The Natural Arc
For correct horse training, you have to understand the natural arc of the lope.
By Dana Hokana with Christine Hamilton in The American Quarter Horse Journal | April 22, 2013
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 lift 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.
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, lift 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 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 and take away from 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.
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 shuffley 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. His is so over-arced that the energy stops out behind the outside shoulder, and he has to roll himself, pulling himself along through the front end.
It’s only fair that we train our 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.
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.
When I’m training, I usually do this two-handed. Holding my hands in front of the withers, I use my inside rein to control the inside of the horse’s face to be able to 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 over-ask 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.
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I ask him to stay collected and hold that arc for a few strides, and then I 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 your leg.
It is something that every discipline uses – western pleasure, reining, dressage, western riding, hunter under saddle, 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.
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.
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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.
Here's a video of the2011 AQHA 2-Year-Old Western Pleasure World Champion to show you how everything fits together.