Improve the Body Carriage of Your Hunter Under Saddle Horse, Part 1

Get some horse-training hints to fix common self-carriage problems.

In hunter under saddle, a horse is judged for his suitability as a hunter in movement and responsiveness. But that’s influenced by how a rider rides. An unbalanced rider affects a horse’s movement in his gaits and through transitions, and as a result, it affects the horse’s placing.

What we’re striving for is a horse that looks through the bridle with his head level or above level, looking ahead instead of looking down with his nose behind the vertical.

A hunter under saddle horse has to look through the bridle, or up, because he’s going to have to do that in working hunter to keep pace and get over fences. As a judge, I am more forgiving of a horse that is a little too “up” in his headset, as long as he stays steady and soft, than I am of a horse behind the bridle and down on his forehand.

Judges are looking for a horse with self-carriage, where his power comes from behind. The horse drives forward from a deep hock that pushes the front leg out. He uses his hip, hock, loin and neck to carry the entire body in all the gaits.

As a rider, you can feel self-carriage when you squeeze with your legs and say go forward, and the horse drives up with the hock and pushes from behind, but you can control it through your hand. He doesn’t get behind the vertical or hide his head back in his chest. Instead, he wants to feel your hand and continue driving from behind. It comes from a horse having balance and strength and trusting your hand.

Self-carriage depends on the horse’s training development, as well as his physical fitness. As a horse gets fatigued, he feels heavier to your hand because he’s weakening through his topline.

Improving your own equitation can strengthen your ability to communicate with your horse. Learn expert advice and training tips in AQHA’s “Equitation Clinic” DVD.

In hunter under saddle, transitions are a good way to evaluate a horse’s self-carriage because the horse should not change a lot in his topline through a change from a walk to a trot or trot to a canter. That doesn’t mean he’s mechanical and stuck in a certain frame, but it means he’s steady and soft and balanced, and carries himself the same way through
all the gaits.

Common Problems

Poor balance. One of the biggest faults I see in hunt seat equitation and hunter under saddle riders is riding out of balance. They use their hands stronger, which makes their horse heavy and down on the forehand. They tend to grab the horse in the mouth to hold themselves up.

A rider with poor balance often has too long a stirrup; the heel is not underneath the hip, and the shoulders are too far forward or too far back. If you watch the very good horsemanship and equitation riders, you see a straight line from their shoulder to hip to heel.

If you don’t have a strong, stable leg with the weight down through your heel and strength in your calf, thigh and seat, you will not have good hands because you will always be using your hands for balance. It’s especially true in the hunter classes because you ride on a smaller saddle and need a lot more balance than you do in a western saddle.

Loose reins and long stirrups. Riding with the reins too long or looped is another problem. In a hunt seat direct rein, you should always have a light, consistent contact with the horse’s mouth and no loop in the rein.

A lot of riders use their hands to “fix” the horse’s head, pull the horse down into place and then pitch the reins away with no contact. That makes a horse uncertain because the feel of the rider’s hand is gone. More sensitive horses are harder to steady that way, because they are looking for reassurance in a consistent feel from the hand, and it’s not there.

Could your riding be hindering your horse’s self-carriage? AQHA’s “Equitation Clinic” DVD is filled with training tips and the expert advice you need to improve your performance.

If you’re cantering around a jump course, you never pitch your reins away. You maintain contact, your elbows and arms moving with the motion in a rhythmic give and take. It’s a feel with the reins where the horse has the freedom to move, yet you steady him between your seat and hands so his carriage stays consistent.

Because we’re used to riding western, we’re often guilty in our industry of riding with too long a stirrup. The hunter stirrup must be at a length where the rider can have a lot of stretch down into the heel. You get more balance from that, and it’s important when going over fences.

Because it can take longer to develop a bigger horse, it’s easier to ride a big horse by “trapping” him into a frame. A really good rider with a really strong leg and hand can trap a horse from her leg and seat up into her hand and hold him there in a set frame.

The problem is you have to use too much feel in your hands when you trap a horse into a frame: Your hand is a barrier and intimidates the horse to stay in that frame. The horse gets stuck there and always searches for your hand to know what to do or where to put his head.

If you have a horse that’s used to being trapped with his head low, you have to retrain his thought process if you want to go over fences. To jump, you want him to ride up to your hand with confidence.

When a horse jumps, he must use his whole topline over the fence. When you trap and intimidate a horse and get him backed off the bridle too much, he won’t use himself to his greatest ability over the fence because he’s afraid of being pulled on. He’ll be stiff and rigid when he jumps.

But if the horse trusts your hand, he’ll pull your hand like a handshake. You can squeeze that handshake when you want him to lighten or back off, or you can lighten that handshake when you want him to pull into your hand more. Your goal as a rider should be to learn that feel.

In the long run, you can’t jerk a horse into place and make him do what you want to do. You must go through the steps of gaining a horse’s confidence and trust. It’s about feel and training the horse to trust and go to your hand and stay there.