Expanded article on a version prepared by Paul Kathen which appeared in the Houston Dressage Society Newsletter, "Ask the Expert" column, September 2002 issue:
Must a Horse Be Heavy Before He Becomes Light?
By Paul Kathen © 2002
Heaviness in a horse is usually the result of loss of balance or the horse’s desire to remain in its natural balance. During its career a dressage horse experiences four different types of balance under saddle:
1. Totally off balance - On the forehand, looking for support in the rider’s hand.
2. In natural balance - On the forehand.
3. In balance - Equal weight on all four legs.
4. Collection - Majority of its weight on the hind legs.
The young horse, just started, finds itself totally off balance, and it needs help from the rider to return to its natural balance. Your weight has caused your once graceful and self-confident potential superstar to become clumsy and insecure. His back is tight, his legs are stiff, and he is scared. Thanks to your preparatory work, he is not going to buck you off, but his movement will be hesitant, short, irregular, and stiff. He may lean on you, fall in, drift out, tuck his tail, or all of the above. Your immediate goal is to get rid of this tension. To accomplish this, you first establish a contact with his mouth, soft and giving, but steady. You now must be everything he is not. You are confident, relaxed, in balance yourself, and patient. You ask him to move forward in straight lines and rounded corners. Little by little this movement will relax his muscles, his back loosens, his legs bend, and he begins to push his weight forward – right into your hands. That is good. It means his hind legs are working and since they are located at his rear end, when they work, they push. He does not yet know how to carry your weight so he gives it to you.
I said it is good because it is a step in the right direction; however, it is not where you want to be. Now you gradually take up on the reins, then steady your hands, firm but elastic, and continue to urge him forward. If your horse is overly stimulated and wants to rush, only little urging is needed. If he is sluggish, lots of leg is required. Your goal at this time is to return your horse to its natural balance. That is, still on the forehand, but no longer in your hand. You must feel what he is doing and decide what you can do to help him. Remember that you want him to find his natural balance and to regain his confidence. This is his job, and you cannot find it for him. You can only help by being very balanced yourself, supporting in the reins, and keeping him active in the hind leg so that when he pushes off the reins to shift his weight back a bit, his hind legs are there to carry it. This state is what riders mean when they say, “He has found his balance under the rider.”
You know that you have achieved this goal when your horse moves with correct gaits, is rhythmic, sometimes snorts, and his tail is swinging. He stays on the aids even when you let him stretch down.
This lightness is by no means permanent. You must continue to work at it. As your demands toward balance and collection increase, you will again find times where your horse will challenge you to hold him up so that he can rest the burning muscles in his hindquarters.
The key is to realize your horse at first is weak and insecure, plus he prefers to balance naturally instead of your way which is artificial. Yet in order to do his work correctly the horse must submit to you and accept balance and collection as second nature for himself. Remember that for him to change his natural balance takes strength, and strength takes time to develop. Be patient.
Beneficial by-products of this work are your horse’s confidence in you and in his acceptance of driving and restraining aids. This will give you many more tools like half-halts, transitions, large and increasingly smaller circles, etc. to continue to improve his balance and lightness for the more demanding work.
By Paul Kathen