No Pain, All Gain
Meeting the Needs of Our Equine Teachers


Is being a school horse the best job in the world, or the worst? On the plus side, they generally get three meals catered and daily housekeeping, plus treats from their grateful students. On the minus side, their backs get pounded by people trying to master the sitting trot and their mouths take the brunt of many a balance mishap.

Of course, it all depends on the school and the management, but lesson horses can have long and happy careers. That requires a high level of commitment from their human teaching partners and consistent time spent minimizing the effects of novice riders on the horses' bodies.

This adult beginner is fine-tuning her upper-body position in the saddle to find the smoothest and most comfortable way to stay connected to her horse. When she leans a bit too far back, putting her shoulders behind her hips and hollowing her back, the horse mirrors her. His head comes up, his back hollows and his stride shortens.

When coached to float her torso forward, aligning her shoulders over her hips and opening her hip angle to make room for the horse to raise his back, you see that the withers lift and the hind limb step under more correctly. The rider soon learns that when the horse's gait gets stiffer, bouncier or heavier, she can refine her alignment to make life better for her and her mount.

What too often happens, instead, is that chronic soundness issues that stem from posture and movement problems get ignored or glossed over because, after all, “it’s only a school horse.” There seems to be some expectation that these four-legged repositories of knowledge will inevitably become stiff, sore, cranky and generally unhappy in their own skins just because of the job they do. That their gaits will be rough and uneven, that they will live on their forehands, that they will forget any semblance of lightness and that nothing can be done to change any of this.


Years ago I worked with riders at therapeutic riding center, where the instructors realized the horses wouldn’t stay sound and happy if clients were their only riders. So, a dedicated cadre of experienced horsewomen was charged with an ongoing conditioning program for the therapy horses, riding them specifically to help them stay supple and strong enough to do their work.

Therapy horses’ job is to induce movement into stiff, tight or flaccid human muscles and to compensate for every imbalance in their special riders. And many of them do this carrying considerable weight. Their clients don’t have the knowledge or the physical control to move in ways that help the horse maintain balance, so they are very susceptible to physical and mental fatigue. The constant strain on the horses’ bodies to support riders in imperfect balance can lead to chronic bracing, subluxations and all kinds of concussion-induced lameness. What a relief it must be for these horses to have the opportunity to partner with riders who can exercise their whole bodies, reminding their muscles how and when to contract and release efficiently and returning them to some semblance of self-carriage.

I have always thought all school horses deserve the same consideration, especially those for whom the majority of their riders are beginners (children or adults). Having an experienced rider periodically offer them some support and correction for their weaknesses and reinforce their strengths seems like a necessity, not a luxury. One trainer I know refers to these as “mercy rides,” and deems them vital for both lesson horses and horses owned by beginner riders. A regular dose of good balanced bending work, lateral exercises for suppleness and strength and stretching the topline would go a long way toward extending most school horses’ serviceable lifespans.

But I think instructors have another, even larger, responsibility to their four-legged teaching partners. I think they can and should enlist their clients in helping the horses work in balance and comfort. I strongly disagree with instructors who say their novice students can’t ride in ways that help the horses. It’s not that hard to teach students of any age the skills needed to move with a horse at least part of the time. And helping students of all levels understand the biomechanics of each gait goes a long way toward developing that subtle feel that marks a skilled rider.

Novice riders won’t maintain perfect positions, but when they are correct some of the time, the horse has the opportunity to move more correctly.

When this petite nine-year-old braces in the up beat of the posting trot, the horse braces, too. Her feet have gotten too far forward, causing her knees to lock and her torso to lean back in a counterbalance; to compensate, the horse drops onto his forehand. To her credit, the rider’s hands haven’t strayed too far from their effective position, so she’s not using the horse’s mouth to pull her up.

Correct the student’s body alignment, stabilizing the lower leg, softening her knee and allowing her hips to move through with the horse’s motion, and the horse regains his balance. His topline lengthens and he engages better, moving with more lightness and ease.

There is no reason novice riders should have to settle for learning only the grosser forms of communication with horses, kicking to get the horse moving, pulling to stop and turn and bouncing away on the saddle for the first weeks or months of their educations, until that magical day when they are deemed ready to learn more subtle techniques. That’s not good for people or horses, and my experience shows me it’s absolutely needless.

I think it’s okay – even necessary – to ask more of both horses and students. And I find both are generally up to the task when the techniques are taught in a clear, logical progression. To me, that means setting up lesson exercises so that each skill is built on a solid foundation. For example, I require my students to exhibit some proficiency at the sitting trot before I teach them to post. Why? Because I know they’ll inevitably lose their balance part of the time in the up beat of the posting, and I also know they’ll find it challenging to keep their horses moving forward when they’re first learning to post. If they can sit the trot reasonably well, they can default to that when they have lost their balance or rhythm in the posting trot. And when the horse slows down enough to make posting difficult, the student can sit a few strides to re-establish impulsion.

