Getting your horse to move off your leg (or move laterally) is key to getting control of his whole body. Lateral control of the hind end and shoulders helps you in simple things, like opening and closing gates or backing in a straight line. It also makes possible more advanced maneuvers, like changing leads and spinning.
Horses naturally move into pressure, so young or green horses must be educated to move away from it, instead.
Ultimately, lateral control will enable you to “leg-yield” your horse diagonally across the arena at a lope–resistance-free, body straight, front legs crossing over each other. It will also help you execute a perfect sidepass, such as moving sideways down the length of a log, as in a trail class, and will help you with a beautiful spin.
For now, however, we’ll be satisfied with any movement sideways in response to leg pressure; the more refined lateral control will come later. In these exercises, you’ll ask your horse to move his rear end over as you stand next to him (at the hitching rack and then as you hold his bridle reins) and while you’re mounted (maneuvering him next to a gate to open it, sideways along the fenceline, and finally diagonally across the arena).
The goal. Your horse will maintain a soft face (that is, no bracing against the bit) as he (1) willingly moves his rear end a few steps sideways in response to pressure, and then (2) willingly moves his front end (shoulders) a few steps sideways in response to pressure. You’ll work toward getting both ends to move together, for a whole-body move to the side.
In the movement at the gate and along the fenceline, and in the more advanced maneuver diagonally across the arena (leg-yield), he’ll move first his front end and then his hind end separately at first. Ultimately, he’ll move both ends simultaneously in the leg-yield.
Here’s how: at the hitching rack. Practice this one whenever you’re grooming your horse. (NOTE: If there’s any chance your horse will pull back, untie him before conducting this lesson.) Stand at your horse’s side, and use a sweat scraper, hoof pick, or other hard object to create pressure (that is, mild discomfort) right where your heel presses on your horse’s ribs when you’re mounted. Your aim is to have him respond to the least amount of pressure possible, so start softly yet insistently. Don’t start with a jab.
The instant he takes one sideways step with a hind foot, stop and praise him, then ask for another step. If he resists, increase the pressure gradually in a push-and-release movement until he takes at least one step, always looking to get response from the least amount of pressure, and praising him the instant he responds. If need be, you can also pull his face towards you slightly as you ask him to move his hindquarters over.
Now go to his other side and ask him to step in the opposite direction, using the same cues. Repeat frequently from both sides until he responds willingly to mild pressure.
In hand. With your horse wearing a saddle and bridle, stand next to him, holding the bridle reins in your left hand and using the sweat scraper, hoof pick, or your thumb to create pressure, again just behind the cinch where your heel would normally be. By now, your horse should respond with a sideways step even as you use the bridle reins to keep his head straight. Strive to get him to move just his hind end over. We’re “disengaging” the hind end. You’ll want to be sure he’s good at this, as it’s the underlying secret to the emergency stop.
Switch hands and repeat from the other side.
In previous articles, I’ve shared 7 tips for Riding Smarter Not Harder. Now, here’s 3 more!
• Develop great timing.
Remember — horses learn from the release of pressure, not the application of it.
When you release pressure (either from your legs or reins), your horse will associate that reward with whatever he was doing immediately before the release.
So, if you’re a split second late releasing, you’re slowing his learning, or even inadvertently “rewarding” something else entirely.
If you’re asking for a step backward, the instant he even begins to think “back,” you should soften the reins for an instant as a reward, then resume asking. But if you miss that moment, and instead lighten as he’s raising his head or opening his mouth, you’re rewarding him for what you don’t want.
Timing is everything.
Now is a perfect time to release, if I want to teach my horse to lope softly framed up.
(See photo on left)
Not when he’s loping like in this.
(See photo on right)
• Be consistent and fair.
A cue can’t mean one thing half the time, and something different the other half – because you don’t enforce it.
If you’re inconsistent in your follow-through, you oblige your horse to choose whether you really “mean” it each time you ask. That gives him only a fifty-fifty chance of doing the right thing.
Inevitably, he’ll choose the easier, and in most cases, wrong thing and get himself in trouble. This inconsistency on your part is like lying to your horse. You must be honest to gain his trust and respect.
Similarly, you must never lose your temper. When you do need to make a correction, it must always fit the infraction, and never be done with anger or impatience.
Never suspect that your horse is trying to be bad on purpose—he isn’t. You probably confused him, so take that into consideration in your response. A scared and intimidated horse isn’t going to try for you. But if he understands that you’ll always be fair with him, he’ll get confident enough to give his all.
That said, don’t hesitate to “raise your voice” if that’s what’s needed.
