A Centre Line Exercise

At the moment I’m focusing on Phoenix’s canter, in particular stopping her hindquarters drifting out on the canter transitions, so earlier this week we used a centre line exercise to help improve the strength of her hindlegs, balance and straightness. It’s an exercise which is harder than it looks, so build it up slowly.

Canter is an asymmetric gait, being three beat, which can lead to horses becoming crooked in the canter, or relying on the fence line to prop them up. Cantering a straight line down either the three quarter lines or the centre line, will show you if your horse is crooked or relies on the fence. If they’re crooked, you’ll drift off the line and if they rely on the fence, then the quality of the canter will decrease and they’ll fall into trot. In order to be able to use this centre line exercise to full effect, it’s worth perfecting cantering straight lines in a consistent rhythm on both reins first.

When cantering the outside hindleg is the propulsion leg, yet in trot the inside hind is the propulsion limb. Which is a reason why it’s quite difficult for horses to ride rapid sequences of trot and canter transitions; they’re having to change their propulsion leg and change their balance between left and right, which utilises their abdominals and tests their balance.

Bearing this fact in mind, you should start to understand how the following exercise helps improve the canter transitions and impulsion in the canter.

On the right rein, pick up right canter and then turn down the centre line at A. Between D and X, circle right. If you’re unlucky enough to have a 20x40m school this is a harder element than in a wider school because your circles are smaller. Maximise your space on this circle to help keep your horse as balanced as possible.

After the circle ride a few straight strides of canter. After X ride a transition to trot – without wobbling off the centre line – and before G ride a ten metre circle left. This circle needs to be smaller than the canter circle in order to be effective. At C, track right.

So, in right canter the left hind leg is the propulsive limb, so if a horse is a bit crooked in the canter, or slightly on the forehand than they will lose the energy from the left hindleg in the downwards transition – it won’t be as an efficient propulsive – and find it difficult to trot a left circle, where that limb is on the inside and propelling then forwards. The exercise improves the straightness in the canter, keeps that hindlimb engaged throughout, and so improves the quality of the gaits.

Ride the exercise a few times on each rein, and you should start to feel the difference in the upwards transition because the horse’s propulsive limb is acting towards their centre of gravity and they are straighter. So long as they stay straighter, and stronger in the canter they will be able to make the transition to trot and stay balanced on the trot circle, which can get progressively closer to the downwards transition to become more of a balance test.

I could feel Phoenix thinking, and staying much more with me in the downward transition, being less inclined to drop slightly onto her forehand, and she definitely stayed a bit straighter when I went up to canter. Interestingly, I did this exercise with a much more established horse a couple of days later and he really struggled. He’s a big moving horse, and tends to drift through his outside shoulder in canter and avoids stepping under with his hindlegs so throws himself into a big trot on the forehand in the downwards transition and so finds it difficult to circle almost immediately, and ends up falling in. I’ll be taking it back a step with him this week to improve the basics before putting this exercise back together again.

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A Scale of 1 to 10

I’ve been playing around with transitions within the gaits recently, to improve my riders’ feel, to increase the subtlety of their aids, to improve the balance of their horse and the quality of the gait, and to focus the horse on its rider.

It’s quite a useful warm up exercise so once you’ve loosened up horse and rider, settled their brains and they’ve settled into a trot rhythm, you can begin. It’s equally useful in the canter work too.

The trot a horse and rider are currently in is gauged as a 5. It’s important that the horse’s natural, or most comfortable stride length is in the middle of the scale. Which means that you can’t really compare the 5 trot of one horse, with the 5 trot of another. Especially if they are at different levels of training, as they have different levels of strength and balance. This also means that the 5 trot for one horse will change over time, as they get stronger and are more able to take their weight onto their hindquarters so the trot will naturally collect and become more elevated.

Anyway, I digress. I tell my riders that they need to think of their trot as a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being Valegro’s piaffe and 10 being Totilas’ extended trot. And no, spellcheck I did not mean the extended trot belonging to a tortilla…

Obviously none of the horses I teach are capable of a 1 trot or a 10 trot, but having a picture of the two extremes can really help a rider understand the exercise and its aims.

