The most common mistakes people make with this exercise are failing to continue driving the horse all the way up to the fence, and pulling on the reins instead of letting the fence do the work.
Common problems in “fencing,” and how to fix them.
If the horse:
• Wiggles on the approach.
If your horse breaks gait, falls out of lead, or won’t stay perpendicular to the fence as he nears it, just continue up to the fence as best you can, then stop and rest.
Over time, as your horse comes to understand what’s being asked of him, this problem will resolve itself.
• Raises his head.
If his neck comes up in anticipation of reaching the fence, just continue to drive with your legs in neutral position and bump gently on the reins, as you normally would, to bring his head back down.
If he starts speeding up on his own instead of responding to your cues for speed, just take the slack out of the reins and ask him to soften through the jaw, then draw him down to a trot, then a walk, then a stop, then a back-up, all in about six or so strides.
Sit there for a while and let him relax. Whatever you do, don’t jerk on the reins—this only frightens him and compounds the problem. Jerking will just make him raise his head and brace through the neck more.
Another way to deal with it is to change your plan and simply slow down and turn at the fence and keep going. Often, it’s the stop that worries a horse, so by taking the stop away for a bit, he can relax. (In the meantime, you can work on Runarounds, which I’ve already written about.)
After he’s relaxed, have another try at the fence and remember that fencing isn’t beneficial for all horses. If you have one that doesn’t seem to improve, there are a lot of other ways to work on your rundowns and stops.
Common problems in the run-around, and how to fix them.
If the horse:
If he starts speeding up on his own instead of responding to your cues for speed, break him down to a stop then back up. Then just sit for a minute. If that’s not helpful, make him collect up and slow to the last speed he was comfortable at, and continue doing the run around exercise.
Gradually, he will get more comfortable with speed and not make such a big deal about it (especially if you don’t!).
If he starts to lean during the build-speed part of the exercise (as toward the barn or gate), draw him back and change course about 30 degrees to overcorrect the lean, then continue on that line (see diagram). If he leans again, make another 30-degree correction, and so on.
If you wind up going in the opposite direction altogether, that’s okay—it’s the sort of “healthy confusion” that keeps your horse guessing and therefore paying attention to you. As you can, pick up the track of your Runaround again, and keep going.
Dropping a shoulder/falling out of lead:
This commonly happens when you ask for the slowdown if your horse doesn’t engage both hocks equally. To correct it, don’t make a big fuss, but in the space of about six strides, softly draw him to you and break him to a trot, then a walk, then whoa, then back him up for a bit and ask him to soften his jaw to the reins.
Resume the exercise, but this time, before asking him to slow down, make sure you’ve softened him in the face (gentle bumping on the reins if need be) before applying your off-lead leg (i.e., if he’s on the left lead, use your right leg) just behind neutral position to drive him up so he can’t fall out of the lead. Then, more gradually than you did when he fell out of lead, ask him to slow down.
He’ll get the hang of it. It’s uncomfortable for the to fall out of lead, but it’s hard work to collect, so sometimes they opt for the easy way.
Don’t make a big deal about it.
Remember, don’t major in the minor things!
The quality of a horse’s stop is directly related to the quality of his rundown. This exercise, in which you build to rundown speed, slow and collect instead of stopping, then go around the end of your arena and build to rundown speed again, is perfect for working on your rundown without the wear and tear of too many stops.
It also helps “take the brace out” of your horse’s stop as he learns to “downshift” his weight back on to his hocks to slow down, just as he must when he actually stops. If his first response to being slowed is to drop onto his front end, that’s what he’ll do when he stops, and that’s exactly what you don’t want. By not stopping, but instead just downshifting, you can reprogram that response.
