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Balance & Rhythm
in the Young Horse

By Manolo Mendez (Copyright © 2002 Manolo Mendez)

 Head Rider from the Royal Spanish School in Jerez (home of the 2002 World Equestrian Games) continues his series of articles on training the horse … from the very first kindergarten days all the way to Grand Prix.  In this article, he tells us about how to develop balance and rhythm in the young horse, and how any factor inhibiting freedom of movement works against good training.

 The training of the young horse continues in the way described in Articles 1-3, practising small, easy figures and working  towards (but not expecting at this stage) perfect balance and rhythm.  The rider makes sure that all previous training is being confirmed for the horse, by constantly strengthening the foundations, and making sure the horse understands.  This builds confidence.  We need to know that the Grand Prix horse will be able to read us easily and subtly at the end of his career – this is what we are working towards with the young horse.

 The horse should be in daily work now of 45 minutes – walk, trot and canter. It is best to start with walk, but sometimes a young horse may be unsettled and not listening, and we may need to start with a canter.  We have to read our horse and work him as he needs. The rider at this stage must be very careful how he asks for everything; it would be too easy to push for too much, too soon.

 Let a horse enjoy his work.  A young horse needs to have an open body and a long neck, slowly developing the right muscles in the right places.  To become an athlete, a human might go to the gym five days a week to develop his body slowly with the right exercises.  It is the same for a young horse.

 Good balance and rhythm can be developed in all horses

 It is imperative that the rider/trainer recognises the fact that all horses are individuals and must be trained as such. Every horse has a different trot, needs a different contact, has a different posture in the body.  Some naturally have long necks when they work, some will go high in the neck. Some have a naturally good rhythm; some horses need us to create the rhythm very carefully.  But we must never force the horse to develop a “good” rhythm because this may make him rush, causing him to hollow his back and trail out more behind with his hind legs.  Then he may never find his own balance and rhythm.

 There is a very fine line between a good rhythm, a rushing horse and a lazy horse.  The rider must help the horse discern what is a good rhythm by giving the right signals, so that a horse gets the clear message of what is best for developing all the correct muscles he needs to make his body stronger, and where he will be most comfortable.

 All aids must be in harmony with the horse’s “engine” so as to keep it purring smoothly forward - and every horse has a different engine.   It is like changing the gears on a car: while the hand seeks the correct gear, the feet must work the clutch and accelerator independently so that there is exactly the right number of revs, and then there is no hopping or jerking.

 With a young horse that has naturally good rhythm, the rider must not be tempted into asking for more power too quickly, or the horse may start rushing, with his hind legs trailing out behind.  This is how we lose the horse’s natural balance.  With a horse that is naturally forward, and maybe even rushing to start with, we create a slower rhythm.

 Many horses trot slowly with a small step. This may not look exciting, but it is his natural rhythm The rider must be very patient, and understand that this horse is not worse than other horses.  He will get strong, he will give us everything he can and, if the training is good and makes allowances, he will become beautiful in his own right. He will build the right muscles and eventually find his own rhythm.  Just try to help him maintain his natural rhythm and balance; do not push harder because he may run and rush.  

 Incorrect training makes horses sore

 Horses will do their best because they are kind. But sometimes, so as not to destroy balance and rhythm, we have to do things the book doesn’t tell us; to worry less about getting it to look perfect.  Putting the emphasis on looking perfect can cause bad communication and make a young horse confused.    We are training – not looking for points in a competition. The aim of training a horse is not competition.  Training is an end in itself.  Making a horse as supple, flexible and beautiful as it can be as an individual is the ultimate goal.

 We want the horse to develop his own balance and rhythm to the best of his athletic ability, and so we are very careful with the horse’s frame.  We watch what the horse is doing with the hocks because that is what he is doing with his nose.  If his nose is behind the vertical, the hocks cannot come through to cover enough ground to create natural suspension.  He may get the hocks high, but in a way that is bad for his body because he will lose the angle of the shoulder.  The more experienced horse has to lift his knee a certain way to do piaffe. The knee to the shoulder becomes a different angle, and this angle must correspond with the angle in the hindquarter.  Every part of the horse must work together to perform the advanced movements.  If one piece is not working correctly, the whole horse cannot do the movement properly. The suspension and flexion is in the spine. When the spine is not “connected”, the horse is “missing” in his movement.  The horse can move his legs and body, but he is moving them without his spine being connected, and the result is stiff and not involving the whole body.   The horse becomes hollow.