So, from their 5 trot, I ask the rider to try and create a smaller trot; a 4 trot. Depending on the level of rider and horse, their 4 trot may only be minutely more collected than their 5 trot, or it may be a significant change. They may only be able to maintain their 4 trot for two strides, or I might expect them to hold it for the length of the long side of the arena. Once the transitions between a 4 trot and a 5 trot have become fluid and subtle, we move on to transitioning between a 5 trot and a 6 trot. Again, only adjusting the horse’s trot within his capabilities, and only maintaining it for as long as he is able. When established, the fun begins and we play around between the three numbers of trot.

Because we’re talking about a sliding scale of trot, it then becomes easy for me to direct the rider. For example, “let’s see some 6 trot down the long side … back to 5 … how about a 4 trot on a 20m circle…”. Within a short space of time we can work through dozens of transitions because numbers are so quick to say and easily comprehended.

I can then begin to help them with their understanding of the various trots – collected, working, medium and extended. For example, if they haven’t really lengthened the trot strides into a 6 trot, a lot of people understand the line “ooh that’s only a 5.5, can you squeeze him all the way into the 6 trot?” rather than a description of stride length, cadence and tracking up. And when they’re more accomplished at this exercise and we’re moving towards Novice level dressage, we can utilise the 3 and 7 trots on our scale and we can then label a 7 trot as medium trot.

I find that using this scale of trots improves a rider’s feel for their horse’s balance, and encourages them to ride progressively between the various trots. In Novice level, the judge is looking for a progressive transition from working trot into lengthened strides. At Elementary level, the transition from working to medium need to be more direct. So with a Novice horse and rider, we’d think of riding from a 5 trot, into a 6 trot for a couple of strides, and then into a 7 trot, before back to a 6 trot and then a 5 trot at the end of the movement. With an Elementary horse, we’d be aiming to ride from a 5 trot straight into a 7 trot and back again. We can also use this theory for their canter work, and then with the Elementary horse, the collected gaits.

When riding transitions within the gaits, riders suddenly have to become more discreet and subtle with their aids so that they don’t unbalance their horse, or ride into a different gait. To shorten their trot, they need to begin to use their seat and not rely so much on the rein half halt as that is too strong and they risk falling into walk. The rider also becomes more aware of the need to apply some leg, even in a downward transition. To lengthen the gait, the rider becomes more aware of the need to maintain a steady rein contact when applying the leg and seat to push the horse on. Overall, I find riding micro transitions refines a rider’s aids, and the horse becomes more attuned to them so is more responsive. Along with improving their feel for maintaining the tempo, the rider becomes more aware of the activity in the hindquarters, and of their horse’s balance, both in their ability to maintain that particular trot and their weight distribution between hindquarters and forehand. This leads to an unconsciously ridden, better quality working trot.

Improving Joint Stability

Remember I went to the Horses Inside Out conference in September? I’ve recently used yet another exercise that I picked up from that informative day, to help improve stability and flexibility.

At the conference, we learnt that whilst it’s important to improve the flexibility of our horses it’s also important to consider joint stability. If we only focus on our horse’s suppleness in one direction then the joints lose stability because the muscles around the joint in the other directions are weaker, which makes the horse more prone to injury from hyperflexion.

By working horses in a variety of ways and directions we improve the strength and range of movement of their limbs. Lateral work is perhaps the most obvious way of increasing a joint’s range of movement.

In the horse’s legs, it is only the shoulder and hip joints which are capable of adduction and abduction of the limbs, so this is the area of focus in lateral work.

The idea of this exercise, which can be done ridden or inhand, is for the horse to move their legs forwards and sideways with each stride. Having a pole to negotiate ensures each foot is moved cleanly. For the horse to abduct a limb it requires balance, and core stability. A bit like the balance exercises we do in Pilates. This week we did one which involves standing on one leg and sending opposite hand and foot diagonally out, akin to doing the jive. With our eyes closed! But it hurts the outside of your thighs!

Lay out a line of three or four poles, end to end in the middle of the arena. Walk your horse towards the end of the first pole, so that the pole is on their left. Then ask your horse to walk forwards and to the left so that their left foreleg steps over the pole first. Their left hindleg is the first of the hindlimbs to step over the pole. That part is very important!

So the left limb bends as it’s lifted and then the abductor muscles at the shoulder and hip lift the limb away from the horse’s body before replacing it to the ground. The abducting requires abdominal strength and balance in order to keep the rhythm of the walk. Once the horse has crossed the pole you can ask them to step right across the next pole.

