Updated: Jul 19
This week i wanted to talk about riding horses that are strong or feel like they lean against you. I've had quite a few riders coming to me with this problem recently and its always very interested to see how riders instinctively deal with the problem. Naturally what i see a lot of riders do when they feel their horse leaning is they pull back, i dont know what it is but it seems to be a natural instinct to pull back against a horse that is leaning or getting strong and, as well come to talk about, well find out that this is possibly the worst thing you can do when your horse leans or gets strong.
When a horse leans or gets strong, it seems to impact everything, you might feel your arms get sore, you get pulled forward, you might feel like you struggle to keep your horse straight or your horse is always falling in or out of circles. You might feel like your horse is a bit lazy or is constantly running through you
But it also has a huge impact on scores. A judge will see a horse on the forehand, not in self carriage, not carrying the weight on their hind legs and all of that will lead to losses of marks as well as all of that potentially creating more problems like wobbly centre lines, inaccurate circles, bad transitions which are all going to lead to even more marks coming off.
Improving the contact
We put the problem of leaning or a strong horse into the 'contact' category. Anything to do with the contact can be confusing. We don't want the contact to be too light and equally we don't want the contact to be too strong. Getting that perfect feeling where you can feel a little weight in the rein but that weight feels elastic and spongey is a sign that the horse is working correctly, is supple and balanced.
I think contact in general is a very subjective feeling. What is too strong for a 10 year old child is very different to what is too strong for a 30 year old male. And so it is hard to sit and have a conversation about what amount of weight is too much and what is too strong but I think really it's more about the feeling of that weight, if that weight feels elastic and soft, like there is an elastic band from your hand to the bit then you're on the right track. If it feels more like you are holding up a tree trunk attached to your reins then the contact is probably too strong and heavy.
Once you have worked out if your contact is in fact too strong, we then need to find out why. Ultimately the problem comes from the fact that too much of the horses weight is over their front legs rather than their hind legs which we call being 'on the forehand'. The reason for this though can vary depending on the horse and rider, the level they're training at and how strong and balanced the horse is themselves.
I wanted to talk about the 4 most common reasons i come across that tend to be the reasons why a horse might become strong or heavy or leaning. Each of these reasons take you to the root cause of the problem which is what your dressage training is all about. Generally the problem that you see as being the problem, like the contact for example, is usually a symptom of a much deeper problem. And its finding that root cause that is going to help you to solve the problem so if you feel like you have been struggling with your horses contact for a long time then really take a look at each of these 4 reasons and think about which one might relate most to you and your horse.
Reason 1: Riders Position
As soon as anyone talks about contact a rider automatically thinks about their hands. But it's important to know that a good contact shouldn't be created by the rider pulling back, it is created by the horse pushing from the hindleg, over a supple back into the bit. Having said that though our position does influence how our horse goes, it influences how supple they can be, how forward they can be, it can influence the contact and it can influence how balanced the horse is too. Even more than that if the rider is unbalanced or unstable or not straight themselves this is all going to have knock on effects on the horse they are riding too.
Things like us tipping too far forward or back, pulling back on the reins or holding onto the reins to balance are all things that will encourage our horses to lean against the hand and get strong in the contact. A good way to test if you are relying on those reins to balance yourself is to ride give and retakes, if you feel you cannot give the reins for longer than one or two strides then this is a really good exercise to practice to improve your balance. Do it every ride, every day, every pace in walk trot and canter to help you not rely on those reins so much. It will get you sitting better in the saddle, riding in a more balanced way and in turn you'll feel your horse starting to hold themselves up and come lighter too.
Reason 2: Unbalanced horse
It's quite common that we see horses getting strong because they are unbalanced. A little bit like when you run down a hill and you get that feeling that your legs can't keep up with your body and you feel your upper body tip forward, this is what happens when a horse is unbalanced. Whether they are unbalanced because the speed is too fast, or the turn or circle is too tight or they are a bit weak or not working into the correct contact all these things can help a horse become unbalanced. And when a horse gets unbalanced they look to the thing that is going to help them stay upright and generally that ends up being the riders hand.
If you think your horse is unbalanced try selecting a slightly more steady tempo and add in half halts to help your horse to stay balanced and carry their weight on their hind legs a little more.
