There is an energy that we experience when we are out on the trail with our horses. It can feel like an added enthusiasm from both horse and rider. And, maybe, blended with the thought of unlimited possibilities.
Whatever the reason for it, as riders we can begin to use this energy to develop our horse’s training and our own riding skills.
Things that were perhaps feeling flat, or sticky when working on them in the arena become more fluid. And points in the session when we were struggling to maintain flow, can be transformed when we work on them while out on the trail.
Here are 3 exercises you can try with your horse the next time you’re out of the arena and on the trail.
1. Straight Transitions on the Trail
Begin by assessing your own straightness here. Are your hands level? Or have you a habit of carrying one lower than the other? Are your reins equal length? And your thighs and knees, are they symmetrical? Or is one more forward, higher, or lower than the other? What about your shoulders? Are they the same distance from your ears? Perform a few simple ‘checks’ with your own body first.
Often when we are on the trail, we can become a little complacent with our own position. Check both your position and your posture before you begin assessing your horse.
From here, assess your horse’s straightness in whatever gait you are in at that moment. Are his shoulders positioned directly in front of his hips? Are both left hooves on one track and both right hooves on the other?
Once you have established a certain degree of straightness in the gait you are in, begin preparing for a transition. Use your half-halt to firstly get your horse’s attention, and then to indicate something is about to change.
As you ride the transition itself, notice how well your horse can maintain straightness.
Once you have a baseline, you can begin working up and down through your gaits. Halt, walk, trot, and (if safe to do so) canter can all be incorporated into your work. Pay close attention to how any extra energy is being channeled or lost throughout each transition. The energy on the trail can work for you if you use it wisely.
2. Flexion Through the Poll
Once your horse is feeling a little looser and warmed up, you can begin to work on developing more suppleness through both yourself and your horse. I love starting with simple poll flexion questions. Do this by asking your horse to ever so slightly flex to the right or the left.
The goal is for him to achieve flexion while maintaining forwardness, rhythm, and straightness. Pay attention to achieving flexion through his poll, while making sure his shoulders don’t ‘derail’ off the chosen track.
Work between asking to the left and then coming back to the center, or straight. Then repeating this to the right. You may find that one side is easier than the other. Take this information back to the arena with you and use it to develop a training plan to help strengthen your horse equally. This exercise can be ridden in halt, walk, and trot.
3. Riding Laterally on the Trail
Lateral work is possible on even the most narrow of trails. In fact, often the narrow trail will help you keep you moving ‘straight’ while asking ‘sideways’ questions! You can ask your horse to leg yield, shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, and haunches-in while on the trail. You can also use gates as the perfect opportunity to practice turn on the forehand.
I find that many horses who tend to lose rhythm while working laterally in the arena, do not have the same problems while on the trail. The path and the energy both tend to help them to continue moving forward.
While working on a certain movement, remember to remain vigilant about your track and line. The magic of lateral movement is asking your horse to remain accurate while moving differently. Your job is to facilitate this movement, not move your horse!
Remember to continue to engage the energy into the contact as you ask. Also, make sure you are being consistent with your position and posture. A heavy seat will often block any lateral energy from flowing.
Engaging the Energy
The next time you find yourself struggling with something in the arena, make a change. The simple change in scenery that being out on the trail provides will immediately shift the energy for both you and your horse. This shift is often all that is needed to begin truly focusing and working.
Take full advantage of the energy available to you and your horse. Practice ‘difficult to do in the arena things’. Or ‘that often feels flat in the arena’ while out on the trail.
This truly has the potential to transform your riding and your horse’s training. And, all the positive benefits will be felt when you do get back into the arena again.
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