There is an exercise I was taught to do which to this day is my favorite as it has proven the best way to achieve various goals. It gives both the horse and the rider a mental exercise, puts each in tune with the other, and gets the horse hotter off the leg and enables the rider’s signals to become more and more subtle. It disciplines the mind of the rider and the more horses in the ring with you, the harder it becomes.
The most basic version of this exercise is called 10/4. It can be used in any discipline and has variations that a rider can use based upon their particular level of ability.
When I mount my horse and begin my work I use a methodical process that I’ve developed for him based on his own quirks. My horse tends to warm up slowly and hits peak after about ½ hour of riding. It takes me a good twenty minutes for the horse’s movement to loosen my aged bones and to settle me deeper in the saddle. The warm up warms up my legs so that they can function properly instead of looking spazzy. Nothing worse than watching a fat spazz ride.
So I begin tracking off a nice, forward walk with reins as loose as is safe. Mostly, for my horse and I, this means “riding the buckle” with the reins as long as they can be, and my hands positioned by the buckle.
During this nice forward walk period I begin to use my body in sync with the horse, and I try to see if subtle shifts in position will influence my horse in any way.
Now sometimes my horse is a little “higher” than he’d usually be. This is not because he wants to be naughty, but rather is a display of his excitement to be working and doing something. It is at times like this that I must keep his brain busy. If I don’t find a way to keep it busy, he’ll be more inclined to keep it busy on his own, and often to a Thoroughbred that includes his imagination, and a busy imagination leads to spooking, because for sure Godzilla is behind that tree over there.
I dislike spooking. It jerks a rider’s body and although in my case and due to the nature of my horse’s spooks it seldom results in a fall, it still is not desired, or appreciated because it tweaks old muscles and gives me boo-boos.
I could just trot my horse and “work him down” that way, but that just means spooking at a faster gait. Not for me and not for my back. So, to reach the very overactive Thoroughbred brain, I engage in using different techniques. One I love to do is to walk my horse over ground poles doing it from different directions and even a bit more diagonally. He’s got to think about where to put those four cloppy hooves. Sure footed my horse is not, and given the chance he’d trip over pigeon poop, so he really has to focus over ground poles.
Good. Now I’ve reached his brain. Next I try to keep the rhythm of the walk over the ground poles (or cavaletti) the same as when you’re walking without them. In fact, in all exercises, being able to keep the same rhythm is a sign you can now move on to the next exercise. Keeping the same rhythm isn’t just preferred, it is imperative.
So here we are walking on a nice loose rein, riding the buckle. Our horse is marching forward in a clean, reaching walk, and in a perfect world, is nicely overstepping his foot tracks. His neck is long and lower, his nose in front of the vertical. We’ve put him over some ground poles which are set off the rail and we’ve used the subtleties of our body position and leg to leg yield him back to the rail.
Now we slowly and gently pick up the rein, but we’re still allowing his face to be in front of the vertical. Our contact with the rein to mouth connection is there, but it is very giving and moves to the motions of the horses head. We can just feel the mouth, no more.
Now for my horse, I’ll begin with shoulder in and haunches in riding both directions. Again, I’ll be mindful that to the best of my ability I will keep the same rhythm to the walk. I’ll ride the quarter lines and leg yield to the track. Then, when I reach the end of the long side, coming into the short corner, I’ll ride the beginning of a 10 meter circle and halfway through, keeping that same bend, half pass back to the rail.
For those who are reading who are confused to the terms leg yield and half pass, it all has to do with the bend of the horse and the direction to which it is going. In the simplest of terms think of it this way:
For these illustrations imagine you are riding from the bottom of your computer screen towards the top of the screen.
) This bend of the horse’s body going to the left is a half pass
) This bend of the horse’s body going to the right is a leg yield
( This bend of the horses body going to the right is a half pass
( This bend of the horse’s body going to the left is a leg yield.
Again, this is in the simplest of terms, but a good starting reference.
Hey this is kinda cool. Let’s see if it works for shoulder in/haunches in, again in the simplest of terms.
/ shoulder in with the wall to the left or haunches in if the wall is on the right and again travelling from the bottom of your screen to the top.
\ shoulder in with the wall to the right or haunches in if the wall is on the left travelling from the bottom of your screen to the top.
There are of course other elements such as the shoulder in being either a three track or four track, but for now we won’t get that complicated. There are a zillion places on the ‘net to look that up should you be so inclined.
Now we put ourselves back on the rail, either direction, and we count out steps of walk.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight (ask now for trot) nine, ten, TROT should now be there. Now count four strides of trot which in a rising trot is up, down, up, down, walk. You will have to adjust when to ask for the change of gait based on you and your horse’s abilities. To simplify it at the beginning you can do your count of four as four ups instead of counting the downs in as well.
Don’t expect to get this right from the get-go. Just keep practicing and you’ll find you’ll be able to get the gait more efficiently so you can ask for it later in your count.
See if you have the mental discipline to do the exercise for twenty minutes and remember not to worry about the bit or the front end. This exercise is for your body, not your hands. This exercise is for your brain and yours horses. See how subtle you can be. See if you can use only your core to transition from the trot back to the horse. See if you can use your seat to transition from the walk up to trot.
You’ll be surprised how truly hard this is. In fact, I’ve never seen any ammie (myself included) who could nail this exercise the first time out and it’s still not easy especially if your mind isn’t settled.
If you want to mix it up you can come off the rail and ride circles, diagonals, up the middle, whatever you can manage to do while keeping your count. On the rail is the easiest, and coming off the rail adds to the difficulty of the exercise.
The next level of the exercise continues to really get the horse forward off the leg.
We’ll visit that next time.
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