• Solve—don’t create—problems.
Any time your horse doesn’t respond the way you want, don’t compound the problem (or create a new one) by taking a hasty or overly aggressive approach.
Let’s say, for example, your horse is getting racy instead of staying in the steady lope that you’ve asked for. You really feel he should be “getting it” by now, but instead of losing your cool, you simply take all slack out of the reins, then draw him to a trot, then a walk, then a stop, then a back-up—all in about six or so strides. Then you sit for a while, give him a chance to relax, then you try that lope again.
If, instead, you jerk him into the ground, scaring him, then the next time he’s going fast, he’ll start worrying about getting jerked, and the problem will have been compounded.
In other words, when you do it the correct way, he thinks, “Oops, I’m racing along here…now she’s picking up the reins to break me down…I guess I’ll give her my face and come to her, because I know she’ll insist on that, but then at least I get to stop and rest.”
But the other way, he thinks, “Oh no!!, she’s picking up the reins and she’s going to rip me a new set of lips…better brace my jaw and get my head up to protect myself.” See how that works?
All of these tips are really common sense ideas, but sometimes we don’t take the time to think through what our actions are really telling our horse, and sometimes it’s just a matter of explaining it to him differently. Deal with your horse like you would deal with a 5 year old child.
In an earlier article I shared 4 tips for Riding Smarter Not Harder. Now here’s 3 more!
- Be a contrarian. This goes along with training every moment. If your horse is wanting to do one thing, make him do the opposite. Is he leaning in one direction? Make him go the opposite way. Is he amped up and wanting to lope? Make him stand still for a moment. Does he want to stand? Make him lope. Is he eager to be at the front of the line? Put him in the back. Don’t let him train you, either. If he’s a spook, don’t forsake trail rides—go on lots of them and get him exposed to all those frightening things. Don’t make excuses for him. By being a contrarian instead, and insisting he do what you want rather than what he wants, you’re continuously reinforcing that you are the boss, not he. Horses crave leadership, and if you don’t provide it, they will.
- Train both sides. Whether you know it or not, you own two horses, a right horse and a left horse, and they both need to be trained (thank goodness they both don’t have to be fed too!). Never assume something you’ve taught your horse to do using one side of his body will translate to the other; it won’t. You must train both sides individually. If he can shut a gate working off your left leg, also teach him to do it off your right. Each side will likely require slightly different approaches because most horses are a little stiff (resistant to bending) to the left and hollow (bend excessively) to the right.
- Be precise. A horse’s brain is like your website browser. If you enter a command that’s just one letter off, the computer won’t recognize it, and you’ll end up at a completely different website. Similarly, if you want optimal performance from your horse, you must ask for a movement exactly the same way each time. Sometimes we get frustrated with a horse that’s not responding correctly. We think, “You dummy—you did it fine yesterday.” But our horse is thinking, “Yes, but I’m confused now, because I don’t recognize this cue….” A fully trained horse is often able to fill in for a miscue, but while he’s still learning, the more precise and correct you can be, the faster and more reliably he’ll learn. Good stuff in, good stuff out.
Ultimately, you’ll spend about the same amount of time working your horse to each side, striving to make his stiff side more flexible, and his hollow side a little straighter.
True story: A fellow came out to my place to try a seasoned, successful show horse, the kind that takes good care of his rider. The guy’s comment after riding him was that it was like playing pool on a table with huge pockets that just funnel the ball in. When a horse is well broke, you should be able to kind of “aim him” at the maneuver, and the ball should go in the hole, so to speak. But until a horse is very solid, you must be very precise.
In previous articles, I shared boxing tips, leaving the corner well, rating and turning on the fence. All that’s left now is to “circle up”.
There are some strategies for circling like all the other phases of the fence work. Let’s say you’re going down the left wall, away from the out gate, and you’re ready to circle. You can get right behind the cow, tight on the wall, so it’ll see wide open arena, and come off the wall for you.
If it does that, and turns sharply back on you (as in 170*) so it’s heading to the out gate, your best option and shortest path, is to double back and “pick the cows head up” and circle to the left first (counterclockwise). If it came of the fence at 90*, straight out towards the center of the arena, you could go either way first. If it only came 30* off, so it was still travelling away from the out gate, you’d want to get between the cow and the fence and circle right (clockwise) first, so you didn’t circle it right back into the fence.
If it doesn’t peel off the fence when you’re right behind it, jump in front of it again, turn it quick and using the ideas from above, choose the best way to circle first.
