Riding Smart 11-13

Riding Smart 11-13

This is a continuation of riding smarter not harder horsemanship skills.

Here are Tips #11-13

• Be creative.

I usually try to teach my horses something a certain way, but if I’m not getting through by the third attempt, I take a different approach. In other words, I won’t force a horse to learn something “my way.”

Let’s say I’m asking for the transition from the large, fast circle to the smaller, slower one, and my horse won’t slow down. I can lope him until he wants to slow down, then reward that thought. This works with many horses, but if it doesn’t, I may try breaking him down to a trot, then to a walk, then to whoa and rest.

I may also try pulling him into a circle to slow him down. Or, as a last resort, I may draw him “into the ground” and back him up to reinforce my point.

Ultimately, you must figure out what works for each horse, as each learns differently.

Some trainers have a “my way or the highway” mentality. When a horse fails to respond, they say, “This horse doesn’t ‘fit’ me, or boy is he dumb” What they’re really saying is, “I’m not very creative.”

• Be systematic.

Don’t try to teach your horse something you haven’t laid the foundation for.

Also, don’t get into an argument you don’t have the tools to win. Before you ask your horse to move laterally, for example, you must first be sure he understands the concepts of giving to bit pressure and moving away from pressure on his sides.

• Go back to get ahead.

Start every schooling session by asking your horse for something he already knows well and is comfortable with. Then, after he’s shown you a few times how solid that is, sneak another little bit of learning in there.

For example, go back to walking a good circle before you ask for that little lateral step. Break all learning down into small chunks, always returning to the last thing your horse did well (especially if he gets confused), then inching forward from there.

This keeps him in a positive frame of mind for learning.

Riding Smart 11-13

Reining Essential 5 – Troubleshooting Whoa

Teaching a horse to stop brings out all kinds of problems, not because the horse wants to be bad, usually it’s our lack of timing, and balancing on the reins that causes their resistance.

Troubleshooting. Common problems in basic stopping, and how to fix them: 

• Not trying to stop at all:

Use the doubling and/or circling maneuvers. Getting pulled around and/or circling will start to feel like a lot of work to your horse, so he’ll learn that simply stopping is easier. Once his feet stop moving, release all aids and sit while you praise him. 

• Stopping reluctantly:

Get a bit more assertive with your hands as you’re backing him a step or two once he does stop. Then sit quietly for a while and scratch his neck.

• Stopping on his front end (he’ll feel as if he’s propping on his front end and you’ll feel like you just got “dashboarded” in a car).

Shift his center of gravity back by sitting back yourself and picking up your reins chest height, (don’t pull down toward your hips) and holding them steady while you bump with your legs in neutral position until your horse picks up his shoulders and backs up off the bit. It will feel as though his shoulders have lifted up into the area under the front of the saddle and his back has rounded. Then, the next time you ask for the stop, make sure you’re driving him with your legs to keep his hind end engaged as he stops and then backs up off the bit. Also, be sure you give him a chance to stop before you pull, and let him rest when he does.

• Stopping crooked (by leaning or dropping a shoulder).

You’ll probably notice that your horse leans to his left side (because of that natural asymmetry of horses) and/or towards the magnet of the barn or the out gate. This causes him to kick his hip out to the right when stopping.

First, don’t ask for the stop if your horse is moving crookedly—go around again and use your reins and legs to straighten him out, then ask. If, despite your best effort, he still stops crooked, back him for a few steps on the straight line you were originally on, then turn him 180 degrees away from the barn or whatever was the magnet.


For example, if he’s leaning left then you’re correcting him to the right, bring your right rein back towards your right outside belt loop and let your left hand come toward that same belt loop, only stopping at his neck (without crossing over it), as you push him with your left leg at the cinch and roll him back to the right. This will help you get his shoulder realigned, so he keeps them both picked up.


Hope these ideas help!



Reining Essential 5 – Whoa

Reining Essential 5 – Whoa

Your horse’s willingness to stop when you say “whoa” is essential for control and basic training. It also provides the foundation for one of reining’s most thrilling maneuvers, the sliding stop. But first, we’ll have to be satisfied by an attempt from our horse, at ceasing forward motion. It’s not going to look anything like the stop we’ll need in competition, where the horse is balanced, off the bit, driving from behind with his back round and his head low, gliding into the dirt (I get goosebumps just thinking about it!)

