One of the first things I do with a young horse or one who needs to make progress in their ability to bend and balance is to work extensively on the lunge line, utilizing the side reins as a tool for progress. The side reins have many benefits- they begin to get the horse familiar with contact leading them to begin to “give” to the bit (what later will be scored as submission once they are in the competitive dressage arena). The side reins also begin to introduce the idea of correct bend to the horse, which is building on the basic concept of balance.
What we have to watch out for is that the horse does not begin to use the side reins to lean on the bit or to get behind the bit while still throwing their body around with little to no correct balance. Belle, an OTTB, is very clever in how she uses her body to get out of working correctly. She is just learning how to carry weight on her hind end while stretching over the top line and using her hind end constructively. All this is particularly difficult for her in her canter transitions when tracking left. She is clever enough to know that she can still give the wrong lead if she goes behind the bit to bend herself the wrong way, giving me the right lead instead of the left lead.
So, to remedy this little trick of hers, I moved the side reins from the lower rings of the surcingle to the upper rings. I did this so when she attempting to bear down and hide behind the bit, she would be “bumped up” off the bit, having to transfer the weight back to her hindquarters and maintain the correct bend. She was annoyed at first that she had to work harder but quickly caught on to the fact that she had fewer transitions to do if she did a few well. What came as a bit of a surprise to me was how difficult it seemed to be for her at the trot. She was chewing the bit more than I would have liked, so to get her mind off of it I sent her forward on a large circle, almost to the end of the line. With more impulsion and space, she was driving off the hind end, traveling through her topline and slightly up hill. Her mouth became very quiet, with the occasional content chew on the bit. It became more difficult on a smaller circle, but her effort was spectacular as she is a very willing mare and loves to hear praise and to be told “good girl”.
Thinking about it now and after watching some videos online and reading some materials, I think people are slightly confused about how the horse should carry themselves. So, I’m going to come right out and say it: A lower head does not mean a rounder topline. I think there is a lot of confusion around the subject. Roundness comes from the hind end, not from the top of the horse. A horse with a low, rounded looking neck can be trailing their hind end and lacking impulsion, as Belle was trying to with the lower side reins. She needed them lower at first to realize she could accept the bit and reach for it, but once beyond that she took advantage and was trying to lean instead of reach for the contact and give in the bridle. Once I changed the rings and she had to push off her hind end, her head and neck did raise but they had to in order to accommodate the impulsion from the hind end, as the added impulsion resulted in an ideal and “up-hill” gait. Had she not lifted, she could have ended up being heavy on the forehand, creating a whole other issue.
This work on the lunge line translated to a lighter contact and increased acceptance of the bit under saddle. Since she had figured out so much about her balance and use of the hind end on the lunge line, she was able to be more engaged and impulsive under saddle as well. Our next ride after that session was brilliant! Her lateral work was improved, and she was traveling up hill with impulsion and balance. Getting an eye for what a horse’s body is doing and what stage they are at on the lunge line is essential in being able to see what needs improvement for a better ride.