Always go at least 370* around, in position of control, before changing sides. If you go less that 360*, it will be hard to credit that set of circles, and you might have to come back and circle that way again. What I mean by that is, if you go 340*, switch sides and circle the other way, and you don’t hear the judge’s whistle, go back and do the first way again. The judge didn’t feel that you satisfied the requirement for the first set of circles. More judges these days, will just deduct a bit for that first set. They figure you chose to do that, so that’s what they’ll mark.
When circling, try to get your horse’s nose all the way up to the cow’s ear. Lot’s of horses know the drill, and they want to lean on the cow at the hip or rib, because it’s easier than getting all the way up where they belong. It’s very easy to knock one down, when trying to force the cow at its hip or rib, and that’s expensive (-3).
When you do switch sides, always be sure your cow is heading out towards the center of the arena, so you won’t lose it to the fence (-1). And then, come right up beside it, all the way to the cow’s ear and circle it the new way, until you hear the whistle. It might be hard to hear with all the screaming and clapping that’s sure to be going on as you finish up!!
Pull up, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back! You’ve just finished one of the most exhilarating things you can do horseback.
Below is a photo of my “fence mentor” Lyn Anderson in perfect circling position!
Training horses is not supposed to be stressful for them or for us. We only need to be smarter than they are to stay ahead of them. (If the reverse were true, they would be “riding” us, right?) Ideally, we use our bigger brains to make learning seem do-able and feel non-threatening to our horse.
Here are the first 4 of 20 rules of thumb for “riding smart” that I’ve accumulated over the years.
You can’t train a horse that’s hurting, so rule out physical pain first. Whenever your horse is being stubbornly resistant, make sure it’s not because he’s in pain. Is he not stopping well? His hocks may be sore. Resisting a spin? His suspensory ligaments (the structures supporting the back of the lower leg) may be sore, or he may have bumped his knees together, making them tender. Tossing his head? His teeth may need floating. Always check with the appropriate expert—a veterinarian, chiropractor, or equine dentist—to rule out a physical problem whenever you hit a roadblock. Only after you get the green light should you push through in your training. I have my horses checked regularly by my vet to head off problems—I don’t wait until a horse gets sore and starts resisting.
Maximize every moment. Whenever you’re with your horse, you’re either training or untraining him. If you’re picking out his feet and he won’t move away from your pressure—that’s setting an “I’m the boss” precedent in his mind. Instead, take the time to set his priorities straight by insisting that he move over obediently when you need him to. If you’re riding him through a gate and he won’t move laterally off your leg, school him until he does, rather than making a big reach for the gate. If you’re going down the trail on a pleasant morning and he’s pulling on the bit, don’t think, “Oh, it doesn’t matter now.” It does! If you make him do things only half of the times that you ask, you’re lying to him the other half! You’re asking him to figure out if you mean it or not, and then scolding him if he makes the wrong choice. All these seemingly insignificant moments add up to a lot of good training; don’t waste them.
Set him up to succeed. A horse must understand and accept an idea before it can become his own, and only then can you train him how you want him to do it. Another way to think of this is that you must “show him” until he understands it and craves doing it, and only then “train him” how you want him to do it. It’s a subtle, but important distinction. And only when he understands all the rules of how you want him to do it, can you go on to ask for speed. If you push for speed while he’s still floundering, he’ll come to resent what you’re trying to teach him, or at the very least become badly rattled.
So, use your aids in a way that enables your horse to “find” what you want, rather than forcing him to do your bidding. Yes, hauling on the reins is one way to get a horse stopped. But how much better to lope him until he’s a bit tired, so that when you pick up your reins, he wants to stop. Help him figure it out by making what you want easy, and give him time to , then reward him when he does the right thing. Your horse must have confidence in you, that if he needs a moment to think something through, you’re not going to get all over him for it.
Once he’s figured out the what, only then can you start teaching him the how—using our stopping example, once he wants to stop, then ask him to get his hind end up under him as he stops, stay off the bit, stop straight and rock back a step, and so on.
Think back to your school years…did you learn more from the teacher who rushed you, then bullied and humiliated you for a wrong answer? Or from the teacher who set you up to find the right answer, then told you how clever you were when you got it? If you help your horse—instead of hammer on him—when he’s confused, he’ll start to think of you as a friend he can look to for guidance when the going gets rough.
I’ve attached pictures of getting your horse into position to open and close a gate. Patiently, make him get exactly where you need him to be rather than making a hasty reach for the gate. Then, let him rest there. Pretty soon, that’s exactly where he’ll go. If you need 2 hands on the reins in the beginning, ask a friend to help move the gate slowly, while you position your horse to open and close it.