Team Horse & Rider Private
KEEP THOSE SHOULDERS UP: MASTERING SELF-CARRIAGE
Understanding the concept of self-carriage and how to maintain it will help you instill balance and consistency in your horse—both of which are essential in today’s Western pleasure classes. Take this private lesson with Team H&R member Robin Gollehon to help you perfect your pleasure performance.
By Robin Gollehon with Alana Harrison
Photos by Roger Gollehon
Team Horse & Rider member Robin Gollehon has been involved with horses for most of her life producing more than 75 ApHC World & National Champions specializing in Western Pleasure, Hunter Under Saddle and Yearling Longe Line. A member of the AQHA Professional Horseman’s Association, she tied to win the Quarter Horse Congress in 2005 and has been at the top at all the major NSBA Futurities. She was previously named World’s Best Exhibitor, World High Point Lady Exhibitor and the ApPHA Trainer of the Year. She and her husband and business partner Roger Gollehon own and stand the ApHC stallion Zip’n To Paradise, one of the leading pleasure horse sire’s with his get making history in the showring. Robin and Roger own and operate Gollehon Show Horses in Trafalgar, Indiana. www.gollehon.com
Sharon Sweet of Columbus, Indiana, currently shows her 7 year old Quarter Horse gelding Modern Affair in Western pleasure. As she improves her skills, Sharon is making the jump from the open show circuit to AQHA shows where she’ll compete in novice amateur and amateur select Western pleasure. Sharon wants to improve her horse’s consistency while maintaining the authentic rhythm of each gait. Read on for Robin’s expert advice.
Lesson’s objective: To gain a greater understanding of what self-carriage looks and feels like, and how to obtain and maintain it—thus improving your skills not only for Western pleasure but all performance events.
Self-carriage defined: Self-carriage describes your horse’s ability to properly carry himself on his own, similar to good posture in people. It teaches him to be responsible for his own body position and not rely on you to continuously hold him in the proper position with your hands or legs. When your horse is correctly demonstrating self-carriage, he’s holding his shoulders up while keeping his back round maintaining collection—not allowing his shoulders to sink down so that his back hollows out and he drops his weight onto his front end.
Why you need this: While Western pleasure is often considered an easy class to participate in, it’s one of the hardest to win. Almost any rider can learn to walk, jog, and lope, but doing it at the level of skill necessary to win (especially at high levels of competition) is no easy feat. Western pleasure is difficult not only because it must be done on a very loose rein, but it’s also performed at an extremely slow speed. To be successful in pleasure, it’s imperative that your horse has the training and discipline to hold himself in a balanced frame while performing the walk, jog, and lope in a collected manner. This lesson will emphasize how every detail in your riding and your horse’s execution through the gaits must be perfected and fine-tuned to produce a winning performance.
How you’ll achieve this: This lesson happens in two steps. The first is to achieve collection by holding your horse’s face and applying pressure with your legs, which will encourage him to lift in front, round his back and drive from his hindquarters. The second step is to create enough ‘stay’ that he can perform on a loose rein.
Why this works: Your horse is an athlete. If you teach him to position his body to work at his optimum level, you’ll bring out his best athletic performance. Once he learns to round his back and lift his shoulders while driving from behind, he’ll achieve the balance he needs to perform with collection to master those pleasure classes.
What you’ll need for this lesson:
Skills your horse must have: Although this lesson is for a more advanced horse, it’s necessary to have self-carriage and collection goals at the beginning and throughout your horse’s training. In order to work on these your horse must respond willingly to your legs and give in his face to your rein cues.
Caveat: As with all your horse’s training, if you don’t feel confident in your horse’s (or your) capabilities, seek the help of a qualified professional. Again, keep in mind that this is a medium to advanced lesson, so if your horse doesn’t adequately respond to your basic cues, you’re not ready to work on self-carriage and collection at this level of training.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN:
In the process of learning to ride you must not only have the knowledge of what to do but also develop ‘feel’ in your hands, legs, and seat, and you must grasp the basic causes and effects of your cues. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get this right away. It takes a lot of practice to know when your horse is right and when he is wrong.
When learning a new skill and things aren’t going well, most novice riders assume the problem happens because of something they did wrong. They assume the horse is right and they were wrong so they do nothing because they don’t know what to do, but doing nothing can be as bad as doing the wrong thing. While it’s important to reward your horse for doing the right thing…it’s just as important to fix them as soon as they do the wrong thing. When learning something new a rider has to do it over and over again until they can remember what it’s supposed to ‘feel’ like. They will make mistakes along the way by not rewarding when they should or not fixing as soon as they should slowing down the time it takes your horse to learn a new skill. The more consistent a rider gets the quicker the horse catches on. Having someone tell you when it’s right and when it’s wrong will help you learn the ‘feel.’
If possible have someone take pictures of you or video you while you’re riding to help you determine where to begin. If you draw an imaginary line from the top of your horse’s head, across his back, and toward his tail that’s called his topline. That line should be relatively level.
