View Full Version : Horse suddenly "heavy"

Mar. 25, 2010, 12:10 AM
Hi Dressage forum regulars,

As a H/J and sometimes eventing rider, I don't come over here too often, but I'm hoping you guys will have the best insight into my current issue. My trainer has been out of town for a few weeks, so I've been riding unsupervised. My horse is a big, long guy, but very well balanced, nicely broke and rarely heavy or stiff. I usually ride him with pretty light contact, and although it's hard for me to "put him together", he is at least light and soft.

However, over the past three weeks, he's become increasingly more downhill, stiff, and heavy. There are two potential issues. I've been having some else (another ammy in my barn) ride him a couple days a week while my trainer is gone. I guess it's possible that she's having that affect on him. I know I can usually feel the difference that different riders make on a horse.

The second concurrent issue is a change in my own riding. I had a great dressage lesson with a visiting trainer right before my regular trainer left. With her help I got a great feeling for getting him round and really stepping under himself. His gaits felt active and bouncy and he was light not heavy.

However, I'm worried that in my effort to duplicate that progress "unsupervised" I'm screwing something up. Too much leg and hand applied with poor timing? Am I driving him onto his forehand? Is this a common problem? Maybe this is why my regular trainer (eventing trainer with very solid dressage, so nose-poked out, hunter way of going is not the baseline) is not pushing us for more roundness and engagement because she knows I'm just going to mess it up!


Mar. 25, 2010, 04:54 AM
It is hard to say what it is without seeing it. Horses getting heavy in the hand, leaning on the contact, refusing to hold up their own head, is a common evasion that usually happens around the time you start asking them for more self carriage, more collection, etc....a growing pain. If it's that, it needs to be dealt with so that it doesn't become persistent. There are many ways to deal with it, but I've found doing tons and tons of transitions to strengthen the hind end, so that the horse CAN carry more weight behind helps, as well as correcting the horse (I use halt and one step of reinback to get him to shift his weight back again). I also do like shoulder in and shoulder fore and transitions between shoulder in and renvers, which helps to mobilize the hind legs. Dressage is a process and it involves both the physical and the mental and you kind of have to look at both when you address an issue.

Horses can also be heavy and lean on the forehand when they are ridden incorrectly--it can be a response to front to back riding. It could also be that he is physically sore. That's why it's hard to say what the reason is.

Mar. 25, 2010, 07:29 AM
I have been going through the same thing.. I have worked with a top notch eventer for the past few months but she does ride with a light contact but not really asking much from the hindend.. I do have prior dressage experience and know that back to front, engagement and acceptance of the bit are extremely important.. I took a few lessons from a BNT and wow...I decided to ride "my" way and I can only say it was not easy.. Of course it is much more work for my horse and he resents having to use his hiney but after a few weeks....I got "that feeling"...lightness, acceptance, back to front.. Of course there are moments he gets tense and we loose it all.. Canter for one as he likes being on the forehand now.. Once he builds up the correct muscles, it will all get easier.. I agree with the transitions, lateral work, legyield at the wall..turn on the haunches.. Backing also engages the hindquarters..

Good luck!!:D

Mar. 25, 2010, 10:43 AM
I agree that it is most likely growing pains. You do want to note if it appears his back is sore - my guy was out of work for 5 months before I got him a few weeks ago, so to some extent he's doing the same thing. You of course want to make sure there is no physical pain causing him to misbehave, but when you ask a horse to round and use its hind end and back more, it will often attempt to lean on you as if to say "this is hard, YOU do it!" I would do a lot of transitions, transitions within your gates, and alternate between asking for rounding and asking your horse to stretch. Bend a lot and make sure you keep that suppleness, because sometimes asking for more roundness and engagement can make the horse tense up and lose the suppleness.

Mar. 25, 2010, 11:01 AM
I wanted to mention that a good book to read is Carl Hester's "Down to Earth Dressage". In the book, he talks of doing 100s and 100s of transitions in each riding session. It quite literally took doing this for two YEARS to get my horse to develop the collection necessary from first level to third level. Most people underestimate the # of transitions you need to do to strengthen the horse, but anyone who has done a competitive sport where they have to strengthen their own body knows how much training is involved--it's tough. When you want to move beyond 3rd level, the kinds of gymnastics and strength building exercises you do are more complicated, but always involve 100s and 100s of transitions.

Depending on what you are working on, you focus on certain qualities of the transitions. In your case, if the horse is leaning, then you want to focus on making sure the horse is accepting the bit all the way through the transition and that they are coming back and going forward from the hind legs.

Mar. 25, 2010, 11:12 AM
Sometimes people use "Dressage" for a lesson or two and then keep a shorter length in rein to try and create what they think is "rounder'.

Unfortunately without supervision to keep you soft, long, and using your aids to keep him soft and round, your going to probably have just that... A short rein. He will inevitably pull, and then you will tighten and then voila!

Heavy stiff horse.

Without help, I would say to not think anymore of "round", but use a longer rein with lots of change in transitions and ride him from the rear thinking "rear".

Hope this helps!

Mar. 25, 2010, 12:54 PM
Put this idea somewhere in the back of your mind:

For my middle-aged, "knows better" gelding, getting heavy was the first sign that his hocks would need help.

Getting heavy in front is almost always a hind end problem, as other people have posted. Horses still quite sound and willing will sometimes subtly cheat this way if they are starting to get uncomfortable behind.

Mar. 25, 2010, 01:08 PM
You mentioned it might be you - so try this:
1. Bend (slightly) outside/inside to mobilze jaw then squeeze legs. Horse shouldgo forward into reins - soften a bit as a reward.

If that doesn't work a very quick uptick on inside (or heavier) rein when horse gets heavy. Horse will pop head up after that so just resume normal soft contact to reward horse for getting off the hand.

Mar. 25, 2010, 11:31 PM
Thanks everyone! There is so much excellent, thoughtful advice here. I think definitely yes to what you said NOMI as probably one piece of what's going on:

"Sometimes people use "Dressage" for a lesson or two and then keep a shorter length in rein to try and create what they think is "rounder'.

Unfortunately without supervision to keep you soft, long, and using your aids to keep him soft and round, your going to probably have just that... A short rein. He will inevitably pull, and then you will tighten and then voila!"

Also, and I don't know why I do this, but when riding unsupervised I have a tendency to keep trying to correct something while staying in the gait doing the same thing, rather than switching it up by doing transitions, lateral exercises, etc. So that's a very helpful suggestion for future rides....even though I should know better.

Also, mvp, we have not done anything with his hocks yet, but are approaching the age and mileage where I need to pay attention, so thanks for that reminder. I think the timing of this current development, indicates a relationship with my riding (and possibly the other temp rider, who probably has similar bad habits to mine!). But it's an important point nonetheless.

Mar. 26, 2010, 10:16 AM
When I have nobody working with me, I make sure that I pet with that inside hand often to make sure Im not gripping my inside bend for dear life :)

Another, is I change tempo every five strides or so, not so as somone on the rail could see, but so I can FEEL that he half halted from my seat.

The discipline needed for dressage is ongoing, so having a person there to help you be accountable is the best thing to do. IF you cant, then try and do a re-run of your lesson in your head while you are riding. What did the trainer tell you the most?

I have the same problem about mid week after a lesson, I ride very short and "demand" things of my horse, instead of asking and partnering with him.

Some days, I have to just back off and relax, relax, RELAX.