Getting your horse to engage their hind-end is a key component in getting them to carry themselves correctly. If a horse’s hind-end isn’t engaged, then the back legs look as if they’re being left behind, the back is hollow, and the neck is inverted. If a horse’s hind-end is engaged, their hind legs are extending underneath them, their back is lifted and carried, and the neck is round.
So how do you get your horse to engage their hind-end? Teaching your horse to correlate leg pressure with engaging their hind end is the best and easiest way to go about doing this. Exercises that build up the muscles in the hind-end will also contribute to allowing your horse to carry himself properly.
To get your horse to properly carry themselves, you want to have your horse on the bit, stretching through their back and neck. Pressure from your legs will encourage your horse to step under themselves with their hind legs and push up through their back.
While getting your horse on the contact is important to help your horse carry themselves, we will focus on the hind-end today.
Unfortunately, horses are usually taught that leg pressure means simply to move faster, which causes them to drag their bodies on the forehand. By teaching them that leg pressure means to engage the hind-end, the horse will push from behind, having a more balanced and rhythmic motion.
Correlating leg pressure with hind-end engagement may sound easy enough, but how do you go about teaching your horse how to accept this? With horses, it’s always best to start from the ground, then work your way up.
Step 1: On the Ground: Ask Your Horse to Disengage the Hind-End From a Stand Still
What? You thought we were talking about engaging the hind-end, not disengaging. When you usually hear of disengaging the hind-end, it will be related to maintaining control of your horse. If your horse gets too locked up in the hind-end, they can easily rear or bolt.
By disengaging the hind-end and asking your horse to step around, you are taking that ability away from them. While disengaging the hind-end works great for maintaining control of your horse, it also works great for teaching them to respond to leg pressure.
Disengaging the hind-end means that your horse is stepping their hind-end away from you, crossing their back legs over each other in the process. By doing this, you are teaching your horse to move and work their hind-end at your cue.
Not only does this exercise work when it comes to teaching your horse to use their hind-end, but it also works great for maintaining control of your horse. If your horse gets too locked up in the hind-end, they can easily rear or bolt. By disengaging the hind-end and asking your horse to step around, you are taking that energy away from them.
Why is this an important step in teaching your horse that leg pressure means engaging the hind-end? This step will teach your horse that pressure means to step and reach their hind legs under themselves.
To begin with, stand with your horse facing you. Next, walk towards your horse’s hip, picking up the slack in the leadrope and bringing your hand up to behind the horse’s withers in the process, tipping your horse’s nose in your direction.
Your pressure on the rope and your momentum walking towards your horse’s hip should cause your horse to swing their hind-end away from you, crossing their back legs over one another in the process.
As soon as your horse moves away like this, release the pressure and give them praise. Be sure to practice this to both the right and left to ensure that your horse is balanced on both sides. Once you have established the task mentioned above, you can now teach your horse to correlate “leg pressure” with stepping the hind leg over and under.
Stand beside your horse. This time, when you bring your hand and leadrope up to ask the horse to swing their hind-end around, also apply pressure with your thumb behind the girth area. Pressure in this area cues your horse to move their hind-end. This will replicate the leg pressure you will use to get your horse to step their hind-end around when you are on them.
With practice, your horse will come to a point where you can simply apply pressure with your thumb to their side and they will step their hind legs over.
Step 2: On the Ground: Asking Your Horse to Disengage the Hind-End While Moving
In this step, you will start to notice how disengaging and engaging work together to get your horse’s hind-end working. To start, put your horse on a circle around you. Your goal is to get your horse to thrust off of their hind-end by asking them to disengage the hind-end then continue to move forward.
This probably sounds really complicated. To help you get a better understanding, these are the steps to take to achieve this task:
First, put your horse on a circle around you. This exercise is best done at a walk or a trot. You will use the same concept of adding pressure to the lead and taking a step towards your horse’s hip. When you do this, the horse will want to disengage their hind-end, which will cause them to slow down and eventually stop to face you.
Instead of letting them change their gait in-between the disengagement, as soon as your horse crosses one back leg in front of the other, send him back out on the circle at the same gait.
You’ll notice when you do this, your horse will thrust with his hind end, lift his back, and arch his neck to trot or walk out of the disengagement. This is what proper self-carriage looks like. In this instance, your horse is engaging their hind-end.
Step 3: In the Saddle: Moving the Hind-End
Now that you’re in the saddle, it’s time to apply what you taught your horse on the ground. If you taught them to move their hind-end over via pressure from your thumb or body movement, then they should do it via pressure from your heel.
Like the exercise on the ground, try bringing your rein to your hip, placing your foot behind the girth, and giving a squeeze. This should propel your horse to disengage their hind end. This can be done at a standstill, walk, and trot.
Another thing you can do under saddle is to practice STEP 2, which was causing the horse to engage their hind end by asking them to step out of the disengagement.
