A Program for Riding with Contact and Achieving Balance – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic

There are so many things to learn about horses and it is an endless pit of knowledge and practice. So where do you start? Once you have learned one thing, what do you look at next? …without getting entirely overwhelmed if at all possible. Something I love about the Parelli Program is the structure of the Levels when you are first learning them. It gives you a precise pathway that when completed gives you a set of very handy and useful skills and a way to communicate with your horse. Once you are playing in Level 4 and higher, you go through this stage of being a bit lost. All these years you had a plan, ready made for you and your horse, and all of the sudden you are required to think on your own, HA! It’s nice because you can now learn whatever you want to, but at the same time confusing, because there are a million things to choose from.

So what do you do? I decided I want to focus on riding Finesse because it is more complex than On Line, Liberty or Free Style. Ok so now you have narrowed it down to riding with contact (which does not mean you abandon the other savvys!), but do you do dressage, jumping, cross country, or something else? When you have picked something there you are again faced with the question: “Where do I start?”.

When Mikey was teaching the clinic this year, I was very conscious of my incompetence. I constantly had to ask myself “What do I do next?” and often found myself not knowing the answer. At the same time I could tell that he knew, because he would look at a horse and rider and know exactly what they needed to do. Yet he would tell people to do different things. Not everyone was doing the same thing first and second and third. That’s what it’s like when you are a good way through the levels. It’s a program to teach the human, not the horse. So when you get a horse to play with, you don’t start off with the Level 1 checklist. The mixing and matching and doing what the horse really needs can start once the human knows what they are doing.

So that was my question to Mikey in a theory session: “Is there a system to all this Finesse we are learning in the clinic that the human could cling on to for support when learning it the first time?” This was his answer…

A Program for Riding with Contact and Achieving Balance

  1. Install AidsStart with giving the mouth or waiting until the mouth is quiet depending on if your horse is too quiet or too loud with its mouth. Do this until you can give it a percentage where you can say you don’t have to worry about it. It doesn’t have to be perfect right away, just good enough for the horse to have understood and having it as an aid.
  2. Come Higher
    Coming Higher is second because it teaches the horse to come off the pressure of the bit and the reins.
  3. Bend laterally (both sides) at halt.
  4. Extend the neck in all three gaits.
  5. Come Higher for transitions.
  6. Come Higher for bending/flexion in motion
    Having this stage good, is what will give you the roundness later.
  7. Come Higher for laterals.
    (counter shoulder in, shoulder in, travers, renvers, half pass)
  8. Collection
    Strong horses don’t necessarily need a strong contact because they can carry the rider and themselves. Weaker horses (e.g. Arabs, etc.) need stronger contact to create the arc of tension. Strong and weak is in reference to build and muscling.


4 and 5, i.e. extending the neck and coming higher for transitions can be taught at the same time, since you are going to need transitions to go through the gaits to extend them.

How much activity of the mouth is enough and/or too much?

“The activity of the mouth is the window to the emotions [of the horse].” – Michael Wanzenried

If the horse gets more mouthy, it is getting more emotional. If there is too much movement in the mouth, you don’t need to drop the horse off the contact and go to FreeStyle. You just need to become less active. Stay at the walk, stay on a simple line (e.g. a circle) and become less active with the reins. If there is no movement at all, the horse is refusing to talk to you.

Development: First balance the horse fron to back, by extending and coming higher. Then balance the horse left and right through your laterals. If you have a horse that even after these exercises and the appropriate time still refuses to stretch, you can use the bend to get the stretch.

Bending becomes the horse’s responsibility once it’s installed well enough. That means if your horse knows to bend, and you go on a 10m circle, you shouldn’t have to use the reins to ask for the bend. The horse should recognise the 10m circle and to move in a balanced way, needs to put in the appropriate bend and keep it until the next bend is required.

Also: GAIT, LINE, FLEXION! So first get your gait right and the speed of gait without worrying about the line (meaning, pick a very simple one, either the rail or a 20m circle) or the flexion. Once you have the gait right, then practice your lines within that gait. Can you go from a circle to a straight line to another circle without loosing the quality of the gait? Once all of this good, then concern yourself with flexion. Of course, once all this Finesse riding is second nature to you, you can mix and match as the horse needs it, but for your learning stage this is a helpful guide in order to not overwhelm yourself and especially not your horse.

Throughout the week we talked about a lot of things. Here are two topics that I thought would go nicely with the program mentioned above.

The Ingredients for Flying Changes

  1. Walk, trot and canter extended.
  2. Come high for transitions.
  3. Bend and counter bend in all three gaits.
  4. Laterals on a straight line and a circle.
  5. Pick up canter and counter canter on a circle.
  6. Canter, change bend to outside, walk, change bend to inside, counter canter with inside bend.
  7. Eventually leave out the walk in step 6.


Laterals are usually ridden in a higher frame, but if you have a horse that refuses to stretch you can ride them in a longer frame. There are different opinions of where your weight should be when you ride them and where you should be looking. Here is what Mikey taught us.

To ride the laterals, your weight should be in the direction of travel.

Some examples to illustrate:

  1. Counter should in on the left rein on a straight line. Your weight should be to the left, because the horse is going left.
  2. Shoulder In on the left rein on a straight line. Your weight should be to the right, because the horse is going to the right.
  3. Shoulder In on the left rein on a circle. Your weight should be to the left, because you are going to the left.

When you first start your laterals in the trot it is often easier to start them whilst posting, in order not to get too tight or static in your seat. If you are posting whilst doing your laterals, you need to rise with the diagonal where you have placed your weight, i.e. the direction you are going in. Concerning where to look, Mikey taught us to do in your body what you want the horse to do in his, so look through his ears.

Add a comment below to share your perspective or ask a question now, especially if you took part in the Clinic! 🙂

Other posts from the Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic April 2017 | Ireland

  2. A PROGRAM FOR RIDING WITH CONTACT AND ACHIEVING BALANCE – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic (you are here)
  3. FOOD FOR THOUGHT – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic (coming soon)

One thought on “A Program for Riding with Contact and Achieving Balance – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic

Leave your comment below...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s