The Natural Arc, Part 1
Understanding your horse’s natural arc at the lope.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Dana Hokana with Christine Hamilton in The American Quarter Horse Journal | December 27, 2010
All horses, when they lope or canter naturally, perform that gait at an arc. If you go out into the pasture and watch your horse lope, you’ll notice that he carries his body in an arc. He hits a lope stride and moves his inside hip slightly in depending on the lead he is traveling. He travels straight but holds his body on a natural arc.
There is a correct arc for a left lead and a correct arc for a right lead. When you watch a horse’s legs as he lopes toward you, if he’s on a correct arc, you should see his outside hind leg fall dead center in between his two front legs. (If he’s on a right lead, it would be his left hind leg.) Just as people are either left- or right-handed, horses tend to be better on one arc versus the other.
On that correct arc from poll to tail, he carries himself balanced in his body weight, collecting up with life in his shoulders and reaching under with his hind leg, his energy flowing from his hindquarters through his shoulders and face. The correct arc is not a deep bend. When you are riding, you want to just see the outside corner of the inside eye. I was taught to look for the eyelashes and a little bit of the cheek. The horse’s head and neck should also follow that arc.
When It Goes Wrong
In my mind, there are three things that can really ruin a horse’s movement at the lope, and they are related to one another and a horse’s natural arc.
The first is to consistently ride a horse under-arced or over-arced. Second is to have a stop in the horse’s energy flow where the horse can’t drive through in his movement at the lope. The third is for a horse to have his body weight out of balance.
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All three are intermingled. If a horse is out of position in his arc at the lope, his natural, correct energy flow is interrupted and changed. He can’t naturally drive through and flow in the lope when he is too far out of position from that natural arc. To adapt to that unnatural body position, the horse then tends to fall onto his front end and lose his balance, life and flow. He pulls himself along and that’s where you get that head-bobbing look.
If a horse is under-arced, in my experience, he can’t perform the lope correctly without getting an extra beat or a four-beat. Back at the start of my training career, I worked for many old-style horse show trainers, and most of our horses four-beated. We did all of our training on the rail and never worked on circles or isolated different body parts, controlling the hindquarters, etc.
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The older that horse got, the more shuffled his gait became, the shorter his stride and the more he four-beated. He lost his natural movement. That’s mainly because he was trained exclusively on the rail and was forced to go straight. He gradually lost the bend of his hip to the inside and learned to lean on the rail. That’s why it’s important to perform training exercises with your horse that will help him to engage collection and maintain his natural movement.
On the other end of the spectrum, and what we have seen more recently in the show ring, is over-arcing.
All trainers will over-arc (or over-cant) their horses at times as an exercise to accentuate collection and movement. It brings the hindquarters way in and lengthens the reach of the hock. In dressage, riders often use exercises that over-arc the horse to strengthen the horse in collection and to gain control of the horse’s body.
But when we teach a horse to stay over-arced, we deteriorate that horse’s natural movement. The natural energy flow of the horse cannot drive through, and he gets out of balance, and that’s where you see a sewing machine look: a quick rhythm in the front leg and head bobbing.
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Often, when a trainer over-arcs to slow the horse down, he doesn’t pay attention to the front half of the horse. He takes the horse’s hip to the inside and loses the step and reach in the front leg. So the rider over-cants and over-bends the horse loping down the rail, and the horse gets shuffle-y up front and loses the natural rhythm to the gait. The horse has that big, flowing hock, but the front leg looks mismatched, and he crawls down that rail.
On top of that, the horse’s body weight is out of balance. To balance his body weight, he rocks through his head and neck.
When the horse is over-arced, his natural energy flow cannot engage from the hindquarters through to his face. He is so over-arced that the energy stops out behind the outside shoulder, and he has to then roll himself, pulling himself along through the front end.
It’s only fair that we train horses so they are comfortable when we ride them. When we consistently ride horses over-arced or on the wrong arc, they get to the point where they hate their jobs. I believe that’s part of why we have problems with horses in the show ring and problems with people being frustrated with their riding.
Check back soon for Part 2 of The Natural Arc!