There are certainly other phrases of three words that I don’t care for, but “make him round” makes my top ten list.

It’s a popular instruction to a rider whose horse has his head above the vertical — horrors! — and who seems stiff or hollow in the back.

Let me preface by saying that I have nothing against helping a horse to relax over his topline and stretch into the contact.  Unfortunately, that’s not usually the meaning of “make him round,” which is the dressage trainer’s answer to the hunter-jumper trainer’s equally misguided “put your horse in a frame.”

The command to “make him round” ignores both the why and the how — why is the horse not round?  And, if you try to make him round, how do you do it? Beyond that, there is an additional why — why would you want the horse to be round?  And beyond that, how round is round?

Let’s look first at why the horse isn’t round.  There’s a reason.  There may be many reasons.

Has anyone checked saddle fit?  Recently?

Is the horse in the proper bit?  A bit that fits and is comfortable?  Or was the bit chosen because it’s the bit du jour (for dressage horses, that would be a KK Ultra).  Has anyone ever looked in the horse’s mouth to see what bit might fit?  Has anyone tried more than one bit to see what the horse responds to and goes well in (without a flash noseband, I might add)?

Is the horse sore somewhere?  Has anyone put their hands on the horse to feel where there might be a tenderness or touchiness?  How’s the horse’s lateral flexibility?  Are specific exercises or massage or other forms of bodywork in order?  Or would a visit from the vet be more appropriate?

How are the rider’s hands?  Does the rider pull?  Many (dare I say, most) riders today pull all the time and are completely unaware of doing so.  Likely because they’ve never been taught otherwise.

How is the rider’s seat?  Is it balanced?  Does it respect the horse’s back, which is after all, at issue here?  Does the rider come down harder than necessary when mounting?  When posting?  Is there a bounce-bang at the canter?

Is the horse using his hindquarters?  Is he forward?  Or is he mincing around, with a wobble around the stifle, in a parody of a collected trot?

I’ve got a secret for you:  Get the horse forward, build up the propulsive strength in the hindquarters, have giving hands, and your horse will make himself round.

The fact is that if your horse is weak and stiff and if your hands aren’t giving, and you still want him to be a pretty picture — that exalted round — your only option is to fake it.  Sure, you can make him round.  Just pull on your horse’s head with low hands while using stronger driving aids.  Voila!

Unfortunately, this solution has everything to do with force, and nothing to do with skill.  Precipitous longitudinal flexion won’t give you a good mouth, a happy horse or teach you to be a good rider or a better horseman.

Here’s what will:  If your horse is stiff or hollow in his back, and above the bit (not above the vertical), run through all the possible reasons why, so you make sure there’s not a physical reason or a reaction to the wrong tack.  Then work on your equitation.  Get your horse working from behind.  Always, always have giving hands.  And one day, your horse will give you the roundness you’re after.

Which brings me to the last two questions:  Why would you want your horse to be round?  And how round is round?  

Here are my answers:  You don’t really want your horse to be round (all popular comparisons to a beach ball aside).  What you want is this:  a horse in self-carriage, who can carry you.  A horse who looks proud, with the poll the highest point, withers high, shoulders free and expressive, hind end engaged, back strong and supple.

It is not roundness but rather elevation that you seek.

Anyway, how do you feel when someone makes you do something?

I thought so.  

Well, so does your horse.