The “Collecting” Leg
When we got to Shannon's place last Sunday she had already groomed Cider completely and was ready to tack up (I use my own saddle.) As she put the saddle on Cider's back she told me she was going to try placing the saddle an inch or so further back to see if that would take some of the weight off of Cider's front legs, which have been flinching every downhill step for months.
Alas, Cider was still flinching going downhill. Then I remembered something I had read in de la Gueriniere's book, how they could take some of the horses who came to them with front leg lameness, and by teaching the horse how to collect under saddle and taking some weight off the front legs they were able to return the horses to soundness—for collected work only. I told Shannon what I had read, and asked her permission to try for some collection so we could see if this could work for Cider. I do not generally ask the horses for any collection since I am so uncoordinated from my MS, but I figured that I could not do much harm if I only asked for collection with my legs, leaving the reins loose. I learned how to use my legs for collection from reading Udo Burger's excellent book “The Way to Perfect Horsemanship” decades ago, and I have rarely used it except sometimes to get a better, squarer halt. The procedure is simple, when the horse's barrel comes out to meet my lower leg I just “hold” my lower leg steady for a split second, and I release until the next time the horse's barrel comes against my lower leg. If I feel like I need additional emphasis I might flex my calf muscle, but I do not kick, spur, or use my whip at all. This is opposite of asking the horse for a longer stride, when the rider's lower leg only acts when the horse's barrel moves away from the rider's lower leg, which follows the barrel in and releases when the horse's barrel starts moving out.
We started walking, and when we started going downhill I applied my leg just as her barrel pushed against my lower leg, then releasing it. Of course I was alternating my legs, and I made sure my reins were sagging. And, wonders of wonders, Cider did not flinch at all going downhill. Her stride shortened and her back started moving differently so I made sure to lessen the amount of weight on my seat bones so she could raise her back if she needed to.
According to Udo Burger, this aid gets the horse to flex his hocks more, slowing down the stride of the hind legs and enabling the horse to shift his weight back. Shannon could see a difference in Cider's walk down hill. I could feel that Cider did not move her legs, both fore and hind, as forward or back as when she is in a normal walk. It felt strange to me since I really like a horse that strides forth, but as long as she stopped flinching whenever a front foot supported her I did not care. Since I was trying to lighten my weight on her forehand I could not do my normal practice of having a lot of weight in my stirrups, since I wanted to “invite” her back to come up I could not have my weight all in my seat bones, and since I did not want to freeze the movement of her back by using my upper thigh to support most of my weight I ended up supporting a lot of my weight with my lower thigh, while making sure not to grip with my knees. By the end of my ride my thighs hurt.
In a while I decided to see what Cider would do if I added some rein. Years ago I used to be able to do diagonal aids (leg on one side, hand on the other side) to add to the collection effort. So when I did my lower leg on one side I tried to lightly “finger” the rein on the opposite side. Well, my body did not cooperate with me, Cider “told” me she found it mildly irritating, so I went to a light contact and just vibrating the bit some with my fingers which she found more acceptable.
Near the end of my ride I decided to see how Cider would react to going downhill without my collecting leg aid. She did not flinch much (yeah!) but it felt like she was trying to get her body and legs so her front feet did not hurt as much, which resulted in her wavering from side to side while going downhill. So obviously the collecting leg helped somewhat.
Next week I should be caught up enough financially so I can finally buy Cider the supplement that helped Mia so much. Until it starts working (she stops flinching going downhill) I will be using the collecting leg going downhill.
Since I only ride Cider 30 minutes a week there is NO WAY that I can get her fit enough to do full collection. I have to take care of her hocks too, carrying more weight with the hind legs puts the hocks under strain. This is the reason that I only used the collecting leg downhill even though she was still flinching somewhat on “level” ground. I also stopped a few times to let her relax her hind legs and chill out. Collection is HARD WORK for an unfit horse, and until the proper muscles become stronger it is easy to overdo this work, leading to muscle, tendon, ligament and joint strains. It would take me probably six months of daily work, gradually, very gradually, increasing my demands before I would be confident enough of her fitness to slowly introduce full collection. Since I am never going to be able to work a horse that much again in my life, I do not aim towards doing dressage.
Have a great ride!