Self-carriage is a quality that results from correct basic work and gives lightness to the horse. A trained horse should be able to maintain self-carriage throughout his work, whereas a younger horse may only be in self-carriage for a few steps before losing balance and needing help from the rider to correct himself. Self-carriage is a combination of balance, strength, straightness and energy, maintained by the horse without intervention from the rider. Additionally the horse needs to be mentally calm and receptive, as a tense horse will be trying to escape the rider’s aids and therefore will not be in self carriage.
Developing self-carriage in your horse takes time, carefully working through simple exercises (ref Circles) makes your horse supple, improves their balance which leads to a straight horse, and this is where self-carriage begins. Once the horse is straight and has no weight in the shoulder, you can increase the impulsion which will elevate the forehand.
There is a lot of discussion around horses being in self-carriage but the rider must also have self-carriage. An unbalanced rider who uses the reins and grips with the legs to stay in the saddle will create and unbalanced tight horse. A correctly seated, balance rider is able to give clear aids to the horse and remain quietly with their horse when the horse has responded and is performing the movement. The ultimate test of self-carriage is “descent de mains”, where the rider simply opens the fingers, and the horse remains in the same posture, gait and cadence.
The pictures below show horses in self carriage (top row).
Below them are 3 more of the same horses when they have lost their self-carriage. (All the riders brought their horses into self-carriage again after the photos were taken.)
The first horse has fallen through his outside shoulder on a circle, he has lifted his head in order to regain his balance.
The bay horse has lost his balance on a straight line, he has dropped onto his shoulder and is leaning on the rider’s hands.
The last horse has come off the rider’s inside leg in travers, she has lost the bend and is pressing weight to the inside shoulder.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer