Making the Heavy Horse Lighter

Working with the Heavy Horse

I’ve been working with a new horse since December. I picked up the ride on him after a friend of mine went out of town. She had Darius in full training, and asked if I would ride him for her while she spent the winter working for a trainer in California.  
He's got a cute face ...
You know me, I always leap at the chance to ride. Usually the horses I pick up for regular riding are true green beans. Of the recent few, one mare is an off the track thoroughbred who has spent the last three years chilling out in a field. Another is a young Shagya broodmare, complete with a few months of training undersaddle and an incredible suborn streak. Neither one really works on the “subtlety” and “timing” of my aids. They are fun, though, and have led to me again feeling comfortable on the backs of all different kinds of horses.

This new guy actually has some training, though. He competed some at Training and 1st with his adult amateur owner, and has shown 2nd with my friend. He’s attempted 3rd, but isn’t there yet (more on that to follow). He knows all of his lateral work, has changes installed, and is overall a solid citizen.

Sounds perfect, right?

One catch. Darius is ridiculously heavy. I mean … like, never actually executed a proper half halt kind of heavy. Like, makes your arms hurt kind of heavy. Like, pulls you out of the saddle kind of heavy. Like, how is his mouth not bleeding kind of heavy.

My friend and I have discussed how this horse is so heavy that he’ll go around the ring impersonating a wheelbarrow if you let him. His forehand will pound heavily into the ground, and his hind end will lighten up and trail around somewhere a mile behind him. He’ll try to convince you to hold him, and then slowly put more weight on your arms until you find yourself halfway out of the saddle and he’s managed to scoot out behind your seat aids.
Photographic evidence that a horse can canter with its hind legs somewhere in a different county.
He’s a sneaky. And conniving. And he hates working. (This is why 3rd level is a stretch for him. He is very good at avoiding engagement.)

He does love mud, though. Like really loves it.
So then you have me. A rider who’s dealt with a heavy horse exactly 3 other times in her life. I’m used to a horse so sensitive that if you pick up the reins too abruptly you’ll never touch their face for the rest of the ride. My own horse is so light that the rein lightly brushing the side of his neck is really all it takes to get him to move his shoulder over. Anything more is “shouting” at him, and he will take extreme offense. I’m used to a horse that half halts off the seat so easily, you can be left behind in the transition. He’s a horse for whom engagement is more about getting him to take the bit than getting him off of it.

Heavy horses. Not my forte.

So, I asked my trainer for a little advice before I started in with Darius. She’s seen him on many occasions, both with his owner’s trainer and a lot with my friend. She has some opinions on him (None of them great. I think I can say with certainty that she doesn’t like a horse who isn’t honest about work.), and some ideas to help me out. What she showed me is basically a half halt, with a rein release. It’s pretty cool, and we’ll get to it in a second…

First let’s talk about why horses can get so heavy. You would think leaning all that pressure on the bit would be uncomfortable, right? Well, a horse (or dog, or person even) easily becomes accustomed to regular pressure, and will lean into it. This means contact has stopped becoming the lively communication link between you and your horse, and has instead become a leaden weight to lean against. Somewhere the pressure stopped being lively and started being dead.

I like to compare this phenomenon to sitting next to someone on a crowded bus or plane. Next to you is a stranger, and you don’t want to touch them, but space is limited and it’s impossible to avoid them. Let’s say the person next to you is a little old lady (probably with fluffy blue hair, and pictures of adorable grandchildren). She gets tired about halfway through the journey and starts falling asleep. Of course, in close quarters, that means she falls asleep on you. This process happens slowly. First she starts slumping her weight onto your shoulder. At first you’re aware of it, but after a few minutes she is totally zonked out and you don’t even really notice. In fact, you find yourself leaning into her weight to keep yourself upright and balanced in your seat.

This is sort of what happens with a heavy horse. When they get heavy you are both leaning against each other, propping each other up. Now, think back to that sleeping old lady. What if she started twitching in her sleep? I’m not talking seizure level, but just your run of the mill sleep-twitches. As she started taking her weight off you in little twitches, I bet you would stop leaning into her. You would probably sit up straighter under your own power, and smile back at the understanding lady sitting across the aisle.

