In order to ride the horse forward on the bit, he must be balanced—carrying himself on his hindquarters with a steady, elastic “connection” from the hind leg to the bit. In order to balance the horse longitudinally, he must be straight—hind legs tracking along same track as forelegs. When this occurs on a circle, the horse is said to “bend” in order to maintain straightness. It is not possible to get the hindquarters to carry more weight if they cannot reach straight forward under the horse’s center of gravity—thus a crooked horse cannot be ridden forward on the bit. I will now discuss that very important concept of lateral balance.
Longitudinal balance has been analyzed and taught at length. This balance is from the front to the hind legs along the axis of the spine. Throughout training, this distribution of weight develops toward the hind leg so the horse can carry himself with his haunches, with freedom and mobility of the forehand.
Lateral balance, or that balance that exists between one side of the horse and the other, is often neglected. I believe that this balance is misunderstood, and that many commonly taught training methods actually work against the establishment of lateral balance of the horse.
The basic premise of lateral balance is that there should be an equal distribution of weight between the inside and outside legs; “even loading” of the lateral pairs which allow the horse to keep his body perpendicular to the ground. If the inside pair bears more of the weight, the horse will lean to the inside; if the outside pair carries more, the horse will drift out. This balance is more subtle than longitudinal balance because the distance between the legs is smaller than the distance from the front to the hind legs. But, although more subtle, it is quite critical, for obviously, if the horse is not totally balanced, he cannot be straight, for he will be falling into the direction of the weighted legs. Of course, the straight and hence forward horse moves front and hind footprints on a single track—with no deviation one way or another from the track. Only the straight horse can move forward, for deviations sideways are trips of the horse’s leg away from the forward, straight track. To simplify—the horse cannot move forward if he is falling in or drifting out. Now, we approach the problem of the straightness on the circle. With the width of the horse’s body (distance between inside and outside legs) and the size of the circle, we have the two critical variables to lateral balance of the circle; the outside legs are on a circle that is larger than the inside legs. If they don’t compensate (by lengthening the track and stretching the outside of the horse’s body), they “load” with more weight, and centrifugal force draws the horse out in a drift. In an effort to pull away from this outward loading, the horse may lean in -falling on the inside legs. The horse cannot move forward because he is not laterally balanced! If he is able to compensate for the difference in distance between the inside and outside tracks, he is able to move forward on a bending line (circle). As the forehand precedes the hindquarters on the circle and hence is farther around the bend than the hindquarters, the inside hind leg moves forward in the direction of the center of gravity, right behind the horse’s shoulders.
“Only a straight horse can move forward.”
What actually happens is that the center of gravity is brought in front of the inside hind leg as the horse is positioned through the head, neck and shoulder onto the arc of the circle. As the inside hind bends and reaches under, the engagement of the haunches improves longitudinal balance, and the horse lowers his croup and becomes freer because the shoulders are relieved of their weight.
All lateral movements are simple recreations of part of a circle, ridden forward on a straight line. The success depends on the ability of the rider to control inside and outside tracks and to mobilize the shoulders so as to be able to place them in front of the inside hind leg (as in shoulder-in) or the outside hind leg (renvers, travers, half-pass). The horse must maintain his lateral balance and his forward movement, reaching well under his body so that longitudinal balance is maintained. The greater the collection, the more engagement is demanded—just to keep these two balances intact.
Now—how ? The leg-yield done from the rider’s outside leg (croup to the inside, head to the wall) gives the rider the control of the outside hind leg, and he gradually becomes able to affect its length and direction of the steps. Then, on the corner or large circle, he is able to preserve control of the lateral balance to ride the horse forward along a bending line (in a bending “chute” or track), keeping the hind leg on the outside tracking longer to compensate for the circle. This is how the horse is able to bend and not by any other means. He bends around the inside leg of the rider, and the inside leg maintains the impulsion and forward movement. One often sees poorly conceived attempts to bend the horse with the inside leg– as if by punching the horse with the inside leg, he would magically collapse his body on the side! The result of this is that the inside hind, pushed over by the rider, only succeeds in making him crooked—and therefore not forward. The crookedness will result in faulty lateral balance because forcing the inside hind under the body in this manner actually shortens the outside track (so, while the rider thinks he is engaging the hind leg, he is actually doing the opposite). The result is a horse that moves in short, stiff strides, totally out of balance. The hind tracks must be forward and straight, and the shoulders move in on the bend in order to accomplish this. Moving the shoulders insures that the hind quarters be weighted, whereas moving the hindquarters while holding the shoulders creates the opposite. For example, if I halt my horse, and he moves his croup into my left leg, I might be tempted to correct him by pushing the horse’s croup back into place with my leg. But I have done nothing to change his balance, which had to be on the shoulders for him to be able to swing the croup out! But, suppose I straighten him by moving his shoulders in front of the croup. Now, I have held the croup and moved the shoulders—the weight is back on the hind leg and he stands straight.
As lateral balance is achieved, it is clear to see the longitudinal balance developing as a result of the correctly ridden lateral exercises and circles. Only the horse that is truly balanced in both ways can carry himself “on the bit” – that goal to which we all aspire.
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