Series: Equine Biomechanics and the Timing of the Rider’s Aids, Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts. Check out Parts 1 & 2 if you haven’t already!

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: How do I know where my horse’s feet are?

Last week, we discussed the specifics of how the horse’s walk feels to our seat and identified specific parts of the walk cycle to begin understanding where the horse’s feet are in that cycle at any given time.

What might we ask of the horse at the walk?

  1. We can ask him to walk on more energetically, in a quicker tempo (this is a must with “lazy” horses).
  2. Or we can ask him to slow down if he’s on his toes a bit.
  3. We can request that he lengthen his strides.
  4. And we can ask him to shorten his strides.
  5. We can even ask him to step sideways under his body with one hind leg (let’s say the right hind) so that he moves with an almost-straight body towards the left, forward and sideways at the same time. You may recognize this as the movement called the Leg Yield.

Each of these requests requires an aid or aids that are administered at slightly different moments in time. Let’s go through them one at a time.

To energize the walk, we essentially ask the horse to pick his feet up and put them down more quickly, leaving them on the ground for fewer micro-seconds.

Aid: As the horse’s barrel swings LEFT, press your right calf clearly into the ribs for an instant, and then release. As it swings RIGHT, repeat with your left calf.

Think of this as urging the horse’s barrel to move more quickly in the direction it is going anyway. Back this up with the whip if necessary, at those same moments and right behind your calf (not way back on his haunches).

We focus on the horse’s barrel because it must swing left and right more quickly in order to allow the hind legs to stride forward more quickly. 

To slow the tempo of the walk, we ask each respective hind leg to stay on the ground a few micro-seconds longer.

Aids: Apply a soft half-halt at the beginning of Phase 2; this may last no longer than the whole period of Phase 2. The half-halt with the left rein affects the left hind leg, and the right rein addresses the right hind leg; both in sequence ask the horse to rebalance his center of mass a tiny bit backward. 

Alternatively, if we are expert enough, we can use our seat aids during Phase 2 to resist the forward carrying movement of the horse’s back by momentarily pushing one seat bone and then the other against that movement. The horse perceives this resistance as we would someone’s hand against our chest for an instant while we are walking. 

Either of these aids can be used separately, or both can be used in conjunction with each other.

To lengthen the walk stride, we ask the horse to push off harder against the ground at that moment when his leg is at the rearmost point of its trajectory, but before it has left the ground (end of Phase 2, just before Phase 3).

Aid: When your hip is at its highest or most backward point in the cycle, briefly close your calf on the same side against the horse’s ribcage to ask him to make an extra effort in pushing off against the ground.

That effort will translate into a longer airborne period and thus a longer stride. Do this on both sides of the ribcage, in sequence.

To shorten the walk stride, we can use the same approach as for slowing the walk, but to avoid losing the energy of the walk, we must also ask the horse to keep working rather than just slack off.

Aids: Sit extra tall, squaring your shoulders so as to shift your center of mass slightly more to the rear. Reduce the span or range of motion of your pelvis so that it doesn’t make quite as big a swing as the horse’s back.

Because it is the horse’s nature always to seek balance, he will perceive this disharmony and shorten his stride so that the two of you are once more in sync.

To emphasize that he should keep working, however, close your calves against the horse’s ribcage as his barrel swings into your leg (as opposed to swinging away from your leg as for energizing the walk, #1 above). Think of this as accelerating the swing of the horse’s barrel back in the direction from which it came.

With some horses, it can also be helpful to close your thighs more firmly against the saddle. This will affect the muscles that surround the horse’s shoulders, constraining their free forward movement by a tiny amount, thus encouraging a shortened stride.

If you noticed I didn’t cover number 5, incorporating a sideways stepping movement (Leg Yield), never fear! I’ll be covering this in detail in the final installment of the series and the first post of the new year. Let 2022 be your year of a Good Seat!