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Western Dressage – Create balance through the walk. By Lisa Wieben and Birgit Stutz

May 3, 2020

In the last blog post, we discussed how to teach shoulder-in in-hand. Before teaching the haunches-in exercise in-hand, we thought it would be a good idea to get the horse to understand the half-halt and get him used to having a little more pressure placed on him before introducing the haunches-in exercise.

The following are two groundwork exercises you can do at the walk that will help you not only with under saddle work but also with getting more respect from your horse.

In the August 2019 issue of SaddleUp, we covered a slow walk exercise under saddle to help connect the horse more through from back to front. We also love to do a similar exercise on the ground.

Slow walk in-hand

To begin with, walk your horse in-hand along the track around the arena at a forward walk, or along a fence line if outside (see our previous article on in-hand leading in the March and April 2019 issues of SaddleUp). Having a boundary on the outside will help keep the horse straight, and having contact on the lead rope, with your hand under the horse’s head, will guide the horse where you want him to go (without pulling, but instead using consistent blocking contact to disallow any unwanted movement). Ask for forward motion with the whip pointing at or lightly tapping the flank of the horse.


Pic 8

Positioning for walking beside the horse. Leading hand is lifting up and slightly back to ask for a half-halt. The whip is keeping the horse stepping under.

Pic 9

Positioning for asking the horse forward, while the handler is walking backwards. The whip can block the shoulder from drifting in and can touch back further to ask for more forward energy.

When your horse walks well in-hand at a good forward walk, breathe out, put a half-halt in your upper body and more contact on the lead rope and say “whoa”. Then ask your horse for a backup (see February 2020 issue of SaddleUp on how to back your horse up in-hand), asking for only one step or two at first, by keeping the block on the lead rope to prevent forward movement, and if needed, tapping the horse in the flank area. If done correctly, this will shift the horse’s weight onto the hind end. Go forward again and with a half-halt in your upper body, ask your horse for a slower walk. The half-halt will ask your horse to shift his weight back and shorten his stride, essentially making your horse’s body shorter from back to front as the hind legs step a little further under. Do not pull back on the rope, but instead raise your hand holding the lead rope slightly.

To begin with only shorten the steps for a few strides, then allow the horse to move forward again as a reward. Keep the horse in contact. Keep mixing it up between slow, forward walk, and halts and backups.

Pic 10

After asking for a halt while walking backwards, Lisa is now asking her mare to step back a few steps to shift her weight back more. From the same position she can then ask for forward steps by tapping near the flank.

Another exercise we like to do is the following:

Position the horse along a wall or fence. Turn around and start walking backwards and slightly to the inside of the horse for safety reasons. If tracking left hold your lead rope in your left hand, closest to the horse and your loops and whip in your right hand. In this position the whip can be used along the body of the horse to maintain position on the track, straightness and forward energy. Have light contact on the lead rope. Ask for forward motion with the whip pointing at or tapping the flank of the horse.

Use blocks on the lead rope if the horse wants to rush forward or past you. If the horse wants to come off the wall/fence with his shoulder or hip, use the whip to block the movement, asking him to stay straight.

Just as in the previous exercise, ask for halts, backups, and slow walk, then allow the horse go walk forward again.

Many horses struggle when there are lots of boundaries (wall, whip, person), but “boxing in” is a great exercise to get your horse to respect your space more and not rush forward.

Some horses do better with one way of doing this exercise than the other, but in the end your horse should be able to do the exercise both ways without rushing or being pushy.

Another way to help your horse get the idea of the slow walk is to set up four to five walk-over poles. By setting the poles slightly shorter than the horse’s usual walk stride he will start to get the idea to shift his weight back and shorten his steps.

Pic 6

Walking over the poles with a long stride (3 foot spacing) The mare’s frame is below level and she’s relaxed.

Pic 7

Walking over the poles with a shorter stride (2 foot spacing). The mare has lifted her head slightly and shifted more onto her hind legs.

During all of these exercises the horse should remain level-headed. When the horse’s head lifts up above the withers the horse’s back will hollow and he will get more anxious. By keeping the head low to level the horse will get more endorphins and relax with the work.

Always make sure not to compromise relaxation. If your horse gets tense, ask for a few forward steps before asking for slow walk again.

Changing the length of the horse’s steps develops the horse’s ability to maintain balance and connection. With improved balance comes improved transitions and lateral work at all levels.

Photos by Dawn Stevens. Handler Lisa Wieben. Horse: Ava (You Otta Have Me), 8-year-old AQHA/APHA mare.

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles that appear in the horse magazine SaddleUp on a monthly basis. The articles are a collaboration between Lisa Wieben (see biography below) and Birgit Stutz.

Lisa Wieben is a versatile and exceptional riding coach, balancing her skills as a Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, Equine Canada Western Competition Coach, and Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer. Currently specializing in Western and English Dressage, she trains youth, adult amateurs, and professionals as well as coaching a local 4H group at her facility near Bowden/Olds, AB. Through dressage and foundational training she helps riders of all disciplines create stronger partnerships with their horses. Also, as a Hanna Somatic Instructor and Practitioner in Training, Lisa works with riders, in class or privately, learning movement exercises that target specific muscle issues in the body brought on by stress, injuries, surgeries, and overuse. Her approach, using Dressage, Centered Riding, Irwin Insights principles, and Somatics, all come together to develop a balanced rider and a balanced horse.

Birgit Stutz is an Irwin Insights Level 4 Master Certified Trainer and offers horse training, riding lessons in the English and Western disciplines, horsemanship clinics, mentorship programs, intensive horsemanship courses, workshops, short courses and demos on various topics, as well as working student programs at Falling Star Ranch Academy of Foundational Horsemanship in Dunster, BC. Birgit’s passion is to help humans have a better relationship with their horses through understanding of equine psychology and body language, biomechanics, as well as fundamental riding skills based on classical dressage.


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