Developing Self-Carriage

Developing Self-Carriage

Self-carriage balances a horse's hindquarters and creates a light forehand and soft pole. Train your horse for proper self-carriage with these exercises.

black western riding horse being shown in black chaps (Credit: Journal)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Andy Moorman

When a horse has “self-carriage,” the horse literally carries his weight plus the rider’s weight balanced over his haunches. Because he’s balanced on the hindquarters, he has a light forehand and a soft poll. He carries his weight without leaning on the rider.

A horse in true self-carriage is on the bit, not above it or behind it. With a soft poll, the rein affects the hind legs and haunches, rather than stopping in the neck as it does when horses are on the forehand, above or behind the bit.

In the American Quarter Horse industry, many of us have a problem with our horses not being in self-carriage.

A lot of our horses will give in their polls, put their heads down and get behind the bit very easily. When a horse falls behind the bridle, a lot of people think they have a good feel, but it only affects the head and the neck and not the body. In reality, the horse is on the forehand. If he has got his weight on his front legs, he has a hard time moving with a light response because his weight is pushing his front legs down.

Many of our horses move like they are in two pieces. If you watch the lope of an incorrectly moving horse, his head goes up and down like a pump handle because he’s moving his front end and then his hind. The two are not connected through the back. And he always has a foot on the ground. He doesn’t have suspension, a time when his feet are off the ground.

To have self-carriage, the horse’s front end and back end must be connected through the back, with suspension in his gaits. Again, that’s possible because the horse’s weight is balanced over his hindquarters, and he’s not on the forehand.

Self-carriage is a simple concept, but it takes a lot of practice. You need to work on three things to maintain it:

  • No. 1, the rider must have correct balance and aids use;
  • No. 2, the horse must understand what you are asking him to do;
  • No.3, the horse must have enough strength built up for him to be able to maintain self-carriage through an entire maneuver or pattern.

You have to ask for short periods of self-carriage and reward with rest until both you and your horse can ride a complete pattern in self-carriage (whether it’s equitation, horsemanship, reining, trail or working hunter).

Common Problems

If your horse doesn’t have self-carriage, you have probably experienced some of the following problems:

  • “Growing” or “falling apart” (When a horse leans on the rider, the horse gets faster and faster, which I call “growing,” or he gets slower and slower, which often results in a break of gait.)
  • Poor transitions.
  • Lack of steering.
  • Heavy feeling (When you try to move your horse, either with your reins or legs, it feels like a big effort and he doesn’t want to go.)
  • Lack of precise movements.

Learn to See Self-Carriage

When you watch a horse going (in profile), the hind legs must be up, under the horse, at the walk, trot and canter. As you watch the horse, look at the box that’s made by the front legs, the hind legs, the body and the ground as he moves along. Is the box a rectangle, or is it more of a square?

If the box looks more like a rectangle, with the hind legs back, just straight under the horse and not reaching under, that horse is on the forehand.

If the rider makes the hind legs really reach under, the horse will round his back a little, rise up, and the box will become more of a square.

It’s simple physics. Think of the hind legs as a fulcrum and the topline as the lever. The farther the fulcrum of the hind legs is under the topline, the easier it is to lower the hindquarters, reach under and raise the front end. If the fulcrum is way back, then the front is very heavy, and the horse can’t pick it up.

If the horse gets the hind legs under him, then he can elevate the entire front end, including the shoulders, and lower the head and neck. When the forehand is lightened, it isn’t bearing weight, and the horse can turn, step into a transition, etc., because the weight is carried on the hind end.

Self-Carriage Exercises

Being able to elevate your horse’s front end and make his hind legs come up under him all comes from your leg and seat. You have to be sitting with your center of gravity just behind the horse’s center of gravity, deep in the saddle; your leg has to be down with light contact, affecting the horse’s hind leg.

No. 1: Lengthened Walk

Start first at a walk on a loose rein, sitting deep and still in the saddle. The rein has to be absolutely loose. When you take up on the reins, the horse’s first reaction is to shorten his step behind. That means he doesn’t reach as far under his body, and that is counter-productive.

When the horse’s left hind leg is coming forward through the air, if you close your left leg at that time, the horse will step deeper. Then, when the right leg comes forward and you close your right leg, the right hind leg comes deeper. Alternate that as the horse walks.

You must sit still and not change the horse’s balance. As your horse deepens his stride so that he reaches under more, he shifts his weight to his hindquarters.

Once he steps up behind, he’ll get a long stride with a slow rhythm, and you’ll feel his ribcage swing from side to side. If he quickens, you sit deeper, bring him back and start again.

If a horse is nervous or quick, it takes more practice. With some horses, you have to use a lot of leg to influence them; some horses you almost “think” it.

I have my riders start with a lengthened walk every time they ride. Once your horse has learned to do it, you can do it for just a few minutes, and he’ll relax and step up really well. He has also learned to walk on command.

Then, when you take up the rein, he’s already responding to your legs, he’s on his haunches, and he’ll give his face and be soft. If you ask a horse to reach deeper with a hind leg when that leg is coming through the air, he can alter what he’s doing and reach deeper. If you ask him to reach deeper when that leg is on the ground holding his weight, he can’t change it because it’s rooted to the ground at that moment.

It’s up to you as the rider to have the timing and the feel to both lighten the front and guide the back. This exercise can help you develop that feel without having to think about it too much.

No. 2: Quick Lightener

This exercise is for riders who understand self-carriage and just need something to quickly lighten their horse if he’s a little heavy.

Try stopping, backing three steps and then step right into a sitting trot with no walk steps. Do that two or three times, and it will help your horse get his hind legs up under him and lighten the forehand.

You can also stop, back and go to the sitting trot. Then stop, go immediately to the sitting trot, and keep alternating between those two sequences.

Just make sure there are no walk steps into the trot. If you let him walk into the trot, you have not gotten him organized or engaged.

That gets your horse to immediately step forward when asked. If he’ll do that, he’ll do anything for you (that he understands) because he is engaged and in self-carriage. His hind legs are carrying his weight and pushing forward when asked.