One of the most effective ways to communicate with your horse is to maintain good, “balanced” control of his feet. A horse’s instinct is to move whenever he is troubled or confused. If you are able to move his feet in a direction of your choice, however, you will be able to help relieve his stress in tough situations and teach him many manoeuvres.
Once you start to concentrate on your horse’s feet, you can focus on finding “balance,” in which your horse moves forwards, backwards, left and right under the same amount of pressure. Try the following sequence of manoeuvres to help improve your horse’s balance. Remember to focus on the feet, isolate their movement and reward any effort. Note that it is easier to start from the ground (as you can see your horse’s feet), and then you can graduate to the saddle, where you will have to feel the feet.
At first, you will probably find that his front end is more difficult to move than his back end, and that backing him up is more difficult than sending him forward. This imbalance is common and will improve with practice.
Try this sequence:
• Send the horse in a circle
• Turn on the forehand
• Turn on the haunches
• Back up
• Side pass
Motivation to Move
It is helpful to use steps or “phases” when applying pressure to motivate your horse. I like to use: Lead It, Lift It, Swing It and Touch It.
Lead It – Focus on the direction or body part you want your horse to move.
Lift It – Activate and pick up your cueing aid, such as hand, rope, stick, etc…
Swing It – Swing or rotate your aid to let your horse know it will be applied soon.
Touch It – Apply the aid at the level of pressure needed to move your horse, progressing from a light touch.
*See the March/April issue of Horse Canada for a detailed explanation of these four common phases.
Using this approach gives your horse time to prepare to move his feet before pressure is applied. Always offer your horse an easy, comfortable option first, then follow up with increased pressure to motivate his feet. If you do not get the desired result, repeat your phases.
Steps to Finding Balance
These manoeuvres will serve to improve balance in your horse. When executing them, it is important to stay aware of your body language, focus, timing and release.
I like to keep my horse at a predetermined distance from me – approximately one to two feet (although when doing the “circle” exercise, the horse can be farther away). You should always face the direction you want the horse to go, and focus on the body part you are trying to move.
When you first attempt these manoeuvres, just getting a step or two out of your horse is fine. As you advance, you will look for more ‘try’ and softness, and can ask for more steps. When you feel that you are at a good spot to reward your horse’s effort, release the pressure, relax your body language and hold still.
Once the horse has stopped, pet him, and repeat the process again. I first focus on moving the feet, then on getting softness, before I reward for a manoeuvre. I build these exercises in stages. The basic manoeuvres may only take a couple of sessions, but it may take several months to perfect them.
Always start with the lightest aid possible before moving onto the next phase. If the horse requires more or less pressure or phases make adjustments.
Step 1 – Circle
Send your horse in a circle. Ask him to go at a consistent speed and maintain softness on the line.
Phases for a circle to the right:
Lead It: Reach your right hand out to the right while focusing on your horse’s neck and shoulder.
Lift It: Lift your left hand, which has the tail of your lead rope, and step toward your horse’s shoulder.
Swing It: Swing the tail of your lead rope toward the shoulder.
Touch It: Touch your horse with the end of your lead rope on the neck or shoulder.
Step 2 – Turn on the Forehand
Step toward your horse’s hindquarters and ask him to do a turn on the forehand.
Phases for a turn on the forehand to the left:
Lead It: Stand at your horse’s right ribcage and bend his head toward his hip with your right hand.
Lift It: While focusing on the hip, lift your left hand, which has the tail of your lead rope.
Swing It: Swing the tail of your lead rope, aiming toward the hip.
Touch It: Touch your horse on the right hip with the end of the lead rope.
Step 3 – Turn on the Haunches
Step toward your horse’s front end and ask him to do a turn on the haunches.
Phases for a turn on the haunches to the right:
Lift It: Lift both of your hands toward your horse’s head and right shoulder.
Swing It: Wave your hands in a small circle.
Touch It: Touch your horse lightly with your hands. Your hands should be wide apart – one on the left shoulder and one on the side of his jaw or nose.
Step 4 – Back Up
Ask your horse to back up with softness. Wait to release the pressure until your horse flexes at the pole and also moves his feet in reverse (looking for just a couple of steps to start). Note that this exercise employs different phases from the previous ones.
Phases for backing up:
Lead It: Reach your left hand out to the left toward the knot on the halter (where the lead rope attaches to the halter) under the chin.
Hold it: Hold onto the knot under the halter. Use all your fingers to grip the knot, with your thumb pointed down.
Wiggle it: Work the halter back and forth to the left and right so that the halter rubs lightly on your horse’s nose. If you are using a flat halter, this will not be as effective.
Push it: Push directly towards your horse’s chest, while still holding on to the knot under the halter. As soon as the horse takes a couple steps backwards open your hand (releasing the pressure).
Do not stand directly in front of your horse (always stand off to one side). If the horse won’t back up at all, you can tap lightly on his chest with your lead rope.
Step 5 – Side Pass
Ask your horse to side pass by asking the shoulder to move a couple of steps, followed by the hindquarters a couple of steps, until all four feet are stepping sideways. It is helpful to position your horse perpendicular to a fence or arena wall to start.
Phases for side passing to the right:
Lead It: Reach your left hand out in the direction you want to side pass, while stepping toward your horse.
Lift It: Lift your right hand, which has the tail of your lead rope, while focusing on your horse’s shoulder. This will encourage your horse to walk sideways, to the right, along the fence line in front of you.
Swing it: Swing the tail of your lead rope, either toward the shoulder or hip, depending on which end is closer to you.
Touch it: Touch your horse with the lead rope, either on the left shoulder or hip, depending on which is closer.
Once the horse begins to move, you may have to make some adjustments. For example, if the shoulder moves too far, and the horse tries to pull away a little, get the hip to move over by swinging the lead rope toward the hind end. Once the horse is moving evenly (shoulder to hip), just focus on moving the rib cage. Do not stand too close to the hip when moving the hind end. Stay up near the shoulder and out of “kicking range.” You should have a long enough lead rope (12, 13 or 14 feet), which will enable you to keep a safe distance
Again, if your horse does what you want on any of the phases, release the pressure (to reward your horse). As time goes on, you will look for more steps and more try.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
I like to think of a bubble of space around myself and another bubble around my horse. As my bubble moves towards his, he should yield. As my bubble leaves his, he should be drawn to me, just like two bubbles that are attached. It should not be a constant scrimmage for space between us (where he pushes on me and I push back).
Another thing to remember is that your goal is to “cause” and “allow” not “make” and “let” your horse move. You are not trying to close a door on your horse and “make” him move. Rather you are aiming to open a door and have him move because he is drawn to the option you have presented.
Eventually, these doors will contain more advanced moves: stand and be still, lead changes, spins, stops, transitions, lifting the back, extending, two tracking, half passing etc… The “open doors” you present will also represent concepts: trust, respect, try, engage, focus. This feel takes time, but it
is well worth the effort in the long-run.