Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.
Common Problems for Beginner Riders
Does your horse have trouble staying on the rail in the riding ring? Do you feel as if he is leaning into his turns and not very balanced? Everyone will experience this problem at some point in time. It is good to be ready with an understanding of why they do it and how you can correct it.
Why Do Horses Behave This Way?
We wonder, why do they drop their shoulders on corners and lean in against our inside hand and leg? I have found they do it for one of two reasons. No matter what the reason, it is an unpleasant feeling and luckily can be corrected!
Reason 1: Rider Leaning in
If the rider is leaning in on the circle, more than just one thing is going wrong in their position. They have dropped their inside shoulder, which means now they don't have equal weight on their seat bones in the saddle, so the rider is not centered anymore.
Our inside leg is there to shape the bend of the horse on the circle, so if you are leaning in with your shoulder dropped down, most likely you are also leaning forward. What happens when you lean forward you ask? It makes your leg slide back behind you, where it won't be able to help with balancing the horse at all!
As we drop our inside shoulder since our arm is connected to our shoulder and our hand is connected to our arm, we are dropping our inside hand too. Which means you aren't using one of the tools you have to help lift the horse's inside shoulder. Remember we can't just ride the head! We have to ride the whole horse, with our hands controlling the front end and leg directing the body behind the girth.
Reason 2: Lack of Training or Laziness
If you are riding a green horse, he is most likely dropping his shoulder and falling in because he doesn't know yet how to balance himself. If you are riding an older well-broken horse or lesson horse chances are he is falling in out of laziness. They are smart, and they know that the smaller the circle the fewer steps, which means less work.
Horses also fall in when they don't understand what the inside leg means, remember, as I have mentioned in earlier articles, the horse has to be taught to move off of pressure. In other words, if the horse hasn't had much formal training, he has no clue that your leg pushing on one side means to move over. Starting this sort of work on the ground with a young horse, I find to be most effective. I'm writing this article for the newer less experienced riders to help them learn to correct it on a reasonably well-trained horse. Teaching a green horse to move away from the leg is a whole different article for another day.
Normally, unless it is a green horse, it is a combination of rider fault and the horse being lazy. Most of the time it is due to common riding flaws that new riders do unconsciously that allows the horse to drop its shoulder and fall in. Once the rider becomes more aware of the part their position plays, it should be a lot easier to correct.
Start just riding your horse on the rail at the walk. Be very aware of whether you can feel both seat bones equally in the saddle. Also, be aware if you have both of your reins the same length with enough contact to have a straight line from your elbow to your hand to the bit. What is enough contact? Enough contact for this exercise is that you can wiggle your fingers on your right hand and feel the bit move in the left side of the horse's mouth and vice versa. Roll your shoulders up and back, pretend someone had a string on the top of your helmet and they were pulling your upper body up. Weight evenly on both feet, straight line shoulder, hip to heel.
Now that you have checked your position, start to push your horse for a little more motor in the walk. A lot of times when they are lazy, the first thing they want to do as you try to push them forward is to drop their shoulder in and lean into your inside leg.
If your horse starts to drop his shoulder and lean in, the first thing I want you to do is to lift your inside hand. By lifting your inside hand, not only does the horse feel your hand lifting, but it also puts your inside seat bone back in position and makes it easier to use your leg.
Speaking of the horse moving off your leg, you should probably ride with a crop for corrections if necessary.
So, I want you to practice a marching walk around your arena, checking your position every so often. Then, when you get to each corner of the ring, I want you to ride a circle, a comfortable size, nothing small or tight. In a dressage arena terms maybe about 15 meters.
As you make this smaller circle, you will signal with your inside rein for the horse to turn to start the circle. If your hand drops down to the inside, as you ask, that means you are dropping what is meant to hold the horse up and out on the circle. So, you keep your inside hand up at the withers or slightly above and use lots of inside leg to move the body out onto the circle. Remember, pressure and release is how we train horses to do what we want. So, once he softens his rib cage and moves off your inside leg, you can relax your leg and not take it off; just relax and hold it there in case you need to make a correction.
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For some people, it helps if they have something visual in each corner to focus on bending around, a rain barrel or a cone. If that helps you then go for it. So you are going to keep going around each circle until you have your horse balanced, with his inside shoulder up and not falling into your inside leg. So you might have to make more than one circle in each corner, no biggie. It's a schooling exercise, and you do it as many times in each corner as you need to to get it figured out.
Now, when riding from one corner to the next, your horse may try to fall in off the rail. Sometimes, they do that if you have made a few circles because they think they know what it is you are doing next. If your horse leans in when on the rail you do the same thing that you did on the circle. Lift that inside hand to lift the inside shoulder, hold that inside leg on until they move over, and then soften your aids once they do what you want. Remember the softening is just as important as the correction for the horse to realize what it is we are expecting of them.
If you practice this exercise enough (being super aware of your position), my bet is it won't take long to correct. It's muscle memory once your body memorizes what it is supposed to do, you won't have to think about it, and you will lift the horse up and out naturally if he starts to fall in. Also, you will hopefully be able to correct it before either of you get really out of balance.
Make sure you practice this exercise going in both directions! Start at the walk, and as you master it move into a trot and then canter.