The Runaround also helps you develop greater speed in your rundown. Many horses have a low “do not exceed speed” (if you do exceed it he’ll start to think he’s a wild horse!) By pushing your horse up to that speed, backing off and asking him to collect up and soften, then nudging him up to it again, you can desensitize him to going fast. He learns to “stay with you” and continue to respond as you “pour the coal on.” Every horse can develop a higher do-not-exceed speed, but some will remain more balanced and in control than others. This exercise helps your horse achieve his best, most controlled rundown speed.
Finally, if you practice the Runaround properly, your horse will naturally begin to slide in his stops. How far he slides will ultimately be determined by his genetics, your feel and timing, the quality of the ground, the nature of his hind sliding plates, and how he feels (i.e., whether or not he’s sore). But working on the Runaround will improve the quality of his rundowns, which will naturally improve the quality of his stop. In other words, work more on your run, and the stop and slide will take care of itself.
Ride the “build speed” part of the Runaround down the long side of your arena (see diagram). Stay in the middle third of the arena, at least 20 feet in from the fence line so you have room to make corrections (to be covered in my next article). Ride the slow-collected part around the ends of your arena. As you encourage your horse to build speed, be sure to look up and straight ahead, and keep equal pressure on his sides; this will help him stay straight between your legs and reins. Ride with purpose, so that he keeps one ear on you, indicating he’s paying attention. Make sure he’s increasing his speed only when you ask him to—not of his own volition.
If he’s responding well, ride as if you’re going to run all the way to the next ZIP code. Then, as the end of the arena approaches, sit down in the saddle and gather your horse up—think of downshifting an expensive car. Pick up your reins as necessary, but keep your legs slightly closed around him to keep him driving from behind. From all the work you’ve done to this point, when you pick up the reins he should soften in the jaw and say, “What would you like me to do?”
Keep him soft and collected as you slow down on the straight line at the end of the long side and as you go around the short end, then build speed again down the other long side. Continue on like this until he’s doing it well, stop and rest for a bit, then go on. Over time and multiple practice sessions, you’ll find he’ll be able to reach higher speeds without getting “wobbly in the wheels” or falling out of lead.
We used to think “fencing” (using the fence as a barrier to help get a horse sliding in his stop) made a horse bracy in the front end. But I think we just weren’t doing it correctly.
Done properly, fencing can help teach your horse to run straight and true. This is especially important in a short arena, where your run must be as reasonably long as it can be. If your horse begins to anticipate the upcoming fence and starts to shut down, you’ll never get a good stop. “Fencing” teaches him to keep going toward the fence until you give the stop signal.
A second reason you “fence” is to encourage the horse to drive up underneath himself (push from behind) while giving in the face, raising his shoulders, and rounding his back (in other words, increase his collection—think of that accordion) without pulling on his face while sliding. You let the fence do the hard work, and you’re not the “bad guy.”
A third reason for this exercise is to help a horse who’s just beginning to slide. Once he’s loping straight in his approach to the fence, building speed as his rider dictates (never choosing his own speed), and maintaining that speed as he nears the fence, he’ll begin to understand how to keep “running” in front as he starts to slide in the back, to keep from colliding with the fence.
I’ll explain how to fence your horse at a lope; you can also perform it at a trot for the first few times.
Begin by loping your horse around for a bit until he’s no longer fresh and is beginning to think about wanting to slow down and stop. Then lope a straight line slowly through the middle of the arena toward the end fence (be sure it’s a safe one). Use your legs and reins to keep him straight and perpendicular to the fence. Continue to drive with your legs right up to the fence. When you reach it, don’t pull on the reins; let the fence stop your horse. Then stand and rest for a moment, giving your horse a pat. You want the fence to become “a good place to be” in your horse’s mind. Then repeat the entire sequence.
As your horse becomes comfortable loping straight up to the fence and stopping, you can begin to say “Whoa” just before the stop.
Over time, as your horse’s confidence in this exercise grows, begin to build speed on the approach to the fence. If your horse starts to get nervous, go back to the last speed at which he was completely comfortable, then build even more slowly from there. And, whenever you’re stopped at the fence, spend as much time as needed until your horse is calm and relaxed.