backing, halting, just getting her to listen to my commands, be relaxed, and balanced. Everything went well, she listened to the slightest cue, she was balanced, calm but forward and working from behind (she’s got a downhill build). Then we went to the larger arena to have my actual lesson.

    The reins stopped working.

    While it was nice to see I could steer with just my legs and weight, she was ignoring anything to do with altering her speed – which she had decided should be as fast as she wanted it to be. No matter how little or great the pressure I put in the rein, or how deeply I sat into the saddle, she was refusing to go anything but her own speed. Stopping was basically either forcing her into the arena wall, or throwing my entire weight into a stirrup and lots of leg pressure to force her to turn and let the circle slow her down. Everything less than that was completely ignored.

    I do my best not to get tense because that certainly gets her going, and I check my hands to make sure they haven’t gotten hard on her, but even soft hands seems to have no effect. It’s made it really hard too because you can’t wear her out. There’s no “just make her go until she’s got the energy out” because that simply isn’t possible with her. As a slightly tubby 23 year-old, she’s got the stamina of a young, spry endurance racer, it’s crazy.

    I’m frustrated because she had gotten so much better before her injury. We were even able to go over some small jumps calmly and I was so proud of her. Then after she got injured everything seems to have gone down the tubes and we’re now starting at square -100. It seems like no matter what I do with her we’re taking 1 step forward and 2 steps back. I KNOW we can do it, we did it before, I just don’t know what’s happening now 😦

    • Get someone to video tape a ride. Even if you don’t share it with us here, you may be able to identify some things that are happening that you hadn’t realized. In Haley’s own words, she was surprised at things she saw in her video that she hadn’t known were going on.

      • What’s her breeding? Just curious. But I have always found that horses that want to run or move should not be blocked with reins/hands/body that only tends to frustrate the horse. You have to allow the running – if you can – and then when she’s done you have to ask that she continue on for a bit more than she wants to and soon she won’t want to do it anymore. But it has to be her idea – you cannot force a horse and if you do it will only be temporary and not very enjoyable or harmonious – or safe.

        • She’s an Appendix Quarter Horse (3/4 Thoroughbred, 1/4 Quarter Horse in this particular mare). She has a tendency to fall onto her front end, which is something we’ve been working on. I’ve found that worked with a gelding I used to ride who liked to charge. Saying “Ok, you want to run? Then let’s run.” And making him rethink his choices fixed that problem pretty quickly.

          Unfortunately with this mare, she would be happy galloping around the arena as fast as she could all day. For her, letting her run is a reward. What I may try is if she wants to take off, make her do it on a small circle. I’ve recently managed to get her down to cantering a 10m (it’s really helped her balance too!). Maybe then there will be that difference. “Cantering when I want you to results in a pleasant run around the arena, cantering when I don’t want you to results in you working your butt off in a little circle.” Would that work, possibly? She’s very sweet but she’s also extremely stubborn and is lovingly referred to as the “fuzzy bulldozer” and “the resident freight train”.

          But yes, I agree with you. I’ve had to force her into things lately and I don’t want to. I want riding to be pleasant for both of us, working together as a team.

          • My guess is that your problem stems from downhill conformation being mostly of the TB persuasion. (And I also suspect she has a low set neck as well and typically travels hollow). This puts her on her forehand and in a ‘natural’ position to ‘run’. This is why racehorses are downhill built. Horses will also run when they lose their balance onto their forehand and/or panic. The reason why you can’t stop her on her forehand is because her weight and momentum is downhilll…like a snowball rolling down a hill…the only way you slow it down and stop it is to put a tree in its way and even then if the snowball is too big or rolling too fast…bye-bye tree.

            So, what you need to do is teach her how to carry more weight on her haunch and get off her forehand and have her engage to slow down and stop. At this stage you’d be best to do this at the walk…transitions, transitions, transitions. I do caution about too much reinback….this is very difficult for a horse to do, particularly if they are on their forehand and hollow. The reinback is actually a ‘forward’ movement and even when done correctly is taxing on the horse’s body. But basically you want to keep your snowball at a walk right now until she learns to carry herself on her haunch and to transition to halt and back to walk from her haunch….then you can move her to short segments of trot. Don’t let her gain speed like the snowball, so one stride trot, then walk, then one stride trot, then walk…execute properly, from the haunch and she will build the proper strength and she’ll stop running through your aids.

