Do you , like many riders, find yourself overlooking the humble serpentine as being too basic and easy a schooling movement to be of any real consequence to your horses development? If so, I would love to challenge you that the modest serpentine, if ridden and worked on correctly, can be a fantastic training aid for both your horse; and for you as a rider…
The serpentine is the sort of exercise that can be used over and over again, daily if necessary, to improve your horses balance and rhythm, as well as his straightness, suppleness, bend, and can also help, later, with lateral movement.
They are a great tool that you can use to first assess your horses rhythm, balance and straightness. Serpentines will often show up any favoring of one side to the other in your horse which, once identified, allows you to develop a solid strategy from where to jump start not only your horses training, but also your own.
The serpentine is also a great tool that riders to use to improve and develop their own skills in the saddle. I have found them extremely useful in helping to keep riders looking forward and thinking ahead as to where they are going, and how the movement they are riding now will affect this. This combination will ensure that are looking up and ahead, while still riding the specific movement you are riding at that moment.
Unfortunately many riders see the serpentine as being merely a basic riding school movement and not giving it the attention it deserves while being ridden. This is where the potential is greatest for riders to get this wonderful and helpful movement wrong.
One of the first steps to riding a correct serpentine is to continuously monitor and feel what is happening underneath you, adjusting all the time to the different requirements of you as a rider, as you and your horse progress through the serpentine.
I have found that many riders tend to get ahead of the movement while riding a serpentine, both physically with their upper bodies and mentally, in their heads.
Serpentines teaches control on the riders part, to wait for each aspect of the movement as they ride through.
I have also seen riders leaning and collapsing through their upper bodies as they ride through a serpentine. It is almost as though they wish to get through the serpentine as quickly as possible and are physically willing their horses on and forward through the movement.
On the other side of the spectrum, I will find riders taking far too much of a hold on the reins or head and resulting on the horse going or leaning on to the forehand and becoming heavy. Part of riding the horse through a serpentine involves allowing your horse to carry himself through the movement and
Lack of preparation will result in late transitions or inaccurate changes of flexion which affect the whole exercise. It will also show up inconsistencies in tempo, bend and general suppleness of both horse and rider.
The next time you are in the arena riding, really use the time spent riding through the serpentine movement to, firstly, notice which side you and your horse find easier. Look out for any differences between the shape, bend and later transitions from one rein to the other.
I suggest taking the time before you mount up to mark out your serpentine, so you initially don’t have to worry about hitting the correct parts of the arena or figuring out where to go. Use poles or cones, however bearing in mind that sometimes riding over a pole each time may cause you and your horse to lose concentration… Maybe two parallel poles to ride through may work better.
Ride the serpentine first in walk and then work up to trot. Try and keep all of the loops the same size and aim for accuracy throughout the movement. Ride the serpentine from both directions and begin from both A and C on the arena so your horse does not begin to anticipate the movement. You can start initially with a large 3 loop serpentine and then, as you and your horse become more balanced over time, look to creating a 4 loop serpentine and even a 5 loop, depending on your arena and experience level.
Also concentrate on the ‘straight’ part between the loops. Use this space to half halt and re-balance your horse. You can initially have as many as 4 or 5 strides of ‘straight’ with a green horse and slowly as balance improves, work to 1 stride of straightness.
Pay particular attention to your horses shoulders, are they ‘falling out’ or or is maybe your horse using the rail as support? If so, you can begin by ‘shortening’ the width of your serpentine, by riding the outer most point of each ‘loop’ about 2 to 3 meters before you reach the track of the arena fence. Again, as you ride through the movement, analyse how well balanced your horse is when the fence or track is no longer there to support him.
Look for any leaning in from both you or your horse. Also try and keep the tempo and bend all the way through. See is your horse is willing to wait for each movement or if he is rushing through. This can often indicate a lack of balance and is something which should be corrected early in your horses training.
As always, come back to walk if there are problems and work through them from the walk before trying again in the trot.
Once both you and your horse are happy and confident riding through the initial 3 loop serpentine, you can begin to add variations to the exercise. One of these is to ‘close’ each loop into a circle, which you can ride for 1 or more circuits before continuing on with the traditional serpentine itself.
This exercise can be used to re-balance the horse, and also, can slow things down if necessary or change things up if your horse is beginning to anticipate the movement and run through it.
As you are riding each circle, make sure you don’t get ahead of your horses movement and ahead of the vertical with your upper body. Use your bending aids to correctly to ride the circle and then half halt as you leave the circle before then straightening your horse, crossing the center line and then continue on with your serpentine, bending the other way.
Another variation you can use of the traditional serpentine is flexing your horse away from the direction he is working on each loop and thus asking your horse for some shoulder-fore as you go around each loop. However, your horse does need to be supple and obedient to the aids, as well as supple and balanced, before attempting to perform this particular movement.
Finally, you can work transitions into your serpentine, both incorporating different gaits and transitions within the initial gait itself. This can be built up to cantering your serpentine, crossing the center line and changing bend through trot and later canter itself by performing flying changes.