Lazy Horse? Behind the Leg? or Tense Rider?

Often people who come to my clinics complain that their horse is lazy. They say things like: "He doesn't want to go," or "Even my trainer has problems getting my horse to go."
I say, really? your healthy, vibrant 5 year old is lazy? Your prime-of-life, athletic 10 year old is lazy? Really? Does he just stand around out in the pasture?
"Well, no..."
Hmmm, Let's see what's going on, I'll say.

I watch as they ride and yes, the horse seems sluggish, making little effort to move out. With an extra bang with the leg or a tap with the whip the horse moves on, but without the enthusiasm I'd expect.
Hmm, ok, what is going on?
A common answer would be that the horse is not in front of the leg. He's not responding to the aids. The rider says go and the horse seems to say, "do I have too, this is hard." Worse, the horse pins his ears and says, "not if your life depended on it."
Often the rider would be told to retrain the horse to go. Ask the horse to go, he doesn't respond, use a bigger aid or the whip, and reward when he moves forward. Teach him to be hot off the leg. This is often legitimate--except when the rider is giving unclear signals with their body, tensing against the movement of the horse, or clutching with the legs or hands and in general sending signals to stop while saying go.

As someone who teaches riders to move with the motion of the horse, I first look at the rider when I see a horse that's behind the leg. What is the rider doing that is giving the signal to slow down or to guard against the rider as the horse gets the signal to go? We can teach our horses to Go! but without riding in a supple, balanced posture they won't go with the freedom of expression we might want. The good rider supports the horse's movement with a fluent, adhesive seat and lightly applied leg and rein aids. While either a too tight or too loose rider might cause a horse to drag itself along, I find that the majority of riders are strong enough to ride well and they don't need to strengthen this or that muscle--but they do need to change the way they ride so they can support their horse.

What are the most common rider offenders that cause a horse to "be lazy"?

Lower Body:

For a young horse to feel it can freely move forward the rider's legs must hang softly along the horse's side and not restrict the ribcage of the horse. Three offenders in this category are Gripping Legs, Tight Hips, and Spurring Every Stride.

Gripping legs: While you can train a horse to go with legs firmly on their side, and obviously a cross country jumper has a fair amount of contact on the horse's sides, there is a difference between legs that actively participate in a trotting or galloping horse's stride and gripping legs. Legs that clutch at the horses sides, even slightly, send a message to many horses--don't swing your ribcage which means: slow down (although another horse might speed up to try to escape the gripping legs). Why do riders grip? Some do it without knowing it, others do it because they sit off to one side, still others grip out of fear. The rider has yet to learn to balance and move with the pelvis and spine, while allowing their legs be independent.

Tight Hips: Locked hip joints go along with gripping legs but can be a separate problem. Hip joints that don't adjust to the movement of the thigh relative to the pelvis are tight and send the message to the horse's back--don't move! It's not that the hips are inherently too tight, it's that the rider's brain sends the message "stabilize!" when the rider begins to feel a little unbalanced. This is the righting reflex and it causes the hips joints to tighten so the person doesn't fall. All riders who sit the gaits and especially dressage riders have to learn to turn this reflex off at the hip joint to sit with a relaxed, long leg.

Spurring Every Stride: Using the leg each time the rider comes up in posting trot or every time the horse steps not only deadens the horse to the aids but for many horses it shuts them down. Riders who have an unstable lower leg in posting trot will spur their horse each time they sit. Some horses tune this out, some get nervous until the rider figures out how to hold their legs away, others feel it as a restriction and drag their feet, tighten their ribcage and shut down their response. Posting as if you were kneeling, with the lower leg firmly on the ground, moving only from the knee joint up will help stabilize the lower leg.

Upper Body:

Upper body tension is another way to tell the horse you're not with it even though you've used your legs to signal go. Three offenders are Tense Shoulders, Tight Upper Chest, and Stiff or Bouncing Hands. These mainly come from lack of support from the lower torso, zipping-up or abdominal hollowing, and sitting off to the side.

Tense Shoulders: For the aids to be independent of the seat the arms need to be both supported by the lower torso and free from the movement of the spine. They should have the freedom of movement so that you feel you could juggle or write your name while riding.