But all things in good time. The key thing now is to get your horse to love and even crave stopping. That means don’t make it uncomfortable for him. Make it as easy as possible for him. Set him up for success by making sure he’s a little tired and wanting to stop, then aim him toward a wall or a corner, if need be, so he has a visual barrier. This is much preferable to trying to force him to stop by overpulling on the reins, which he doesn’t understand yet anyway. Then exhale, sit down and say “whoa,” get stopped, then praise him, and let him sit for a while. Enjoy the scenery!

f you do it right, you’ll be surprised how quickly your horse will learn to stop when he hears whoa. In fact, he may start to stop when he feels you begin to exhale. 

True story: One non-pro I coached had to take a lot of cell phone calls while he was riding. Whenever his phone rang, he’d stop and answer, sitting and talking for a while. Well, it didn’t take long before his horse started doing these really nice stops at the first ring! Horses remember the very last thing they were doing before the reward. This horse knew the ring meant there was a nice sit-a-spell coming right after his stop, so stop he did!

The goal.
 When you sit deep, exhale, and say whoa, your horse will come to a comfortable stop on his rear end, then back a step, all preferably without your having to pull on the reins (although you probably will need to pull in the beginning, until he understands). 

Here’s how. 
Prepare to make stopping your horse’s idea (remember: make the right thing easy!) by loping him until he’s a bit tired and thinking about wanting to stop. As you lope, work on getting him soft in the face by using both your legs in neutral position to drive him into your hands. Work on circles, asking him to bend by using pressure or bumping from your inside leg in neutral position. Get him all softened up.

When he’s ready to volunteer to slow down (you’ll know because you’ll have to keep pushing to keep him loping), ride him onto a straight line toward your arena wall or a corner. You’re going to ask for the stop when you’re about three or four strides from the wall or corner, so give yourself enough space to be able to straighten him out before you get to that point.

Don’t worry about exactly where his feet are (from all those books you’ve read); if you exhale, then say whoa, you’ll be asking in the right part of his stride to make it work.

So, when you’re about three or four strides from the wall or corner, just when he’s starting to wonder which way you’re going to go, take a long breath, exhale as you sit deep in the saddle, and at the end of the exhalation, say whoa in a low, smooth, authoritative voice. (If your voice is tentative, abrupt, or too drawn-out, it will be less effective in commanding attention and getting a response.)

As you finish saying whoa, count “one, and, two” to yourself, and if he hasn’t stopped by then, pick up the reins and, using the least amount of pressure that’s effective, get him stopped. Then back him up a step, then relax and praise him as you let him stand and rest a bit.

Keep in mind that it’s OK to pull on him a little to get him stopped, as long as you always give him a chance to stop before you pull. If you pull at the same time as you say whoa, he’ll never learn to stop just from your voice. (Plus, it can cause him to stop abruptly and in the wrong part of his stride, “dashboarding” you, his driver.)

Also, be sure to give him a long enough break after the stop so that he knows he’s being rewarded. Watch to see that he relaxes (drops his head, exhales) and licks his lips—a sign that he’s “processing” and is OK with this new information he’s just gotten.

Above all, don’t let your horse subtly call the shots on where to stop. In other words, don’t avoid stopping in places where he doesn’t want to (like when you’re loping towards the barn). Also, don’t let him “volunteer” to stop at his preferred spots, such as by the out gate or near other horses. Insist that he do so at the places you’ve chosen.

Otherwise, you’re letting him train you. And that’s never a good idea!


Reining Essential 4 – More Advanced Backing

Reining Essential 4 – More Advanced Backing

When I introduced backing, we reviewed how to start a green colt backing from the ground (or an older spoiled horse who needs a “life review”). 

Today, let’s go over how to advance your horse in backing.

While mounted. From his back, use the same rein action you used successfully from the ground. Put just enough tension in the reins to keep him from moving forward, while you gently bump your horse’s sides (both legs simultaneously) with legs in neutral position, increasing pressure (with your legs) as necessary to gain response. Keep enough tension on the reins so he doesn’t push “through” the bit, but no harder. 

Again, ask for just one step at a time. The moment he complies, release all rein and leg pressure and praise him. Gradually ask for more steps, without worrying at this point whether he’s straight.

Remember, a horse learns from the release of pressure, not the application of it. If you make it easy and rewarding to take 1 step, then ask for 2, really soon you’ll have 10, no problem!

