How to Get That Lift in the Shoulders and Slow Down
Q. Hi Dana! Here’s a quick question for you. I have a mare that is exceptionally flat up front in the round pen. However as I’ve begun to ask for more collection and slowing down she wants to bend her knee and slap the ground with her front feet. She gets behind the vertical if you try to take ahold of her face. What are some good exercises to help her get that lift in her shoulders and slow down? Also how do you keep her from getting behind the vertical when taking ahold of her face?
A. Dear Kayla,
When you have a horse that moves flat legged on their own, but their movement deteriorates when you ride them, it is usually because of one of several things:
Number one, they are not driving through, when you ask for collection often a horse will go through the motions of being collected but will be “hiding” or “faking it.” The other things that lead me to believe that your mare is doing that, is, she is getting over bridled or behind the vertical in the face. The other clue is that you say she is “slapping the ground” with her front feet. That is usually a loss of forward motion. Her energy flow is not traveling straight through her body to her face. Some horses will do this if you have asked them to be too slow.
A quick fix for that is to drive her forward even if you have to temporarily speed her up until you feel her become rythmatic and cadenced underneath you. Also, look for her to land on the ground and roll up underneath you with strength. I will sometimes circle, then counter canter, then go back into a circle until I feel my horse “balance up” underneath me. For a horse to be pretty loping slow they need to have lot of drive and reach from behind and a lot of lift in their stride.
As you encourage her to drive up behind make sure you aren’t too tough with your hands. If your mare is light in the face or sensitive she may be backing off the pressure in the face. You need to modify the pounds of pressure you apply with your hands and the pounds of pressure in your legs according to your horse and her individual needs. If you are asking harder with your hands than you need and not hard enough with your legs, this problem can develop.
The second common cause for her movement to deteriorate is if she is leaning one way or another through her body. Remember, when a horse lopes they are on an arc. For a right lead, for example, your left hind foot should fall in between the two front feet with the hip slightly to the inside. You should also ideally be able to see the outside back corner of the right eye. If for example, you are loping to the right but your horse is fading to the left, her energy flow will have a break or interruption in it, and you will see this in her movement. That is a form of lean. She could also be leaning her hips on your leg or even dropping the inside shoulder. Any of these will show in a deterioration of movement. In addition, your horse will have a harder time, or with some horses an impossible time of staying balanced with their body weight. They will get heavy on their front end, which will really deteriorate their movement.
It can also lead to unsoundnesses. They start traveling in an unnatural way, which puts excess stress on certain body parts. If I feel my horse getting heavy on his front end I will stop him, back, roll back, and lope him back off. The exercise in itself can force him to think about his feet and get off of his front end and balance back up. To help correct lean in your horse I will often ask my horse to follow his nose in a tight circle. Pay attention to whether they are fading or drifting out of the circle or cutting to the inside, as this is very diagnostic. Usually what a horse does at the walk and jog, she will do at the lope. Sometimes just stepping her up to the trot in a tight circle will force her to lift her back and will help get a lot of the lean out.
The third main cause of a horse’s movement deteriorating under saddle is general weakness or immaturity. If your mare is young or out of condition that could be adding to your problems. She may need consistent, short sessions under saddle to build her strength or she just may need more time to grow up!
All of the exercises I mentioned will help her to get more lift and will ultimately help her to slow down. As far as some tips to help her to not get behind the bridle. The very best exercise I know to help is lateral (or sideways) movement with the head and neck .
In order for a horse to bridle their head they must flex in the poll, give in the jaw, and flex in the neck. When you hold your horse straight back and ask her to bridle, she is using her poll and jaw but she may or may not be using her neck muscles as much as her poll and jaw. Also, by holding her in the face you may not realize it but you may by allowing, or even pushing, your horse to her front end. If you bend your horse’s head laterally to one side and push your horse forward, she will be using many different muscles. This could also help get her to have more lift!
Make sure while you are pushing her forward you don’t let her get heavy in your hand. Also pay attention to her footfall or her cadence. Do this until you feel a nice rhythm, and until you feel her lift up and soften. Then when you drop off her head and allow her to go straight, she will be using her body to balance herself and her head and neck will head out in front of her.
By her correctly using her body, she will be less likely to “hide” in the face. Also on your end, make sure when you drop or release her you are not holding her so tight in the face that she stays over bridled! Give her enough rein to feel the freedom and relax her head and neck!
I hope this helps you. I’m eager to hear how she is doing. She obviously has the ability to move well, you just have to discern what is hindering her from being the best she can be!
Dana Hokana is one of the top female trainers in the Quarter Horse industry, and currently operates Dana Hokana Quarter Horses in Temecula, California. Raised in Southern California, she has had a lifelong love for horses. Dana has trained multiple Western Pleasure circuit champions, winners at major futurities, and horses who have placed in the top ten in Western Pleasure at both the All American Quarter Horse Congress and the AQHA World Championship Show. Riding her own stallion, Invested Dimension, she captured an AQHA Reserve World Championship title in Senior Western Pleasure.
Dana’s DVD series entitled “The Winning Strides Series,” is designed to educate horse owners and riders from the basics of horse handling and horsemanship, to competing at high levels in the show arena. Skilled at teaching in an encouraging, relaxed, non-intimidating way, she carries these traits into the instruction in her video series. Dana will be a featured clinician at the Mane Event in Red Deer, Alberta, and has spoken at the Equine Affaire in Pomona, California and was a clinician at the Equine Affaire in Massachusetts and Columbus, Ohio, focusing on topics from grooming to western pleasure.
Now is your chance to have your questions answered by Dana! Just submit your question using the comment section below or the email link, and she will respond to select questions in future posts.