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Serpentines, new and improved

Published: 10/13/2015
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

There are many benefits to perfecting the serpentine, and many different kinds of serpentines for many different purposes. You can hardly get too good at it, and many disciplines espouse some variation of it.

The concept is a simple one: a straight line followed by a half circle, followed by another straight line and a half circle in the opposite direction. The benefits: improved bend, relaxation, straightness, suppleness, improved transitions, evenness through the body and improved lead changes, etc. Many of the masters will agree that this exercise, when done correctly, is very valuable.

The discussion of which aids to use is a little more confusing, though. Dressage riders learn to keep an inside leg at the girth for forward impulsion and an outside leg back to guard the haunches when turning. Riders of the traditional vaquero style often signal a turn with an outside leg forward, prompting the horse to turn away from the leg.

For many riders, the question of which aid is correct gets to be quite a debate. But for me, I think the most important part of this discussion is often missing: the seat aids. Over time, I've found with correctly timed seat aids, the whole “leg aid” question often falls away and many times becomes redundant.

I had been practicing serpentines for a long time, and some of my horses felt lighter and more balanced because of it, but there were a few who I could not straighten.

[Photo at right, a left turn]

My mare, Dee, especially, was crooked at the poll, tipping her nose in but outside ear down, so her ears were no longer level. I could “hold” her straight with my reins but always felt a brace in my inside rein.

My gelding, Geronimo, left his haunches in around a turn and he found my leg moving them over to be very offensive. Some of the best help I ever had on this subject was in a clinic with Brent Graef, where he had me move my tail bone over in time with Geronimo's inside hind. It worked like a charm, and my gelding's body and mind both softened as he gained better balance. I found the better and more even my seat was, and the better my timing, the less I used any leg aid at all.
[Photo at right, start of a right turn]

As for Dee, she straightened her poll when I stopped collapsing my inside ribcage and kept my shoulders level. It turned out with both horses not to be their problem at all, but mine.

Part II: Amy gets technical about improved serpentines.

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