The “Correct Outline” And How To Achieve It
By Phil Bennett B.H.S.I.I.
Phil Bennett is a classically trained, freelance teacher and trainer based in Ashford, Kent. This series of articles are based on extracts from his book “Riding In Harmony”
In previous articles I described the need for and the mechanics of a horse working in a correct outline. So how do we teach the horse to move in this more comfortable and efficient way? Unfortunately the commonly used term “on the bit” is misleading, suggesting that the hands and reins are the rider’s primary influence on the horse. In fact the horse has to understand and be obedient to all of the aids. The young or spoiled horse has first to understand and respond to the individual aids, before they can be combined to create the necessary changes to his balance and carriage.
Putting the horse “On the Aids” is based on pressure, response and reward. We apply an aid and when the horse responds we stop applying the aid and reward by yielding. The rider should be patient and give the horse time to understand the aids. We cannot blame the horse for not responding if we have not taught him the meaning of our aids. A kick in the ribs does not make him go forward! Nor does pulling hard on the rein make him stop!
A fundamental pre-requisite is that the rider sits correctly on his horse, in balance over the horse’s centre of gravity and in harmony with his movement. No horse will be able to stretch his top-line and round his back if his rider is bouncing around on his back, pulling on the reins or collapsing his weight to one side or the other. Therefore the rider should concentrate on improving his own riding first, if he is to help his horse to work correctly!
To begin with the horse should learn to go willingly forward from light leg aids, slow down or stop from the restraining effect of the rider’s upper body and reins and turn or circle to left or right. Frequent transitions between the paces consolidates obedience to the simple aids. Then the horse is ready to work in a correct outline in order to develop further.
The horse needs to lower his head and neck, to stretch the upper neck and back muscles and accept the bit. This is best achieved through working the horse on circles and developing a correct bend. The horse is influenced by one rein at a time rather than feeling restricted by two reins that he does not understand. When the horse feels a firmer pressure on one rein he should bend and lower his neck, lift his back under the rider, flex his jaw and poll and chew softly on the bit. When we ask the horse to bring the head and neck a to the inside, the inside neck muscles shorten and the outside neck muscles are lengthened along with the outside back muscles. This allows the hind-legs to step more easily under the horse. The increased pressure on the inside rein comes from a “passive resistance”. The rider’s upper arm, hanging vertically downward from the shoulder and elbow close to the ribcage stabilises his hand and the rein contact is “anchored into the seat”.
As the rider turns from his waist, a little more pressure will automatically be put onto the inside rein. If the horse does not yield willingly to this pressure but tries to push against the hand he puts pressure on his own jaw, which he can relieve by flexing his neck muscles correctly and lowering and stretching his neck and lifting his back. The moment the horse responds the rider must release the rein and reward the horse by harmonising with him. The rider will need to use his inside leg at the girth to sustain sufficient energy and to encourage the horse to move his ribcage away from this pressure.
Horses are very quick learners and once they feel comfort they will seek to repeat it. Once we are able to stretch each side of the horse individually we will find that any-time we yield one or both reins, the horse will stretch forward to find the contact. In effect the horse is “liberated” through the reins rather than being restricted by them. If pressure has to be sustained for more than a couple of strides it is best to yield the rein and then repeat. Sustaining tension in the reins encourages the horse to lean on the bit, stiffening the neck and back and producing the opposite of the rider’s intentions.
Tense or nervous horses need to be slowed down and benefit from doing these exercises in walk or a very slow trot, concentrating on relaxing and stretching the top line with frequent yielding of one or both reins. When they become calm and allow the rider to use the leg without running away from it, they can be driven to engage the hind legs and tuck the pelvis. Weak or lazy horses need to be activated and worked more forward from the beginning. The rider passively restrains the forward movement and when the horse steps more under with his hind legs, can yield the reins to reward him.
When the hind-legs step well under the horse’s body, the back is rounded and the horse accepts the restraining effects of the rider’s weight and reins the rider will find that he needs firstly less rein and then less leg. Ultimately the horse works through the most complicated movements and gaits with ease and self-carriage.
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