In this article, I will teach you why it is important to keep your horse centered and balanced between your legs and reins. I will help you figure out how to tell or diagnose when your horse is drifting or leaning and I will give you some tips to fix his leaning or drifting. I will also describe what it feels like when your horse is centered and balanced between your reins and legs. Lean can be subtle or vague. It can seem rather unimportant but I feel that it is very important. If excellence is your goal, then you need all the lean out!
It is possible for your horse to appear to track straight but in fact, he is really leaning or drifting one way or another. Lean can negatively affect anything you do with your horse, but as I train show horses, I especially see that when a horse is drifting or leaning his movement really deteriorates. This happens because when a horse is leaning or drifting, his energy flow is interrupted or blocked and excess leg or head and neck action is the result. A horse can lean with a part of his body such as, dropping a shoulder, or his hip, or he can tip or drop his ribcage and become out of balance. Dropping his body weight forward onto his front end is another form of lean. Knowledge is wonderful, and I want to give you all the knowledge I can!
First of all, I want to teach you why it is important to keep your horse centered and balanced between your legs.
- Leaning or drifting is a subtle form of a refusal.
When a young or green broke horse drifts or leans, it is often the first subtle sign of a refusal. I have seen many young horses drift or lean out of a circle, then drift towards the gate. Next they stop at the gate, sull up, and refuse to go forward. The saying “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile”, can often apply to horse’s leaning. Of course, it also depends upon the horse as to how far they will take it. Some horses go along leaning for years and never become naughty or dangerous, but many will take it to the next level and become very resistant. That small act of disobedience in the form of lean can turn into a big refusal.
- If your horse is leaning, you won’t have that great ride we all seek. He will not feel as smooth and easy to ride. You may feel like you are begging him to do his job. He may feel unresponsive or dull to your cues.
- If your horse is drifting, or leaning, it can affect his movement for the show ring because his energy flow is interrupted. His legs will show you that by getting “quick” or appearing “Climby”. Many horses will appear to have excessive hock and knee action because their energy flow is interrupted and they are not tracking straight through. Picture this– if your horse is loping on a right lead, but his body is slightly fading or leaning to the left, or to the outside of the circle, his legs will need to come up and down or he will appear to have more action for him to keep his balance. Rather than his legs moving forward, they will appear to have an up and down motion. Your horse may even be leaning only in his hip or possibly his shoulder, but any lean while trying to go forward will deteriorate his movement.
- When a horse leans, they also tend to drop their back, shoulder, and hips. They cannot engage in true collection when they are leaning.
How do I tell if my horse is drifting or leaning, and not staying centered and balanced between my legs and reins?
- One of the best ways to diagnose lean is to ride him on a straight line and release contact on his mouth and see if he fades one way or the other. This sounds very simple but I can’t stress enough how many times I’ve tried this with clients, and even myself, and found my horse fading or veering one way or another. This is lean!
- If you find that you have to keep correcting him and moving him into position to keep him straight, then he is leaning.
- If you find that you ride with your hand to the side or you use more of one leg than the other to keep him in position, this is a sign that he is not staying between your reins and legs and is leaning.
- He may feel rougher than usual or he may lose definition or crispness to his gaits. This is a sign of lean.
- He may rock or use his head and neck while he’s moving. If you have out ruled soreness, but he still uses his head and neck and some horses will even over bridle and look tight in the head and neck, this may be lean.
- Have you ever been at a horse show riding in a crowded arena and looked up and saw a rider coming toward you but you had trouble telling if they were going to the inside or the outside of you? They are riding forward looking to the inside, but their horse is heading the other way. I see this all the time and those riders are not realizing that their horse is drifting or leaning to the outside of their circle or track. When a horse travels this way, his energy flow cannot flow straight forward through his legs and the quality of his movement will deteriorate. This is another of the many negative results of lean!
How do I fix or stop my horse from drifting or leaning?
- The first step to resolving any problem with your horse or in life is to become aware of it! I teach my riders to become mindful, aware riders. IT is important to become aware of what your horse is doing underneath you. I want to stress that this is not just a problem that beginners have. I have found that many of the horses that I ride every day have forms of lean that I have missed. This can appear at all levels. You can also see the negative results of a leaning or drifting horse in every discipline from Western Pleasure, to Reining, Trail, Barrel Racing, or Jumping.
- Check yourself. Check your cues and your body position. Are you sitting in the middle of your horse? Make sure that your weight is balanced evenly in both legs. A rule of thumb is 60% of your weight in your seat and 40% in your legs. Are you centered on your horses back? If you are riding one handed, is your hand centered over the middle of your horse’s neck? If you are riding two handed, are your hands balanced and centered over the middle of his neck? Pay attention to your riding! Many riders who struggle with a horse drifting are actually the cause of the problem because they are leaning to one side or another. And once more, don’t think this is exclusive to beginners. I see trainers and riders at every level riding this way!
- I have an exercise that I do that will help to correct your horse when he leans. It will also help your horse to have more self carriage. I will set up some cones in the arena in a square. You can change the cones into any pattern for variety and this will help so that your horse does not think ahead of you and get into a routine. Ask your horse to go in a straight line from one cone to the next and see if he is able to go straight or if he leans. If he leans, stop him and turn him the opposite way that he was leaning, and head back off again. Every time he leans or doesn’t stay between your reins, stop him and turn him away from the direction he wants to lean. This will also help with improving your neck reining. You can do this one or two handed. It is a correction for lean and will really help your horse to stop leaning. Next, draw a circle with chalk or paint and ask him to walk, jog, and lope without you fighting him to keep him on the circle.
- Keep your horse responsive and accepting of your cues. The lighter and more responsive your horse is, the easier it will be to stop the drifting and the lean. Increase your awareness and pay attention to the small details and eventually you and your horse will develop teamwork! Often, a horse will develop lean and almost wiggle, or duck in and out to avoid driving straight forward to their face. This may have started due to a lack of acceptance or even fear of being collected and asked to stay in that position. If this is the case, take your time with this horse and keep encouraging him to stay in frame and accept your cues.
It is a wonderful feeling to ride a responsive, accepting, soft, supple horse that stays in frame and balanced between your reins and legs. You feel a clear definition to your horse’s rhythm. The jog will have a definite 2 beat gait, the lope will be a 3 beat gait with a moment of suspension in his stride. The rocking horse effect will be increased because he is balanced between your reins and legs. He should have more lift and self carriage. You can feel the lift through his back and shoulders. Riding a well trained horse is worth the effort. So keep up the good work and strive for excellence! Remember, champions pay attention to details!
For more information and help, check my website for DVD’s that relate to this subject.