The Natural Arc, Part 2
Understanding your horse’s natural arc at the lope.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Dana Hokana with Christine Hamilton in The American Quarter Horse Journal | January 10, 2011
This is the second in a two-part series. Want to review part 1?
Getting It Right
There are some keys to working on and strengthening a horse’s natural arc at the lope. First is for riders to become educated and mindful in their riding. Second is to use the arc in exercises to build collection, body control and forward motion.
I start by teaching my horse to put his body into that arc when I ask for it at the walk and at the jog. Your goal is to teach your horse to willingly say, “Yes” to what you ask for. It takes time to build that acceptance in your horse Then the real secret to being able to engage that arc and collect is getting him to say, “Yes” willingly, but with cadence too.
Working on the Arc: When you put your horse into an arc, you are asking him to compress his body and let you control him. You need to build slowly, starting first at the walk and then the jog.
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When I’m training, I usually do this two-handed. Holding my hands in front of the withers, I use my inside rein to ask for the inside of the horse’s face, so I can just see the back of the inside eye.
I block the shoulder, holding steady with my outside rein. The secret to collecting and correctly positioning your horse often lies in blocking areas where the horse wants to lean, or where he may have an opportunity to lose his energy flow through an “open door.” By using your outside rein to hold that shoulder, and driving his motion forward, you help him balance up and carry himself. At the same time, don’t overask with your inside rein or you may throw his body weight to the outside and cause that lean yourself.
I use my outside leg to ask the horse to move his hindquarters over, and I hold my inside leg steady. As I’m asking my horse to stay on his arc, I want control of his hindquarters, shoulders and front end.
Western riding is all about precision. AQHA Professional Horsemen Charlie Cole and Robin Frid lead Youth World Cup competitors through a pattern and help them learn what will get them a good score and what pitfalls to avoid.
When you put your horse on the arc, stay “in” with your cues until you feel him lift and soften through your hands – that will teach him to balance up and collect when you take hold of him.
I ask him to stay collected and hold that arc for a few strides, and then release and continue forward. Then I’ll change to the opposite arc. Changing arcs like that while tracking straight at the walk and jog is one of the most basic exercises there is. It is invaluable for teaching your horse to accept your pressure and to control his body on the arc.
You don’t want to push your horse too much, especially if he’s green or an older horse new to this. Some warning signs that you are going too fast include tossing the head, resisting or refusing to go forward. He might want to step right off into the lope.
If he wants to stop, soften and bring your hands forward and encourage him forward. If he wants to go off into the lope, he’s probably just confused. Just take a lighter hold on his face and encourage him to stay walking or jogging.
Working on the arc helps a horse in a number of ways: in picking up the lope and changing leads, maintaining consistent circles, etc. It improves his response to your aids and improves his collection. It helps to teach a horse that when you take the rein, he is to give his head and neck, and it teaches him that when you put your leg on, he is to move off of your leg.
It is something that every discipline uses – western pleasure, reining, dressage, western riding, hunter, trail, everything. Each discipline might have a different plan to teach it or understand it – I hear a lot of hunter under saddle and trail people say to “wrap them up around your inside leg” – but the important thing is to understand the big picture of gaining control of the hindquarter with your outside leg and teaching the horse to balance between the reins.
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Become a Mindful Rider: When you become a mindful rider, you know and understand what your horse is doing underneath you at all times. You are not distracted, you give clear aids and you feel what your horse is telling you.
Every time you touch your horse’s face with your hands or his body with your legs, you are building a relationship with your horse. If you don’t respect your horse enough to pay attention to how he’s receiving your cues, you will probably have trouble later on.
For example, on the arc, as I lay my leg in, I pay attention to my horse’s reaction and watch his body language: Is he flying off my leg or letting me push him over? Is he wringing his tail? You have to think about why he’s responding the way he is, and it’s usually not because he’s being naughty.
Mindful riding is as simple as paying attention as you ride to see if your horse is stiff, then doing suppling exercises to make that way easier for him. Or it’s taking a feel of your horse’s mouth, feeling him give, and then releasing him, instead of mindlessly bumping him in the mouth without understanding why you are doing it. So many problems start with people just not being educated in their horsemanship.
There is a bigger riding world than just our show-ring experience. We have got to care about the horse and learn to become horsemen.
Trainers need to teach people how to be horsemen, not just how to win a particular event. We need to instill in people the end goal of becoming better horsemen and use the show as a test for how much we’ve improved instead of teaching that the end goal is just to win.
It makes riding a challenge; it makes people hungry to get better; and it makes our horses happier. Taking the time to learn the fundamentals about horses and horsemanship – like the natural arc – is part of that.