Updated: Mar 25, 2021
In this post we talk about the 4 steps you need to work through in your training session to create a controlled, focussed and relaxed horse. Depending on whether your horse is fresh or hot will help you decide how long you need to spend on this exercise but, ultimately, it will be until you have worked your way through every stage, or, at the very least, progressed up one stage in your session.
To learn about whether your horse is fresh or hot, how you as the rider may be influencing your horse's energy and the theory behind this exercise click here
The 4 steps to create control, focus and relaxation
When you are riding a horse that is hot or fresh it can seem like you cant get your horse going the way you want them to and you are battling with them constantly.
This 4 step approach looks at creating focus on the rider, creating relaxation, being able to get your leg on and being able to control the speed and positioning. Once you've worked your way through all the steps you have a horse that is focussed on you, relaxed and responding to your aids. You as the rider are in full control over the speed, direction and their whole body.
Every horse is different and will find one step more difficult than another. You may find your horse gets through all the steps in 15 minutes or it takes you the whole session to get to step 2. Either way your aim is always to ensure that your horse ends the session more focussed, relaxed and responsive than the start.
Step 1: Creating focus
When you have a horse that is hot, sharp or fizzy it can feel like they are constantly looking outside of the arena for things to look at but you cant get them to focus on you as their rider. Your job is to fill their brain with the things you want them to be focussing on and the best way to do this is by keeping them guessing. By getting them to a stage where they think ‘what’s she going to ask me to do next’ that’s when you know you’ve got them and they’re focussing on you. So ride lots of serpentines circles of different sizes, figures of eight and keep things changing. The more you do the same thing the more space you’re giving for their brain to drift off to what’s going on elsewhere.
Question: Should i ride lots of transitions?
A lot of people talk about doing transitions here but it depends on your horse. Remember that transitions get your horse in front of the leg and more reactive. If your horse is over reactive then that isn’t going to work for them, it’s only going to hot them up more.
Top Tip: A great tip if you find you’re really nervous is to ask a friend to just give you orders like a caller in a test. "Change the rein to E now ride a 15m circle now do a figure of eight now do a 20m circle" and so on, it will stop you having to think about different shapes and allow you to just ride.
Step 2: Creating Relaxation
You should now have a horse that is starting to bring his attention to you and you might find as this happens that you start to get a bit of relaxation along with it. Riding lots of circles of different sizes is fantastic as it helps your horses suppleness, helps them bend in the ribcage and soften through their neck and back. If you find that your horse still feels tense we need to introduce an aid to relax. Exactly like we have an aid to go forward and an aid to leg yield left and an aid to canter and so on. Having an aid to relax can be a great tool for any rider no matter whether the horse is hot or not. Ask your horse to soften their mouth but squeezing and releasing with your hand. Once your horse softens and breathes out then make sure to praise and reward them so they know that is the reaction you want from them. You will notice that by doing this, your horse may also become more round over their neck and back.
Top Tip: Be careful not to mistake them relaxing for them coming round and off the contact. Horses can be round and still tense, this is what behind the vertical is (when your horse holds their neck in a super round frame to avoid relaxing).
Step 3: The reaction to your leg
The next step is improving your horses reaction to your leg. This can mean two things. Either your horse listening to your leg and respecting it and moving forward when you put it on. Or your horse not over reacting to your leg and you being able to put it on without them thinking go go go the whole time. 10 and 15m circles work perfectly for this. They encourage your horse to bend, allowing you to be able to use your inside leg to balance them and keep them moving around the circle without becoming faster.
Step 4: Controlling the speed and direction
This whole step by step process is just about the rider having more and more control over their horse as the session progresses. So this last step is about you being able to not only say ‘go more forward’ but also come back (ideally also with your seat rather than your rein). Riding some simple transitions within the paces is a great way to do this. So squeezing with your knees and asking your horse to compress and shorten their step and then when you feel they are waiting for you and not wanting to rush forward then using your leg to push the horse forward. Once you feel confident you can then start to look at how much control you have over the direction youre going. By this i dont mean, if you asked for a circle did you get a circle. I mean, if you asked for a 15m circle was it actually 15m or did your horse drift to the track or fall in and try to make the circle smaller. Bringing your attention to your control over your horses shoulders and hindquarters is the final step in seeing how much control you have over your horse. It also bridges the gap between your 'creating control' work and your regular training.
The 4 step exercise: figure of eight (adapted)
The good news is that there is one exercise that you can adapt to help you with all 4 steps that we have talked about. The figure of eight - well, an adapted version! It starts simple, and then as you progress through each step (1. focus, 2. relaxation, 3. reaction to your leg and 4. control of speed and direction) a new element is added. It is your choice whether you take out the previous element or keep it in.
1. Step 1: Ride a figure of eight: this helps keep the horses brain engaged as you are constantly changing the bend and direction.
2. Step 2: Continue riding your figure of eight. Each time you cross over the centre line, ride a 10 or 15m circle. This will help to improve your horses suppleness and relaxation. You can add in asking your horse to soften in the mouth on your short sides.
3. Step 3: Continue riding your figure of eight with your 10 or 15m circles. Begin to focus on being able to use your inside leg to control the size of the circle and maintain the impulsion and balance.
4. Step 4: Continue riding your figure of eight: Along your short sides ride a transition from working trot to collected and back to working. You can also begin to pay attention to your accuracy, is your horse moving in the direction you are aiming for?
Image note: i could not find an image of a figure of eight without jumps in it! I wouldn't advise adding jumps just yet!
Challenge: For extra challenge, you can swap your figure of eight for a lateral movement like a leg yield to change the rein or a travers or shoulder in across the diagonal. You could also add in transitions up to canter or down to walk in between to mix things up!