A horse’s ability to move in and out of transitions and gaits with rhythm, tempo, stride length, straightness, outline (frame) on his own, with no maintenance from the rider, is called self-carriage. It seems too often that a horse’s self-carriage becomes confused with the rider’s maintenance of the horse’s frame. It’s not about the rider constantly maintaining the horse in all the qualities required; it's about the horse being trained to maintain them himself.
The horse's responses to the rider’s aids are centuries-old requirements of equitation, central to classical and academic riding. Above all, self-carriage is also central to the horse's mental wellbeing. In today's dressage it tends to be more of a dream than a reality, because there is little agreement about lightness and the extent to which the horse should carry himself. Yet self-carriage is a fundamental principle taught, and not well understood, in most equestrian disciplines.
Self-carriage can be tested when the rider can keep the horse well underneath her, in the cadence she has set, and let go of the reins; the horse maintains speed, cadence, and frame, and stays between hand and leg aids.
Before we begin training the horse for self-carriage, we must make sure that the horse is emotionally, mentally and physically prepared to take on the level of discipline necessary to accomplish the task.
WORKING AT LIBERTY
When developing self-carriage, it is important to me that a horse is first developed off line and free of any aids. This shows me how well, or not, the horse travels. From this point on I can determine what I need to help with when it comes to gaining better balance, straightness, relaxation and cadence. I want the horse to develop these qualities first and on his own so that nothing is compromised, emotionally, mentally or physically before we progress into more disciplined work. With the free lunge, I focus on developing the following qualities in my horse’s movement. It is important to keep these qualities in the order presented as each is a necessary building block for the others to follow:
Cardio: I begin with 5 minutes of working trot, off line and free in the round pen. I work both directions and several minutes each side. I repeat 7+ sessions before I increase to 10+ minutes.
Cadence: I am looking for the “quality” of the trot when working on cardio. The quality of the trot includes cadence – balanced, rhythmic (steady) footfall. This shows up in the horse tracking well and creating a “V” shape when diagonal legs meet. It’s a plus, too, if the horse relaxes enough to stretch his top line and reach to the ground when in a working trot.
Transitions: Transitions help the horse use his hind end, encouraging him to push off from the hind rather than pull from the forehand. I work in strides of three at first, asking the horse to move out at an energetic trot for three strides, slow down for three and push off again into an energetic trot. It is important to note that the horse must become rhythmic and relaxed in cardio, cadence and transitions before we ask for the shoulder-in.
Shoulder-in: The shoulder-in is acquired more easily once the previous areas are achieved. We begin developing this when the horse is ready to do the work closely, arching in around us and 7-10 feet from us. The shoulder-in is pivotal in developing balance.
I have my own method to longeing for self-carriage that relies only on the use of a rope halter, 12-14’ line and a longe whip. The essential ingredient to my lunge is the connection piece. If we don’t have eye-to-eye connection we cannot achieve this effortlessly and without aids. The aids are only there to help refine at this point as well as guide the horse’s inside weight-bearing leg in and out of trot-canter transitions.
The same exercises done at liberty can be done on a line. With the shoulder in, the lead line (not longe line) should have plenty of slack in it. The more slack, dip in it, the more arc your horse has when moving around you, thus creating the shoulder-in, naturally.
When my horse can free lunge in an arc around me at the walk, trot and canter, I know we are ready to ride with the level of self-carriage and balance necessary to move with ease and fluidity in movement under saddle. I will further support the development of my horse’s self-carriage through the following riding maneuvers and exercises: shoulder-in, haunches-in (Travers), haunches-out (Renvers), trot-serpentines and lateral work. I will also ride bareback and use a bosal to help further guide my horse through the movements if necessary.
Caroline Rider is an internationally recognized horse whisper whose approach to training horses and teaching people combines 30 years of knowledge, application and development. She is best known for her “Intuitive Training Approach to horsemanship. This approach merges the Art of Horsemanship, Classical Dressage principles and a Taoist way of Being and interacting. It focuses on aligning and synchronizing both horse and rider in mind, body, and soul. Her method to achieving this is based on developing deep levels of connection and communication by combining mind-body awareness and Chakra energy with balance and harmony in movement. To learn more about Rider Horsemanship visit: www.riderhorsemanship.com.