Same thing with a heavy horse. Without the weight to lean against, the horse can’t be heavy. There’s nothing to lean on.

So, how do we reproduce this reaction? First, we need to solidify our seat. Lightening up a heavy horse is 99% going to be about solidifying your position and not ever giving it up. A horse might be heavy for a lot of reasons, but by being heavy he is lightening your seat and escaping your aids for sitting and engaging. That’s a big evasion and it can’t happen. A disengaged horse is going to have a very hard time getting off your hands.

Solidify your position:

1.       Now that you’re thinking about your seat, focus on getting it deeper. Open up the front of your hip and lengthen your hip flexors and your legs. Drape your legs on your horse, with the calves on. Keep the front of your hips as open as possible to allow the horse to move forward. At the same time, find both seat bones and feel how they are following the horse’s movement. Is one weighted more than the other? Fix it. Get both evenly in contact with the saddle.

2.       Stretch up with your upper body. We all have our individual faults here. Mine is slumping my back just under my shoulder blades. I think about being pulled up by the strap of my sports bra, and that helps me lift up without bracing my back. Bracing is going to be counterproductive here, so learn to stretch up without tightening everything to hold you there. (Think mountain pose in yoga.)

3.       Slide your shoulder blades down your back. This is going to stabilize your back, arms, and contact, plus it will keep your upper body more open. Keeping your shoulder blades down will also put your shoulders back, without forcing them there. Again, you don’t want to be tight and bracing. That’s going to effect your balance and your contact. If you have a problem getting yourself into this position without bracing, practice until you can manage it in a relaxed way. A heavy horse is going to constantly challenge your seat and upper body position. You’re going to want to make this position second nature.

4.       Arms and hands should be held just the way you normally would: Elbows bent and back, hands carried so that the bit is lifted and lively in the mouth, not lowered and acting on the bars, or fixed and tense. (No hands down, guys!)

Take away the pressure:

1.       Without losing your position, gently break your horse’s hold by giving him nothing to hold on to momentarily. You’re going to do this by quickly shooting your hands out and “dropping” the contact for a quick moment. I usually slide my elbows forward to gap the reins for a half second, then bring my elbows right back to where they were.

2.       Put your leg on when you “drop” the contact, to encourage the horse to step under himself and into self-carriage. Otherwise, he might just flop onto his forehand and become even heavier. Your goal is to keep him moving in balance.

3.       Keep your seat deep during the whole thing, and do not round your shoulders or lean forward. Remember how we found those seatbones earlier? Make sure you feel them through this whole movement. If you lighten your seat, you’re going to give your horse an escape route and he won’t have to sit and lift himself up.

4.       When your hands come back, continue along as normal. If your horse isn’t improved, try again in a few strides. If your horse lightens up immediately, awesome! Stay vigilant, because he will probably slowly get heavy again, and you’re most likely going to have to repeat this process a few times.

5.       You’ll know you’re on the right track when you notice your horse lifting up his withers (you can both see and feel this), and getting more powerful without getting faster. The pressure on your hands will also get lighter. Try to keep your seat powerful when you feel this (that might be hard the first few times!).
Cute face to break up this wall of text....

·       Your horse’s initial reaction to this might be to rush. Keep your seat down, and half halt with it. Don’t be afraid to rate him back to an acceptable speed and try the whole thing over again. Your eventual goal is to get your horse to come up not rush forward.

·       Don’t exaggerate your hand movement. You don’t want to scare your horse off of contact, or make him unstable. The action is quick, but subtle. You just want to liven up the contact enough that it breaks your horse’s hold on it. Your legs will do the rest of the work.

·       If you feel like you’re getting frustrated or nothing is happening, take a break. Make sure you don’t take that frustration out on your horse’s mouth.

·       You won’t get a horse off the forehand with your hands. You have to use your legs and seat to encourage your horse to step further under himself and engage his back and abs to lift himself up. This is why I emphasized solidifying your seat.

·       All you are doing with your hands is taking away the stable pressure your horse is leaning on. Remember, he can’t lean if there is nothing there to lean against. Don’t be a passive partner in your horse’s heavy contact!

