When you are riding, is your horse carrying himself, or are you in-fact carrying him?
Self carriage in horses can be explained as your horse carrying himself, without needing support from or relying on you, the rider, in order to continue and maintain the movement he is performing.
Your horses ability to carry himself comes from him being responsible for his own body, balanced physically and also mentally because he understands what is expected of him and is confident that he can do it.
As you ride, stop directing for a few strides; will your horse be confident, competent, balanced and able to maintain the correct amounts of impulsion and tension to ‘hold’ what he is doing, until you come back with further instructions?
Unfortunately, for most riders the answer is no! In fact, most horses are ridden in such a way that they may never be truly able to achieve and maintain a degree of self carriage in higher levels of performance and work.
Self carriage comes from your horse being encouraged to work by himself, confident in his own abilities and your consistent correction only when he gets things wrong. Self carriage is really self motivation on your horses part and his knowing that when you ask for something it is his job to respond and then continue until asked to do differently.
However this simply cannot happen if you, as the rider, are micro-managing every movement.
The riders job is not to support the horse through every stride, but rather to influence the horses movements and balance, which will then, over time, allow the horse to develop the necessary strength to support himself, and achieve true self carriage.
Another important aspect is the level of trust which must develop between both horse and rider and also, the horses confidence in himself and the same of the rider in herself.
This is where developing ‘feel’ as a rider is important. You must be able to feel that he is about to go wrong, or about to lose his balance, or about to stop what is being asked and then act on this before it happens. Once you have given the aids to get your horse back on track, again, stop giving them and allow him to perform the movement.
There is a blog post and audio lesson on Improving Your Feel in the Saddle HERE.
Self carriage requires the horse to be balanced, supple, have the required level of physical strength and his being capable of using this in a controlled and consistent way every time.
Often we see horses in the paddock or field with wonderful self carriage, prancing around, 100% control of their body. They display athletic abilities and prowess that often, as the rider, we can only dream of emulating while in the saddle.
The disconnect comes because under the saddle, the riders influence pays a huge part. Rider are often asking their horse for completely different movements, unbeknownst to them, by moving around in the saddle. Unfortunately, if there is not a high level of understanding and awareness on the riders part as to how to control their body while riding, these questions may conflict each other, ruining any hope of obtaining true self carriage.
It takes calmness of mind from both horse and rider to achieve true self carriage and also the knowledge that self carriage in a young, green or preliminary level horse looks and feels different to self carriage in a well schooled, experienced grand prix level horse.
When schooling our horses, it is important to introduce new movements slowly and gradually. Remember that the level of balance, for new exercises, will be in direct proportion to the muscles strength and ability while being used that way. When balance is lost, apply the correct aids quickly to correct your horse, and over time allow him to hold this balance longer and longer in the movement.
Also remember that self carriage will require different use of the muscles depending on what movement is being performed. Extended trot will both look and feel very different to collected trot and so on.
Developing self carriage, I feel, begins by the rider working on gaining full control of their aids and developing the ability follow when their horse responds correctly.
If he responds immediately and correctly to what you are asking… stop asking! Bring your aids back to neutral and allow him to do what you have asked of him. If he begins to lose what you have asked or if he wanders (both mentally or physically) off track from what you are asking, then use your aids to correct him. As soon as he responds and is back where you want, shift back to neutral again.
Riders, whether consciously or not, often nag their horses continuously while riding. This will work against your horse developing himself enough to achieve self carriage. It is important to develop the skills to ask and then allow your horse to perform his movements. A horse that can only work when his rider is controlling every little micro movement is, in all disciplines, not going to be a successful one and, in some cases may even become downright dangerous to ride.
The first thing you can do to help your horse to achieve self carriage is carry yourself and make sure your position is correctly applied in order to support your horse and cause as little distraction and hindrance as possible.
Ask your horse to halt. Rather than worrying about the quality of the halt for now, rather notice if is happy to stop where you ask and then wait for further instruction. If he is jig jogging, side stepping, pulling, leaning, walking on, reversing, do a quick check of your position and what aids you are applying.
Do the same when you ask him to walk on. Notice how quickly he responds and if you have to ask more than once, back this up with your whip or spur. Once he is indeed walking, just allow him to walk.
One of the most difficult things to do as a rider is nothing! Nothing is just being neutral and rather only applying aids when necessary.
- Pay attention to what you are asking, are you nagging?
- Are you being heavy?
- Are you fidgeting or nudging, patting, tapping, and just micro managing your horses every move?
If so, you need to control yourself and only ‘talk’ when you are required to do so! Again, bring your horse back to halt and notice if he does as you ask and then awaits further instruction or if he is continuously moving and fighting. If so, correct quickly and then return to neutral. Repeat the exercise again until you are confident that your horse is responding in a timely and proportionate manner to each question you ask.
We said at the beginning that self carriage becomes possible as your horse develops his balance and suppleness. A way to do this is by working and developing his top-line.
You can do this by working on a 20m circle in a long and low frame. He must work from behind, pushing with his back end. Make sure you are not continuously correcting and ‘holding’ him in position, but rather guiding and correcting before it becomes necessary.
Notice how balanced he feels and once he is reaching down for the contact, stretch your hands to him for 1 or 2 strides. Notice if he can hold himself, in this self carriage, even if just for a second or two to begin with and then work on lengthening the time he can support himself.