The Merry Minstrel – ‘Socks’ – training the young horse

Socks is a 17hh 6yr old Chestnut Gelding. We purchased him at the end of 2014 from a show jumping yard. What we liked about Socks was his positive attitude, his three good paces and his flashy good looks. Over the past year he has been competing at Preliminary and Novice Level and has achieved very good results with many of his scores being over 70%. Over the winter, my aim with Socks is to progress on to Medium Level and to introduce the flying change.

Every day with Socks I am trying to achieve more connection over his back to a steadier contact. Contact is a soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. The horse should go forward from the rider’s aids and ‘seek’ a contact with the rider’s hand.

Socks working over the back and stretching to the contact

We have had to bring Socks on very carefully as he has issues with his way of going. He finds it difficult to work over his back properly and to go to the contact, resulting in a tendency to be a little tight in the neck. This sometimes gives me a feeling of having nothing in my hands. By riding him more forward into a very quiet, soft contact we very gradually coaxed him into confidently going to the bit.

My mother Maureen and I ensure that we integrate lunge work into his weekly routine. This enables us to work on his connection without always having the added issue of balancing with a rider. The use of side reins allows him to learn how to push from behind into a steady contact. We have also used the chambon to encourage him to reach to the bit and strengthen his back, which improved his ability to get his hind legs more engaged.

Cavaletti also play an important role in showing Socks how to ‘work over the back’ and stretch ‘through’ his body and neck. They also help to create ‘swing’ through his back.

Some exercises that I am using at the moment with Socks include; transitions, serpentines, leg yielding and shoulder-in.

I spend a lot of time in my warm up focussed on transitions. Once your horse has begun to understand the basic half halt – a momentary rebalancing– then transitions become a very important part of daily work. A rider needs to practise as many transitions as possible to get the horse to push in the upward transitions and to get the hind legs to come under in the downward transitions. I also love the use of transitions to make your horse more reactive, which is an area that Socks needs to improve on. I use a lot of trot-walk-trot transitions and trot-canter-trot transitions in my warm up. I find these improve his reaction, engagement and his longitudinal suppleness, i.e., the suppleness over his back.

The shoulder-in for me is the backbone of all lateral work and is very important in making the young horse straight. It is a very useful movement as it improves the collection of the horse, keeps them supple and activates the inside hind leg. In shoulder-in the horses’ hind legs remain on the outside track while the forehand is brought just enough to the inside that the horses outside shoulder is in front of his inside hip. From the front we see three tracks. The horse is bent and flexed laterally away from the direction in which he is moving.

‘Socks’ in shoulder in

While riding shoulder-in a common mistake is too much bend in the neck so that the shoulder falls out. This usually occurs when the rider uses too much inside rein. I find that when training the shoulder-in, it is beneficial for both the horse and rider to begin the shoulder-in coming out of a 10 metre circle in the corner. This aids the horse and rider as you can use the flexion and bend achieved in the circle and carry it on down the track. When training a movement like shoulder-in, it is crucial to know when to get out of the movement. As you begin training this movement, you may find you only get a few metres down the track before you lose the impulsion or the flexion and bend, or maybe both! This is when the rider should circle again to re-establish these points and re-present to the horse.

I have found over the past few weeks that the work in the shoulder-in has vastly improved Socks’ engagement and strength in his hind end. Through this work I hope to help him achieve a stronger medium trot.


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