When negotiating a circle, turn, or corner, it’s not uncommon to see novice horses and riders leaning inwards around them.
This is often given the nickname “motorbiking” because it looks the same as a motorbike turning.
In this article, we’re going to explain why bikers lean, why horse riders shouldn’t lean, and what to do instead.
Why do motorbikers lean?
Bikers need to lean into a turn to stop their motorbike from tipping over. Although that sounds contradictory, it’s not, instead, it’s all about balance.
A motorbike can only stay upright when it is traveling in a straight line. To get the bike to turn, the biker must lean inwards, as shown in the photograph above.
The higher the speed or the tighter the turn, the more lean is required. Until you get to the MotoGP level where the bikers are almost horizontal and appear to be defying the laws of gravity.
The MotoGP bikers need to lean further because they are traveling at higher speeds than the average everyday motorbiker. If during a high-speed turn, the biker was to reduce the speed but not adjust the lean, then the bike would not be balanced and would tip over.
So, why are we telling you this on a dressage training website?
Well, many horses and riders tackle circles, turns, and corners, the same as motorbikes and bikers; they lean inwards.
Why does your horse lean?
The main reason why your horse leans around a circle is for the same reason as a motorbike; balance.
If you watch a horse running freely around a field you will see their motorbike impersonation in action.
The horse’s body remains straight and he leans inwards to turn.
This is the opposite of what we try to achieve under saddle, where we want the horse to bend through his body and stay upright. (A motorbike does not have the ability to bend, but your horse does.)
Why is leaning a problem?
If a horse leans naturally when running freely, why is leaning a problem for the dressage rider?
Well, if your horse leans inward whilst you are riding him, a number of problems can occur:
- The horse will overly stress his joints and ligaments on the inside, which can cause strain and/or injury. (Remember that when being ridden the horse is also carrying the added weight of the rider and equipment.)
- The horse will be unable to engage his hind legs underneath him and will therefore be on his forehand.
- True collection will not be possible. Again, because the horse cannot engage his hind legs.
- The horse will not be showing the correct bend and will find smaller circles and tighter turns difficult.
- The horse will be unable to work through to the contact.
- The horse will be unable to perform and be positioned for lateral movements.
- More than likely, the tempo will be rushed and inconsistent.
- It will make the dressage arena feel much smaller and more difficult to negotiate.
- In extreme cases, and especially if the horse is being ridden on slippery or uneven ground, the horse can fall over onto its side.
As you can see, a horse than leans will be severely limited in its ability to progress in its training.
Also, leaning inwards is not just a problem just for dressage riders. If you go showjumping, leaning will make your horse unbalanced around turns and he will most likely fall inwards through the corners of the arena, leaving you with less space to prepare for the next fence and less chance for your horse to see it. This can result in a pole down, a stop, or a runout.
So, you can see that leaning inward is a very bad habit that you really need to cure, regardless of what discipline to take part in.
How to stop your horse from leaning
If you are having this problem, you can start to correct it by following these three steps:
- Check your position
- Check the tempo
- Create bend
Let’s go through each one individually.
Step #1 – Check your position
Before we look at the horse, we must first look at ourselves.
It’s no good spending countless hours to try and stop the horse from leaning, if we, the rider, are leaning.
So, first things first, check your position and balance and make sure that you are not leaning inwards when turning your horse. You should stay sat upright in the center of the saddle.
Step #2 – Check the tempo
If you have a problem with your horse leaning inwards around circles, turns, and corners, check that the tempo isn’t too quick.
The tempo is the speed of the rhythm and if it becomes hurried, the horse is more likely to lean. The same as the motorbike, the greater the speed the greater the lean.
So, if you can slow the tempo you can lessen the lean and give yourself more time to encourage your horse to bend through his body(#3).
The ideal tempo should be brisk, consistent, and regular, and it should never look as though the horse is rushing.
- How to Ride a Horse That is Sensitive to the Leg and Rushes
- How to Encourage Your Horse to Work More Forwards, But Not Faster
- How to Control Your Horse’s Power
Step #3 – Create bend
The good news is that your horse is not a motorbike! So, rather than being a rigid piece of machinery, your horse has the ability to bend through his body from his nose to his tail. Therefore, he can negotiate circles, corners, and turns without leaning.
Bending and leaning are mutually exclusive.
If your horse is bending correctly, he won’t be leaning. And if your horse is leaning, then he won’t be bending correctly.
So, in order to stop your horse from leaning, you need to improve his lateral suppleness and encourage him to bend uniformly through his body.
The aids for bend
In order to ask your horse to bend correctly, it’s important that you understand the aids for bend.
- 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 out.
- Your inside rein should ask for a small amount of inside flexion and indicate the direction of bend, but should not be used to turn the horse.
- Your outside rein regulates the tempo and controls the horse’s outside shoulder and the degree of neck bend.
- Your head should be up and looking ahead and around the circle, turn, or corner you are negotiating.
- You should have a little bit more weight in your inside bone and inside stirrup, but you should still be sat up straight and not leaning inwards or outwards.
- Your shoulders should be turned from your waist to the inside matching the angle of your horse’s shoulders, and your hips should match the angle of your horse’s hips.
Putting it all together.
Start by riding your horse on large circles and through shallow corners paying close attention to your own position, the tempo of the pace, and insisting that the horse bends through his whole body. Think of pushing your horse from your inside leg into your outside rein.
To start, the degree of bend that you ask for should only be a small amount. You can ask for more bend as the horse’s suppleness and understanding of the bending aids improve.
Remember that the smaller the size of the circle the more bend is required from the horse. Don’t sacrifice the bend and rhythm to try and ride a smaller circle. If the horse begins to lose any of those essential qualities, make the circle larger again.
Here are a few exercises that you can incorporate into your regular schooling to help encourage your horse to bend and to prevent him from leaning.
#1 – Leg-yielding in and out on a circle
A useful exercise is to leg yield your horse out from a small circle to a larger one, and then back in again.
This teaches the horse to move away from your inside leg whilst helping to engage the horse’s inside hind leg so that he’s better balanced and more able to stay upright around the circle.
#2 – Shoulder-in
Another exercise to try is shoulder-in around a circle or through the corners of the arena.
This works by insisting that the horse brings his inside hind leg more underneath him and bends around your inside leg. The exercise will not only help to engage the horse but will also make him suppler to the bend.
#3 – Transitions before corners
As you ride your horse towards the short side of the arena, he may anticipate the turn through the corners and lean inwards before you’ve even had a chance to apply your bending aids. Some horses can start leaning as soon as they’ve passed the B-E half-school line!
If this is the case, ride a downward transition to walk before the corner. Ride through the corner in walk pushing your horse from your inside leg into your outside rein and insisting that he shows at least a small amount of bend. After the corner, you can proceed in whatever pace you require.
#4 – Bending exercises
To further improve your horse’s balance and full-body suppleness (and therefore reduce his tendency to lean), exercises that require various changes of bend will be advantageous.
Horses that lean in or motorbike through corners and around circles do so because they remain straight in the body and therefore they must lean inwards in order to balance and turn. This can cause a lot of issues for the ridden horse, including injury.
Thankfully, unlike a motorbike, the horse has the ability to bend uniformly through his body.
Bending and leaning are mutually exclusive. So, by bending your horse correctly, and riding from your inside leg into your outside rein, you will stop the lean. Your horse will be able to stay upright through circles, turns, and corners, and progression with his dressage career can continue.