If they find it difficult, then the horse will turn their body so that the limb furthest away from the pole will step over first (if the pole is on their left, the right leg crosses first), which means the horse isn’t actually doing any abducting of their limbs, and are almost serpentining over the poles.

You can place more demands on your horse by getting them to cross the pole more frequently, say after three walk steps. This requires more balance, strength and joint stability. You can also raise the poles by using potties or cavaletti cubes. Below is a video of the exercise when I tried it with Phoenix. I could only raise my poles by jump blocks so had to accommodate them in the exercise. Hopefully it is clear enough to give you an idea of how to do it. Next time, we’ll be trying more poles and using cavaletti cubes to raise them.

I’ve used it recently in a couple of lessons with horses coming back into work, or who are a bit tight over their backs, and when they’ve been trotted afterwards, their riders’ have felt the improvement in their way of going as they’ve all looked looser over their backs and swinging more in their stride.

An Accuracy Grid

One of the horses I teach with has a tendency to drift slightly through grids. It’s not noticeable over single fences, and has vastly improved through doubles, so I wanted to test his rider’s accuracy to ensure she wasn’t allowing him to drift around courses.

I began with setting up a two stride double, with tramlines to focus both horse and rider on straightness. We kept the fences as cross poles too, to help them get central.

Once they were riding through the fences comfortably, I began to ask the questions. One stride before the first cross, I added a skinny fence. With no short poles, I had to use a barrel. This meant that the pony might back off the skinny jump, as well as trying to dodge round it. However, as it was the first fence in the grid my rider could set them up in a controlled, balanced canter and focus on her accuracy and the cross poles would follow naturally.

As predicted, the pony backed off the barrel fence, chipping in a little stride, so his rider had to ride positively to prevent him squeezing in three strides between the cross poles. They repeated it a few more times until the pony stopped backing off and felt more confident.

Next, I added a second skinny barrel jump at the end of the grid, one canter stride away from the second cross pole. As this question came up rapidly after the cross jump my rider couldn’t have a lapse in concentration through the grid or else her horse will have either drifted past the skinny, or will chip in a second stride. She also needed to pick up on any slight deviation from straight.

They jumped the first three fences neatly, straight, and on the correct stride. However, they drifted slightly right through the grid which gave the horse the perfect opportunity to slip past the last jump. The next time, my rider corrected their line throughout the grid, by opening her left rein and using her right leg. Because the horse was less able to circumnavigate the skinny fence he chipped in a stride, so disrupting the flow of the grid.

To overcome this, my rider had to recover quicker from the cross poles, and ride forwards and positively to the barrel fence to give her horse the confidence to take the distance on one stride. It took a few tries, and they only managed it from one canter lead, which suggests we have work to do on their weaker canter lead. Which fills my next couple of lesson plans!

Adding a skinny into a grid keeps horse and rider switched on, and ensures the rider doesn’t become a passenger once they’ve entered the grid of fences. It highlights any drifting by horse or rider, and by working on both canter leads you can see if there’s any asymmetry. For example, if a horse is stronger with their right hind leg then they will push more with that limb over the fence so the horse will always drift left over jumps. However, this horse drifts fractionally right in right canter but drifts significantly right in left canter, suggesting that the cause of his drift comes from the fact his body is crooked to the left, which is exaggerated in left canter so drifting becomes more apparent.

The grid can be made harder by removing the tramlines and converting the cross poles into uprights to make it harder for horse and rider to stay on their line. You can then remove the wings from the barrel jumps to make it easier for the horse to run out. If you can negotiate that in a fluid and confident manner then you know you’re riding straight and accurately!

A Staircase

I did this little gymnastic exercise with a pony and rider last week. The pony has a strong shoulder and on the penultimate stride to fences drops his forehand, which isn’t a huge problem at the lower levels, but now the jumps have started getting bigger we’ve noticed he isn’t jumping so cleanly. When the pony drops onto his forehand, he unbalances his rider so he collapses through his core and gets in front of the movement.

I’ve done a lot of grid and pole exercises with the pair to help break this habit. Last week’s exercise built on the bounce grid from last week.

