Struggling to work your horse correctly over his topline? 4 exercises to help

  • Having your horse working correctly in an outline, by engaging their core while stretching softly forwards into the rider’s hand to produce a good topline, is a common goal when schooling. To achieve this the horse must be working forward into a consistent contact, with their core muscles engaged and the hind legs stepping under, so the horse is able to carry their own weight and that of their rider without falling on to the forehand.

    If you are looking for further training and schooling ideas, why not sign up to Horse & Hound’s eight-week e-training plan to give your training focus and perfect your flatwork basics? Find out what is involved here.

    4 simple exercises to help your horse work in an outline

    Gary Parsonage, event rider

    1. Spiral in and out

    Why: This is a simple exercise designed to get a horse working in a basic outline while working freely forward in a happy frame of mind. The exercise engages the hind leg whilst keeping the horse forward to the contact, resulting in self carriage and showing the horse a more comfortable outline in which to carry himself and his rider.


    1. Place a cone in the centre of an area large enough to comfortably circle around on the horse. Begin in walk and circle around the cone, working to stay equidistant at all points. Start at around 20m from the cone.

    2. Once in a happy, balanced shape, start to spiral in towards the cone. Aim to find the optimum minimum size circle the horse is comfortable with (this could be anything from 3-15m from the cone) — stay on this circle for a couple of rotations.

    3. Using an on-off pressure with the inside leg, in time with the rhythm of the pace, ask the horse to begin spiralling back out to 20m again. This exercise can be repeated in trot and canter as the horse develops physically and mentally.

    2. Transitions within a pace

    Why: To develop and test the subtle connection between leg and hand and control of impulsion, a great ‘go to’ exercise for absolutely any level of training is transitions within a pace. Lightness of aid, both in leg and hand, is a goal to be aimed for as an end result of each training session.


    1. In trot, slow the pace down for a few strides (outline and contact should remain consistent) then ask the horse to step forward to a bigger trot again, maintaining the same outline and contact.

    2. As the horse gains confidence with the exercise the amount of slower and bigger steps can be increased to show a greater contrast and expression. This can also be thought of as turning the volume up and down within the pace.

    3. The horse should remain in front of the leg at all stages of the exercise, as speed of pace is too easily, and often confused with, being in front of the leg. To help the horse focus less on the hand, the rider should always try to use their position and upper body to give a hint that a transition is about to happen. In doing so the horse is calm and prepared in himself for the next phase. Core strength here is a big advantage for the rider.

    Katie Jerram, showing producer (pictured top)

    3. Lateral work

    Why: This is one I use quite a lot both when teaching and when riding myself; it gets the horse around your hand and leg and it teaches him to accept the aids — both essential if you are to achieve the correct outline. It also gives the rider the necessary control; I often use two schooling whips for this exercise — I don’t tend to use spurs as I am preparing horses to be ridden by a judge who won’t be wearing them, and two whips help back the leg aids up. If the horse doesn’t respond to the leg aid, use a touch from the whip on the quarters to reinforce the aid.


    1. Start in walk and, using the hand and leg individually to give the aid, ask the horse to come off the track 5m; he should be stepping across in front and behind.

    2. Once he completes the lateral movement, ask him forward on the new line for four steps, before asking him to move back laterally to the original track. This can be repeated until the horse learns to engage the hind leg correctly and carry himself in the desired outline.

    3. Once ready, move the horse on to doing the exercise in a controlled working trot.

    Continued below…

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    4. Trot poles

    Why: I use quite a lot of trot poles when exercising; these give your horse a bit more variety in its training and a break from flat work. Trot poles encourage more length of stride, elastic steps and connection from behind to help the horse come into the correct outline.


    1. Start with one pole in walk, moving up to two poles, five ‘heel to toe’ steps apart. Move the horse up into trot then increase the number of poles up to six or seven. You can then increase the distance between the third to last poles to encourage your horse to start to open his stride out.

    2. Always ride for the centre of the pole; I like to sit to the trot to balance over the first pole then, through my leg and seat, put the pressure on a bit harder to open him out. Make sure when you ask for this that your horse doesn’t run on the forehand; if he does, check him back and keep doing this until he sits up into his work.

    3. To improve cadence and hock action, you can move onto raised trot poles, but ensure you reduce the distance between each pole back to five ‘heel to toe’ steps apart.

    As when starting any training, make sure the horse’s teeth, back and tack are not impeding progress.

    Now you have some techniques to help improve your horse’s outline, why not sign up to Horse & Hound’s eight-week e-training plan to give your training focus and perfect your flatwork basics?

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