This method has gone a long way into helping Mr. Darius be much lighter in my hand. My back, abs, and arms much appreciate. Honestly, he wasn’t happy about the whole process. Having to step up and use his back is way harder for him than plowing around like a wheelbarrow. Poor guy. I have zero sympathy…

Do any of you struggle with horse’s heavy in the contact and heavy on the forehand? Ever tried anything similar to this?


  1. LOVED this post! Thank you! Dino can get heavy in my hand sometimes, and I have successfully used a Waterford as a 'tune-up' bit to help with that, but this is a great step-by-step guide for a different method.

    1. A different bit can definitely help. I like to be able to do it in a snaffle, but sometimes it's just not possible.

  2. Great advice! Gina gets heavy sometimes; I am a big fan of dropping the contact. It's always worked well for me!

    1. Glad to hear someone else has luck with it!

  3. GREAT overview. Tristan is insanely, amazingly heavy just as you describe - partly conformation, partly way of going. It's been the work of years in my unskilled hands to help him progress. I'll keep thinking about what you describe here in my next ride!

    1. Conformation can work against you in so many ways! I rode a mare today who's conformation really makes it hard for her to pick up her head and neck. It can be sooooo frustrating, and take soooo much seat!

  4. Fiction is very, very heavy. I find it interesting because he is such a sensitive horse, but when he sets his mind to it he can be completely dead to my hands. I actually have been attempting the above lately with little success - he prefers to run away rather than work. Adding poles has seemed to help diminish the speeding but I can tell it is going to be a long process. By the end of heavy rides my entire body hurts - especially my arms/shoulders/abs. It is definitely difficult, though I honestly don't believe Fiction does it to evade work - I just think he doesn't know any better, which is why we've really started to work on lightening him up on the forehand and getting him to use his hind end.

  5. Ugh hate heavy horses. I'm working with two right now. One is light when I get on so it's for sure a rider problem (rider gets stuck in elbows and doesn't follow, horse turns into bulldozer) and one who is for sure a VERY heavy horse since she goes right through me.

    I always turn to lateral work and active collected work (for young horses, slow trot, for older horses, school canter and half steps). I've never had a TON of luck with not giving them something to lean on as the only way to get them light. I find that they just find other ways of evading because typically they are heavy because they're lazy- lazy as in not wanting to work hard, not lazy as in slow to respond to the leg. The mare is becoming lighter with a combination of LOTS of shoulder-in to renvers, implementing the school canter and half steps/slow trot, and not giving her anything to lean on. Getting much better now!

    1. Megan, there's so much truth in what you posted! Shoulder in is one of my favorite exercises to lighten up the front end. SO useful!! :)

  6. great post - very useful to think about all the little positional details all the time. that's pretty much my priority right now: if things aren't going to plan, i sit back and assess my own seat and back and arms etc. trying to make that a habit!

    1. It's a great habit, and one I'm definitely in. Even if I'm slow to realize what I'm screwing up... :)

  7. Darius looks so much like my horse Miles! Of course, that means I'm in love <3

    1. Omigosh! He does!! I didn't even realize that till you pointed it out! :)

  8. Speedy would like be either heavy, or avoid the contact all together. I have found that by simply sitting tall (which makes me stronger in my core and back) and being consistent has done a lot to fix things, especially lately. Speedy is sneaky about it though. If i am not careful, he'll slowly and gently root his way down to having me hold him up. Now that I am onto him, it doesn't happen very often. It's only when i ride a different horse that I realize how light my own horse actually is. ;0)

    1. The mare I rode in FL was like that. If you slacked, she would take total advantage of you! I think horses like that are such great teachers!!

  9. Was given similar advice when I ran into trouble with Nancy leaning on my hands, remove resistance add leg and she either had to learn to carry herself or fall flat on her face. She no longer leans on my hands - possibly has something more to do with my using more leg and hanging off her face less. Horses always tell us what we are doing wrong - trick is understanding. Sadly I struggle with communication *blush *

    1. True. I call Guinness "my little snitch" since he tells on my riding faults so badly. :)

      The pulling cycle is so hard to break, so serious kudos for getting through it with Ms. Kika!!


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