I laid out four canter poles, nine foot apart, and had the boys cantering steadily over the poles, checking that they maintained their rhythm and didn’t rush. Because we’re working on the pony not dropping his forehand in front of the fence I’ve been using short distances with them. This encourages the pony to stay uphill in the canter and to sit on his hindquarters, which helps improve their jumping technique.

With the canter starting to improve just over the poles I made the last pole into an upright, about a foot high. So it was more of a raised pole, but because I hadn’t adjusted the distance the pony had to adjust his canter in order to increase his bascule over the raised pole.

Next, I made the third pole into a foot high upright, and raised the fourth pole to about two foot high.

We progressively increased the heights of the poles until the second pole was eighteen inches high, the third pole roughly two foot three and the fourth pole approximately two foot nine.

The first pole acted as a placing pole, still nine foot from the second pole. I didn’t need to alter the distance between the second and third poles, but I did lengthen the distance between the third and fourth jumps so that it was a generous ten foot. This is closer to a bounce distance, and the pony needed more space between the bigger fences.

The purpose of this exercise is to improve the pony’s front leg technique, so he tucks his forelegs up quicker and more neatly. It stops that dropping feeling before a fence, so the pony is utilising his hindquarters, and his rider gets a better feel for a good jump.

The exercise itself is physically demanding, but it helped the pony get used to jumping with his hindquarters underneath him. It also ensured that his didn’t land to heavily on his shoulders, which meant he landed more lightly and so the overall quality of the canter improved as it became more uphill.

A slightly easier version of the staircase, which I used with a different client, has one canter stride between each jump, rather than being a bounce. It still got the horse thinking, cantering more uphill and picking up neatly over each fence.

Circles, Canter, and Control

I’ve not used this exercise for a while, but recently brought it out for a couple of clients as it was perfect for improving their canter work.

Start by riding a continuous twenty metre circle at A in trot. At A, ride forward to canter. At X, ride a downward transition to trot. Repeat the transitions at A and X on each lap. Then progress to riding four transitions per circle; so a transition at A, halfway between A and X, X, and halfway between X and A. You should repeat the exercise on both reins.

There are several purposes to this exercise. Firstly, the rapid succession of transitions between the two beat trot and three beat canter means that the horse has to engage their abdominal muscles, which helps improve their posture and develops their top line. So it’s very good for their balance and core stability.

If you have a lazy horse, or one who is slow to respond to the leg, riding transitions quickly in succession engages the horse’s brain and teaches them to react more quickly to the aids. The exercise can also increase the rider’s speed of riding. I don’t mean that they trot or canter faster, but that they process the preparation and execution of their aids faster.

Riding the transitions at given points on the circle can be tricky because the horse has less support from then fence line so is more likely to wobble through the transition or hollow their frame. I find this to be especially so in the upwards transition over X. Which of course is quite a common movement in dressage tests. To help stop the horse from drifting, the rider should focus more on their outside aids (usually they’ve slipped so aren’t supporting the horse) and think of riding a straight stride during the transition as opposed to the continuous curve of the circle. This helps prevent the horse drifting out though his outside shoulder and lifting his head because he’s not engaging the hindquarters.

The horse I used this exercise for whilst schooling is fairly forwards but always pokes his nose slightly in the canter strike off. While he’s active in the trot and using his hindquarters to push into canter he just doesn’t quite carry it through. Back and saddle are fine so it’s just a quirk of his. Anyway, I hoped that riding multiple transitions in quick succession would get him fractionally more forward thinking and he would stay connected as he picked up canter. Which he did. He stayed completely soft in my hands and I felt more of a jump into canter as I could use lighter aids because he was anticipating the canter.

A pony and rider that I also introduced to this exercise have a problem with lack of forwardness. After riding a couple of circles the pony was anticipating the transitions so responded immediately to his rider’s aids and then she could put more leg on as she rode him into trot which resulted in a more active trot and the pony became more forward thinking. The upward transitions became more active so the quality of the canter improved. This pony also drifts through the right shoulder on the left rein, so the transitions over X highlighted this so by holding him straighter and with a more supportive outside rein his rider could correct the drift. Then the canter improved further because the inside hind leg started propelling the horse forwards towards his centre of gravity, instead of pushing the energy out through the right shoulder. It was great to see the improvement in the accuracy of their transitions and the quality of the pony’s canter.