While each of your horse’s body parts are connected in how they work together, it’s important to address each part independently. Keep in mind, when you try to fix a certain part of your horse, the “fixed” result may not immediately be evident in the area that appeared to be broken. For example, when your horse’s neck is up you fix it by lifting his belly because when a horse lets his back sag it’s natural for his neck to go upward. When his shoulders are too low you fix them by lifting his neck first, then you can put the neck back down once the shoulders are up, etc.
ASSESS YOUR HORSE’S RESPONSIVENESS
To determine how responsive your horse is to your hands ask him to give his head to one side or the other. Does he give softly or pull in the opposite direction? If he gives without resistance you are OK with the bit you are using. If he pulls back against your hand, you may want to use a snaffle (a broken mouthpiece without shanks) so there is a direct pull helping your horse to learn to give.
To determine how responsive your horse is to your legs bend his head slightly toward the direction of your cue leg to get him to move over a step with his hip. Does he quickly move away or hardly notice you’re touching him? If he needs very little pressure to take a step away you would most likely be happy with a ball spur. If you need to really bump your heal to get him to move at all you need a spur with a more pointed rowel. In any case, in the beginning you may need to reinforce your cues a lot but as your horse understands what is expected of him it will take less pressure to keep him responsive.
CREATE A PICTURE IN YOUR MIND
In everything you do, work toward the finished product you want to present in the show ring keeping that finished picture in your mind. Many riders believe that having your horse’s neck down is a priority for western pleasure without regard to what happens to the rest of his body. However the lower your horse gets in his neck, the more he is pulling his weight forward off the hindquarters no longer giving him drive from behind. Instead he becomes a ‘front wheel drive car’ pulling himself along throwing off the natural rhythm of the gait rather than a more desirable ‘rear wheel drive car’ lifting in front and pushing from the rear. You don’t want a manmade look but instead want to make his movement effortless like he did without a rider on his back.
Additionally when your horse is carrying his shoulders too low, his whole front end is actually lower to the ground greatly affecting not only his ability to move but also the style in which he goes. As he brings his front leg forward with each step he is forced to pick it upward bending more at the knee instead of moving it forward in a sweeping motion as he would do if he was standing more upright. Horses that are flat kneed are rewarded in pleasure classes so you are actually sabotaging yourself when you don’t help your horse to perform at his best. Imagine if you stood in a slumped over posture crouched low to the ground. It would be impossible for you to move your leg forward without bending at the knee. The more you stand up and even lean back a little, the easier it becomes to take a step without bending your knee at all. The same principle applies to your horse as well.
KEEP IT NATURAL
Western pleasure is not all about how slow you can go. It’s more important to exhibit true gaits than it is to compromise the quality of movement. To keep the ‘naturalness’ in your horse’s movement you need to acknowledge what his abilities are. If possible start with a horse that’s pleasure bred so he’ll not only have the ability to carry himself properly, but he’ll also have the mind to want to do it.
As a rider you have to be consistent in your level of expectation. If you require your horse to stand tall with his shoulders up and back rounded only part of the time he will always be trying to take the easier way out. Horses are basically lazy so like a child that hasn’t learned that you mean what you say 100% of the time, he will continue to try to do things his way if you let him part of the time. Your horse needs to stand still properly all of the time so when asked to move forward he’s ready to do it correctly. If you start off on the front end it may take several strides before your horse gets the desired lift in front…if it’s achieved at all. Or if his back is hollow it may be difficult to get him to round again. He has to be on ‘stand-by’ ready to do whatever you ask next. Sitting on your horse waiting for your next class or visiting with a friend while letting him totally relax, go to sleep or resting a foot is not helping to reinforce his self carriage. Either require him to stand up or if he needs to rest…get off.
2-AT THE WALK
Since this is a building block process, we’ll begin at the walk. In the first walking photo, notice how Modern Affair’s head and neck are well below level, his back is dropped, his shoulders are down, his weight is on the front end and he’s not holding himself up at all. The more Sharon pitches her reins to him, the lower his shoulders get. He’s relying on her to hold him up rather than taking responsibility for it himself.
LIFTING THE BACK
RAISING THE SHOULDERS
Here Robin demonstrates how to improve self carriage at the walk by lifting the shoulders, but in order to get the shoulders up she begins by lifting his head and neck drawing the reins slightly up and back while encouraging him to walk forward with her legs. If at first your horse resists at the poll and puts his nose in the air you would continue to hold his face until he softens while encouraging him to move forward.
She is applying both spurs to encourage forward motion while holding the reins slightly up and back to prevent Modern Affair from just moving faster. The whole idea of collection is to create enough forward motion to keep the legs driving true while ‘closing the door’ so to speak in front by holding his face, creating lift in the shoulders. Here is where a certain amount of ‘feel’ comes into play. You have to determine how much forward motion to create with your legs…like stepping on the gas pedal in your car, while holding enough with the reins to prevent him from gushing forward. If you create too much forward motion without holding enough, you just make your horse go faster. If you hold too much without sending him forward, he stops.
In this photo Modern Affair is walking correctly. Notice his shoulders are elevated and his topline is level. He is holding his neck up himself without the aide of the reins.
