Self-Carriage Starting Now!


self-carriage

How developing self-carriage at the most basic level will help your horse maintain it through more advanced movements.

When a horse is balanced and maintaining himself without support from the rider’s hands, he has self-carriage. In dressage, self-carriage is often taught to result from a half halt, and years of correct gymnastics. But it has just as much to do with a horse’s understanding, and calmness.

With “Dressage, Naturally”, I look at the mind, emotions and body of the horse. Self-carriage is not an elusive quality that we must train for over years. It can be practiced immediately, although as the movements become more challenging, the horse’s skills for self-carriage in that movement also need to develop.

The Horse in Self-Carriage

Physically: He has his body balanced in a way that is appropriate for the movement he is doing. He is free from excess tension. He is aligned so that his weight is not falling forward, sideways or hanging back.

Mentally: He understands what is required of him and so is able to organize his body for the task. Confusion works against self-carriage.

Emotionally: He is comfortable and calm and so feels no need to escape where he is. He is self-motivated. He trusts that he can relax into what he is doing, knowing there will be a warning when something new is coming.

Start Simple

Let’s take the very simple movement of standing still on a loose rein to illustrate this concept. I often see students who need to keep a hold on the reins in order to have their horses stand still. In self-carriage, the horse agrees to be there out of calm respect and understanding. For me, this is a hugely important piece of the horse’s education that directly relates to more sophisticated “dressagey” self-carriage. Here are two stories to illustrate this point.

Example one

A Grand Prix rider asked me to help her with a horse who was very heavy in the canter pirouette (in the double bridle), although they both seemed very capable of doing the movement. As we stood and talked, I noticed she needed to hold the reins tightly to keep the horse from creeping forward. When I asked her to loosen the reins, he walked off. This only confirmed to her that she needed to keep the reins tight. I explained that the horse needed to be listening to her seat, and keeping his body under hers without the reins. I gave her this exercise:

1. Ask the horse to stop from your seat only.

2. If he does not stop, add your reins quickly and efficiently to help him understand, then drop them.

3. Repeat as necessary until he stops from your seat alone, and stays stopped.

She was very resistant to the idea, complaining of the need for contact to create a “proper” transition to the halt. She owned two well-behaved Mastiff dogs, so I asked her: “How do you ask your dogs to sit-stay?” She said: “I ask them to sit. If they do, I leave them alone and reward, and if they don’t, I pull up on the collar while pushing their hind ends down”.

“And then what?” I asked. She thought for a moment, then with a look of humility said: “I take my hands off them.” She got it. Basic self-carriage with the horse is the same. Holding your horse under you with your reins is as ridiculous as holding your dog’s rear end down in a sit-stay.

Example two

A low level dressage student came into her first clinic with a very emotional, high-strung horse. The horse had been spinning in his stall all night. She said this was typical and that she had been stuck in Training Level for years. As we talked, the horse twirled around screaming while the rider kept a death grip on the reins. It looked wild, but felt safe enough that I built a box out of jump poles and gave her this exercise:

1. Ride into the box, relax and loosen the reins.

2. Leave the horse alone, but if he leaves the box, take the reins, and efficiently and with great purpose (as if you are saving his life) ride back into the box.

3. As soon as the horse stays a little longer than the time before, ask him to leave the box and go for a ride around the arena, asking for effort and being very particular.

4. Repeat as necessary until the horse feels committed and comfortable enough to stay in the box with no reins.

After an hour, this horse made his first positive choice towards self-carriage: he leaned forward and started to leave the box, then changed his mind, shifted his weight back and stood without the rider picking up the reins. She was astonished. The horse went into deep relaxation – so deep, he started to literally fall asleep. I had the rider dismount and just stand with him while I started the next lesson. Next day, the whole process took about five minutes. After that, they were able to do dressage on a light contact, and the horse was self-regulating and carrying himself, so she could now think about dressage, and not just control.

The Rider in Self-Carriage

Physically: He has his body balanced in a way that is appropriate for the movement he is doing. He is free from excess tension. He is aligned so that his weight is not falling forward, sideways or hanging back.

Mentally: He understands what is required of him and so is able to organize his body for the task. Confusion works against self-carriage.

Emotionally: He is comfortable and calm and so feels no need to escape where he is. He is self-motivated. He trusts that he can relax into what he is doing, knowing there will be a warning when something new is coming.

Building Blocks

Whether you are a beginner or a Grand Prix rider, whether you want your horse to stand still while you mount, or be light in a collected canter pirouette between your leg and hand, self-carriage offers the same feeling in the end. It is the feeling that your horse understands your focus, is under your seat, and that you have arrived at a place where neither of you needs to hang onto the other.

Assess your own skills! Take the Happy Athlete Assessment at dn4harmony.com!


Karen Rohlf has been helping students transform their connection with their horses for 30 years. Her background in competitive dressage and immersion in natural horsemanship combine to give her a unique perspective called Dressage, Naturally. It is her mission to create stronger partnerships and healthy biomechanics by combining the principles of natural horsemanship with the art of dressage. She lives in Ocala, Florida, but reaches students around the world through clinics and her online Video Classroom and Virtual Arena. Karen has developed a teaching style that focuses on empowering students to progress through independent learning. You can begin your transformation immediately via her website (dressagenaturally.net), web shop (shop.dressagenaturally.net), online Video Classroom (dnc.dressagenaturally.net), and Virtual Arena (do.dressagenaturally.net).

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