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Training Your Horse from the Anatomical Perspective. Part 2: Engagement

This is the second in Gillian’s series of articles focusing on common training problems, and exercises to correct underlying strength deficiencies.

The Problem : Carrying Insufficient Weight Behind

The Signs:

  • Difficulty with collected paces

  • Difficulty with pirouettes, half steps and piaffe

  • A heavy forehand

  • "Hopping" in upwards transitions

  • The angle of the hind cannon bone is not parallel to the angle of the fore radius in mid swing in trot.

Associated Problems:

  • On the forehand

  • Leaning on the hand

  • Running or Rushing

  • Hollowing through back (see previous article)

Typical Comments from Judges:

  • Needs to work more from behind to improve engagement and show more activity and difference within the paces

  • Needs to step under more and lighten the forehand

  • Hocks trailing

  • Needs to work more from behind to show fewer longer strides

  • Needs to carry more weight in hind legs to work more uphill

How the horse creates engagement:

The gluteal and hamstring muscles help to push the horse over the planted limb. They also help to carry weight during the stance phase by preventing over flexion of the hind leg joints.

To create engagement the horse must be supple and flexible through his back. The joints in the hind legs will flex and then straighten to propel the horse forwards. The greater the flexion the greater the spring.

The quadriceps and tensor fascia latacontribute to hip, stifle and hock flexion and help to swing the leg further underneath the body. The iliopsoas helps to create hip flexion and is also involved in bringing the leg further underneath the body.

Core Muscular Problems:

These include weak hindquarter muscles particularly the gluteals and hamstrings. Weakness or lack of engagement of the hip flexor muscles during swing phase of the stride also causes lack of engagement and a reduced level of performance.

Suggested Actions:

Ridden Work

Transitions encourage balance and self-carriage, and engagement of the hindquarters. Progress from performing transitions in a straight line to perfecting them on a circle thus incorporating lateral suppleness.

Half halts are invaluable in the transferring weight to the hindleg, Defined by the FEI these are “a hardly visible, almost simultaneous, coordinated action of the seat, leg and hand of the rider with the object of increasing the attention and balance of the horse’ By shifting more weight onto the quarters engagement and balance are amplified..

Try to keep your work as relaxed as possible. ‘Tension is the enemy of engagement’.

Hill work is an excellent way to strengthen, the hamstrings, gluteal and back muscles. Walk and trot are good paces but also try engagement exercises uphill such as half steps and rein back.

Walking over a raised pole is a good strengthening and mobilising exercise as it encourages hip, stifle and hock flexion. Try putting a raised pole on the way to the field or school so it does not take up any extra time and it becomes part of your daily routine.

Pilates Exercises:

These are effective when performed regularly, 3-5 times per week is ideal.

Backing up is an excellent exercise for strengthening the thoracic sling and flexor chain of muscles. This can also be performed under saddle but really the horse needs to do a minimum of 10 marching consecutive steps backwards with his head down to be truly effective.

Management Considerations:

Turn out on a variety of terrain and a hills if possible.

Photos from ‘How Your Horse Moves’ and ‘Pilates and Stretching for Horses

Copyright Gillian Higgins 2019



Wavendon Grange, Lawn Lane

Old Dalby, Melton Mowbray

LE14 3LW