Horses, like people, are generally one sided. Not to the extent that you or I might be if asked to write with the “wrong” hand, but enough so that if left to their own devices they will canter on the same lead or throw you up on one diagonal. Over time, this can result in a horse that is weaker on one side and which may be reluctant to pick up a canter lead or unable to hold that lead for long.
I notice this in Freedom after hunt season. He is often slightly stiffer or slightly more resistant to the left. This is not a new issue. When I first started retraining him, getting him to pick up the left lead was a challenge. He was so balanced that he could counter canter in the tiniest circle imaginable rather than pick up that lead.
Off season training rituals: Hacking
To keep him supple and balanced we spend a lot of time off season working on bi-lateral suppleness. Some of it is pretty simple and it’s what I do when I’m hacking out.
- I change diagonals frequently. Sometimes I change them every 10 strides; other times I’ll post three and then stand two giving my quads a workout at the same time.
- I keep track of canter leads and make sure that he alternates with every canter set. Sometimes I’ll ask for simple changes every 10 strides when we’re on a straight away.
- I sneak in some lateral work. If there’s a well defined trail, I’ll ask for some shoulder in, using the trail as a guide for where I want to move his forehand. If I’m on a dirt road, I leg yield back and forth across the road at a walk or trot.
I don’t spend a lot of time in the ring but even I admit that it’s a lot easier to school figures and lateral work.
- I change directions frequently, emphasizing the bend. Serpentines are great for this. If I feel that he’s a bit stiff on one loop, I might turn that into a circle.
- I use leg yields across the diagonal and then move into shoulder in around the short ends of the ring.
- I use counter bend on a circle to increase flexibility. I find with Freedom this works best at the canter. On a 20 meter circle I’ll ask him to counter bend for a set number of strides, go straight for a few strides, then bend to the inside. Rinse and repeat.
- Counter canter is good for building strength and flexibility. I keep the loops quite large until the horse is proficient at it. Freedom finds counter canter to be confusing; I find it helpful to keep the bend of that lead slightly exaggerated to reinforce that I don’t want him to change.
As hunt season is approaching quickly we’ve been working quite a lot on flexibility, suppleness and responsiveness. I like him to go into the hunt season balanced and strong — so I don’t have so much work to do when the season is over.