I also want students to be able to sit the trot before they canter, because I know they’ll need to sit deep and lift the horse with their seatbones to get a good back-to-front canter transition. Seeing riders try to manage a canter depart from a posting trot always makes me cringe, for both rider and horse.

You might notice that I used the word “impulsion” to describe something a novice rider can achieve Yes, I do teach all my new riders just what impulsion is and how to feel when a horse is pushing from behind and when it is on the forehand. So do I expect a beginner to keep a horse balanced for an entire lesson? Of course not.

What I do expect is that every student learn to help a horse pick up its back and develop enough feel to tell when the horse hollows and falls on the forehand. It doesn’t take much time before riders of any age can feel the difference. One feels light, smooth and comfortable and the other feels heavy, sluggish and rough. Who wouldn’t prefer to ride the former? So it’s an instant payoff for the rider.

With a little skilled coaching, even novices can feel the difference in the horse is dramatic. When the horse picks up its back, the rider feels lightness, smoothness and ease, to use a few words I commonly hear. When the horse hollows and falls onto the forehand, the steps get choppy and sound heavy, the back stops swinging and the rider feels heaviness in her hands.

Design exercises to help improve the horse's balance and carriage while teaching the student necessary skills and vital feel. This 13-year-old works to overcome habits of hollowing her back and looking down in an exercise using poles to encourage the horse to engage her abdominal muscles and stride out. The supported half-seat position helps the rider learn to use the angles of her ankle, knee and hip to absorb shock, instead of bracing her torso, and invites the horse to start lifting her back and track up behind.

In addition, most riders feel more stable and balanced and find it easier to move with the horse with a lifted back providing a good platform to sit on. My students learn to communicate forward motion to the horse with their seatbones, and when the horse’s back drops, the horse loses his ability to “hear” those requests. Ask the back to come up and the horse plugs back in to the connection, upholding his side of the partnership and making transitions easy.

I think many instructors buy into conventional notions and vastly underestimate the ability of their beginning riders of all ages to learn to help their mounts work correctly. Everyone, from the three-foot eight-year-old to the nervous middle-ager can learn a simple technique to encourage a horse to lift its back. This accomplishes two very important things: it puts the horse in a posture that minimizes joint concussion (especially on the forehand) and it provides a stable and responsive platform for the rider to connect with.

Teach your horse to lift his back from the ground first, sensitizing him to pressure on his ribcage.

This does require that some homework be done by the instructor to sensitize the horse. First, teach the horse a basic belly lift, gently raising its back from pressure upward at the midline in the girth area – actually in the indentation just behind the caudal end of the sternum. Second, add to the connection in the girth area, teaching the horse to lift its back when the fingers of one hand are spread into a “rake” and moved from the bottom of the barrel to the top, tracing a line that starts about even with the rider’s seatbones and continues upward and forward toward the withers. (More info. here.)

When the rider's hip angle opens, the horse has room to lift its back.

Second, teach the rider a soft, draped leg position that puts the calf in contact with the horse’s ribcage. Then help her learn to use that calf in a subtle lifting motion that will encourage the horse to engage his back just like the raking motion of the hand. At first, the instructor might have to remind the horse to lift his back when the rider applies this aid, so stand next to the horse and reach under with one hand to provide the gentle lifting cue just in front of or behind the girth. (Go slowly, though, and don’t do this with a horse who has never been taught the belly lift. You don’t want your rider to get bucked off.) This exercise has two benefits for riders: it gives them a leg position that keeps the hips open and it allows them to help the horse maintain that solid platform.

Now the rider has access to the horse’s hindquarters at all three gaits. And when she bounces or inadvertently catches the horse in the mouth, causing the horse to hollow its back, the student can ask her mount to lift up and recreate a solid place to sit in balance. This makes the ride more comfortable for horse and rider, eliminating some of the bruising and chafing new riders often experience and saving the backs and joints of those precious school horses. As I’ve said for years, mine is not the “no pain, no gain” school of riding.

I firmly believe that every body – horse and human – should feel better at the end of the ride than at the beginning. For the rider, that means feeling strong and flexible in her entire body, with muscles toned to a “good tired,” not forced to absolute fatigue. For the horse, that means having a relaxed and elastic topline, nice juicy joints and a little heat in those pushing muscles. And that goes for the newest beginning rider and the oldest tried-and-true lesson horse, as well as seasoned riders and advanced horses.   Stacey Kollman

© 2009 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman



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