OK, let’s climb on my young Warmblood True and see how this roundness business works in real life.
As with any maneuver on a young or green horse, be sure you already know how to get the result on a well-trained adult horse. Only then are you ready to teach it to a youngster.
Ultimately, I will want True to travel in a long frame with his hindquarters engaged and centered underneath his hip joints. As he trots, I will expect his hind feet to reach forward enough to strike the front hoofprints he has left on the sand. Ideally, his neck will be fully extended in a soft arc, but his nose will be tucked in just enough to place his face on an imaginary vertical line. You might alter the details for your horse and your discipline, but this is a good time to have your ultimate goal in mind.
I begin by warming True up at walk, trot, and canter, being sure he is moving forward off my leg. You might recall from previous articles that he’s had trouble with this. When riding a youngster who is too forward, I would instead warm up with an eye toward moving his weight and energy slightly behind my leg. I would also practice downward transitions and halts and circles more than the upward transitions that True needs.
I then introduce the notion of rounding the front of his body at a halt. I ask True to stop. Once he is in a firm halt, I touch both reins very gently with my fingers, sending light random pitter-patters of pressure to his mouth.
If he needs help, I move my hands out to create greater width between them.
If he still doesn’t get it, I move my hands down lower, below the crest of his neck if necessary. It’s important to do this GENTLY, please.
At some point in this simple exercise, horses will drop their heads and bring their noses in. Praise that action! Then release.
Rounding is hard physical work, so don’t expect too much too soon. I ask True several times to drop his head, praising and stroking each time he does. After two or three tries, we walk or trot forward a ways just to relax and loosen up. I repeat the sequence a few times, until True responds to my wide finger patter with a reliable head drop and a little bit of nose tuck. Great!
Now we try the same thing at a walk. Here, we have to keep a little leg pressure pushing the horse forward because we don’t want him to stop when the finger patter begins.
True is a little confused at first. I never punish, but just allow him to try again when he gets it wrong. Mostly, he assumes that the hand aids are telling him to halt, which is exactly what he has learned in the past. When he begins to halt, I add a little leg to signal forward movement. Hmmm. A good rider can almost feel the wheels turning inside the baby’s mind: “this is different… what to do?” Be soft, be kind.
If you can get the drop at a halt, but not at a walk, try your “helpers” again—widen your hands slightly and try. Lower your hands slightly and try. Widen and lower simultaneously if necessary. All of this is done gradually and gently, only if the horse requires it.
I’m happy that True doesn’t become nervous during his first roundness lessons, but some horses do. In that case, allow the horse to walk or trot loosely and easily more often and for longer periods between very brief trials of rounding her front end at a halt or walk.
Try not to push or hurry. Roundness cannot be forced without creating bad habits and frustrations in the horse. If your horse becomes unusually nervous (for her) or reactive to your early efforts, re-read my article called “Rounding the Back” to be sure she has all the basics under her belt.
Remember to approximate in all work with youngsters or greenies. A baby cannot place his moving body in your ultimate roundness position right away. True achieves a few steps of walk on his first day with his head dropped and his nose in. They aren’t perfect. His neck is shortened too much, his head is a tad too low, his face is not vertical. Three months from now, I won’t accept that position at a walk. But today is only his first try, so I stroke and praise effusively.
During the first week of roundness lessons, I only ask True to adopt a reasonable approach to the ultimate position for five or 10 seconds at a time. Much of the session is filled with standard basic flatwork. After a month or so, the youngster should be able to move fluidly with his forehand and upper back rounded at a walk for 10 minutes or so. Let your horse stretch his neck and head every so often, just to relieve the muscles.
Gradually, I build time and begin teaching the same lesson at the sitting trot, then the posting trot. I like to get a month’s reliable practice at those gaits before asking for roundness at the canter or lope. While the horse is learning the mental lesson of rounding, his body is also becoming better conditioned to carry himself in a nice frame.
One of my general principles of training is that it’s always best to prevent problems from starting than to correct them after they’re in place. Give your baby plenty of relaxing flatwork between brief but frequent roundness practice sessions. Remember your power moment at the end of a training session: just before you step off, ask your horse to stand and drop his head and neck into position.
Right now, we’re starting with just the head, neck, and forehand. I don’t allow True to evade roundness by stringing his hind leg movement out behind him, but at the same time I don’t push his hindquarters forward as much as I will when he’s ready. Don’t worry, eventually we’ll bring True’s hindquarters into play.
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.