3-AT THE JOG
In this photo Modern Affair’s back is so low it’s even noticeable in the way Sharon’s saddle is sitting. It’s higher at the withers but is angled downward with his back. His neck is unacceptable and he’s curled slightly behind the bridle.
Again, to get Modern Affair’s back rounded up Robin applies both spurs in a bumping rhythm to create lift and drive while holding the reins enough to prevent too much forward motion. To send a clearer message to the horse, she raises the reins in her left hand but lets them slide through her right hand which is down low almost acting in a martingale fashion. With the pressure applied to the bit from a lower point the horse gives at the poll and allows Robin to reposition his body carriage. Here Robin not only encourages Modern Affair to lift his shoulders but also creates lift in his back by applying both spurs to his belly. As soon as he responds by rounding his back the pressure with the spurs is released. Ideally when the rein and spur pressure is released he will ‘stay’ lifted and rounded. As soon as he lets himself flatten out and fall forward the process will be repeated until he learns self carriage.
Now that Modern Affair’s back is up Sharon is able to apply lift to his shoulders by raising her hand with the reins. She continues to reinforce forward motion and lift in his back with her spurs.
Once she releases the reins Sharon is demonstrating a collected jog with self carriage. His neck, shoulders and back are up giving him an acceptable topline. …the tips of his ears should not fall below the withers. Notice how her saddle is now sitting parallel to the ground instead of tipped downward as it was before when her horse’s back was low. If necessary she will repeat the reinforcement of lifting the reins to raise his shoulders while applying her spurs to maintain forward motion while raising his back.
4-AT THE LOPE
Our goal at the lope is to create a flowing, natural three beat rhythm that makes a show ring speed look effortless. To do so without collection and self carriage creates an unnatural gait setting your horse up for failure as demonstrated here. When a horse is out of balance the problem becomes magnified at the lope. To compensate for his lack of balance with his back down, Modern Affair tries to pull himself along elevating his neck instead of driving from behind. It becomes strained and uncomfortable for the rider and the rhythm becomes closer to four beating with more of a trotting stride behind.
Following the same guidelines at the lope as we did at the walk and jog, Robin creates lift in the shoulders with the reins while keeping the back rounded with drive from behind. She uses more of her outside spur (spur opposite the lead you’re in) to get more drive from behind. She would use both spurs to get more lift in the back balanced out by how much lift necessary in the reins.
Once Robin positions Modern Affair correctly Sharon can then get on and repeat the procedure. As a novice rider it can be very difficult to make the correction happen before you have a good understanding of what it’s supposed to feel like so it’s helpful for an instructor or trainer to fix the problem first, and then let the student get the ‘feel.’ This may have to be repeated many times before both horse and rider get it. Now her horse’s back is rounded with his shoulders lifted allowing him to drive deeper from behind with the proper cadence and rhythm.
Trouble shooting tips:
The horse is letting himself fall forward rather than holding himself up standing still or while walking or jogging. When the rider raises the reins upward and slightly back to ask the horse to rock back and lift, nothing happens.
THE FIX: This cue can be sharpened by backing the horse with his shoulders up getting him to responding to the lifting of the reins. So, as soon as you feel your horse fall forward, you give him the cue to come back to you by raising the reins up and back. Then if he does what you want you reward him by releasing the pressure on the reins. If he doesn’t give you the correct response which is to lift his shoulders and rock his weight to the hindquarters, you reinforce the cue by backing him up off the bridle adding enough spur with both legs to make him round his back in the process. He needs to understand that when you start to lift the reins and add your leg or spur, he had to round up and rock back or the bigger reinforcement will follow. The degree of reinforcement required to make your horse ‘stay’ will be determined by his willingness to learn as well as his responsiveness.
The horse has a long strided jog with poor cadence. It’s flat and covers too much ground.
THE FIX: What feels like a smooth jog to the rider is not always the best one. It should be a true two beat rhythm with a tight up and down motion. To change the horse’s motion from moving forward to a more desirable up and down motion you have to do two things simultaneously. You’ll want to hold them enough with the reins that they can’t go forward while encouraging them to lift their back with both spurs. This makes the jog tighter, shorter strided with a little more spring. After a little trial and error you will learn how much to hold them and how much spur to apply. If you hold too much without adding enough spur, they will stop their forward motion altogether. If you don’t hold enough while applying your spurs they will go forward too much without lifting at all.
The horse is doing well at the walk and jog but still has trouble staying collected at the lope.
THE FIX: The degree of difficulty is increased at each gait. Whenever you have trouble at a higher gear, drop back to the next easier gait, correct the problem and then return to the original gait. Gradually your horse will begin to understand what you’re after and will be able to perform well at the walk, jog and lope.
Just because your horse is carrying himself properly doesn’t mean that your job is done. This is a life long maintenance reinforced throughout your horse’s career. In practice riders make the mistake of doing too much show ring riding. The more a horse just goes round and round on the rail without any reinforcement of lift the quicker they will flatten out. Remember while you want your horse to do what you want him to do, your horse is continually trying to do what he wants to do. The more tired he gets the harder it is for him to stay lifted so this has to be an exercise built up over time.