To add another level of difficulty to this exercise, count the number of strides in each gait, aiming to get the same number of strides in each quarter. This also encourages you to ride a more accurate transition, which helps improve your accuracy marks in dressage tests.

Wonky Poles

I came across this exercise a few weeks ago, which is a great variant on usual trot poles. It’s good for adding an extra level of difficulty to trot poles, keeping a horse thinking about the exercise, and checks both them and their rider’s ability to ride a straight line. Especially useful for green horses, it improves proprioception.

Begin by trotting over a series of trotting poles laid parallel, approximately four foot six inches apart. Adjust the poles to suit your horse’s stride. Once your horse is confident, balanced and negotiating the poles straight and easily, you can begin to put him on his toes.

You should be trotting over the centre of the trotting poles, and the horse should increase their cadence over the poles and increase their impulsion. With the poles parallel, the horse can see either end of the poles as they trot over it. This helps the horse judge where the centre of the pole is, which is where they need to lift their feet over. Remember horses have that blind spot just in front of them, with a small amount of binocular vision, so rely on their peripheral vision, which is monocular. The binocular field of vision is where they gauge depth perception, which is vital for negotiating poles and fences.

Now your horse is happy with parallel trot poles, angle them so that they form a zig zag pattern. The centre of each pole should still be four foot six inches apart (or whatever distance best suits your horse). An easy way to create the zig zag pattern is to hold the pole in the middle, and lift and swing it so that it is then at an angle.

Usually, when first trotted over the zig zag poles, a horse will lower his head, pause, and increase their cadence. As long as you ride the centre of the poles, the distance is correct for the horse, but the zig zag position of the poles will make them think about where they’re putting their feet.

Going back to their vision. The ends of the poles are in their monocular vision, and they aren’t level. One eye will see the ends of two poles close together, and the other eye will see two pole ends together further forward in their field of monocular vision. Therefore it is not immediately obvious to them where the centre of the poles are, which is the part they’re stepping over. This means they need to engage the binocular vision to gauge the position of the centre of the poles. So they pause, lower their head to look carefully at the poles, and then lift their feet high to give the poles plenty of space just in case.

This means that the horse is working his body harder, so improving his balance, coordination, impulsion, rhythm and proprioception. It’s a good variation of trotting poles for those horses who get bored, or need to do a lot of pole work for rehab, and can be made physically more demanding by increasing the number of poles.

I don’t think this pole arrangement would work as raised poles, but they would work as canter poles, with the centre of the poles approximately nine feet apart.

Riding the Outside Line

I don’t know much about Formula 1; I just ask the questions to show the necessary level of interest that makes a marriage work.

“Where’s F1 this weekend?”

“What time is qually (see, I even know the lingo)?”

“Who’s in poll?”

“Who won?”

And most importantly; “Who had the biggest crash?”

One thing I have picked up though, during the hours spent being shown each race-changing crash in slow-mo from numerous different angles, is driving lines. In racing, it’s usually the inside line.

It may sound like I’m rambling, but this does tie in with a tip I learned last week.

When we’re riding we turn our bodies in the direction of movement and look where we’re going. Invariably this means we end up looking over the horse’s inside ear. Especially when you factor in how much easier it is to turn your head than the rest of your upper body.

However, we’re supposed to ride with the outside aids, and bring the outside shoulder around any turns.

Given that we’re looking at the inside line is it any wonder we often lose the outside shoulder and slip the outside rein?

Next time you’re schooling, keep looking over your horse’s outside ear on any turns or circles. It takes some getting used to, but because you’re now focusing on the outside line of the turn you’ll find you maintain control over the outside shoulder, and don’t get too much neck bend from your horse, resulting in a straighter horse who is stepping under with the inside hind and taking their weight on it before propelling themselves forwards. Let me know how you get on!

Demi Voltes

Here’s a nice little warm up exercise for you.

Trot down the long side, and ride a half circle just before the corner. Incline gently back to the track, making sure you’ve changed the bend prior to reaching the track at approximately E (or B if you’re on the other long side). As you reach the end of the long side (where you originally started) ride another demi volte of a similar size. See my rough sketch below for clarification.

Initially, you can ride the demi voltes with fifteen metre half circles, and then decrease it to ten metre demi voltes. This obviously requires more suppleness and better balance from the horse.

