How To Start The Engagement Process

1.      Find a sucker…
2.      …with a six-figure salary
3.      Tell them what they want to hear
4.      Don’t fart or burp at the dinner table, or…
5.   … apply for The Bachelor/The Bachelorette and you’ve narrowed competition down to just 24 other – fill in adjective/s of choice – people (those are damn fine odds!)

I have a point, but I’ll come back to it in another article.  Right now I want to discuss the other kind of engagement, the one that involves horses.  Here is another blogger article called:  Five Ways To Engage Your Horse’s Hind Leg

*We* take exception to a few things about this article; the first being the use of the terminology ‘rocking him back on his hind leg‘.  Ugh!  All day long, every day.

Thank you to jrga for addressing this specifically:

This article contains some basic misconceptions that really shouldn’t be perpetuated.

One is that you can rock a horse back onto its hind legs. Technically that is correct, but generally what you are saying is you will unbalance the horse so much it rears. Engaging the hind leg is not about pulling the horse back onto its rear legs, but asking the rear legs to come forward, up and more importantly, under to the midline. As soon as you ask an overly hand-obsessed human being (and we are made that way, why else walk on two legs) to start doing things like rock a horse back, you will have too much hand and defeat your ultimate purpose.

If you want the rear legs to move, you don’t rock them, you don’t shift weight onto them in any kind of backwards motion, traction on the reins, etc. You get weight on them by getting the horse to step under and put the weight on them.

So yes, proper transitions, proper half halts, can help get a horse under itself. But they aren’t magic and done improperly will leave the horse more strung out. Hill work is great (and some Tevis or Tevis-like picture is a poor illustration of hill work) done properly too; meaning slowly, one step at a time with each hind leg coming under equally to bear weight, no crookedness, crabbing movement up or down the hill. If you have no idea how to straighten a horse on flat ground, you won’t be able to do it on hills either. The hill won’t fix the horse automatically. A horse accepts the challenge of the hill by going to a higher gait, not walking straighter and exercising its rear to develop weight bearing.

The basic movement to engage the hindquarter is to ask the inside foot to step under towards the midline.  You can practice this on a leadline; ask them to walk forward in a nice comfortable loose walk, then using a dressage whip or the end of the lead line if it is long enough, point to the inside hind near the flank, and ask the horse to step slightly more inward.  At first you may have to touch the horse or swing the rope so it makes a big movement so they step away rather hurriedly, which will stop their forward movement in many cases. Just start over, most horses catch on quickly that you just want them to get that hind foot under them. Remember with horses, that a cue like this works best when the horse is off the foot, so time your cue for when the swing forward of the foot is just beginning, the horse can adjust the placement of any foot when it is in the air, can’t do anything about a foot on the ground. If you pay attention, you will notice that the horse’s rib cage will swing more inward out of the way so the stifle can move into the spot where the rib cage was. (See recent video linked by saraannon That increases the amount of apparent bend the horse can make, so now you are killing two birds with one stone, more engagement of the hind foot, and building in the flexibility and stretch into a bend.

When you start, your horse may have a definite ability to step up and under much better on one side or the other. Congratulations, you now have an actual visual for crookedness, both hind legs cannot step up and under with equal ease to bear weight, which means on one side the horse pushes off with more power, moving the horse more strongly on that side, and voila, drift off the center line or whatever straight line you meant to walk.

Next you practice with this at the walk on the horse’s back. Other than your first step every time you mount a horse, ie, ask for flexion to the inside so that the first vertebra (refer to blog article Optimal Neck Position) unlocks the spine by moving slightly right or left, not pulling the head around, but again, ask the horse to unlock at the poll. Then start asking the inside hind foot on a bend (can be a large circle, down the track, but create an inside bend of large circumference) to come under. Remember the hind foot is coming forward when your hip sinks on that side of the horse (have a practice session or two if you can’t find that cadence in the walk where you feel the hind foot on the ground/off the ground, use a ground person to help if at all possible), which makes sense, once the horse’s foot is off the ground nothing is holding your weight up on that corner of the horse. At that point, you will feel a subtle shift of the rib cage moving away from your leg as it accommodates the swing of the stifle. The stifle is narrower than the belly, for a big step up and under, the ribcage has to get out of the way so the stifle can fold up. Hence the reason your horse should be a back mover (feel the swing of the back as the rib cage shifts) and not a leg mover, leg movers don’t have room to step up and under. You encourage a slightly larger step up and under as you feel your hip sink and the rib cage start to swing by letting your leg move in with the rib cage with a little more weight, to encourage it to move just a little further than in your horse’s normal walk. Your horse, if the sensitive type may take a really big step or even do a transition upwards, don’t pull back or punish, just start over. It did what you asked. On a really dull-sided horse, it may not feel like you got any response at all, if possible, use your surroundings to your benefit, if he tends to like to head for the gate, practice this at first heading for the gate.

Once you get some reaction, experiment, a couple big steps, then remove the aid and allow a normal step, just see what happens to the horse as you change how much under you ask for. Remember, you are bending the horse, and just with an actual circle, we never lean in or look down at the ground, it overweights that leg, inhibiting it from doing what we asked, stay in the middle of the saddle, head up, looking out in the direction of travel. Notice this in not about hands or reins. If your horse can’t walk on a loose rein, you may need to do course corrections, but you are teaching your horse to move off a leg aid, a very subtle one here. You don’t need heel, spur, kicking or generally even a whip for this, you just exaggerate slightly what your horse would do in any event.

Practice both directions. Once your horse starts to understand and step under on the bend, experiment again.  See what you get doing a shallow serpentine.  Can you get your change of bend almost entirely with your legs?  Can you do a circle almost entirely with your legs?  Can you start to do lateral movement off a straight line just with moving the hind feet?

If your horse tenses up in any of this, gets hollow or high-headed, address the tension, get it to create flexion and relax, and start over.

Now you have the proper tool to help you start doing better transitions where you can straighten the horse, walk up and down hills on a straighter horse, and get the benefits of these exercises rather than perpetuating crooked movement through the exercises and missing the benefit.

Adding: This is Buck Brannaman doing the circle exercise, using a flag:

A flag is a strong aid, maybe not something to use if you don’t have help in person to get it right. Note that Brannaman is much more sophisticated than me, or what I just described. He has a ton of experience and skill, and this horse has done this before. He uses the flag to the rear of the horse for impulsion, going forward, note his body position, hand and eyes are at the flank of the horse, asking for the over (note early in the video where he steps into the horse to first get it moving and stepping over (yield away from me), that is another ‘strong’ aid).

But watch those hind feet step up and under and the amount the hip of the horse engages. Occasionally the horse actually crosses over the midline, you don’t need to start there, that is lateral movement beyond what you need to start, because a horse needs some strength to bear that weight without damaging joints. Just start at up and in enough to follow the line of the front hoof on the inside, not cross over.

Brannaman is also able to time aids on the lead rope to encourage softness and rounding up slightly, that is another whole level of skill you will eventually want to get to, but nobody starts there.