Engaging your horse’s hind legs is an essential component of riding. If you feel your horse’s hind legs consistently out behind him rather than under him, he is not engaging them. If your horse resists hind leg exercises, have your vet check for pain points: saddle fit, back, hocks and stifles. He just may have a weak hind end, which makes it difficult to engage his legs underneath him until he builds muscle.
Walking may seem like an elementary exercise, but it is an essential place to start for you and your horse. It allows you to perfect your leg aids -- your horse should respond immediately to your leg pressure by moving forward. You can feel his hind end and back swinging underneath the saddle; concentrate on feeling the beat of each of his legs as it moves forward. Close your eyes if that helps you focus on nothing but his movement.
Walking also allows you to work on your seat, which you use to drive your horse forward by moving with his motion and controlling his speed. Devote some time doing this outside of the arena, such as on a nice long trail ride, to energize yourself and your horse mentally.
You get more of a workout when you walk and run uphill, and it’s no different for your horse. Resist the temptation to run him up the hill; walking actually is harder for him than running, which he may try to do instinctively, and strengthens his hind end so he can step underneath himself with those hind legs. The turn around and trot back down, sitting light in the saddle in a two-point position. You don’t need a steep incline for this exercise to be effective.
Repeatedly transitioning your horse between gaits -- walk, trot, canter -- and the halt helps him to engage his hind legs underneath him by slowing and halting. Proper transitions require you to practice perfecting your halt without pulling on the reins. Instead, use your seat, sinking deeper into the saddle to restrict his forward movement. Start with the walk and trot, then back down to the walk. Then transition between the canter and the walk. Keep a light contact on his mouth, but instead of pulling the reins backward, merely close your fingers in conjunction with your seat aid. When he responds successfully, release this rein pressure. Each successful transition helps him learn to engage his hind legs, in addition to strengthening his hind end.
The more you practice half halts, the more your horse will understand your cues so that he responds immediately, often before you finish the asking sequence. Perfecting your full halt will prepare you for the half halt. The purpose of the half halt is to communicate to your horse that something else is coming, either a gait transition or the halt. It balances him by bringing his hind legs directly underneath him so he is prepared to execute your next instruction properly. To practice, start with the walk, driving with your seat and legs to get a strong, forward movement. When you feel his hind legs come under him and his back round under the saddle, close your fingers slightly around the rein slightly, then release.
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Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.