          • OK then I agree with the transitions approach – I do lots of them anyways ’cause they’re fun! But first I would get off this beast and ground drive her. If she didn’t know how I would teach her and just that change would probably be good. Change it for this horse – especially when you say freighttrain bulldozer in her mind. She’s thinking not just reacting. So I would get to the ground driving and then I would teach her to laterally flex – encourage her to flex her head to where your knee would be and also teach her to disengage. Don’t know how to do it – I think you can find youtube videos… I’m not sure where to go – if I have some time later… but maybe someone here knows a good video. It’s really easy to do but do not teach it in a way that forces her to do it – it’s got to be fun and it’s got to be her idea. Use a cookie to get her to flex her head to your knee. Now I would ground drive and do all sorts of things – lateral movement over obstacles anything you can think up. Now get on and do the same thing. You need to get the brain working with you and for you but it has to be her idea. You’ve got to reward the try and release just when she’s thinking about what you’re asking. Now once you’ve got all these things working this horse will be a different beast – I guarantee it. cheers.

    • One thing not identified thus far is the psychology part of riding. Different horses need different exercises in order to succeed and are as individual as people. I have a hot mare that always wants to be in front of the leg, she’s jiggy and full of go. She’s also very intelligent, athletic and honest. With her, the best approach is attempting to bore her to death. Blocking her with reins just makes matters worse, her hip will keep rolling long after the reins are applied. What does work is letting her go, to a point, but controlling where she can go. Trotting a small circle without controlling her speed gets her to relax, as does a LOT of lateral work at a walk. The hot ones need more leg, not less, they need cues that come slowly – keep your leg close to her and avoid using both reins at all cost if she’s chargey. Do frequent direction changes and lay off cantering until you’ve conquered walk and trot. Do groundpoles, trail obstacles, whatever requires her to think on her own without your intervention. Slowly introduce harder tasks and immediately go back to something easy to settle her.

      I think I’ve seen your mare on a FB group….she’s a brown mare, confo question, in nice shape for her age? If so, she’s cute! 😉

      • I don’t know what you mean when you say bore but I find boring horses makes them disinterested in what you’re doing together. You have to engage their minds not do things over and over – that’s what beginners do when they finally learn something and then horses go sour – probably you don’t mean that but I just thought it should be pointed out.

        • What I mean by boring them is doing something that is easy and doesn’t rev up the engine. What you can’t do is get into a pull-battle every ride. They check out and stay high and you get nowhere.

          • I wouldn’t use that word boring – just saying – ’cause we humans think boring is something repetitive. Like get up over that log over and over again. We would think my gawd that is boring – you see. I don’t know what reving up the engine means but it sounds like agitating or something like that ’cause I wouldn’t do that to any horse personally – I want my horse calm and thinking. Just saying – each to their own.

          • Maria – Have you even read the posts from Quill to understand her challenge with her mare?? Some horses have a revved up engine from the time they stand after birth. Think in simple terms – TB or Arab vs Percheron. The key to these horses is going slow with training, not cantering before you can walk or trot, building a strong foundation. Not all horses are just ‘calm and thinking’ because you WANT it that way.

          • Not all horses are calm and thinking around humans because experience teaches them how to act. I teach horses to be calm and thinking and actually most are born that way but all horses have a sense of self preservation some more than others. So it really boils down to how well you can learn to interact with them and when you’re dealing with a beast that has learned to grabbed the bit and run that is definitely not something that happens at birth. There is no such thing as a wild horse that runs about insanely … LOL

      • We’ve tried changing directions, it helps after a little bit, but I’d have to spend the entire ride doing crazy direction changes or she’ll just get chargey again. Poles just gets her worked up even further. I can get her to relax on a circle, but as soon as I let her out of it, she gets wired again. All of this basically happens at the trot, I can bring her back from a canter and she’s awesome at the walk. I try doing side-passes with her and once I’ve made it clear that she’s doing them whether she wants to or not, she’s fine, and they work for a little bit before it starts again. Will I just need to spend an entire ride doing circles, direction changes and side passes? I’ll do it if that’s what it takes to get my mare back. It feels like we aren’t a team in the saddle anymore 😦

        Something I’ve noticed that does work a bit is moving her a little bit off the wall on the long side then using my leg to edge her over to the wall again by the time we reach the corner. That works about 85% of the time, which is greater than anything else I’ve tried. She’s not very bright so doing super complicated things only makes her pissy, but not complicated enough and she just blows through them. I think that’s about the difficulty level I need to work her at to keep her mind off charging. I’ll give your suggestions a shot and see how it goes.

