Riding requires a partnership between horse and rider – sometimes you have to give and other times you have to take. Most of us tend to micromanage our horses, “helping” them through every movement with our aids, and rarely allowing them to show us how capable they are of staying on task…or not. The following exercise has been designed to boost willingness and confidence between horse and rider. It will help you develop a “sharing point” for the responsibility of executing manoeuvres in a soft and focused way. If your horse “checks out” when you stop controlling him with your aids, or gets stiff and resistant when you apply aids, then this exercise can help you.
Typically, when we ask a horse to canter a circle, for example, we have a tendency to hold him on the circle every stride with our aids. We have some contact on the reins, with our legs firmly on, to make sure he doesn’t drop in, slow down, speed up, or get his head up too high. The horse gets used to this management, and can get confused and not know what to do when we stop helping. Then, when we pick up the reins or put our legs back on to correct him, he can have a hard time accepting guidance again. This cycle can lead to stiffness and resistance in your horse. It is important, therefore, to practice the giving and taking of responsibility in a variety of situations in order to develop understanding and harmony between horse and rider.
I call this exercise “Help Me, Help You,” or the “50/50 Drill,” and once you and your horse get the hang of it, you’ll find you have to help your horse less, and he will accept your aids with softness.
Start with a 15- to 30-metre circle, at the trot, in an arena, or round pen if you feel more comfortable in a smaller area. For the first circle, ask your horse to collect by taking contact on the reins and squeezing his belly gently with your legs. Wait for a “give” on the reins – you will feel his head “soften” and lower, followed by a little slack in the reins. You might also feel him lift his back, and maintain an even stride.
When you get back to the starting point of the circle, you will release your rein and leg pressure for an entire lap. Yes, for one entire lap, you MUST leave him alone! If he slows or strays, you can guide him a little (with a loose rein and gentle leg pressure), but, ideally, just leave him alone – even if he makes some minor mistakes such as leaning in, lifting his head too high or changing speed.
At the start of your third lap, take hold of the reins again, keep your legs on, and ask your horse to “soften” for the entire lap. On the fourth lap, release all of your pressure again and seek to maintain your speed on the circle.
When you feel more confident, you can repeat the exercise at the canter.
Think of this practice time like: one lap for me, one lap for you, one lap for me, one lap for you. This is what it should look and feel like:
One lap for ME (the rider): your horse must be extra soft. You should feel this in your hands. If your horse is pulling on you, he is not soft. He should lift his back up – you will feel this in your seat and someone on the ground will be able to see it. He should also maintain good impulsion and stay focused. During this lap, your horse will learn to accept the pressure of your reins and legs for the entire lap. When you first begin the exercise, he may not get soft during the first lap, so make sure you wait until he does. Even a tiny “give” is fine, and it might take more than a lap. Then give him a full lap on a loose rein. Once he figures the exercise out, he will start softening quicker and quicker. The key is to hold him for a lap, or longer if he does not “give” at all on the first lap, then release him for a lap. Resist the urge to micromanage your horse. We are not looking to be pretty, we are looking to be effective.
One lap for YOU (the horse): your horse holds his head wherever he wants it. He just has to maintain consistent motion for the manoeuvre (in this case, trotting or cantering on a circle). During this lap, you will learn to accept whatever your horse is willing to give for the entire lap.
This conversation will continue during every lap until you feel your horse (and you) begin to soften and accept the transitions between laps. Your horse will begin to maintain better frame on his own – his head will start to lower without rein contact – and your need to micromanage will lessen.
Your horse will also start to accept your help when it is “your” lap. This give and take will become much smoother and more readily accepted as the two of you begin to share responsibility. The sequence will eventually create a rhythm and seamless transition between your lap and his lap. You will know you have found the “sharing point” when your horse does not speed up on his lap, or throw this head up on your lap when you take contact on the reins.
You can do this exercise in the back up, turn around or side pass, while tracking a cow or going over a jump, for example. The key is finding the 50/50 “sharing point” for each manoeuvre. If it is the turn around, signal the horse with your legs and reins for one revolution, then just sit quietly for the next revolution (guiding slightly if necessary). If it is in the back up, use your reins and legs for a few strides, then don’t use your aids for a few strides. If it is tracking a cow, keep your horse centered on the cow with your legs and reins for 10 seconds, then let them track on a loose rein for 10 seconds.
You will find that not only is this a great exercise for your horse to learn to accept your pressure and guidance, but even more importantly, you will learn to accept your horse’s willingness to stay in the manoeuvre all on his own. The combination of these skills will make your partnership stronger and your horse more willing to accept your help.
Until next time, enjoy the journey.