A common problem when riding circles or schooling in an unfenced field or paddock is ‘falling out.’
Although this fault is more commonly experienced with younger novice horses (because they lack balance), it can occur with any horse at any age and is often caused by the rider not using their aids correctly.
So, in this article, we will cover what falling out is, the problems caused by falling out, the reasons why your horse falls out, and how you can stop it from happening.
What is falling out?
Falling out is a term used to describe a horse that drifts outward through circles and turns.
The outward drift is due to a lack of lateral (side-to-side) balance and straightness.
In contrast, when your horse is straight, balanced laterally, and has the required amount of suppleness for the curve you are negotiating, then your horse will follow the line of travel.
NOTE: Within dressage, straightness means ‘alignment.’ Therefore, when your horse goes around a circle, his body should remain aligned, with his hind feet following in the tracks of his forefeet. Although your horse is bending uniformly through his body, because he is still aligned, this is described as being ‘straight.’
Related Read: The Scales of Training: Scale 5 – Straightness
The problems with falling out
As mentioned, when your horse falls out, he will not be straight or laterally balanced. This creates the following problems.
Problem 1 – Your horse will be difficult to turn.
If your horse falls out, you will find it difficult to negotiate circles and turns, and your whole ride will lack accuracy.
You will frequently overshoot markers when trying to turn onto the centerline, ride across the school, or change the rein via one of the diagonals. Your circles will also become too large and will lose their circle shape.
Problem 2 – You will be pushed off balance.
A crooked horse will push you to the outside, or you may find yourself leaning inwards as you try to compensate for the outward drift.
In both scenarios, you will be out of balance.
Related Read: How (And Why) To Maintain the Correct Rider Position
Problem 3 – There will be variations in your horse’s rhythm and tempo.
Your horse should move in a rhythmical manner while maintaining the same consistent tempo (speed of the rhythm).
During an outward drift, your horse’s rhythm is more likely to become irregular and your horse’s tempo may also speed up and slow down.
Since rhythm is the first official scale in the dressage scales of training, this is a serious fault because if your horse cannot move in a metronome-like rhythm, you will struggle to move up the scales and progress with your training.
Related Read: The Scales of Training: Scale 1 – Rhythm
Problem 4 – Your horse will be unable to engage and collect.
When your horse falls out, he cannot step his hind legs further underneath his center of gravity. Instead, his hind legs will likely trail behind him, step wide, and/or cross over. In this position, your horse is physically unable to use his hind legs to take more weight, leaving him no other option than to carry the weight on his forehand.
Related Read: The Scales of Training: Scale 6 – Collection
Problem 5 – Your horse’s energy will be re-directed to his outside shoulder (and not to the contact).
During the ridden work, energy should flow from your horse’s hind legs, over his back, and into the contact. This is part of the energy circle and is also described as riding from back to front, and from leg to hand.
Related Read: How to Ride Your Horse From “Back to Front”
When your horse falls out, the energy can not flow through to the contact because his body is no longer aligned. Instead, as your horse pushes with his hind legs, this energy is sent into his outside shoulder. (Which is why you may have heard the expression “falling out through the shoulder.”)
Think of it as a train on the railway line, where the train’s engine is located at the rear, and it’s pushing three carriages in front of it. When the tracks are aligned, the train can push all three carriages to follow the tracks easily. But when there’s a kink in the track, the train is jackknifed and derailed.
Why does your horse fall out?
In a nutshell, your horse falls out around circles and turns due to a lack of straightness (alignment) and lateral balance.
Common reasons for your horse falling out include:
- Turning your horse by using the inside rein in isolation
- Lack of an outside rein contact
- Too much neck bend
All three of the above bullet points are essentially the same problem and are all connected.
If you try to turn your horse by pulling on your inside rein, your horse will just turn his head to the inside, creating too much neck bend and a poor outside rein contact. This destroys your horse’s alignment, causing energy from his inside hind leg to be re-directed into his outside shoulder, which disturbs your horse’s lateral balance and causes him to fall out.
Another reason for falling out is that your horse tries to avoid the engagement that is required on a circle or during a turn; instead, they swing their hindquarters in and/or their shoulders out. This could be because your horse currently lacks the suppleness and bendability to perform the circle size you require, or you are not using your aids correctly. Remember that your horse will always choose the easiest solution to any question you ask of him.
As the rider, it is your job to keep your horse’s body correctly aligned and in an appropriate balance. So, ensure that you are applying and using your bending aids correctly (see below) and only asking your horse to perform appropriately sized circles, i.e., circles that are not too small for his current capabilities.
How NOT to stop your horse from falling out
Before we delve into the steps to stop your horse from falling out, here are a few things you should definitely not do when trying to correct this problem.
Do NOT pull your horse’s head to the outside using your outside rein.
As your horse falls out, his neck will likely have too much bend to the inside. Although you do need to take up a more secure outside rein contact to reduce the amount of inside neck bend and control his outside shoulder, you don’t want your horse to bend or turn his head to the outside.
At most, a small amount of outside flexion at the poll is acceptable, but bending your horse’s neck to the outside will only cause him to drift in the opposite direction.
