The key to fostering and maintaining a long and healthy life for dressage horses is balance. As a rider, having a keen sense of balance entails riding your horse in a way that empowers the horse’s body, as opposed to putting more weight and stress on the horse’s frame.
Unfortunately, horses are naturally built to have a few balance issues, even without the weight of a rider. Hence it’s up to the rider to manage those issues and achieve the desired balance for the horse. Once the rider is able to do that, he or she will notice how their horse will automatically feel free to move forward and perform beautifully without enduring any tension.
Specifically, the balance issues horses tend to suffer from are longitudinal, also known as back to front. Naturally, horses are inclined to be more eager with the forehand than they are with the hindquarters. Moreover, they are innately build on the forehand because of their large, protruding head and neck. This tendency leads the forehand and the hindquarters to not always be coordinated with one another. Ever wonder why your horse tends to initiate movement with just his front end? Back to front balance issues – this is why.
Most horses are pretty unconscious about their hind, so they end up dragging their hind end as if it was a trailer being pulled by their front. Another way to think about this is: your horse’s front end acts like the pulling engine, while your horse’s hind end acts as the pushing engine. This becomes a problem when the pulling engine is dominant in the moment of an upward transition. If this happens, the horse gets a bit too long in the frame, it gets hollow in the back with its shoulders down, and sometimes uneasy in the hand. Whereas, when the hind end is the dominant force, it causes the horse to cover ground and has the effect of lifting the forehand.
You might be asking– so if the horse is innately built to have balance issues, how can I, the rider, improve or better yet, solve these issues? The best tools a rider can use are half halts and transitions. Through these exercises you can train the horse to respond with his back and hindquarters to your seat and leg aids.
For example, when it comes to the half halts, the rider can gently teach the horse to wait with his forehand and work more specifically with the hindquarters. While the half halt can take on many meanings, the primary message from the rider to the horse is “balance under me.” The best balance will be achieved when the center of gravity of the rider is directly over the center of gravity of the horse, and the horse is able to step with his inside hind foot directly under that mark.
When it comes to transitions, the rider is essentially sending the same message to the horse as with the half halts (“balance under the me.”) For example, when you teach your horse a downward transition, you are essentially teaching him to wait with the forehand and carry the weight with the hindquarters. On the other hand, when you introduce him to an upward transition you are encouraging him to thrust and reach with the inside hind leg under your center of gravity. Both kinds of transitions help the horse carry the weight from the front to the back, hence improving their balance issues.
Ultimately, how you optimize your dressage horse’s balance is going to be up to you, the rider. Depending on your assessment of your horse’s strengths and what he can improve upon, you will decide what you want from your horse’s hindquarters. Perhaps it’s power, posture, or your horse’s reach. Regardless, you will adjust the exercises accordingly, always keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is to improve your horse’s overall balance, head to toe.