Ask the Experts: Horse that Leans on the
Better throughness, balance and suppleness can keep
your horse from leaning on the inside rein.
By Cindy Rose Wylie
Question: My new 16-year old Thoroughbred has been a show hunter
all his life and has had two years off doing nothing. Although he
has been trained up to medium-level dressage, I'm going back to
basics to find out how he has been trained and to reestablish everything
after his time off while also getting him fit again. The problem
I've encountered is that he is just terrible about leaning on the
inside rein. I have had his teeth done with no improvement. Could
you give me some exercises or suggestions that might help?
Answer: When a horse leans on the rein--one or both reins--he is
showing a lack of throughness, balance and suppleness. Horses are
lefties or righties, just like people. For many different reasons
including physical limitations, a general lack of suppleness or
rider imbalance, one hind leg is generally stronger than the other,
creating the tendency for the horse to lean on the rein on the opposite
side. In dressage, we work to make both hind legs equally strong,
revealed most easily by the evenness and elasticity of the contact.
First, concern yourself with the physical well-being of the horse.
For example, horses that are stiff behind due to arthritic changes
may lean on the inside rein, as they are unable to step under and
carry themselves with their hind legs. Many modern therapies are
available to lengthen and improve our horses' useful career. For
the welfare of the horse, if training issues exist that are not
understood, please contact your local veterinarian before starting
a training program.
Review your horse's conformation. Dressage can be beneficial to
almost any horse, but not every horse's conformation facilitates
dressage training. For example, a horse that has a high croup or
long back will have a harder time stepping under himself and carrying
his weight with his hindquarters, creating the tendency to lean
on the bit. Given time, these horses can be taught to carry themselves
forward into a more even and elastic contact.
I am happy to hear you've already considered teeth in the equation,
but the mouth itself cannot yet be ruled out. In many other equestrian
disciplines, harsher bits are sometimes used. This creates a horse
with a less sensitive mouth that leans on the rein. With time, patience
and proper bitting, these horses can become more sensitive to simpler
and kinder bits more typically employed in dressage.
Rider position is the next possible culprit for the stiffness. A
crooked rider, always sitting to the outside of the horse, tends
to push the haunches to the inside, blocking the carrying ability
of the inside rein, and creating a horse that leans on that rein.
This is not something easily assessed alone. A qualified instructor
would be best to help you. Get yourself videotaped moving on straight
lines going both to the left and the right and away form the camera
at all three gaits. Your shoulders should appear level with your
legs hanging evenly down. You want your spine straight and aligned
over the midline of the horse. Failing a camera, a friend can stand
behind you for assessment purposes.
To correct position issues, longe line lessons with a qualified
instructor are almost imperative. However, if a good longe horse
or instructor is not available, riding without stirrups on a calm
horse can help. You can do one of my favorite exercises on a calm
horse without stirrups at the posting trot. Take both reins in your
outside hand and stretch your inside arm from your shoulder straight
ahead toward the horse's ear so your arm is parallel to the ground.
This exercise should be repeated in both directions, helping you
maintain an even balance in the saddle. This helps you feel your
straight spine, especially when raising the arm on the side of your
body that tends to collapse.
Finally, your horse may just not have been ridden in a way to promote
balance and suppleness. Luckily, dressage offers many wonderful
exercises that help create a more supple and elastic connection
through the horse's back to the bridle. These exercises help the
horse develop strength and suppleness of the hindquarters, allowing
increased engagement or carrying power of the hind legs. When his
self-carriage improves, then the contact in the bridle will also
lighten and become more elastic.
First, we need to make sure your horse understands the connection
from your inner leg to your outer rein. Turns on the forehand are
very good for helping clarify this concept in your horse's mind.
At a halt along the wall, apply your outer leg and, at the same
time, gently close your fingers, or "restrain" your horse's
front end from walking forward. If your horse is not used to this
exercise, he will want to go forward rather than sideways from your
Be patient! If he should step forward, close your fingers more firmly,
and allow him to halt quietly again before asking him to move over
with your outside leg again. Hotter horses sometimes have a very
hard time with this. In this case, start by facing the wall at a
90-degree angle, and allow the wall to keep him from walking forward,
rather than wrestling with the bridle. The horse will show you he
understands this idea by stepping readily away from your outside
leg with his hind legs and inscribing a quarter or half circle with
them around his front legs marching in the same spot. As you work
this exercise, you may notice your horse starts chewing the bridle
more softly and becomes lighter on your inside rein and "rounder"
on your outside rein.
To help your horse become more supple and engaged while moving in
a forward direction, spiraling circles are a very good exercise.
Starting with a large circle, reduce it to a smaller one, and then
drive the horse laterally back out to the original. Make sure your
circles never get so small that your horse cannot balance easily
or maintain his nice steady forward rhythm.
As you spiral your circle inward, your inside leg should be closed
at the girth and your outside leg should be just behind the girth,
keeping the haunches stepping forward rather than outward. Your
inside rein should be softly positioning the poll to the inside,
yet not bending the neck so far that you lose sight of the outside
cheekpiece of the bridle, and your outside rein is quietly ready
to receive the connection, offered by the bend.
The bending aids should stretch the horse forward around your inner
leg into the outside rein so that the contact in your outside rein
starts to improve. As you spiral you horse back out onto the larger
circle, concentrate on actively pushing him from your inside leg
into the outside rein, and catch the energy in the outside rein
in a restraining rein aid. As the outside rein connection becomes
more consistent and elastic, you will be able to use it in recycling
your horse's forward energy back to his hindquarters in the form
of a half halt.
Leg yields also are helpful in teaching the horse to move from the
inside leg to the outside rein. You can try leg yielding from the
centerline to the wall, from the wall toward the centerline, down
the wall facing either in or out or in a zigzag, leg yielding in
one direction, then changing the horse's positioning and leg yielding
back the other direction. As in the previous exercise, the focus
is on moving the horse away from the rider's inside leg, getting
the horse to step under and carry more weight with his inside hind
leg, lightening the inner rein contact and improving the connection
on the outside rein.
In the leg yields, the body of the horse should be fairly straight,
with only a small amount of positioning of the poll to the inside,
just enough that you can see the inner eyeball. Your outside rein
helps maintain the straightness of the horse's body and keeps the
outside shoulder from popping out, giving the horse the feel and
appearance of being crooked. Too much outside rein will block the
engagement of the hindquarters and make the horse step too sideways
with his hind legs, causing the hindquarters to lead and lose the
clear trot rhythm. Use your outside leg just behind the girth to
help support the forward movement so he can keep stepping more under
himself. If you should try the more difficult zigzag exercise, make
sure you allow your horse a moment of straightness and balance before
changing direction in his lateral movement.
There are many reasons for the phenomena you describe and many ways
to fix it. Perhaps the most difficult task will be identifying what
is causing your horse's "stiffness." But once you're on
track, the horse will let you know by offering the lovely elastic
connection that we all work hard to achieve.