Whether you ride for pleasure or in competition, English or western, in speed classes or judged events, in the arena or on the trail, you have to ride corners, circles or turns. Wide turns or tight turns, the elements that affect how well your horse turns are:
a) Your horse’s suppleness and how well he can bend. In order to turn, your horse must be able to bend through his body while staying straight and supple through his spine (from poll to tail), keeping his hips and shoulders aligned. His body should mirror the line you are travelling. The tighter the turn, the more he needs to lower his hindquarters (bringing his centre of gravity further back), lift his back and lighten his front end. If your horse only bends through his neck, he won’t maintain straightness, his hips will swing out, and his shoulder will fall in or vice versa.
b) Your balance and alignment. Your balance and position in the saddle always affect your horse’s performance. If you are crooked and unbalanced, so is your horse. To be balanced, your weight must be equal over both seat bones and down both legs, and your shoulders square with your hips. Use a wall mirror or an observer to check your position frequently.
c) How clear your cues are and how well your horse understands them. For tips on steering your horse with your seat and leg aids, refer to my article ‘Give Your Horse Power Steering’ in the March/April issue of Horse-Canada.
d) Physical condition. When dealing with a training issue, always eliminate the possibility of a physical cause. Even if your horse appears sound, there could be a chiropractic issue such as a misaligned rib, vertebra, or joint problem making it painful for him to bend his body in a specific way. Mouth, teeth and jaw problems (i.e. abscesses, sharp points, ulcers, etc.) also cause pain and resistance.
e) Tack fit. Make a regular habit of checking your tack carefully to ensure that it fits properly. Also, check for signs of damage such as worn or compacted padding or fleece on saddles or protruding sharp edges, points or pinching joints on bits.
Following are some tips to help you get your horse turning on a dime. It is best to practice on your good or easiest side first to get comfortable with the application and timing of your aids. Inside and outside refer to the horse’s bend. So, when your horse has a left bend, his left leg is the inside leg and his right leg is the outside leg.
1. Keep your weight even in both seat bones and down both legs. Aim your belly button between your horse’s ears and keep your shoulders square with your hips. Feel your hips dropping and then moving forward in time with the swing of your horse’s barrel (drop) and hips (forward).
2. Create true bend. Your horse should mirror the line or arc you are riding. For a left turn, your horse should bend around your left leg. This becomes your inside leg. As your left hip drops, gently push with your inside seat bone and lower leg. You are encouraging your horse to swing his barrel out a bit further to create more bend. It is a bit like pushing a swing higher and higher. Keep your hip, knee and ankle joints supple. Your outside leg and seat bone simply follow the movement of your horse’s barrel, allowing it to swing out.
3. When your horse has come into true bend, look in the direction you want to turn, but make sure you can always see your horse’s outside ear in your peripheral vision. If you turn your head to look too far around your turn, your outside shoulder and hip will come forward and you and your horse will lose your straightness. Continue using your inside leg as in point #2 to keep your horse in the left bend.
4. Turn your horse into the bend with your outside leg. If your horse is difficult to turn, close your outside upper leg (thigh to knee) and push gently as your horse’s outside shoulder swings forward. This is when his outside front foot is off the ground and you can move it over.
5. If your horse is pushing out of the turn with his outside shoulder, make sure that his nose is lined up with the centre of his chest and not being pulled into the turn. If he is over-flexed through the neck, correct him by bringing your outside shoulder back and softening your inside elbow. You may also need to bring your inside hip forward slightly to correct your own alignment. You may also need to push your horse’s inside hip out to correct the pushing outside shoulder. Bring your inside (left) lower leg back slightly and push when you feel your left hip dropping. This is when your horse’s inside hind foot is off the ground and you can influence his movement.
6. If your horse is falling into the turn with his inside shoulder, make sure that his nose is not tipping out of the turn. If it is, bring it back to centre by bringing your inside shoulder back and softening your outside elbow. You may also need to bring your outside hip forward to correct your alignment. Close your inside upper leg to block your horse’s inside shoulder. Push with your upper leg when his inside shoulder swings forward. Once he has moved his shoulder, use your lower leg to ask for the correct bend again. You may also need to push his outside hip over to correct his straightness. Bring your outside leg back slightly and use your lower leg to push when you feel your outside hip drop.
As you improve your alignment, balance and straightness, you will be able to give more clear and consistent cues to your horse while keeping him balanced and straight. As your horse’s suppleness improves, he will be able to execute smaller and faster turns more easily and willingly. At first, you will feel like you are micro-managing your horse’s every step. But it will be worth all the effort when he responds to your most subtle cues and turns as if he is reading your thoughts.