Why: To become aware of your horse’s foot placement, feeling it through your body, enhancing your ability to support your horse with well-timed aids. Part two of a series of articles on Connecting to the Feet, in advance of Mary Gallagher's clinic of the same name (at Freedom Farm this August, 2019). (Read Part 1 here.)
The exercises in this article series are aimed at helping you connect with your horse ever more deeply, through greater awareness of what he’s doing with his feet at any given time. In part one, we got you synchronizing with your horse’s front feet, stepping together over cavalettis on the ground, feeling those same steps from the saddle. Now lets go to the hind feet to complete the picture.
On the ground. Becoming familiar with the backup is a great way to begin timing the movement of the feet with the rein and leg aids when riding. Knowing how the feet work from the ground will make it easier to put together a combination of aids when you ride.
Learn the sequence. Back the horse up, and notice the sequence of the feet as you go. In the back up, the feet work much like in the trot, where the diagonal pairs are moving at the same time. This means that the left front and the right hind will be moving backwards at the same time. And likewise with the other diagonal pair.
So now you know that when you ask the left front to take a step back with your rope (or direct rein, when riding), the right hind will be moving back as well.
Add a step. When you have just asked for that left foot to take a step back, that would be the ideal time to add a second aid in the way of a right opening rein, and asking the horse to step the right front foot to the right, knowing that his weight will be coming over the right hind leg.
‘Wait. Opening rein? I’m on the ground!’ you say.
Yes, opening rein: standing directly in front of your horse, use the rope as a rein. Small steps count. It’s the request and release we are after: make the request, release the moment the foot moves as asked.
From the front, facing your horse with the rope in your left hand, ask your horse to move one foot—say, his left—back. As soon as he does so, move your rope hand to the left, like an opening rein, and watch him follow through with a step to his right. Release.
(Note: you can also do this from the side, though with out the 'opening rein' part. Here's how: standing a bit back, next to his neck/shoulder, ask with the rope for him to move his near foot back. As soon as he does, lift both palms in a rhythmic pushing motion toward him, which asks his near foot to step away. Release.)
Practicing this one sequence, on both sides of course, can make a huge difference in preparing your horse to make balanced transition and many movements in the future. Get good at syncing up with your horse: get his attention, ask for the move, release. Practice several times, get a good successful pattern, then walk off together and do something else.
(Note: You can do this exercise when you are riding, too!)
While riding—feeling for the last foot over the cavaletti while walking forward.
Walk your horse, feeling 4 beats at the walk.
So how would you know which hind foot is the last over the pole? It’s not what you think, most likely, when you are trying to figure it out. The foot that is on the ground— because it is weight bearing—causes the hindquarters on that side to rise. That’s right—when a foot is in the air, you will feel (through your hip) the back fall away on that side, as it is no longer carrying weight.
So in this exercise, the last foot out of the cavalettis will be in the one in the air, so the back on that side will be falling away or lower. Knowing this and being able to feel it while in motion on your horse, plays a big part in successful communication and your horse’s cooperation, as it will affect your leg aids dramatically. Timing your leg aid to when the hind leg is on the ground and bearing weight will make it easier for the horse to respond promptly. Asking your horse to move from your leg aids while the foot is in the air will delay or even cancel the hoped-for response.
Details: I like using cavalettis for this exercise, because the horse puts more effort into stepping over poles, which makes feeling the feet easier. Raising the poles makes the feeling more pronounced.
- 1 cavaletti: If the horse steps over with the right front, the left hind will be the last foot to step out. And vice versa.
- 2 cavalettis: If the horse steps over with the right front, the right hind will be the last foot out.
- 3 cavalettis: same as with 1 cavaletti.