        And yes, that’s probably her 😀 Thank you! And thank you for the help.

        • If you are unable to slow down your girl and have access to a trailer, would be happy to try to help you. You could haul in and we coudl develop a strategy together.

          • Thank you for your kind offer! I hope I can get this fixed without trailering her, small spaces are not something she’s really good with. And I don’t have a trailer xD Thank you so much though. If I can’t get it fixed, I may try and video tape our riding. It couldn’t hurt to have my riding critiqued, it can only make me better, right?

    • I went through a phase like this with my mare. I ended up temporarily going to a stronger bit (cue all the indignant noises from the internet bit-police!). Played around with a couple of different bits until I found one that gave me reasonably reliable brakes when firmly applied. Spent lots of time at walk working on basic respect. Halt. Rein back a few calm steps in a straight line. How a horse reacts when you ask it to halt from the walk, and then rein back in a straight line, is pretty much how it will react when you ask it to slow down in the trot or canter. Developing a good response to the halt from walk, then rein back so that it happens from a light touch will really help. If you don’t have respect in the walk and halt you won’t have it in the trot and canter. Then when you start to work in the trot, when the horse speeds up past what you want, you go back to that walk, halt, rein back exercise. Light hands until the horse speeds up excessively. You might spend a lot of time walking and halting with only short bits of trot at first, but with consistently, the amount of steady trot that you can get before the speediness happens should increase.

      I made liberal use of my arena walls when working on this issue with my mare – for a little while, we only did jumps pointing directly into a wall. If she landed strong from a jump, she got a nice half-halt ask her to come back, but if she didn’t listen to that – boom, arena wall. She wasn’t permitted to turn a corner if she wasn’t at the speed I wanted. She caught on eventually.

      I also dropped back from the harsher bit to a milder one once I had a consistent response.

      • Quill, you said that she had been off from an injury, did this behaviour start after or was she always like this? One of my horses is a hot Arabian that can be a yahoo at times. I ride with a lot of seat and leg and do a lot of lateral work with her. This will tend to calm her down, also if you are pulling back with both hands to try to slow your mare she is probably just setting her jaw and resisting your attempts. Do a lot of half halting. As chestnut mare says, you could try a different bit. I ride this mare with a Peewee bit and she is also good with a pelham, she hates a snaffle. Good luck, it can be very frustrating to ride a horse like her.

        • Frustrating indeed. I sometimes wonder why I love her so much, then she falls asleep in my arms after the ride and I’m like “Oh, I remember now.”

          She’s always been like this, but it’s never been this bad. We’d even made a ton of progress before her injury! I could do so much with her with little to no resistance to work through and we were even hopping little cross-rails with no problems. I’d gotten her balanced so she wasn’t fallen on her face, too!

          Her injury was a 5″ vertical puncture wound to the shoulder that had her out of commission for nearly a month.

          I try not to pull with both hands, but use weight into her outside front as it’s off the ground and pressure in the right rein. It’s the combination that works most frequently with her.

    • I have had this exact same problem with my QH gelding. He was doing great for a while, went out of work for a couple of months with a bad virus, and when I brought him back in, every time we canter it’s at mach 5 and all slow down aides are completely ignored. The way I was taught to deal with it is by turning him every time he starts to speed up. By turning I don’t mean a gentle turn, I mean, making his shoulders swing in what’s almost a reining rollback sort of movement. So I don’t know how your horse is trained and what your aides are – but I move both reins towards the inside of the circle and use outside leg pressure infront of the girth. This pushes his shoulders across and makes him put his weight on his hindquarters. It also slows down his momentum and makes him work harder. If he takes off immediately, do it again, and keep doing it until he slows down. When he slows down, I let him slowly spiral back out to the big circle. If he breaks gait, I let him trot for a little while, because he slowed down and that was a good thing, before asking for the canter again. So his reward for slowing down is that he gets out of the hard work of moving his shoulders and working in a small circle and gets to cruise – but as soon as he starts to speed up again, it’s turn turn turn.