Pick up a walk or a trot. Ask your horse to disengage their hind-end by bringing your rein to your hip and by applying leg pressure to the side they need to step away from. As soon as you feel the horse’s hips swing over, apply leg pressure with both legs behind the girth and relax your rein from your hip to move them forward at the same gait.
When the horse comes out of the disengagement, notice how the horse feels as if they’re rocking back and launching off. The horse will feel very light in the forehand. With this exercise, your horse will also correlate leg pressure from both sides and engaging the hind-end.
Step 4: In the Saddle: Engaging the Hind-End
Once your horse is very aware that singular leg pressure means to disengage the hind-end, then you are ready to apply leg pressure from both sides at the same time and ask to engage the hind-end.
Your horse knows what your cues mean now. They have learned that when pressure is applied they need to step under and over. Now, when pressure from both sides blocks the “over” part, the horse will naturally assume the “under” part, which causes them to engage their hind end.
Once again, you can tell your horse is engaging their hind-end if you feel them pushing from behind. They’ll be light on their forehand and their back will be lifted.
In the beginning, your horse may fall out of the engagement quite a bit. When this happens, go back to Step 3 where you disengage the hind-end then add leg pressure from both sides to thrust them out of the disengagement.
What Are Some Exercises to Help My Horse Engage Their Hind-End?
It’s important to build up your horse’s muscles before expecting them to ride around all the time with their hind-end engaged. There are some great exercises to help build your horse’s muscles as well as engaging their hind-end. These exercises include:
Trot poles are great for helping horses to engage their hind-end because it makes them step and reach under themselves. This exercise also helps build the oblique muscle in your horse; this muscle helps your horse extend their hind leg up and forward.
As you begin this exercise, you can first start by setting the poles at your horse’s natural stride length. Once your horse is engaging and reaching under themselves, you can lengthen the pole distance. If your horse is carrying himself correctly, he should be able to extend easily over the longer distance.
Transitions are a great way to teach your horse to thrust from behind and to not drag themselves with their front-end. Many horses like to run into the next gait that you ask for; by keeping them guessing and asking for transitions, it will cause the horse to stay rocked-back and waiting for your direction.
A great way to tell if your horse is engaging in an upward transition is that they’ll feel as if they’re jumping into the next gait. In reality, they’re just thrusting with their hind-end.
You can tell if a horse is engaging their hind-end in a downward transition if they can go into the downward gait smooth and balanced without leaning on the bit. If done correctly, your horse will feel like they’re sitting back on their haunches.
Riding your horse up steep and gradual hills is a great way to build up the hind-end muscles. Going uphill will also cause your horse to thrust with his hind-end. The way to tell if your horse is engaging their hind-end while going uphill is to notice how much they are struggling to get up the hill.
If your horse can maintain a walk up a steep hill, then their hind-end is probably strong. If your horse attempts to break into a trot or a canter and can barely get to the top of the hill, then their hind-end isn’t as built and they are still relying heavily on their front-end to carry them.
Downhill Work & Transitions
Do you want a way that will almost instantly teach your horse to step under themselves and rock back? Try trotting downhill and doing walk and halt transitions. By going downhill, your horse is learning to sit back on their haunches. By asking for downward transitions, your horse is learning the proper way to do a downward transition, which is by stepping into it with their hind-end.
How Can I Tell if My Horse Has Their Hind-End Muscles Built?
If you would like to know if your horse’s hind-end muscles are strong and ready to handle increased work, look at your horse’s backside from behind.
While looking at your horse, find the croup, or the highest point of the horse’s backside. Then find the point of hips. Between these points, does your horse’s muscles make more of a triangle, or more of a circle?
If your horse has a round hind-end, then their hind-end muscles are built up. However, this doesn’t mean that they’re used to increased work or always engaging their hind-end. It’s important to gradually work your horse into the level you wish to be at; otherwise, you may find yourself with a sore horse.
What Does Hind-End Engagement Mean for My Horse?
What hind-end engagement means for your horse is better self-carriage, balance, and rhythm. When your horse pushes from behind, their back lifts and their neck rounds. The better a horse carries themselves, the better they will be able to carry you.
It is much easier for a horse to carry a human when the horse’s back is lifted instead of hollow. Building up the hind-end will help your horse carry themselves, and you, better.
When your horse is engaging their hind-end, they will be more balanced. For example, when you canter your horse through a turn, you can tell if your horse is balanced. If they are off-balance, they will drop a shoulder or feel like they’re falling in. They may even break the gait because they cannot sustain balance on the turn.
When your horse is engaging the hind-end, they will be able to canter a turn feeling very balanced. The horse will be supple and flexed, not leaning to the inside, but rather leaning to the hind-end.
When your horse engages their hind-end, you will be able to establish a rhythm in your gaits. Your horse will no longer have to drag itself to keep up the tempo. Instead, your horse will push with their hind-end and into the rhythm.
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