 The hollow horse can’t perform without hardship, and therefore cannot develop its own balance and rhythm to its fullest potential.  A hollow horse cannot lift its belly and back.  The vertebrae are jammed shut.  When the horse’s back is up, the vertebrae are open.  When the back is lifted, the hips and tail get lower.

 One of the main reasons for horses breaking down when they should be in the prime of life is incorrect training – ie., training that prevents a horse from developing in gentle stages his own balance and rhythm, and/or forces him into advanced movements before he is physically capable. Working a young horse incorrectly – ie., working him behind the vertical - or allowing or causing  him to use one side of his body more than the other – ie., too much use of one rein - causes the horse to develop crookedness and stiffness.

 There are many other factors that can prevent the horse from working freely, even when the training is correct.  These are all too often overlooked by riders and trainers.  In fact, it is extremely rare to see a ridden horse in any discipline or at any level of training in any part of the world that is not sore in one or more parts of his body.

 Foot problems associated with shoes and/or incorrect trimming are one of the greatest and most common causes of discomfort and pain.  This is one of the main reasons horses start to break down in their work at only 12-14 years of age, and why so many horses have ringbone or similar lameness problems at only 15-16 years. 

 A too narrow or too small saddle is painful for the horse.  If it is placed too far forward, on the wither, a saddle will inhibit the horse from moving his shoulder freely.  Tight girths also cause discomfort and pain.  An uncomfortable saddle and/or a tight girth prevents the horse from opening its ribs and breathing deeply, and thus from taking in enough oxygen to enable him to use his muscles correctly.

 A stiff or crooked rider can also make a horse sore, stiff or crooked.  Also, inappropriate bits (or insensitive hands on the reins) cause pain in the mouth. 

“Acceptance” of the bit in the young horse

 There is a common misconception that a young horse must learn “accept” the bit.   There is no need, and we should not be in a hurry to make the young horse accept the bit. Bring the horse slowly up with very simple exercises, as explained in these training articles, till he learns to carry himself, and the weight from the rider.  There is a lot for the young horse to learn to accept besides the bit.

 Forcing a young horse to accept the bit can cause him to lean on the bit and go on the forehand.  A horse can go over the bit (using the wrong muscles in his neck) or behind the bit (behind the vertical) to avoid the pain caused by a strong hand. This will make a horse’s spine stiff. He will rush through corners, drop the shoulder to the inside, and his circles will get smaller as he falls. This creates an ugly picture both to look at - now and in the future, because the horse will not have a long future, working this way.  It puts too much pressure on the joints, ligaments and bones, etc.

 Strong rein contact also causes problems for the young horse.  When the contact is hard and unfeeling, the horse cannot respond.  We can see this too often at the higher levels, when riders need to have their hands up to their chest to “lift” the horse for piaffe and passage.  If they lowered their hands, the horses’ heads and necks would just drop because they would feel insecure.  This reflects a flaw in the foundations of the training.  We shouldn’t have to lift a horse up with the reins.

 The contact between hands and the horse’s mouth should be minimal – and this is what we should aim for from the very first when training a young horse.  Never bring the horse behind the vertical or to cause it to be frightened of stretching out in case its mouth is hurt. Riding a young horse behind the vertical is a big mistake.  Through all work, including transitions, the horse must stay in front of the vertical.  

 Developing natural balance and rhythm leads to true collection

 Working a more experienced horse behind the vertical also happens when the rider mistakenly thinks that this enables the horse to use his back.  You can force the neck into an outline, but this does not give you true collection.  True collection can only come from a horse allowed and able to move freely – having learned to carry himself through training which lets him develop his own balance and rhythm – which leads to impulsion.  One has to have impulsion first before collection can be attained.

 To many people, “impulsion” means the engagement of the hindquarters only.  BUT there can be engagement of hindquarters, yet the horse can still be crooked, stiff, hollow, leaning on the bit, working behind the bit, etc. A horse cannot have true impulsion unless he is able to freely shorten and lengthen his back.  How many riders do we see doing more work than the horse to engage the hindquarters - and still not create true impulsion?  True impulsion requires the rider to be in tune with the whole body of the horse, not just the hindquarters.

 True impulsion actually requires a number of things, a combination of many things - regularity of stride, the rider's ability to combine subtle use of leg pressure with hands used softly, in harmony, and with give and take.  This is finding the balance between the horse’s movement and yours. Provided you are in harmony with your horse’s movement, you are moving closer towards creating cadence and lightness, and therefore on your way to creating true collection. 

This of course brings us back to the importance of those initial phases when we are developing balance and rhythm in the young horse.

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