      I don’t know anything about your horse but maybe this technique will help; it certainly got my boy to settle down a bit.

      • This sounds like a ‘I’m in trouble in this moment’ temporary solution, rather than a long term fix of the issue. And it seems apparent that the main reason for the issue is that your horse was out of condition and lacking strength.

        To be ‘fast’ a horse must hollow and go on its forehand. That’s the biomechanics of it and there’s no other way for ‘fast’ to happen – ever.

        My point being…It’s preferred to avoid unwanted behaviors of the horse by training and conditioning in a systematic fashion, and simply not asking them to do something that they aren’t physically capable of in that moment.

        The horse tells you when its ready/not ready. There would be hints in the trot that the horse wasn’t ready to canter in a controlled fashion. Certainly in the moment, if the horse is tuned out you may have to do something drastic, but part of becoming a better horseperson is knowing how to decrease those moments to rarities and certainly not to have to repeat a drastic riding maneuver over and over again in hopes the horse ‘will get it’.

  13. I haven’t got time to read all the comments but I thought I would just put my 2 cents in… take it or leave it.

    The horse is getting blocked by your upper body being so stiff – loosen up relax and let the reins out – let that horse have it’s head completely. Work on developing an even pace on a completely loose rein with a completely relaxed upper body and just go with the horses movement. I can feel that you’re catching the mouth and you don’t want to do that … let go.

    Don’t be so focused on accomplishing something – go somewhere get out of that arena….

    You guys are cute.

  14. So many awesome, amazing comments! I’m really happy with the advice I’m getting (and honestly, really relieved that everyone is being so constructive in their criticism. The Internet can be a pretty mean place! Thanks for sticking up for me, Mercedes).

    I’m curious about what her downhill conformation will mean for her as a dressage horse; I’ve had it drilled into me that downhill horses generally aren’t cut out for it. But I feel like I’m getting somewhere with her, and especially now that I’m letting her out on a longer rein I’ve noticed she’s been giving me big, happy strides and swinging her back more. As Mercedes said, it’s hard for her to shift her weight to her haunch and engage, and to lift the base of her neck. But will it ever get easier?

    Finally, Mercedes, can you clarify “balanced” as far as her front feet are concerned? By that do you mean hoof balance? If so, we’re on the same page; I’ve been thinking of getting a second opinion on her feet from a different farrier.

    I’m also going to schedule a followup visit with the vet now that the EPM treatment is through to do a soundness exam and make sure there are no lingering problems; he’s very good and sees things I can’t (I usually kick myself after he visits). Her teeth will be floated in a couple weeks. So long, paychecks!

    Thanks so much, everyone.


    • Many downhill horses can succeed under saddle. It really depends on several factors; traits possessed along with the downhill build, how much downhill, training and management, riding ability, and having realistic goals. No, it never gets easier in that she and you will ALWAYS be fighting her body balance. Yes, it gets easier as she learns to move and carry herself differently and builds strength and flexibility in certain muscles, HOWEVER, even then you and she must continue on that path ‘forever’ or her natural body balance will take over and she’ll revert right back to present and quickly. It’s one of those traits that significantly affects engagement, such that it should be a deal breaker for your average owner.

      Yes, I mean hoof balance does not appear to be correct, particularly her front feet. I can’t say for sure because she’s not on a hard, level surface and her feet are hidden a bit, but if you’ve already been questioning it yourself then it seems something you should investigate. Unbalanced feet always catch up to a horse. It can take months or years, especially if a horse has otherwise good conformation and/or a strong constitution, but it always catches up affecting soundness and performance.

      • I see…so I need to be an ABOVE-“average owner”-and rider-to do the best by her. 😉

        While I have of course had “dreams of greatness” for her in the past (I think every horse owner does at one point or another), I came into this REPEATEDLY telling myself to be realistic and take the advice and information about her prospects in stride, good or bad. It’s not always easy, but better than false hope.

