One of the tenets of dressage is the activation and increased carrying power of your horse’s hind legs. When your horse weights himself more behind, that results in a lighter shoulder and thus a more mobile front end. This allows you as the rider to manipulate the horse through various movements with small, unobtrusive aids. Think of all of the movements in dressage as tests of your horse’s balance and as you go up the levels those tests on his balance come faster and faster, asking for more weight on the hind end in order to complete the them successfully. Of course, we are not looking for just weighting of the hind legs. We are also looking for activation or engagement of the hind legs AS they are bearing this increased carrying load. That makes it very difficult for the horse and why it takes many years to bring a horse’s fitness to the highest levels. So how do we reshape our horses in this manner? And what tactics can we use to help him understand just what we are asking for?
One – Transitions:
Transitions are the foundation for this work, both transitions within the gait as well as transitions between the gaits. It is absolutely necessary in correct dressage that your horse has a constant flow of energy that he is allowing you to manipulate (aka rocking him back on his hindleg, shifting between gaits, extending and collecting the gaits). Transitions allow you to check that this flow of energy is intact as you are rebalancing him. For more on this click here. Correct transitions are a gentle, low impact way to encourage your horse to rebalance himself and activate the hind leg. That is why as soon as first level, your horse is already being asked to lengthen and return to the working gaits. What you will need to know is HOW to ask for a transition without freezing your seat and pulling on the reins. Such a transition will generally stop the hind leg instead of activating it. So, Grasshopper, simply going from canter to trot does not a transition make. It is having the horse activate and use his hindleg in order to create that transition that encourages him to further develop its strength and activity.
Two – Half Halts:
Half halts work within the gait to rebalance, or reshape, the horse. They rock him back on his hind leg when, for example, if he falls on the forehand through a turn. Or to prepare him for the turn so he does not fall onto the forehand. Your horse’s level of fitness and experience will tell you how much to expect him to carry – an out of shape horse who is just coming back from injury, not very much. A competing Grand Prix horse – much more. I am not going to go into the mechanics of the half halt as I wrote a delightful three part series on the subject, which you may read by clicking here, here and here.
Three – Hill Work:
If you are lucky enough to live nearby hilly trails then this is a great way to passively build strength, get your horse out of the box and it is not reliant on your knowledge of half halts, transition work etc. Even a relatively new rider and enjoy hill work with their horse. Horses will also enjoy moving freely and is a great way to build strength, especially those who are nappy or behind the leg. Just be careful to introduce this regiment into your program slowly, starting with a few minutes and working upward. You will be surprised with how sore just a little of this work will cause them to become at first.
Four – In Hand Work:
In hand work removes the burden of the rider and allows the horse to think about what is expected from them in a wholly new way. Keep in mind, though, in hand work is only for those experienced with the process. Incorrect in hand work can do a lot of damage to the horse mentally and physically. The point of in hand work is to teach the horse using a different tactic, as just with humans, some horses learn better with knowledge presented to them in alternate ways. Keep in mind also that in hand work is not a substitute for correct riding – it is there to augment what is done under saddle, not replace it.
Five – Long Lining:
Just as in hand work requires experience and skill, so does long lining. It has a similar motivation of removing the rider and allowing the horse to move unencumbered. It is also a good tactic to exercise or rehabilitate a horse who is deemed unsafe for riding. Again, though, it is for experienced long liners only. Learning long lining is a skill equal to riding itself and not to be taken up by the layman. If you have access to a trainer with long line experience, then inquire as to adding it to your program.
The crux of all of these options is to transfer responsibility for your horse’s movement onto his hind legs. Keep in mind that a horse can walk on the forehand, trot and canter on the forehand. What we will see suffer his ability to transition quickly and smoothly, without a break in his connection, from one gait to another, or to properly execute smaller figures while remaining balanced and on the contact. Even if your horse is “on the bit”, if there is fifteen pounds in one rein and it feels like you can’t turn right, then there is an issue with him loading and articulating his hind legs evenly.
(A Note: The beautiful pencil drawing you see in the beginning was created by Kelli Swan – visit her website at to see more of her work by clicking here.)