Bulging Out and Falling Inby Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
As horses move up the training tree and riders move up the riding tree, one of the early skills that both must master is balance. Both must develop the correct muscles in order to carry themselves in balance and both must learn to maintain their own balance regardless of what their partner does. Until that happens, each will find balance issues a recurring theme as they progress through the various levels of their respective learning trees.
Horses need to develop both lateral or side-to-side balance and longitudinal or front-to-back balance. The horse that cannot carry himself in lateral balance typically bulges out or falls in on turns. When the horse bulges out, he becomes stiff and resistant. The rider may feel like the horse is so inflexible that he is going to crash into the fence before he turns. The horse that falls in tips his nose to the outside and drops his inside shoulder. His rider may feel like the horse is going to lose his balance completely and fall over.
Inexperienced riders often try to correct these problems by pulling on the reins. That does not fix the problem. Obviously, it helps the horse tremendously if the rider sits in balance on both seat bones. However, perfect rider balance is not going to fix the problem either. In order to carry his body and his rider through turns in balance, the horse must develop the muscles on both side of his body equally. Until then, he will not be able to carry himself in correct balance in both directions.
Just as people have a dominant hand that they prefer to write with, horses tend to have a side they favor, too. The result is that they just naturally want to move in a way we would describe as crooked. People sometimes call the horse’s naturally stronger side his “stiff” side and his naturally weaker side his “hollow” side. If a horse is stronger on his right side, for example, it will be easier for him to turn to the left and to pick up his left canter lead.
Since it is easier for the horse to work in his preferred direction, riders have a tendency to ride that side more. There’s a bigger reward for the rider when the horse performs a maneuver easily and correctly than there is when the horse resists, struggles, or is just simply unable to do whatever it was the rider asked. If the horse is to progress, however, it is important that he develops both sides of his body equally.
So the rider’s job is not only to ride correctly to help the horse move in balance but also to be aware of the horse’s weaker and stronger sides so that she can plan work sessions that help the horse develop equal strength and flexibility on both sides. The goal is a horse that moves “straight” which means that the hind foot steps forward along the same track as the front foot on that side. The crooked horse cheats a little bit to one side or another of the track. When we ask a crooked horse to move “straight” on a circle, he usually cheats by putting his inside hind foot on the curve of the circle rather than following the track of the inside forefoot. The result is that his hindquarters swing to the outside of the circle. When he cheats like this, he is not developing the carrying and pushing muscles he needs to be able to go “straight.”
It may seem counter intuitive to ride horses in circles in order to get them to go straight. We do that, however, because moving “straight” on a curved line makes the horse’s muscles work harder than moving on a straight line. To get the horse to travel “straight” on a circle, the rider takes up contact then uses outside rein and leg aids to prevent the horse from moving his hindquarters out and cheating. Circles, serpentines and leg yielding are all good exercises to get the horse to develop the muscles he needs to be able to move “straight” in balance on turns. The outside hind leg is the primary carrying leg on a circle. So riding a circle that you enlarge slightly each time the horse goes around so it becomes a spiral is an excellent exercise to strengthen the outside hind leg and stretch the horse’s muscles on the inside.
As the horse’s muscle condition improves and the rider’s ability to coordinate aids and use them independently increases, they can add various bending exercises on a straight line and counter bends on curved lines to continue to build the horse’s strength and flexibility.
Balance is something that both horse and rider will revisit continually as they advance in their training. The horse may move “straight” on a circle without any problem at a walk only to become crooked again as soon as the rider asks for a trot. Bulging out or falling in may reappear again when the rider asks for the canter on a circle until the horse, once again, makes gains in conditioning and flexibility.
Unless a rider has a truly independent seat, there will always be the question of whether the horse is out of balance because it has not yet developed the necessary muscles to carry himself in balance or because the rider’s lack of balance is throwing the horse off balance. As riders work to improve their own balance and their ability to coordinate the aids independently, it helps if they can ride a goldie oldie school horse so they can develop the correct feel for the way a well-balanced horse moves on a circle and through turns.