This exercise is very useful for ascertaining your stiffer rein, because the half circles are in quick succession. Ensure that with the fifteen metre demi voltes neither one crosses the far three quarter line. In ten metre demi voltes you shouldn’t cross the centre line.

A demi volte is surprisingly tricky to ride accurately because it’s very easy to let the horse stay in the bend they had on the circle as you drift back to the track, in a semi shoulder in position. Check you are riding a half circle to the midway point and then a straighten the horse to ride the line to the track before asking for the new bend as you approach the track. If the horse is over bending at the shoulder, they are harder to straighten as you come out of the half circle, so focus on the bend through their barrel and not overusing the inside rein to unbalance them. Think less is more and you’ll soon find that the exercise flows more easily.

If one rein is particularly stiff, you can ride one and a half circles before inclining back to the track. Then spend some time on the stiffer rein working various school movements to help improve their suppleness.

This exercise requires good balance from the horse because there are several changes of bend, and you’re looking for smooth transitions between the circles and straight lines. As the circles are fairly small it is a good way of engaging their inside hindleg.

You can increase the difficulty in this exercise by riding the demi voltes in canter, executing a change of lead either through trot or a simple change (or if you’re very snazzy, a flying change) as you return to the track.

To check that you are riding a straight line back to the track you can place tramlines to help guide your eye. You can also add in a walk transition after the half circle. By engaging the inside hind on the half circle you should be able to ride a really active downwards transition, and the transition will show up any wobbliness.

Give it a go; I’ve used it both as a warm up exercise in lessons, as a main exercise to improve rider feel and horse suppleness , and as a warming down exercise so that the rider can feel the difference in the way their horse moves on the demi voltes when they are off the forehand and on the aids.

Transitions

Here’s another useful exercise I picked up from Horses Inside Out last month. The purpose of doing it at the demo was for us to observe the action of the hindlimbs on the painted horses through transitions. However, I felt it would be a very useful warm up exercise for a number of my clients. So I put it to good use last week.

I find that sometimes half halts can be ineffective, either the rider isn’t asking correctly or the horse is choosing to be ignorant, and this exercise sharpens a rider’s aids and the horse’s mind.

From a good, balanced trot, ride forward to walk to five strides then ride forwards to trot. This checks that the rider is thinking of changing the sequence of their horse’s legs rather than slowing down because if you lose energy into walk, you can’t ride the upwards transition accurately. At this point, I usually correct any issues with the aids and repeating the five walk strides until the downwards transition is fluent, maintaining energy, and the upward transition is prompt.

Gradually, you reduce the number of walk strides from five, to four, to three, two and eventually just one. Repeat each level until it feels harmonious and you can feel a bit of activation in the hindquarters. Some horses only need to go down to three walk strides for it to be effective, and you’re better off stopping there than having fewer walk strides of a poorer quality.

In a downward transition, the hind leg steps under the horse’s body with the joints flexing more. This means they take their weight off their forehand and then push themselves up into a lighter, floatier trot. If you ever get the chance to see this exercise performed by a painted horse, have a look because it’s far more illustrative than my words.

Back to my clients and their progression through this exercise. The lazier horses soon woke us and came more off the aids, developing a far superior walk because they hadn’t switched off to their rider. The riders were more alert and not collapsing into walk and likewise switching off. For the whizzier horse’s we put in circles and changes of rein to stop them anticipating the exercise so much. These riders learnt to refine their aids so the transitions were less sudden and tense.

All of my riders found it hard to get the precise number of steps – the upward transitions all included at least one stride of walk between asking and executing it. They had to think and ride faster.

The transitions helped those horses who were ignorant to the balancing effect of a half halt because there was no grey area. It was black and white. Their riders could feel the effect of an exaggerated half halt – especially when there was only one stride of walk, which meant that they had a clearer idea in their head about the desired effect of a half halt was. It also taught them to ride with more leg, and to put the downwards and upwards aids together quicker.

After using this exercise, all the horses had a better quality trot, were more connected because of the action of the hindquarters, and came off their forehand and worked over their backs into an outline. I found that the rider’s feel had improved and they were then using half halts more easily, subtly and more effectively. I felt that their understanding of a half halt had improved by riding the extreme version.

Try it yourself in your next warm up, and see the effect it has.