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How To Work Your Horse In An Outline

Today’s blog will attempt to answer the number one question and request I get from my grass routes clients - “How can I work my horse in an outline?” It’s also one of the most difficult things to teach correctly.


‘On the bit’ and ‘in an outline’ are generally terms that all mean the same thing. The aim is for the horse to be working forward into the contact with his quarters engaged and hind legs stepping up and under so that the horse can carry himself and his rider correctly. This gives the impression of the horse’s neck being arched and the head being vertical to the ground. Crucially however, what is important is that the horse’s back and hind quarters are actively engaged and supple and that you’re not simply creating a tilt at the pole which can cause all sorts of tension and discomfort. For me, I like to use the term ‘riding up into the contact’ as I feel it better describes what we’re trying to achieve - lightness and connectivity from the back and hind quarters.


The main purpose of riding up into the contact is to strengthen your horse by developing the muscles along his top line as well as his core muscles. It means his muscles are better able to support himself and his rider and takes the strain off his skeletal frame and joints. From a rider’s perspective, riding a horse correctly balanced in the rein makes for a lovely ride with the horse light in your hand and a nice relaxed supple back to sit on.


First and foremost you need your horse to be ‘off the leg’ so when you apply the leg aid to go forward, your horse reacts and stays there until you ask otherwise. You also need to provide a sympathetic but consistent and even contact for your horse to work up to.

There are many exercises you can ride in the arena which will help engage your horses’ back and create energy that propels him forward into the contact. Some exercises work better for some horses more than others and the trick is to have a few up your sleeve to try and see which gives you the best result. Here are two to get you started…..

1. On and Off - One of my go-to exercises with any horse and rider combination is riding correct transitions between paces and within them. By staying conscious of your position, balance and contact and pushing forward into the transition, horses will start to step underneath themselves, lift their backs and round into the contact. Start in trot and establish a regular rhythm, off the leg and into an even contact. On the short side of the arena, ask your horse to shorten the trot not by pulling on the reins but by engaging your core muscles and sitting up, reducing your rising and applying a little lower leg to support your horse in the collection. Once your turn the corner and you’re straight on the long side, give a half-halt to indicate something new is coming then allow the horse to ‘travel’ a little by allowing your hand to push forward towards the bit and offering encouragement from a little pressure from your leg. As you prepare to shorten again on the short side, give a half-halt and repeat the exercise. Using this exercise progressively and over time, this exercise will certainly help with your contact and your horse’s balance. You can do this exercise in any pace - play around with it and see which your horse prefers. Normally, it’s easiest in trot but I have a horse who's much happier in the canter so I started with that first.

2. In and Out - Another really useful exercise to try is working in and out of a circle. Imagining there’s a spot in the middle of the arena, start on a 20 metre circle in trot around it, trying to maintain equal distance from the ‘spot’ at all times. Be conscious of your position - are you sitting straight? Are your hands even? Then think about your horse’s reactions to your aids - is he responding to your leg and moving forward when you ask? Once you’ve established a consistent 20 metre circle in a regular rhythm with horse off your leg, use your outside leg to slowly start making the circle smaller to about 10 metres diameter, all the time checking to make sure you’re straight, horse horse stays straight on the curve of the circle and that the distance between you and the ‘spot’ remains the same on all corners of the circle. Balance your trot on the 10 metre circle, then use your inside leg to push back out to the 20 metre circle.


It should go without saying that see-sawing at your horses’ mouth with the rein or strapping his head down with a bungee or draw-reins, are not the way to train your horse to correctly work up and into the contact. Rather than creating a soft and comfortable contact and a relaxed and supple back, resorting to these ‘techniques’ does quite the opposite. It may appear to the uneducated eye that that horse is ‘on the bit’ but in reality they are just tilting at the poll, not engaging the hind end, and holding themselves with tension all the way down their neck and top line.


When learning to ride your horse into the contact here are a few take away suggestions…

Have knowledgeable eyes on the ground from a good instructor or experienced rider

Think about riding your horse up to the contact rather than pulling them back into the contact

Try different exercises to see what gets you the best results - every horse is different

If you’re having difficulty in walk, try it in trot - a horse’s head doesn’t nod as much in trot

Always think, ‘am I straight?’ “is my horse straight and off my leg?’ ‘is my contact even?’

Try not to become frustrated if you can’t make it ‘work’ straight away - there’s no exact formula for this and what works for one horse, won’t for another. It’s about developing a ‘feel’ as a rider and a skill you develop over time.

It’s worth noting here that the process of teaching a horse to accept and round into a contact for the first time is a separate process altogether and one we may cover in another blog another time.

I hope that’s been useful - please let me know if you have any questions.

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