Don’t niggle with your legs, make a clear aid and then release. Photo: Your Horse Library

Some horses possess bags of talent but like to choose when to give it their all and when to simply not bother. The solution? Flicking the on switch and engaging his brain from the off.

According to dressage rider Lili Brooksby Dalby, a British Dressage Level 2 trainer and Level 6 judge, it’s a case of channelling your horse’s energy into doing something fun so that they don’t fall behind the leg and become unreactive to your aids.

Exercise 1: Find the on switch

When you’re warming up, keep things interesting. For example, ride lots of circles, serpentines and figures of eight; walk over poles on the ground and between tunnels of poles.

As well as direct transitions (walk-trot, trot-canter, for example), ask for changes within the pace (such as collected canter to extended canter) and assess how your horse is reacting to your hand and leg aids.

Is he switched off and lazy? If so, play around, find something he enjoys doing and focus on this. Get to know what works for your horse.

Exercise 2: Stop niggling with your legs

Now your horse is reacting to your aids, you need to make those reactions even better. When you apply your leg, do you get an instant reaction or does he ignore you?

“If your horse is lazy and not in front of your leg he’ll become brittle in the contact,” explains Lili. “It’s easy with a lazy horse to get busy with your legs, but in fact they need to remain still so that when you do use them it really means something.”

  • Divide your leg aids into three categories: (1) a gentle touch, (2) a squeeze and (3) a kick.
  • Whenever you use your legs, start with stage one (a gentle touch).
  • If your horse ignores you, move on to stage two (squeeze), and so on.

Exercise 3: Sharper transitions

Picking a certain point to make a transition, like when you cross the centre line while riding across the diagonal, will help you ride precisely.

  • In trot, ride a three-loop serpentine, asking for a transition to walk each time you cross the centre line.
  • Walk for a few strides and then pick up trot again.
  • Control the rhythm and be assertive: decide where you want the transition to happen, prepare for it and be precise.
  • Next, ask for walk to trot transitions on a circle, trotting for a few metres each time.
  • The more you practise, the sharper your horse’s reactions will become.
  • Grade your leg aids as in exercise two, always starting with the lightest touch.
  • Horse starting to anticipate? Relax! “This is a good thing in my opinion,” says Lili, “as it’s less work for you”.

Exercise 4: Focus on your contact

As well as accurate transitions, your horse needs to be in a consistent frame and contact.

“Begin by trotting on a circle, moving up and down the gears within the pace,” says Lili. “Again, grade your leg aids, always starting with the lightest touch, and as your horse goes bigger and moves into medium trot, give with your reins to allow him forwards.”

  • Ride a 20m circle in trot, making regular changes of pace within the gait.
  • Constantly check how your horse is reacting to your leg, and adapt the aid accordingly if he’s being lazy.
  • Progress to walk-to-canter transitions on a circle.
  • Practise going up and down through the gears in canter, as you did in trot.
  • Collect the canter, for a smaller but active step. Think ‘small, short, round, bouncy’.
  • Play around and go from collected to extended canter, and from collected canter to walk.
  • Move on to riding simple changes on a serpentine.
  • Ask for a canter-walk-canter transition each time you cross the centre line.
  • If your horse feels a little heavy in your hands on the transition to walk, ask for a few steps of rein-back and then move forwards again.

Make sure you ride each exercise evenly on both reins.

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