This article was written by Lesley Stevenson and originally posted in Lesley's Corner on My Virtual Eventing Coach. To read more by Lesley and other professionals, purchase a membership to My Virtual Eventing Coach here.
Most riders know that they should be focusing more on the horse's hind legs when riding and jumping. But with the temptation of the horse's head and neck visibly in front of us, this can be quite difficult! Here is a little mental trick that will help!
I am going to ask you to close your eyes for this trick, and I want you to bear with me and give it a try. If you can get a really clear picture in your head of what I am going to ask you to think about, it will be the most useful for you.
The picture I want you to create in your head is that of a horse running... But this horse actually doesn't have any legs - this horse has wheels. Just like your car, this imaginary horse has a front and a rear axle. When he runs, all 4 wheels turn equally.
So close your eyes, and picture a horse with wheels in full detail. Note what color he is, and how his mane flows as he wheels along. Give him a name. Or maybe make it your own horse!
Now picture yourself riding this horse with wheels. Still with your eyes closed to help eliminate potential distractions, mentally ride your horse through some flatwork exercises, or jump a show jumping course. FEEL yourself consciously keeping those hind wheels just as active as the front ones. Also be very aware of feeling that both of your hind wheels are working equally.
Note that you should give extra thought to keeping both hind wheels working equally through circles, turns, and lateral movements. As many times one hind leg of the horse tends to be lazier than the other when negotiating these type of movements. With many horses, it is the outside hind leg that you need to keep tabs on to make sure it is doing its fair share through turns and lateral exercises.
Visualize yourself revving that outside wheel a bit as you ride through a turn. Not to go faster, but to keep that wheel actively engaged, so the rear end of the car doesn't swing to the outside in the turns. When riding the movement of shoulder in, this becomes especially important. As it is SO common for horses to step to the outside with their outside hind leg in the shoulder in... losing that all important bend through the ribcage, which turns the movement into a leg yield.
To make sure that you are doing a true shoulder in, pay attention to that outside rear wheel to keep those hind wheels turning equally. And make sure both hind wheels are pointing straight down the track - not turning to match the front wheels. As when the horse's hind feet turn to face the same direction as the front feet, the bend through the ribcage is eliminated, and the movement becomes a leg yield.
Think about the fact that any time you use the reins... to make a tight turn, to half halt, to steady your horse in front of a jump, etc. you have to be especially conscious of keeping those hind wheels turning. If you don't, they can become less and less active... eventually being sort of dragged along by the front end. FEEL yourself consciously keeping those hind wheels turning all the way to the base of your jumps.
Now let's go get on your real horse! You will, of course, now have your eye's open. But I want you to carry the mental picture of you riding those hind wheels in your head. Go to it whenever it becomes necessary for you and your horse.
If you struggle with maintaining the quality of your canter all the way to your jumps, for example, you will remind yourself to keep those hind wheels spinning in those last few strides before takeoff. If your horse tends to fall onto his forehand in downward transitions, think of revving those hind legs to prepare for and execute each transition. If your horse falls apart in his upward transitions, think of revving the hind wheels while you hold the horse in first gear. If your horse gets lazy with his outside hind leg in your shoulder in or leg yield, be conscious of revving that outside wheel.
Overall, just the idea of keeping tabs on all 4 wheels should improve your performance. Within every movement that you are riding, ask yourself if you can FEEL the wheels actively and equally turning on your horse's imaginary rear axle. Especially if your horse is on the lazy side, rev those hind wheels as needed! And if your horse ever gets strong or heavy after you have tried to rev those wheels... attempting to run through your hand, school him with a halt/rein back as needed, to show him that he must still respect your restraining aids.
Lesley Stevenson offers expert coaching and guidance for you and your horse! With more than 35 years of experience of riding through the top levels of both Eventing and Dressage, and almost 30 years of teaching and coaching riders at all levels, our Resident Expert at My Virtual Eventing Coach, Lesley Stevenson, is here to help YOU with your riding, no matter where you live in the world!