You began work on softness, and you continued it in the collection work. In spite of all that, your horse still doesn’t seem to be “getting” that he must get off the bit and stay off it (instead he leans on your hands or pulls), it may be time to let him pull on himself for a while instead of you. “Checking him up” is a groundwork exercise done in a round pen that nicely accomplishes this goal. By working the horse with the reins secured to the saddle (a point with little to no “give”) rather than in your hands (which are connected to your naturally elastic and moveable arms), you teach him that leaning on the bit or pulling on the reins is an exercise in futility.
Your horse should wear a plain, smooth-mouthed snaffle and his regular saddle. Take him to a small round pen (a 40- to 45-foot-diameter one is ideal, but whatever is handy and safe will do; you can even longe him checked up if you don’t have the appropriate enclosure). Tie the reins to the cinch rings or behind the cantle. Always begin with the reins quite loose so your horse’s face is comfortably in front of the vertical. If he feels overly confined by the reins before he understands how this exercise works, he may become frightened and claustrophobic, even to the point of flipping himself over backward.
Once he begins to understand, however, gradually shorten the reins until his face is more or less at the vertical—perpendicular to the ground—as he moves around the pen. As he softens to the bit pressure, he may occasionally come behind the vertical as he walks. But do not tighten the reins so much that his face is behind the vertical at rest, or comes significantly behind the vertical, curling toward his chest, as he walks.
With the reins loosely tied at first, use your voice and body language to drive your horse forward at a walk. Work in both directions, and when he seems relaxed and understands what you want, ask for a trot. Because it’s a symmetrical gait, the trot is good for inducing relaxation. Spend time at this gait, frequently changing direction to avoid stressing your horse’s legs. As he relaxes further and accepts the exercise, gradually shorten the reins (again, never tightening them so that his face is behind the vertical at rest).
Now work at both a trot and lope, again changing direction frequently. If your horse needs work on lateral flexion—”giving his face” to the side— shorten the inside rein an inch or two more than the outside, readjusting the reins each time you change direction.
Spend no more than a total of 10 minutes the first time you “check your horse up” in the round pen; remember that too much work before he’s developed the musculature to support it will make him sore and unhappy. Over time, gradually lengthen your round-pen sessions up to a maximum of about 20 minutes.
Always follow the round-pen checking up with a short ride to see what you’ve accomplished and to solidify the lesson in your horse’s mind.
Note: some trainers advocate leaving a horse standing while checked up; / don’t. I believe that in order to learn the lesson correctly, the horse should be softened in the face while engaging the hind end in motion. And, simply for safety’s sake, he needs to be supervised.
In the future, you’ll find that round-pen work at a steady trot is a great way to get the “fresh” off and relax your horse when he hasn’t been ridden for a few days, or before showing. Work at the lope is good for getting a horse “evened up” so that his stiff (less bendable) side isn’t as stiff, and his hollow (overly bendable) side isn’t as hollow.
Sandy Collier’s successful horse show record is reflective of her dedication, talent, and integrity as a horse trainer. She was the first and only woman horse trainer to win the prestigious NRCHA World Champion Snaffle Bit Futurity. In 2011, Sandy was inducted into The Cowgirl Hall of Fame. Learn more at SandyCollier.com.
This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 2