Once he’ll move back willingly three or four steps, begin asking for straightness, as well. Because of natural asymmetry, most horses will tend to back with their rear end veering to the right. To prevent this, apply pressure with your right leg a few inches behind neutral position to push his butt back to the left, using your right rein as necessary to help align him. (Eventually, we’ll correct this by moving his shoulders to the right, instead, but that requires more shoulder control than we have at this point.)


In my next article on reining, I’ll troubleshoot the different ways our horses evade backing straight or backing at all! 

Reining Essential 4 – Backing (green horse)

Reining Essential 4 – Backing (green horse)

Backing up is important because it’s not only a maneuver in itself but also the correction for a poor stop. 

At this point, however, backing doesn’t mean the same as it will later on (when we’ll want it super-straight, very fast, and in response to few visible cues).

For now, we just want to introduce the concept clearly, calmly, and patiently. The worst thing you can do at this point is to try to go faster and sacrifice correctness and softness.

Because so many of you are working with green horses, I want to go over how I start one backing from the ground.

The goal. Your horse will maintain a soft face (that is, no bracing against the bit) as he takes a few willing steps backward, reasonably straight. 

Here’s how: from the ground. With your horse in a snaffle bit and saddle, stand facing him, just off to one side so you’re not directly in front. Grasp a rein just behind the bit with each hand, and apply gentle backward pressure as you did to ask him to bring his nose back and down in the face-softening exercise. If necessary, slide the bit gently from side to side while maintaining soft pressure on both reins. 

When he responds by dropping his nose down and back, don’t release the pressure as you did for face softening. Instead, maintain a gentle, intermittent pressure and cluck. If he hesitates, be patient. It’s better to wait him out (he’ll give in eventually) than to start applying more and more pressure. Most horses are willing to do this for us if we’re patient and ask for just a step or two at a time in the beginning. If he still won’t step back, apply pressure over his lower face (where the hackamore would rest)to encourage him to unstick his feet.

The moment he takes a single backward step, release all pressure and praise him with hands and voice. Remember, that a horse learns from the release of pressure, not the application of it. Then repeat, over time asking for two backward steps, then three.

At this point, don’t worry about whether he’s perfectly straight as he backs. You’re just looking for willing compliance. (Remember that a key concept of setting your horse up to succeed is by showing him until he understands and accepts, and only then training him how you want him to do it—in this case, to back up straight–and only then asking for speed. It’s especially important here.)

Troubleshooting the Counter Arc Circle – Reining  Essential #3

Troubleshooting the Counter Arc Circle – Reining Essential #3

In this article on reining, I’ll be addressing troubleshooting problems with Reining Essential 3, the counter arc circle and how to deal with them.

Troubleshooting the counter arc circle: Your horse’s response will be affected by his natural asymmetry (his stiff and hollow sides), as well as by whatever magnets are drawing his attention at any moment. As when riding a regular circle, use the key-in-ignition movement to correct a collapsing circle with your inside leg at the cinch, and your outside leg at or behind the neutral position, as need be to adjust the position of his hindquarters.

Be sure to keep your counter arc circle symmetric and round. If it becomes like a cigar in shape, know that your horse has a strong magnet probably on the part of the cigar that’s furthest from the barn/gate drawing him back to it. And, when you’re closest to the barn/gate, it’s probably hard to move him smoothly on the circle, away from the barn. The challenge is to smooth and round the circle out.

The parts of your horse that aren’t working correctly are his shoulders and his hip. The hip is usually worse and isn’t moving off your outside leg. So, when you go from circular to cigar, slow it all down and make his hip move off your leg in an exaggerated side-pass to over-correct. Then, move back onto your circle track. You’ll know you are losing control if you find you’re cranking his head too much to the outside. It’s our natural reaction to counteract them not moving off our leg, so just a little bend of his head and neck to the outside, accompanied by an aggressive outside leg.

Be patient and keep working on symmetrical circles and counter arc circles, and you’ll be surprised at how much control you’ll gain over all of your horse’s body whole body and mind!

Counter Arc Circle

Counter Arc Circle

I’m going to continue with what I consider to be reining essentials. In this article, I’ll cover #3 – Walking a counter arc circle.

For this exercise, your horse will move in a circle, but with his nose tipped to the outside. His front legs, meanwhile, will be crossing over each other and making a slightly larger circle than his hind legs—sort of like side-passing in a circle (see below). It’s challenging but definitely worth the time and effort to master, as it will help you start to gain control of your horse’s shoulders and ribs. This, in turn, will give you the ammunition you’ll need later, to correct a spin when your horse’s shoulders quit driving. 