Just to make life complicated though, it isn't just a case of our horses being balanced or unbalanced, it is also about how they are balancing themselves. Some horses especially when they are younger or weak or avoiding sitting on their hind legs, like to carry their weight on their front end and pull themselves across the ground with their front legs and the hind legs are just being pulled along by the front legs. This may not be because they are unbalanced or going too fast, it will be because they are not carrying their weight on their hind legs and pushing and using their hind legs in the correct way. In other words, they are just not balanced in the way we want them to be. We want that weight to be carried on their hind legs, which will help the front end to become lighter and the horse to carry themselves. Its a little like, if you imagine a pair of old fashioned weighing scales. If you put all the weight onto one side, its going to tip the scales. This is a little like when you see a horse that has most of its weight on the front end it will look like its going downhill. But then if you put those weight scales on a slope or you make the surface a bit uneven or a bit more difficult, those scales are going to start to skid or even worse fall over. And its the same when we ride our horses, when a horse is unbalanced or has all that weight on their front end and we then try and do something that is possibly a bit more challenging or a bit more difficult, the problem is going to get worse and all that weight is going to continue to skid forward and you're going to feel your horse get stronger and more unbalanced and more stiff and so on. Riding half halts are great to help rebalance your horses weight onto the hind legs and once the horse has their weight on their hindlegs they can start to be more balanced, carry their own weight themselves and not rely on the rider to hold them up.,
Reason 3: Lack of speed control
A lot of the time a strong horse coincides with a lack of speed control. Especially in jumping you will see it a lot that a horse that is strong is also one that gets faster and the rider struggles to keep them steady and the same applies in dressage although it can be much more subtle. It's very easy for a goey horse to get strong because ultimately they find it very easy to take the rider forward. They have a lot of energy and use that energy to propel themselves forward. For these horses it's very easy to get yourself in a hole where you are holding back and pulling back on the reins to slow your horse down and keep them from running more forward. Because this doesn't stop the energy, it doesn't necessarily slow the horse down or give the rider more control it's a little like turning a horse on full and then putting a stopper in the hosepipe. That pressure builds and builds and that's what creates that really strong contact. The energy keeps coming from the hindleg and pushing forward but that pull back on the rein restricts the horse from going forward so that pressure builds in the contact and makes it stronger. For most horses this is as far as it goes, but for some if they aren't able to go forward that energy has to go somewhere and that is where we see situations of horses resisting or getting tight, or releasing the energy by exploding in a buck or running through the bridle.
Ultimately though, holding your horse back with your reins is not a very sustainable way of controlling your horses speed, we need to instead spend time in training working on getting the speed and tempo under our control so we are able to decide the speed, increase and decrease it when we want, maintain the same speed when we want and channel that energy where we want too. A good way to check if you are doing this is to do a give and retake, if when you give the reins you feel your horse gets faster then you know you have been using your reins to hold your horse back. In these situations riding lots of transitions are great but focus on using your seat to bring your horse back rather than your rein. Once your horse is more on your seat you will find they naturally are able to balance themselves better. Another option is to ride a 10 or 12m circle which naturally slows a horse down and can help with the balance too or you can ride a walk transition or transition to halt if they get a bit strong too.
Reason 4: Unsuppleness / Stiffness
For those of you who have heard of the scales of training you will know that the first 3 are rhythm, suppleness and contact. Suppleness (as well as rhythm) fall below the contact scale. This means that the horses rhythm and the horses suppleness will affect the horses contact.
When it comes to suppleness; a supple horse is free from tightness and resistance and works over their back using all those top line muscles. When this happens we end up with a horse that is able to compress their body, extend their body and the rider is able to move their horses body around where they want to, they can make it straight, they can move the shoulders in, the quarters in, add more bend or flexion and equally have a bit less bend or flexion too. But what does all of this have to do with the contact? If a horse is tense or tight, its a little like riding a plank of wood, its stiff and you cant really move it around or bend it or influence it in any way. With these horses when you go to ride that half halt or give and retake or you try to get your horse to take more weight behind it may feel like it happens for a second and then you lose it or that you just dont get a reaction at all and that generally is a sign for you that their back and neck needs more suppleness work to help them to become a bit more athletic, a bit more manoeuvrable so you are able to move them around and ask them to take more weight behind. So your suppleness almost ends up needing to be your pre requisite before you start trying to think about your horses contact and making it softer and lighter. First think about improving your horses suppleness, get them a little softer, working a bit more over their backs and being that bit more manoeuvrable and you may find the problem of your strong contact disappears entirely or it may be that you are then able to ride those half halts and give and retakes to be able to help your horse to be more balanced and hold themselves up in self carriage.
Exercises to help with a strong horse
When we have a strong horse, what we are ultimately trying to develop is our horses balance and self carriage so they are carrying themselves and not falling onto the forehand. But we also have to make sure that us as the riders aren't adding to the problem. Give and Retakes i find are probably the most effective tool because they are a little bit like a self check for balance and contact; it helps the rider to get comfortable with not hanging onto the rein and pulling back but it also is a great check to see if your horse is really balanced and holding themselves. If when you do a give and retake you feel like you suddenly feel unbalanced when you give the rein away that's a good sign that you may have been relying on the rein to keep you balanced. Equally, if you feel like as soon as you give the rein away that your horse speeds up, slows down, drops their head, or lifts their head up are all signs that they may have been relying on that rein and are then unbalanced when you give that rein away.
Another really useful tool is the half halt because this is ultimately an aid for balance and taking more weight behind. When we ride a half halt it brings more weight onto the horses hindleg and this then helps them to rebalance and then carry themselves. Half halts are complicated and i know a lot of people struggle with what aids to use. Essentially though it must be a combination of a hand aid, with a seat aid and a little bit of leg too.
Ultimately though, riding a strong horse is all about finding the root cause of the problem.
Is it because your horse isnt supple enough?
Is it because they are unbalanced?
Is it because they are running through you and you are unable to control the speed and tempo?
Are you having an impact on the contact with your own position?
By thinking about these 4 things it will help you to find the root cause of the problem and from there fix it. Those give and retakes are fantastic for checking whether your horse is balanced and in self carriage and those half halts and transitions are great for developing that strength behind and teaching your horse to take more weight on their hindleg too. This is all going to help your horse to carry themselves, rely less on your reins to hold them up and that contact is going to get lighter and more elastic because of it.