My horse Tamahome is a Tennessee Walker, and because of an influx of Walkers imported into Orange County for a short time, he has several “cousins” in the area. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to look at Tamahome next to one of his cousins- and the contrast was pretty startling. Tamahome’s back was built up, his hindquarters were round, and his neck muscles were thick- as opposed to his cousin, who- while still a nice-looking horse, was weak in all of these areas. Both of these horses are sound and the same age- but Tamahome has a better chance of being ridden longer because he has these areas more developed. Because he is stronger in these areas, he moves more effectively, which does not put as much pressure on his legs or joints. One of the reasons he has more muscle in these areas is because of the exercises we do in the arena.
I like practicing bending exercises during the winter months because I often find myself at loose ends when it rains. There are days when the arena is fine for walking, but there are parts that are still wet, and not conducive to trotting or cantering. These days are great for bending exercises because- well, what else are you going to do (except maybe an impression of a slow hamster, circling the arena over and over again)?
I’ve included a few exercises that horses of ANY discipline should be able to do. Remember, bending is not just for dressage horses, just like stretching isn’t just for ballerinas.
The first thing to remember with bending is that horses don’t like to bend. You may need to do carrot stretches on the ground first in order to get your horse limbered up.
The second thing to remember with bending is that you are as important to the movement as your horse. This means that you have to make sure you are cueing your horse correctly, and staying present and focused (this is often the most difficult part of the exercise).
What your hands are doing:
Your hands should be lightly squeezing the inside rein, then lightly releasing it. Pretend you have a baby bird with a heart condition and it needs birdie CPR. If you squeeze too tightly, you will squish your little birdie. If your hands are too loose, your bird will fall out of your hand. When turning, your inside hand will lightly PULL the rein toward your stomach, and your outside hand will GIVE the same distance toward the front of the horse. Do not yank on the reins or pull back on both at the same time, or your horse will stop (and rightly so).
Your outside hand should be firm, but still soft. Think about holding a marshmallow in your outside hand. Again- if you squeeze too hard, you will have marshmallow goo all over your hands. If you do not have enough contact, you will lose your dessert!
What your body is doing:
Make sure you are sitting up straight, with your head back (your neck should be touching the back of your shirt collar), your chin up, and your stomach muscles tight. Roll your shoulders back (because you’re probably hunched over). About six feet before you start the turn, look at where you WANT the horse to go- and keep looking at where you expect the horse to go, even if the circle is a bit off. Whatever you do, make sure you are NOT looking at the horse’s head. It’s still attached, I promise.
Your upper body should follow your head. Your shoulders should move in the same direction as your head at the same angle. Your hips should follow your shoulders in the direction you wish to go. Make sure your body is part of the turn- this will help the horse bend his back, and you will work WITH your horse, as opposed to against him.
What your legs are doing:
Your inside leg is pushing slightly to encourage the horse to bend, and the outside leg is also pressing slightly- although it should be several inches back towards his tail than the inside leg. This will prevent the hindquarters from swinging out, and will help keep the horse’s entire body bending. It will also help the horse use his back instead of his front end, which helps to build up those lovely muscles in the back and hindquarters.
Circles on the rail
When you are on your horse, ask him to walk along the rail. Always go around the entire arena at least once- preferably a few times, especially if your horse is older and prone to arthritis- to warm your horse up. Once your horse is warmed up, pick a spot halfway up the rail (if your arena has dressage letters, at A, E, C, and B) and plan to make a small five meter circle, then go back to the rail. Do this all the way around your arena, then make a large S across the arena, and walk all the way around the arena before doing the same thing going the other way. I always start out riding to the left, but do whatever you decide. Make sure that your horse is bending ALL the way around, and not swinging his hind end out before adding circles on the rail- remember, perfect practice makes perfect. If your horse is not balanced enough for one circle on the rail, he won’t be balanced for multiple circles.
I like doing serpentines across the arena because I can make one or several across the arena, depending upon how balanced and supple the horse is at that time. Because it forces the horse to go one direction, then straight, then the other direction in a relatively short amount of time, it is fairly obvious if the horse is not balanced.
After warming up and doing a few circles, turn left (or right, depending upon the side), and go across the arena. You will want to straighten out your hips and look straight across at one point across the arena. About six feet before you want to turn, look where you want to go, and your body should follow (see above). If you are just starting out, you may want to turn only 90 degress to the right and go a short distance along the rail before you turn again. If you have warmed up, and your horse is more supple, you can make more of a “U” along the rail and start out toward the other side of the arena again. Sometimes I can get up to five or six serpentines in our small arena- sometimes I’m happy if we can get two or three. Again- let your horse dictate what he is capable of doing and his comfort level.
Remember to change your baby bird/marshmallow hand when you turn.
Uneven Figure Eight
This exercise helps to keep the horse from getting too bored, and often will show imbalance either due to lack of attention or a lack of suppleness. You should start with completing a full 15 or 20-meter circle in the arena. Again, I start with the left, but it’s not a rule. The second time around, however, when you are in the middle of the arena (X if you know dressage letters), turn right, and complete a small five-meter circle, then, turn left again and finish the larger circle. You will complete something that looks like a snowman with a small head, or BB-8, if you’re a Star Wars fan.
You as the rider are very integal to this exercise as you need to be very clear with your hands, head and body. Make sure you change your hands and LOOK where you want to go, and make sure you as clear with your body as you are with your hands when telling your horse where you want to go.
Don’t be concerned if the first time you complete this exercise that your horse trips or swings wide when completing the small circle. Once the horse realizes that he has to pay more attention, he will be more likely to change directions without issue.