This exercise also refines your control over your horse’s head, neck, and shoulders, plus increases your overall awareness of how your rein and leg cues influence your horse’s body. Your circle should be perfectly round, except instead of the hind feet following directly in the tracks of the front, the front feet will be on a slightly larger circle than the hind. Because it involves lateral as well as forward movement, your horse’s front legs should be slightly, but evenly crossing over each other.

Your horse should also stay soft in your hand, his shoulders driving with cadence.

I’ll describe a counter-arc circle to the left (to do one to the right, simply reverse all cues). Walk your horse forward, using both your legs in neutral position to move him in an energetic rhythm. Apply light pressure to your right rein to tip your horse’s nose to the outside (so that you can just see the corner of his right eye). At the same time, open your left rein slightly away from your horse’s neck, to indicate leftward movement, and apply clear pressure with your right leg in neutral position or between your cinches. Remember—you want his hindquarters to be on a slightly smaller circle than his forehand.
If your horse doesn’t respond, use your cues more actively. Once he begins to respond, continue to cue him rhythmically to encourage him to move smoothly and with cadence around the circle. Keep a feeling contact with the right rein to keep his jaw soft and his nose tipped to the outside.
TIP: This is a challenging exercise. Before you attempt to ride it, try it on foot, without your horse. Draw a 20-foot-diameter circle in the dirt, then move yourself laterally around it, tipping your head to the outside and imagining that your legs are your horse’s front legs as they step laterally over each other. Think and feel how you’ll need to influence your horse’s body with your hands and legs to accomplish the same circle mounted. 
When you do attempt it mounted, give your horse (and yourself) time to figure it out. Be patient and pay close attention to how your cues influence your horse, and you’ll find your “feel” in the saddle increasing dramatically.

Troubleshooting Walking A Perfect Circle

Troubleshooting Walking A Perfect Circle

In my last reining article, I talked about Essential #2 Walking the Perfect Circle. Here are 3 common problems in walking a circle, and how to fix them:

    • Falling in toward a magnet. You’re on the side of the circle that’s farthest from the barn, and your horse speeds up and cuts in on the circle, because he’s attracted by the barn (magnet). Fix by picking up the shoulder that’s falling in, using the key-in-ignition movement I described earlier in “dealing with the stiff side.”

At the same time, pull your outside rein away from the magnet and use your inside leg at the cinch to push his shoulders outward onto the circle. Then over-correct, by making your horse move farther out on the far side of the circle, while still maintaining his body on the same arc of the circle. If possible, get all 4 of his feet to the outside of the circle you’re on. Over-corrections work because they eventually enable the two of you to “meet” in the middle—like a pendulum. (See photo above for hand position)

    • Bowing out toward a magnet. You’re on the side of the circle closest to the barn (magnet) just exactly the opposite side of the above problem. Your horse pulls or drifts toward the barn, bulging the circle out in that direction. Fix by drawing your outside rein back in the direction of your belly button, and against your horse’s neck, to stop the outward drift of his shoulder, and applying your outside leg in neutral position to correct the outward bulge of his barrel. Over-correct by making him cut across the circle. Make a sharp 90* pivot and go straight through the middle of the circle. Rejoin the circle at exactly the opposite side, farthest from the barn.

    • Losing impulsion and focus (“wandering”). Drive vigorously with both legs in neutral position and cluck to keep him “motivated” and moving with energy.

Walking a Perfect Circle

Walking a Perfect Circle

In a previous article, I covered Reining Essential 1 (giving his face). When your horse is responding well to that, begin work on Essential #2, walking a perfect circle. This one sounds easy, but it isn’t! Once you achieve it, you’ll understand the basics of maintaining control over your horse’s entire body.

Perfect circles will serve as the foundation for the circles and spins you’ll see in all patterns. 

In perfecting your circles, you’ll also discover and overcome your horse’s magnets—that is, the things (like the barn or the trailer or his buddies) that draw him from the circle you have in mind. 

The Goal 

A perfect circle is a symmetric circle, meaning precisely round as opposed to oval, oblong, or egg-shaped. As your horse travels this circle, he should stay soft in your hand and flexed slightly to the inside through his neck and body, with no deviations in speed. His hind feet should follow in the tracks of his front. He should be equally soft and responsive in either direction. 

TIP: Work on freshly groomed ground so you can easily see your horse’s tracks. 

