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Read the Intro to the Longeing series
Longing on a Short Line
Build Straight Circles In Hand
Longeing In Balance Part 5
Though there are a lot more ground exercises you could do for suppleness and self-carriage, our goal here is to start working on longeing posture. So, if your horse is moving pretty evenly on both sides, releasing at the throatlatch, neck and shoulder to rock back and forth and smoothly transition from one bend to the other, it’s a good time to start building circles on the short line.
To warm up for this new work and get both yourself and your horse connected and balanced, do a few minutes of the S-turn and the pendulum exercises from the previous lessons.
To prepare for work on the short line, be sure your leadrope is hooked to the side ring of your snugly fitting halter. Or, to give you an even better connection with your horse, cross it over the noseband of the halter by threading the end without the snap through the noseband side ring from outside to in, making an “X” over the noseband and then threading it through the opposite side ring from inside to out. Gently take the slack through the two noseband rings until you can hook the snap to the ring at the top of the cheekpiece. This gives you a gentle but very clear connection with your horse.
For the first exercise, we’re going to start teaching the horse to lighten a shoulder and take a step with that foreleg when we ask him to, yielding to a cue given with a dressage whip. We’ve done our homework by helping him learn to release a shoulder and move it away from pressure to create a slight bend and to step forward and back in balance with specific feet. We’ll just build on those exercises so the horse starts to learn to make the same choices when we’re not touching him.
To start, pick the side where the horse bends the most easily (hence, the shoulder he finds it easiest to yield). Face your horse’s neck and take contact with the noseband of the halter by hooking two or three fingers down through the noseband in front of the cheekpiece connection. (You’ll connect the left hand if you’re on the left side of the horse and the right hand if you’re on the right side.)
Use your release series at the throatlatch and shoulder and lift the ribcage to ask the horse to bend slightly, guiding his nose toward you while rock his weight onto the opposite foreleg and send his ribcage away from you while he rocks back onto his hindquarters. Stand facing him at about a ¾ angle (you’re turned toward his opposite hindleg) and tap him gently with the whip on the shoulder nearest to you, the one that is unweighted, while you allow him to rock forward. You want him to step forward and slightly laterally with that leg. However, at first, you’ll reward any movement of the “correct” leg – backward, sideways or forward.
At first, make a big deal of his making the correct choice – stroke him and use your voice to let him know he did well, reinforcing his willingness to try. If he moves the other foreleg, stop him immediately and repeat the releases, making sure you are balanced evenly on your feet and breathing. He doesn’t get any kind of punishment for making the “wrong” choice; he just doesn’t get praised. Experiment to find out how much bend you need at the throatlatch and shoulder to encourage your horse to unweight the foot you want him to move. How can you set him up to succeed in this exercise? Hint: the straighter the spine, the easier it is to access the hind end.
After you have achieved some consistency getting your horse to step through with one foreleg, move to the opposite side and repeat the exercise. It’s completely normal for one side to seem to “learn” more quickly than the other. Don’t worry. Unless the horse has some soundness issue or needs chiropractic adjustment, both sides will be able to do this exercise. If one side seems especially stuck, go back to the hands-on releases and undo the bracing in the S-turns exercise or the pendulum work until you achieve some lightness.
Be sure to stay calm and positive while teaching your horse to do this simple exercise. This isn’t a dominance-based game focused on getting the horse to obey you; it’s a question-and-answer session where you learn to ask the question in a way that elicits the answer you’re looking for. If you get agitated, your horse will read your energy as a potential danger signal and tense up. That won’t help you achieve the soft releases you need in order to help him rebalance correctly to move the foot you’re asking him to.
You can always take a break and come back to the work when both of you can be more focused on the teaching and learning process. It pays to spend the time needed for each horse to perfect this movement, because it forms the basis for being able to teach him to choose a balanced posture when longeing.
What we’re after here is straightness on the circle, the ability for the horse to bend to conform to the track of a circle with his hind end pushing the front end squarely. One way to determine whether the horse is doing this is to note whether the inside hind foot and inside fore are on the same track. If the horse steps the inside hind foot up to or beyond the print left by the inside forefoot, without deviating medially or laterally, he is moving straight on the circle.
Once you can get the basic rock back, rebalance and step through with each side in hand, start feeding out the line a few inches (really!) at a time and practice maintaining your supportive connection while giving the horse a bit more freedom to decide how he wants to balance.
At first you’ll probably find it easiest to walk beside the horse, continuing to monitor and adjust the shoulder position and impulsion (stroke the hindquarter) with your handy arm extender, also known as a dressage whip or TTEAM wand. This is a kind of modified ground-driving position that functions like classical in-hand work, putting you in a position to support and correct while giving the horse varying degrees of freedom to explore and problem-solve for himself. Here's a video clip to show you what it might look like.
At first, I highly recommend you use the assistance of a fenceline on the other side of the horse – a roundpen, arena or even poles on the ground can work – to help with straightness. Later you can test yourself and the horse by venturing into open space, ready to return to the useful fence as needed.
When you feel reasonably sure you can maintain the horse’s shape on a gentle curve such as the rail of a roundpen, it’s time to start building smaller circles. To do that, you stop walking alongside the horse, ground your feet and ask for the horse to walk a circle around you. Notice that he has to use his outside shoulder, stepping across the midline with that foreleg to keep his shoulders on the circle. At the same time, he’s stepping under with the inside hindleg to keep his hindquarters on the track. This requires him to bend through the ribcage and flank area (think of it as his waistline!) It’s the ground version of the classic spiral in, spiral out exercise used in many disciplines for balance and suppleness.
If your horse can’t hold his shape on the circle, give him a bit more line and move your feet to walk a small circle and allow his track to trace a larger one. Do one or two revolutions, then send him laterally back out to the larger circle, walking alongside and asking him to move out with strokes down his hindquarter if needed. Then repeat the transition from large circle to smaller one, experimenting until you figure out what size circle is the smallest he can maintain while still staying soft and relaxed. And avoid the temptation drill him over and over in the small circle – the real learning opportunity in this exercise is in the balance changes needed to transition between small and large.
This is also an exercise that benefits from frequent breaks – both changes of direction in the exercise and intermingling with other work. You might return to your S-turns, give the horse respite by letting him walk on a loose line for a bit or even let him loose to free longe a few circles at trot or canter. (You’ll see what postural choices he has learned so far.) Tailor the length of the work periods to the horse’s age, fitness and personality, remembering the goal is always to keep him in that calm, learning frame of mind.
Be prepared to experience – and learn from – all kinds of evasions and interesting choices. You’ll start to notice movement patterns that might help you understand chronic issues you’ve had under saddle or in other groundwork. For example, most horses are “sided” just like people are “handed.” For a horse who is habitually braced on his forehand and to the left (a common byproduct of being handled on the ground from the near side), the movement habit probably goes like this:
When you ask him to rock back onto his hindquarter, he shoves his left shoulder forward to reinforce his left-forehand-heavy stance. If you try to get him to lift that shoulder, he turns his nose to the right and puts his neck into the brace, as well. The more you try to get him to lighten, the more he hollows his back.
Keep practicing until your horse can hold the circle reliably on the short line at the walk and trot in both directions. (This is generally too small a circle to lope or canter.) For variety, change up the exercise. Add a pole or work on slightly uneven ground so there is a downhill and uphill side to the circle. Every balance question you ask requires your horse to focus and make a postural choice.
Once you have mastered all the variations you can come up with on the short line, we’ll replace the leadrope with a longe line, and proceed to build larger straight, supple circles. After that, your options are limitless for the kinds of balancing and suppling work you can do.
© 2009 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman
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