A couple weeks back, I promised some words on teaching roundness in young and green horses.
This is kinda complicated, so let’s approach it in chunks over the next few weeks. Here we go!
Roundness: what is it? When a horse moves forward with a rounded back and a strong abdomen, her head, neck, and hindquarters are fully engaged in the work. A horse who is not rounded is often “strung out” or “inverted.”
Being strung out refers to hind legs that merely follow the horse’s body, but are not engaged in the muscular power needed to provide true strength. Inversion occurs when the horse’s neck and head are raised and braced to evade such engagement. Here, the muscles along the underside of the neck are resisting the rider’s aid, and the horse’s movement becomes choppy and uncoordinated.
Plenty of people believe that roundness of the back in a horse’s movement is necessary or even desirable only in dressage. I disagree. Roundness is helpful in all disciplines, from barrel racing to roping to jumping.
Why? Because it brings the engine of the horse’s hindquarters under his body and fully into play, allowing for greater power in almost all maneuvers.
A horse whose hind end is just dragging along behind him doesn’t have access to that engine. He has to work harder to get the job done, and working harder usually requires greater effort on the trainer’s part as well. We already have enough hard work to do, right?
For a number of reasons, I take the slow road in teaching young or green horses to round their bodies, usually beginning only after they’ve had about a year of basic flatwork. During that time, I correct inverted or strung out babies only very gently. Just enough to bring them back to neutral and prevent bad habits from forming. There are more important lessons for the youngster to master before roundness can be taught effectively.
So, before we jump into techniques, we need to consider whether a horse is ready to begin learning round movement. My criteria are strength, conformation, soundness, knowledge of aids, and willingness to cooperate.
Strength. Round movement is physically difficult for the horse to produce. He has to develop muscles along the top line of the body, as well as core and abdominal strength to move in a round manner. Be sure your horse is physically conditioned to begin the work.
Before his roundness lessons start, he should be able to work for an hour daily, walk, trot, canter, circle and serpentine at all gaits with proper lateral bend, halt, reverse, and transition fairly smoothly among all these options.
Conformation. Babies grow in uneven spurts. At times, the croup will be higher than the withers. Then suddenly the cannons sprout like beanstalks while other parts of the legs stay short. Sometimes, the young horse is all belly; at other times, her head is much too small or large for her body. So, we have to consider both the development and the end result of conformation.
A youngster can’t engage her hindquarters if they’re higher than her withers. She can’t carry her head properly if it weighs too much for her neck. These physically awkward or uncoordinated times of growth are great for practicing basic flatwork. Roundness training? Not so much!
A horse is not fully mature until 5-7 years of age, depending on breed. In the adult horse, conformation also plays a role in roundness training. A horse with a short neck will need to be taught to round up in a different sequence of lessons than a horse with a long neck. The horse who is built “downhill” needs a different sort of training than the “uphill” horse. Structure of the spine and legs have to be taken into account. And so on.
Soundness. Before starting to teach roundness, evaluate the horse’s physical soundness. Is the horse flexible on both sides and free of pain? Is he equally comfortable on both leads? Is his back ever sore? Does he move easily, with fluid steps? Have your veterinarian check any irregularities.
Too often, horses are asked to carry their bodies in ways that induce pain. That pain leads to all sorts of behavioral evasions that will be difficult to un-train in the future. More importantly, the horse in pain simply cannot do what you will be asking, and it’s inhumane to expect that he can.
Knowledge of aids. Teaching roundness requires combining multiple aids. Young or green horses usually have not experienced the feeling of multiple aids applied simultaneously, and their brains have become accustomed to altering behavior by virtue of only one aid at a time.
For example, youngsters are taught that hand pressure means to stop or slow down; leg pressure means to speed up. The horse needs to have enough understanding and lack of fear to figure out the meaning of gentle hands plus gentle legs. She will be puzzled at first, but we don’t want her to become scared or frustrated.
Many horses are taught to round their bodies before they have learned to actively move forward off the leg. This mistake causes many future problems. To avoid them, I try to be sure that babies respond reliably to leg pressure with immediate and strong forward movement before I begin asking them to round.
Cooperation. To learn roundness, young horses need to work with a cooperative attitude. We work in horse-and-human teams; it takes willingness from both parties to succeed. It also takes a horse who has learned that bucking is not acceptable, because in some ways rounding creates the same position as bucking and makes it easier for your little friend to dump you in the mud.
If your horse is not ready to pay attention and learn, and to cooperate with your requests, she isn’t ready for roundness lessons yet. Give her more basic flatwork training, along with attentional exercises of the kind described in Horse Brain, Human Brain. Groundwork is great for teaching cooperation, too.
Brain-Based Horsemanship is a weekly column that chronicles Janet Jones, PhD, and her journey with True, a Dutch Warmblood she trained from age three using neuroscience best practices. Read more about brain-based training in Jones’ award winning book Horse Brain, Human Brain.
A version of this story originally appeared on janet-jones.com. It is reprinted here with permission.