Walk your horse forward, using both your legs in neutral position to move him in an energetic rhythm. Keeping both your legs active, and with your hands 12 to 24 inches apart, apply light, direct-rein pressure on what will become the inside rein to tip his nose to the inside of the circle (so that you can just see the corner of his inside eye) and begin the circle.

Use leg pressure and the outside rein as needed, to keep the circle round. Horses tend to be asymmetrical; going to their “hollow” or right side (clockwise), they tend to bend too much.  Going to their “stiff” or left side (counterclockwise), they tend to resist bending. You’ll need to compensate for this and help them become ambidextrous. 

Dealing With the Hollow Side 

Circling to the right, your horse may tend to tip his nose in easier and bend too much, cocking his rear end into the circle while the circle gradually enlarges (see Diagram 4).  


To correct this, apply your inside (right) leg behind neutral position to push his rear end back out onto the track of the circle. At the same time, keep enough tension on the outside (left) rein to keep his shoulder from drifting out to the left, straightening out his neck a bit so you can just see the corner of his right eye. Apply your left leg at the cinch; that will also help to keep that shoulder from drifting.(see photo 1) 

Dealing With the Stiff Side 

Circling to the left, your horse may tend to resist bending, keeping his body relatively straighter and resisting bringing his nose to the inside (see Diagram 3). Instead, he’ll lead with his inside (left) shoulder, letting his hind end drift out while the forehand somewhat collapses the circle. 

To correct this, pick up his inside shoulder with a move I call “key in the ignition.” (See photo 2) Bring your inside (left) rein hand close to his neck, then twist your wrist as if you’re turning a key in an ignition, so that your palm comes to face upward, making your pinkie finger closest to the neck (do not bring your hand over the neck or withers, a common error). This tightens the rein slightly while giving a “lifting” motion that helps lift the shoulder on that side. 

At the same time, apply pressure with your inside (left) leg in neutral position (that is, directly behind the cinch) to encourage more bend, while pulling your outside (right) rein slightly outward to the right, moving his shoulders out to the right to help stop the forehand from collapsing in on the circle. If necessary, use your right leg a few inches behind neutral position to keep his hindquarters from moving out. 

As you strive to keep him aligned to the arc of the circle in either direction, remember also to keep him giving his face (that is, staying soft to your hand) and using both your legs to keep him moving forward at a steady pace. 

Troubleshooting Softening the Face – Reining Essential #1, part 2

Troubleshooting Softening the Face – Reining Essential #1, part 2

This is a continuation of the article I wrote called Reining Essential #1 Giving the Face. I’m going to do a quick recap and then get right into “troubleshooting” softening the face.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Reining Essential #1- Recap

1. Giving the Face

“Giving the face” means softening in the jaw and flexing willingly at the poll in response to light pressure on both reins, or flexing to the left or right in response to left- or right-rein pressure. It’s the single most important thing to teach your horse.

Reining Essential #1-Troubleshooting

With each thing that we teach a horse, many responses will come up. Some of those are good and some not so desirable. I’ll include a Troubleshooting section for each of these. I will also do a “myth busting” segment for each of the Essentials.

Troubleshooting. Common problems in getting your horse to give his face, and how to fix them:

  • Overbridling (chin to chest). Fix by using more leg and less rein, being sure to release when your horse softens. Also, if need be use distinct upward tugs on the reins to make it uncomfortable when he puts his head beyond the vertical or too low, returning to soft hands as soon as he corrects his positioning. 

  • Underbridling (not flexing enough, his neck may be raised and braced against your hands). Fix by bumping incrementally harder with your legs in neutral position while holding with your hands as assertively as need be until there is the slightest indication of giving, then release immediately, then repeat.

  •  Never fully softening the jaw (you’ll feel him still pulling on you even though he’s dropped his head). Fix by tugging the reins off the beat of his motion. Be sure not to tug predictably, or he may simply learn to move his head from side to side without truly giving/softening. Also, make sure the slack is out of the reins before you tug, so you’re never jerking.

  • Wiggling (his rear end drifts off to one side or the other instead of driving up underneath his body). Fix by riding assertively, bumping simultaneously with both legs in neutral position or just behind the cinch. Push him up into the “wall” of your hands to straighten him out.​​​​

Softening your horse is an ongoing and continual process. It will never end, and it’s the first thing that goes, if we’re not paying attention! 

One percent improvement a day is a great goal.