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Learn Self Carriage

Published: 12/9/2015
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, Randy Rieman, and many others.

In this new multi-part article, Skinner discusses the improvement of gaits, from warmbloods to gaited horses, and all equines in between.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

Read Part I

Horses of every breed and discipline can benefit from being taught to ride with self-carriage. Self-carriage can be achieved without the use of force or pressure. If the foundation is laid correctly, a horse in self-carriage can be taken in any direction and any level that his body will allow.

There are many little pieces involved with laying a correct foundation. Getting all those little pieces working correctly can make the difference between achieving self-carriage or creating a "push-pull" ride. In this article I'll be discussing what some of those “little pieces” are and how they help the horse find balance. Keep in mind, having a light and balanced horse is a huge commitment.

Whether you're just beginning your young horse's education, or going back down the line to fill in any gaps, the following exercises are important for your horse to have a solid understanding of before progressing any further.

First, a horse should understand how to come into correct flexion. To do this, he must be able to bend and give his head and neck laterally (side to side) without his feet moving.
  • The poll should stay above the withers
  • The ears should remain level
  • The horse should give his eye (look at you).
This should be achieved with float in the rope or rein (slack without tension or contact) in both directions. This teaches the horse to follow the snaffle bit for steering, and eventually leads to correct flexions for more advanced exercises, such as lateral work.

Next, he should be able to untrack his hindquarters away from a leg aid, while the maintaining correct flexion. His inside hind leg should come up and under his body with his poll remaining above his withers and ears still level. A rider should always introduce this leg aid by helping the horse to understand moving away from one leg, before asking a horse to move forward with two legs.

Introducing two legs to a horse too soon can cause resistance, confusion, or the opposite effect. Once a horse understands how to untrack his hindquarters away from a rider's leg, he can be set up to move forward more easily, and in time when this is clear, a seat aid or leg aid can be understood for him to move forward.

Once that is solid, he should then be able to go forward straight with the slightest suggestion from a seat and leg aid, staying between your legs and reins, and then be able to go backward just as straight.

If the horse understands the connection between the rein and flexion, he can turn and follow the snaffle bit. If he understands how to yield from a rider's leg and untrack his hindquarters, he can bring his hips under him to lift his shoulders and move forward off of two legs. If he can understand how to respond to the bit, he can learn to move backward off of it.

These steps help teach the horse to yield to and follow the snaffle bit, seat, and leg aids. Once these are clear in the horse's mind, the rider can then introduce the idea of the rectangle for centering the horse, to be introduced in the next article.

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