        And by becoming a better rider, I will help her become a better riding horse. I do think often about what would happen to her if I had to sell her. I know that correct training can help ensure a horse’s future.

        • Yes, I’m sorry, if you want to reach your goals you will have to be above average. The other choice is to be like most everyone else and go blissfully along in ignorance with your horse suffering in silence. I happen to know you’re capable of above average.

          Be sure to reflect as time passes on where you started. It’s a good reminder when you feel stuck or start to get down on having not reached a goal…whether realistic or not. It’s not the goal that is the prize, it’s everything else that happens leading up to the now. Keep this ride video on hand and in 3-6 months go back and review it. You can kick yourself, then, if things have stayed the same or gotten worse.

          Absolutely, the better you do as an owner/rider/trainer, the better a ‘citizen’ your horse becomes and therefore the better the chance that should something happen to you or your situation you’ve done the best to ensure a future for your horse.

        • Haley, I’d like to discuss the difference between Dressage and dressage. In other words, the difference between being successful in the show ring and basic training. You have done an amazing job with this mare. I think from the comments that it has been decided that she will probably not go to the olympics, but when I was young, dressage meant basic correct training of the horse so that said horse could reach it’s full potential under saddle, no matter what discipline you rode.

          My ancient jug head appaloosa is even farther than your pretty mare from being a Dressage horse. But on those occasions when I do ride in the ring, I try to ride correctly, and do it to keep my horse fit and properly trained for what I really do, trail riding. I read a lot as a kid, and one thing that stuck in my mind was “the horse was so physically changed by correct riding that some persons did not even recognize the horse.” Your mare can be as good as she can be, not somebody’s idea of what she is “supposed” to be doing. As you go along, you will figure that out.

          I would like to add a personal note. When you said “goodby paycheck” I would like to tell you and every other young person that wants to pursue horses, they are expensive and getting more so. If you have the talent, you can make a living with horses, and that may be your path. I don’t have that talent, and my career path was totally unrelated to horses. That’s the reason that my perspective is different, it’s like I went from 1970 to 2000. But through it all, I always had a horse, and rode a lot. Keep things in perspective. This mare may be with you for the long haul or not, but a well trained horse will always be in demand. Life has a way of intervening. But I am here to tell you, you can do it. Somehow through all the ups and downs, I have been a trail rider all my life. You can be a dressage rider.

        • I ride a downhill horse, and before we started having our currently problems I’d managed to balance her out and we won a blue ribbon together in a dressage schooling show – which was the last time I ever showed haha. We had to work twice as hard, and you will too, but you can do it! It just takes hard work and patience 🙂

    • Haley, I think you need to take all of the comments in the context of your goals and expectations for yourself and this horse. If you wanted to be really competitive and move up in dressage levels, then this horse would make that extremely challenging (if not impossible). But since you described yourself as an amateur, who rides 3 days a week, has other life responsibilities and has the short-term goal of showing at Training Level next year, I don’t see any reason that you can’t achieve that. Most of us aren’t going to the Olympics.

      It’s important to listen to your horse as you progress. Stay on top of all the maintenance/management stuff like the hoof care, saddle fit, teeth, and keep listening to what the horse is telling you. You’ll hit a point in progressing in dressage with this horse where she won’t be able to advance any further, and you want to pay attention to what she’s telling you so you don’t push it further than that. You can enjoy the journey and learning experience along the way. Stop and re-evaluate your goals regularly.

    • Thank you so much and thank you to everyone who’s participating through blog submissions and comments. Education is one approach to affecting positive change in the horse world.

      • There is a time and place to rip into the ignorant who think they know all there is to know (me thinks Big Lick and blood boils) and a time to teach. A time to listen and not judge. Anyone asking for help it someone with an open mind willing to learn and apply. THIS will help the most horses on a daily basis.

  15. Yes Great job with this Blog Mercedes. I’m actually starting to enjoy it more then the Fugly blog.
    This post has actually helped me with some issues I’m having with my horse. Some great advice going on, I even tried a couple things myself last night and I think over time it will work, so thanks to everyone on your comments. I’m sure other people have taken some good advice from here too 🙂

  16. So true, we are all learning from each other. There are some ideas here that I will be trying with my own horses. This is fantastic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s