Maintaining Your Horse’s Topline, Part 2

This simple horse-training exercise teaches your horse to balance himself on his own by shifting his weight to his back end.

In the first part of this series, you learned how to do transition exercises and a rollback into an extended trot exercise to help your horse strengthen and level out his topline. Here are two more exercises that will help your horse learn to balance himself for better self-carriage:

Spiral Circles, In and Out

My favorite exercise is to spiral circles at the jog/trot or lope/canter. Spiral in and spiral out, using all your aids: your seat for impulsion, your active inside leg spirals the horse out on the bend, your active outside leg spirals the horse in. You have to use both leg aids, but one is more active and the other more passive.

This exercise teaches the horse to balance himself. When you create a smaller circle from your outside aids, he has to rock back to the hocks and especially that inside hock. The horse has to find his own balance without you pulling on him. All you do is keep him on a bend to the inside. You can spiral out as much as 20-30 feet and spiral back in to as little as 8-10 feet, depending on the age and training of the horse and how much the horse can hold the collection.

If your horse canters in and can hold his balance for a revolution or two in the smaller circle, then you know he’s getting self-carriage. His topline is strengthening, he’s getting more balanced and getting off his forehand.

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If his topline is weak, when he comes down to the small circle he can’t do much of it, and he’ll break gait. Especially with younger horses, it’s hard for them to rock back on their haunches and hold themselves there until they get stronger through their topline. When you first start doing these, you might be able to only ask your horse for half a smaller circle before you have to start drifting back out. You have to gradually build his strength, and it might take months.

A horse likes spiraling out more than spiraling in, because it’s easier. When you create a smaller circle he has to really gather himself and collect, using his back and hock more. It’s a lot of work.

Keep the same rhythm and impulsion whether you’re in a jog/trot or lope/canter. If the horse gets faster, he’s telling you that he’s not in as much balance. When a horse speeds up or slows down he’s telling you that he’s not strong enough to hold that balance. As the horse starts to get tired, depending on the horse it might be two revolutions or four, then spiral back out slowly.

It’s easier to teach the spiral from the jog or trot. At a walk, you can get a couple of steps, but they get bored very quickly, and you don’t have the impulsion. I start with a jog or trot and do enough spirals so that they understand the aids, especially with young horses.

Doing spirals is one of the best things I’ve learned. I don’t remember where I learned it first, if it was in western or hunt seat or dressage; I just know that it fits everything.

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Aids on the Circle

Remember, the reins affect everything from the shoulders forward. Your seat through your leg controls the hip, the hind end and the hock.

While on the smaller or larger circle, the inside leg is at the girth, holding the rib cage and the shoulder. You also have a slight inside bend from your inside rein. The outside rein holds the shoulder from too much bend out, and the outside leg holds the hip, keeping the horse on the circle.

Aids on the Spiral

When you spiral out on the circle (with the horse still slightly bent to the inside) your inside leg is the more active, stronger aid, to push the ribcage out and hold the shoulder up, along with the rein aid. Your legs stay in a balanced, shoulder-hip-heel position. You shouldn’t have to change your position unless the horse slips his hip way out to the outside, then you might have to slide your outside leg farther back.

When you spiral in, that’s when the horse collects and gets up off the forehand. You ask the horse to laterally move into the circle. The outside leg becomes more active, and the outside rein becomes the more active rein. You still keep a slight bend to the inside. The inside leg is there for balance and to help you keep your seat and position and not lean in. You drive the horse into the smaller circle, stride-by-stride.