Lately I’ve been teaching a lot of lessons to clients with green horses that are new to dressage and bending. The starting point to teach the horse how to bend laterally is to teach the horse how to bend to the inside or outside without “losing” the shoulders. When a horse loses their shoulders, it means that they can’t stay straight on the desired circle or line that a rider is asking. They may become heavy and lean on the riders hands or hold their head to the outside of the circle while they lean on their inside shoulder.
How can you tell if your horse has trouble separating the neck from the shoulders? Say for example you are tracking to the right on a 20-meter circle. When you ask the horse to bend a little to the right he takes his whole body to the inside of the circle and overloads the right front shoulder. After a few strides of this the rider will not be able to keep the horse on a perfect circle.
The remedy is to teach your horse to move straight on the circle, by asking for lateral bend to the right WHILE keeping the shoulders on the circle. So, how do you do this without spinning out and making super small circles?
The simple solution for green horses is to ask for bend by lifting the inside hand and then immediately after releasing or lowering the inside rein, the rider moves their outside hand horizontally away from her body in a quick opening rein to move the shoulders out. This is on a really small scale of an inch or so, but the aids might be a bit louder in the beginning when you are first teaching a horse to understand. As the rider, it’s your job to counterbalance these aids, it’s a bit of a timing dance, with one hand lowering and releasing while the other moves out to remind the horse to keep his shoulders on the circle.
Likewise, if your horse is drifting out on the circle, you might have to move your inside hand horizontally towards the inside of the circle a bit to put the shoulders in a proper balance before asking for flexion. When your horse learns how to flex or counter flex without losing the shoulders, he will be in a better balance. A balanced horse is a light horse.
A common problem that I see is that when a horse loses their balance and is leaning over the inside shoulder and swinging their head to the outside, often times a student will try to pull their inside rein across the withers in an attempt to move the head back to the right. This does not fix the balance of the shoulders. Instead, a simple alternative is to horizontally open the outside rein to transfer the weight back to the outside shoulder a bit more and then ask for flexion with the inside rein. Although it sounds counterintuitive, many times you have to fix the balance of the shoulders before you can address the flexion.