Do NOT push your weight to the outside.
You may try to do this purposely, or the action of your horse falling out may cause you to put additional weight into your outside seat bone or lean to the outside.
Remember, your horse will always try to step under your weight, so by pushing more of your weight to the outside, you are encouraging your horse to fall out even more.
Related Read: How to Use Your Seat and Weight Aids for Dressage
Do NOT cross your hand or rein over your horse’s neck or withers.
This is more commonly seen on horses that tend to fall in instead of out. Either way, it destroys your horse’s alignment, prevents him from working forward into the contact, and serves no purpose.
Do NOT try to push your horse’s hindquarters outward.
If your horse is falling out through his outside shoulder, you may think you can re-align him by pushing his hindquarters out to meet his shoulders.
This rarely works because as you push your horse’s hindquarters out, his shoulders will move further outward, and you end up chasing them. If anything, this method just speeds up your horse’s outward drift causing a greater loss of balance.
How to stop your horse from falling out
Here are five steps that you can follow to stop your horse from falling out.
Step 1 – Check everything is equal on both sides of your horse.
As mentioned, falling out is due to a lack of lateral balance. Therefore, you need to ensure that there is no physical reason causing your horse to drift to one side.
Examples of things to check are:
- Check your stirrups are equal on both sides.
- Check that the flocking of your saddle is equal on both sides.
- Check that your saddle fits your horse correctly and doesn’t twist or slide to one side.
- Check that your girth is attached equally. (Ideally, you want it to be on the same numbered hole on each side of your saddle, or as close as you can get it while still ensuring your girth is fastened securely enough.)
- Check that your horse’s bit is sitting equally in his mouth and is clean and free from damage.
- Check that you are sitting equally in the saddle and in the correct alignment.
Related Read: How (And Why) To Maintain the Correct Rider Position
Step 2 – Keep circles large
When trying to stop your horse from drifting outward, it’s a sensible idea to keep your circles as large as possible.
It will be much more beneficial to your horse’s training and progression to execute a large and correct circle than a smaller one he falls out on.
You can slowly progress to smaller circles once your horse is bending correctly and staying on the circle line.
Step 3 – Ride circles with no bend
In the beginning, ride your large circles with no bend at all by using your outside rein to keep your horse’s neck straight.
You can also use your outside leg at the girth to push your horse’s shoulders around the circle and stop them from falling out.
Step 4 – Start to ask for inside bend
Once you can ride large circles with no bend without your horse falling out, you can then start to ask your horse for a small amount of inside bend. But remember to maintain your outside rein contact to prevent the outward drift.
NOTE: More often than not, falling out is due to the rider not aiding the horse correctly around the circle or turn. So, here’s a quick recap of your bending aids:
- Your inside leg should be at the girth, asking your horse to bend through his body, providing him with something to bend around, and creating forward impulsion.
- Your outside leg should be positioned behind the girth, guarding the hindquarters and preventing them from drifting off the circle line.
- Your inside rein should ask for a small amount of inside flexion and indicate the direction of bend, but it should not be used to pull the horse around the circle.
- Your outside rein regulates the tempo, controls your horse’s outside shoulder, and prevents too much neck bend.
- Your head should be up and looking ahead and around the circle.
- You should have a bit more weight in your inside seat bone and stirrup, but do not lean to the inside.
- Your shoulders should be turned from your waist to the inside, matching the angle of your horse’s shoulders.
- Your hips should match the angle of your horse’s hips, that is, with your outside hip slightly back (as you put your outside leg behind the girth).
Focus on riding your horse from your inside leg up and into your outside rein. This will help you create a more secure outside rein contact, thereby helping you control the outside of your horse.
If, when you are asking your horse to bend, he starts to fall outward again, then close your outside elbow against your side and close your outside rein against your horse’s neck. If you need to, reduce the bend (or go back to riding without bend) until you can keep your horse on the circle line.
Step 5 – Move from the circle onto a straight line
If your horse falls out on circles, you will have probably noticed that he also drifts towards one shoulder when on a straight line.
Your horse will learn how to laterally balance on a correctly ridden circle. The circle will also allow you to establish a secure outside rein contact.
When ready, you can move from the circle onto a straight line, still riding from your inside leg to outside rein, ensuring that your horse stays in your outside rein when going straight, thereby controlling his shoulder and alignment and stopping any drifting.
If you are a more advanced and experienced rider, an exercise that is very helpful to further improve the straightness of a horse that falls outward is to rider shoulder-fore/in on a circle.
Related Read: How to Ride Shoulder-in on a Circle
Falling out is a big problem that will not only affect your dressage test scores but also stop you and your horse from progressing.
A horse that drifts outward does so because he lacks lateral balance and straightness (alignment), usually because the rider is aiding incorrectly or they are trying to perform a circle that is too small for the horse’s current capabilities.
To correct the issue, start on large circles with no bend, keeping your horse’s neck straight. Once you can accomplish that, slowly introduce an inside bend by applying all of your bending aids correctly (i.e., not just by pulling on the inside rein) and maintain a secure contact down the outside rein to control your horse’s outside shoulder.