Using a circle that is about 20 meters, pick a direction and start to walk your horse on the circle. Again, walk with energy not like you are out for a Sunday stroll. The circle should begin being as wide as your space. Gradually you are going to try and spiral the circle in smaller.
You will push with your outside leg to move the horse's body in on the circle. You will make sure the shoulder doesn't drop by lifting your inside hand, even slightly higher than the outside is okay for now. This next part is important. As you are seated on the saddle you are going to turn and look where you are going around the circle, your seat bones and hips will help to guide the horse onto a smaller circle since you have your outside leg pressing. So you are going to turn your whole body, which makes your hands also turn, so it's like you are taking your hands, keeping them up so that you and your horse's inside shoulders are both lifted. Then just guide them slowly in on the circle.
So, it's like your outside leg is telling the horse to make a smaller circle by moving the hind end in, and by sitting balanced in the saddle and looking around your spiral, you can almost turn your body where you want to go and lift both hands up and in to spiral him in on the circle.
Remember this is a schooling exercise, so if you have to exaggerate something or tap with the whip for a response that is totally fine. Remember, the object is for us to be able to bring our horse in on a smaller circle using our hands and legs together. That way he doesn't drop his shoulder, fall in or get super crooked. If you just use your inside hand to make the circle smaller, you will just bring his head too far to the inside, causing his hind end to swing farther out. Not to mention, most of the time when I have seen people try and make their circle smaller just with their inside rein, they drop the inside hand lower than the outside—inviting the horse to lean in both with shoulder and body.
Once you have spiraled him into a reasonably small size circle, now practice spiraling back out. You will put your inside leg on, push out on his body, lift both hands up, and to the outside just a bit. Your inside hand will be lifting a little to the outside, and your outside hand will be slightly away from the horse's neck, guiding him out on a wider circler. Think of it as making a space for him to step into so he can move farther out on the spiral. So one more time, hands lifted up and out, move your outside hand away from his neck, push with your inside leg and he should move out into that space you created with your outside rein.
Practice this in both directions, of course starting at the walk and as you get better at it, do it at the trot, and you can even do it at a canter when you get really good.
This one is a good one for on the ground too. You just want to try and gently bring your horse's head around to touch your foot while they are standing still. Make sure the opposite rain is soft enough that it is allowing them to turn their head that way. Make sure you are keeping your hand up as you bring their head around, to encourage them to keep the shoulder up.
In the beginning, he might just walk in a small circle whichever way you have his head turned. That is okay if he does, just keep asking his head to come around until he touches your foot and then release the pressure and give him a big pat. Then try the same thing on the opposite side.
If you practice enough, eventually they will be able to flex their head around to your foot without walking in a circle anymore. Which means they are flexible enough in those muscles to keep their shoulder up. Which is just what we need to keep them balanced and soft on our circles under saddle.
You can also practice flexing with a halter and leadline. Sometimes this is a good way because if they are resistant to moving their head around, you could always use a little bit of treat to entice them.
Just remember, the object is to get to the point where they have their shoulder up and are balanced and can flex their neck and head right around to your foot without having to fall in and move in a circle. Some horses find it harder than others, but they will get it if you practice enough, and doing it on the ground easily translates to under saddle.
Have Someone Watch You and Ask Your Trainer Questions
If you can have a ground person watching you, they can let you know whether or not you are leaning in or dropping your inside hand. I bet if you realized every time you did it and corrected it right away, your horse dropping its shoulder and leaning wouldn't be an issue anymore.
Sometimes, these things are subtle and sometimes they are obvious. Meaning sometimes they lean in so much that they move away from the rail and get crooked and your instructor will clearly see it. Then hopefully talk you through fixing it.
If it is a more subtle version of dropping the shoulder and leaning in, your instructor may not see it happening, especially if it isn't all the time. So if you are feeling the horse getting heavier in your inside hand and not moving off your inside leg on turns or circles bring it up to your trainer.
We can't help you if we don't realize the problem! Maybe we do see it happening, but assume you know how to fix it since you haven't asked us! As trainers, when we are watching you, we are checking for so many things, and sometimes we are looking so hard at one certain thing, and we are working hard hoping to see progress in one area, that we don't think about anything else. We go out in the ring with an idea of what we need to work on. Since horses and people are always different, sometimes our plans go perfectly, other times we end up doing something totally different!
We definitely have a method to our madness, at least I do! That being said if you are feeling something happening and your trainer isn't mentioning it then speak up. They will be glad you did and be proud that you noticed another aspect to work on.
Riding Is Multi-Tasking at Its Finest
Riding horses well is multi-tasking at its finest—feeling things as they happen and fixing things continuously as they change underneath of you. It's not easy! Work hard on that solid centered position, with weight in both seat bones and a straight line—shoulder, hip, heel. The sooner you get that muscle memory the easier everything will be.
I have done these exercises myself as well as with my students, and it has helped improve awareness of how our position effects the horse's body, as well as helped with the leaning in on corners habit that some horses have.
If you are willing to look at yourself and how to improve as a rider, then you will continue to grow in your horsemanship. We have to take ownership because a lot of times we are influencing the horse's body in the wrong way and don't even realize it. A true rider looks at themselves before blaming their horse for a problem.
© 2018 Ellison Hartley