Q: I recently bought a 5-year-old Hackney-cross mare. For some reason, she can’t trot. I don’t know if she can’t or won’t. What she does is more like a bouncy, slow canter. Are there any exercises I could do to fix this?
A: First, use a process of elimination to try to determine the source of your mare’s problem. Ask your veterinarian to evaluate her for any possible lameness or discomfort in her body. Then check that her saddle fits correctly. Next, longe her in both directions, with and without tack, to see if she trots normally without a rider.
Young horses sometimes have trouble keeping their balance while learning to carry a rider, which can cause problems like your mare’s. Working on uneven ground can make this even more challenging for her. So, if your riding surface is uneven, try to find a more level place to experiment on.
When she breaks into the canter, does she always choose the same lead? This can be a sign of a problem with balance or even a subtle lameness.
Another common cause of this type of problem is tension. Some horses are naturally hotter or high-strung. I have ridden only one Hackney, so I would not want to generalize about the breed, but the one that I ride is extremely sensitive. He tries so hard to read every signal that I make with my body. These are wonderful qualities for an upper-level dressage horse, but they would make him very challenging for a lower-level rider. He is also prone to getting tight in his back, which I address with frequent stretching. I have to keep him supple so he is relaxed and touchable.
If your horse is sensitive like this, she may be worried about conflicting aids you don’t realize you’re giving. Or she may be sensing your own tension. You might be unconsciously gripping with your legs or holding the reins too tightly, which in turn will make her more nervous. Ask yourself if there are any other variables that may be contributing to your own anxiety, such as an unenclosed riding arena.
Finally, your mare may simply be uneducated to the leg aids. If she scoots forward every time you touch her with your legs, she has not yet learned to accept them. Many riders are afraid to put their legs on hot horses for fear of making them faster. This actually makes the problem worse. To help your horse relax and stop overreacting to your leg aids, you must teach her to accept the feel of them on her sides at all times. Once she learns this, she then needs to learn that leg aids don’t always mean “go forward.” Sometimes they mean bend or move laterally.
All of these issues can be resolved by methodically following the Training Pyramid, which begins with a solid foundation of rhythm and tempo. Without steady rhythm and tempo, a horse cannot be relaxed in his back and mind. Without relaxation, he cannot learn to accept a good contact. Start by focusing on your mare’s footsteps. You should hear four clear, steady beats at the walk. When she learns to trot (and she will!), you want to hear two regular beats. At the canter, there should be three clear beats. To maintain a steady rhythm and to begin to control her tempo (her speed within each gait), try riding to music or even a metronome.
As you concentrate on rhythm and tempo at the walk, see if you can loosen the reins without her speeding up. If she has trouble maintaining a relaxed walk on a loose rein, use circles to slow her.
To teach her to accept your legs, close them gently against her sides and leave them there. If she speeds up, turn in a circle. Eventually, as she gets accustomed to the feel of your legs and relaxes her back, she should stretch her neck forward, reaching into your rein contact. Another good way to teach her to accept the leg—and to begin to show her that it can mean more than just go forward—is the turn on the forehand. (Learn how to do this in Bruno Greber’s article, “Bring on the Bigger Steps!”).
If this process makes you nervous or uncomfortable, consider asking a more experienced rider to educate your mare to the leg. This should require only a handful of sessions and it will improve your ability to communicate with her.
When your mare is accepting your leg and walking comfortably with very light rein contact, ask for a trot. Remind yourself to stay calm, quiet and focused, being careful to maintain your own balance and resisting the urge to grab the reins in reaction to any sudden movements she makes. If she jumps into canter, calmly bring her back to a walk and soften the reins again. Wait until she is walking quietly on a light rein contact before asking her to trot again. If she gets tense, make circles or ask for a few walk-–halt transitions. Eventually she’ll learn to trust that you won’t grab her mouth or interfere with her balance when she picks up the trot. From there, you can begin working on rhythm, tempo and relaxation within the trot just as you did in the walk.
Lisa Pierson is a U.S. Dressage Federation certified instructor, “L” graduate and bronze and silver medalist. She has competed and trained dressage students through the FEI levels. Also an experienced eventing competitor and coach, she ran her own training barn, Banbury Cross Farm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from 1985 to 2000 before moving to the East Coast. She is now based at CB Walker Stables in Brewster, New York, in the summer and at White Fences in Loxahatchee, Florida, in the winter. Last fall, Lisa and Leeda Fletcher’s Hackney gelding, Baryshnikov, won the Chevy’s Cup for the highest-scoring non-warmblood FEI horse at Dressage at Devon, where they competed in the Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I divisions. The pair also finished seventh in the open Intermediaire championship at last year’s U.S. Dressage Finals.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.