Tight Upper Chest: Riders often hold the upper chest or neck tightly while riding. This stops the movement of the seat. Zipping-up, a strategy of stabilization from Pilates not only caused decreased stabilization of the low back but tightens the chest. Learning to breath into the lower belly and ride with a full lower torso will help allow the movement to go up the spine. Even holding the mid-back too strongly can communicate a lack of willingness to move out on the rider's part.

Stiff Hands: Hands that move are often part of the tense shoulders syndrome. Hands also grip when the rider is afraid or out of balance.They can also be from a poor body image where the rider doesn't realize the hands need to move opposite the body to remain still. At the posting trot the hands effectively go down as the body goes up so the elbows must open and close at the posting trot. When the rider tells the horse to trot and brings the hands up for whatever reason, increasing rein tension, teaches horse that after the go, comes the whoa.

How does the rider break these habits?
First by becoming aware of them. Students and trainers are often amazed that when I ride their horse it suddenly isn't lazy. What am I doing? Mostly just thinking that all my joints are like well polished bearings, no friction, no restriction from my body to the horse. And then I find the support for my own balance within my lower torso musculature, breathing, and mental attitude. I think, hey lets go, this is fun! and the horse responds, suddenly in front of the leg.

Muscles that have the coordination and control to support the skeleton and adjust the balance, toned only to the degree necessary to support the movement but not tense against it, are horse and rider friendly muscles. Such a rider with endurance can ride for some time. Tension breeds tension and it is exhausting for the rider and shuts down the horse yet I read and hear riders should pinch the shoulder blades together, suck the belly button to the navel, push the heels down, or strengthen this or that muscle--to fix a whoa'ing seat.
Instead of trying to strengthen this or that muscle in a way that has little to do with riding a horse, the rider needs to improve their dynamic posture and muscle control and learn to coordinate muscle tone of the torso. The rider learns to turn off muscle tension so the movement of the horse is not abruptly stopped in the rider's body.
The lack of ability to maintain tone in the lower torso while breathing in the lower belly is big a problem among riders and the population in general. Abdominal bracing of the sort that creates space from belly button to lumbar spine will stabilize the spine while allowing movement and breathing. Martial arts disciplines tend to teach this DanTian breathing. Learning to breath correctly along with biomechanically sensible exercises will train this capacity.

In my clinics and video lessons I teach all sort of riders to breathe and move in a way that supports them and their horse. In a variety of lessons I teach riders to be supple, balanced, aligned, and relaxed so they can move in a way that enhances performance. I also hold Ride Without Fear clinics to help riders deal with the fear that causes many of these problems. Please contact me if you are interested in experiencing the feeling of being one with your horse and riding in true harmony. I love to answer questions too so comment or email and I'll respond. My website is SitTheTrot.com

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Comment by Mary Ginn on January 17, 2010 at 4:12pm
Thanks for taking time to answer my question, Michele. Although I don't have the luxury of lessons on a lunge line, there is definitely some information I can start with in your answer and your blog posts. Thanks!
Comment by Sit_the_Trot on January 16, 2010 at 10:46pm
Please read my blog post Enjoy the Ride: Confidence at the Faster Gaits.
That's a start. Sitting gaits is harder than 2-point because in 2-point you get to use your legs for balance, as if you were standing on a moving surface. When you sit you take your legs out of the picture and that makes it hard, you have to learn to not let your legs try to help.
Try this on the longe line: At the canter there can a little tiny movement of lifting your thighs at the point when you feel your seat coming up. This will take your legs out of the picture and settle your seat at the time when you're about to bounce up. It's an artificial way to ride the canter but on really rough catapulting horses it helps. You want to strive for loose hip joints and while lifting your legs doesn't give you that, it does give you the feeling of you bum staying in the saddle.
Another thing to try is raising your inside arm (the lead side) straight above your head. Reach up with your palm toward you or even a little back as you canter and that will help your seat stay down . REaching up with arm and palm turned in will encourage your spine to be neutral, long, and not tense and your weight over the lead side of the horse. Again do this on the longe first.
Please let me know if you have questions,
Michele
Comment by Mary Ginn on January 11, 2010 at 12:04am
Thanks for your insights, and for being willing to share them. I started riding Competitive Trail last year and I'm always looking to improve how I ride, to make my gelding's job easier. I have a strong 2-point, but I'm having trouble sitting at the canter. Any advice?

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