Big-moving horses are definitely head-turners when it comes to dressage, and when they’re well-schooled and working correctly according to the dressage Scales of Training, they will gain high scores.
However, these extra-large superstars can be difficult to ride “on the aids,” especially for small riders.
In this insightful article, we discuss the problems of riding large horses and give you lots of helpful tips on how to ride a big horse on the aids within the confines of a dressage arena.
Movement vs. ease of riding
Regardless of your height and strength, a large horse with big movement can be tricky to connect and ride on the bit, which presents you with a number of problems.
A horse that’s not working securely on the bit and between your leg and hand is mentally not focused on his rider. The horse is more easily distracted by his surroundings and will be likely to act instinctively to unfamiliar sights and sounds by spooking, taking off, or openly resisting you.
Also, the horse will be uncomfortable and difficult to sit on. His back will be hollow and tight, you’ll find it hard to steer and turn him, and his balance will be all over the place. And that’s a nightmare in the confined space of a dressage arena!
So, why is riding big horses such a challenge?
Well, even tall riders can struggle to connect a horse that’s long in the back. Long-backed types tend to be physically weak and take longer to develop than shorter-coupled horses.
These horses automatically work in a downhill balance, taking much longer to become strong enough to sit behind and adjust their center of gravity to cope with the additional burden of a rider.
Then there are horses with naturally big paces to match their size. A huge, expressive trot can look impressive, but it can also be incredibly difficult to sit to in rising trot, let alone when you try sitting!
What’s the solution?
First of all, you need to have him on the aids properly before you can begin even thinking about sitting trot. So, you need to make the horse sharper to a lighter aid before you go any further.
Start by working in the walk only. Use plenty of leg-yielding and shoulder-fore to get the horse more tuned-in to your aids.
Because everything happens more slowly in the walk, you have more opportunity to establish obedience to your leg and hand without being bounced around on a huge trot or rough canter.
Once you have the horse listening and reactive, introduce a few transitions from walk to trot.
Begin by using a gentle squeeze with both legs, backed up with a sharp kick if you don’t get a response. Repeat that exercise until the horse begins to anticipate the transition as soon as he feels your leg coming on.
Throughout this sensitizing process, keep your contact very light. It doesn’t matter if the horse is not on the bit at this stage; all you want is for your horse to react and go when you ask.
In rising trot, use the same technique to encourage the horse to open up and really begin to lengthen his stride. Allow the horse to slow down, and then close both your lower legs around him and expect him to extend right away.
Now, ride the same exercise in the canter. Allow the canter to slow down, and then close both your legs and expect the horse to respond by going forward.
When ridden in that way, most big horses fall onto their forehand, so your next job is to introduce the half-halt, which will engage the horse and make the balance more uphill.
There are different degrees of half-halts, but a stronger one usually works most effectively on large horses with big movement.
Use a short contraction of your seat and legs to support and tighten your core, and use the big muscles in the lower part of your back as you close your fingers around the reins. That half-halt will prevent the horse from landing heavily on his forehand if the aid is timed correctly.
As the horse’s balance and reaction to your half-halt improve, you can lighten your aid by just closing your fists briefly on the reins as soon as you feel the horse dropping onto his forehand.
As the horse becomes more sensitive and responsive to your “go” aids and half-halts, his back will lift with the result that his movement is looser, more elastic, and easier to sit to.
Now you can establish a better connection through the horse’s back by taking up your outside rein. As you do that, use shoulder-in to bring the horse’s inside hind leg more underneath him, which will further improve his engagement and balance, and make the connection more secure.
How to establish a connection
You’re going to use a three-second combination of your outside rein, your legs, and just as much inside rein as is required to keep the horse’s neck straight.
Once you have the horse reactive to your leg aids, apply your leg, but rather than allowing the horse to go forward, contain the energy by making your outside hand into a fist and holding it for three seconds as if you were squeezing a sponge.
If the horse tries to bend his neck to the outside, correct him by squeezing and releasing the inside rein. If the horse doesn’t bend to the outside, you don’t need to use your inside rein.
So, to recap, the connection aids are always applied in the following order:
- Legs to create more energy
- Outside rein to contain the energy your leg has created
- Inside rein to keep the horse’s neck straight
As soon as you have applied the connecting aids for three seconds, and the horse comes onto the bit, relax your outside hand. Keep both hands quiet and still, holding the reins gently but firmly, as if you had an egg in each hand that you don’t want to risk crushing.
What does “connection” feel like?
When the horse is truly connected and “on the bit,” he will immediately feel more comfortable. His back will swing, his steps will flow more smoothly, and he will be much easier to sit on.
Instead of feeling braced and stiff, and heavy in the hand, the horse will feel elastic, compliant, and giving. The stride length will become longer, and the rhythm will be slower because the horse’s hind legs are stepping right underneath his body and covering more ground.
Testing your connection
You can check that your horse is still connected by using the following simple tests.
Connection test #1
After you’ve given the three-second connecting aids, slowly open the fingers of both hands.
- If the horse stretches his head and neck forward right down to the ground to seek the contact by gently taking the reins from you, then you know that he is truly connected.
- If the horse stretches but not right down to the ground, then you know that your connection was not complete.
- If the horse immediately sticks his head up and starts looking around him, then you know that there was no connection at all.
Connection test #2
After you’ve applied the connecting aids, close your outside fist, and bring your elbow into your waist. Push your inside hand forward toward along the horse’s neck to create a loop.
If the horse’s neck remains straight, you know that your connecting aids were effective, and the horse is in your outside rein.
However, if the horse’s neck bends to the outside and that rein becomes loose, you’ll know that the horse is not truly connected.
If you test the connection and find that it was incomplete or not there at all, think about what went wrong.
- Was the horse working forward from your leg?
- Was the horse straight and in a good rhythm?
- Did you keep your outside contact?
- Did you use too much or not enough inside or outside hand?
- Did you hold the horse for three seconds, or did you hold on for too long?
Once you’ve worked out what went wrong, go back to the beginning and try again.
How to sit to a big trot
If you’re still struggling to sit to your horse’s big paces, try warming up your horse in a faster trot tempo than you would usually do. That works because some big-moving horses can be uncomfortable to ride because their tempo is too slow. So, slightly speeding up the tempo can immediately improve the horse’s balance and lighten the forehand.
Horses, like humans, have slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. In humans, marathon runners have more slow-twitch fibers, whereas sprinters have more fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Dressage horses need lots of muscular strength to be able to perform at the upper levels, and big-moving, warmblood types that are bred for the job tend to have more slow-twitch muscle fibers. So, that type of horse often benefits from being ridden at a slightly faster tempo.
To make your requirements clear to your horse, open out your hip angle and close it more quickly, together with a faster action from your supporting lower leg. Sit tall and make your upper body stronger so that you don’t get pulled down into the horse’s slow tempo.
To ride a large horse and bring him onto the aids, you need to make your horse more reactive to lighter aids and slightly increase the tempo of his rhythm, using half-halts to connect the horse through your outside rein.
If you persevere, you’ll find that you are able to make that connection more consistent, and you’ll be able to sit to the trot and canter without bouncing or struggling to keep your balance.
Be very careful not to use too much rein, as that could slow the horse down, which will put you back where you started. And remember to correct any responsiveness problems by revisiting the walk to trot transitions.
If you have a large horse, we’d love to hear how you manage to get your horse on the aids. Share your experience with us in the comments box below.