If your horse is difficult to steer, it not only ruins your enjoyment of riding, but can also be dangerous. You can have a horse who steers easily and willingly without pulling into the bridle or running through your leg. Here are some tips and techniques to help you develop power steering in your horse.
1. Ride from back to front. Your horse’s engine is in the rear. So, steering him is much like steering a boat. Whether it’s the engine on a motor boat, the rudder on a sail boat or the paddle in a canoe, the direction the boat goes is determined from the back. Trying to steer your horse by pulling his front end around with the reins simply throws him off balance, pulls him out of alignment and creates resistance.
Your horse’s hindquarters direct his movement, and the energy flows diagonally. His left hip pushes his right shoulder; his right hip pushes his left shoulder. Bring your focus to feeling the movement of your horse’s hips to know where his hindquarters are. Then apply the following steps to steer him more easily.
2. Maintain alignment. Your horse needs to be aligned from nose to tail – even when bending – to be balanced and able to move forward comfortably. Your horse’s spine is like a garden hose: put a crick in it and the flow of energy – just like water in the hose – slows down or stops. Keep your horse’s nose lined up with the centre of his chest and his hips square with his shoulders.
Your own alignment is also important. Horses typically mirror the rider and vice versa. It’s difficult for a horse to maintain straightness when the rider is crooked. And riders often lose their own alignment when the horse is crooked. Two challenges for riders are keeping their hips and shoulders:
a) square so that one is not in front of the other;
b) level so that one is not lower than the other.
Align your position with your horse by keeping your belly button (your centre) aimed between his ears and your hips and shoulders square with his hips and shoulders.
3. Nose enters the turn last. Steering your horse like a bicycle by turning your shoulders into the turn causes you to pull on the inside rein while releasing the outside rein forward. This causes your horse to lose his alignment and balance and creates resistance. Your horse is straight when his hind and front legs are behind one another in one line. He walks in two tracks – one from both left legs and one from both right legs. He is in true bend when his bend matches the arc of the circle. Using your inside rein to create the turn causes his head to look in the direction of the turn, but his body to go in the opposite direction. He pushes out through his outside shoulder. It’s even worse if you try to correct him by taking your outside rein across his neck because both reins are pulling him in opposite directions. To experience how this feels, hold the bit in your hands while a friend pulls both reins in one direction.
You have probably seen (or perhaps experienced yourself) the scenario where the rider pulls harder and harder on the inside rein. Sometimes she even takes her inside hand behind her leg. She increases the pressure from her outside leg – even kicking, spurring or using a whip. The more she pulls, the more she loses her own alignment, the more the horse is bent out of shape and the more the horse pushes against her. Until the rider helps the horse become straight, it is very difficult for the horse to do what she is asking. If the rider releases the pressure on the inside rein, corrects her own alignment and uses her leg and seat aids to square up the horse’s hips and shoulders, the resistance will diminish and the horse will be able to do the turn more easily.
4. Reins create boundaries. Your reins create boundaries that tell your horse where not to go. The left rein prevents the horse’s nose from turning right. The right rein prevents it from turning left. If you give away your outside rein, your horse can over-bend through his neck and push through his outside shoulder.
Keep your hands level with each other as if connected to a straight bar across your horse’s withers. Your hands can move in and out on the bar to create open or direct rein aids, but they can’t move up, down, backwards or forwards. Your reins will open or close ‘doors.’ Given a choice between an open and a closed door, you probably choose the open door. It’s the easiest option. Your horse will make the same choice. To turn right, open your right rein like you’re opening a door. Picture that straight bar extending out from your horse’s withers and move your hand out (not back) to the side while keeping contact on the rein. Create a boundary with your outside rein by keeping your left hand on that imaginary bar closer to your horse’s withers. Don’t allow your left hand to move forward at all. Use your outside seat and leg aids in time with your horse’s movement to firmly, but gently guide him into the open right door.
5. Work the bend. In order to turn, your horse’s bend must match the arc of the turn. A stiff, unbending horse’s hindquarters will swing out. A counter-bent horse’s shoulders will fall into the turn. Encourage your horse to bend around your inside seat bone and leg by keeping your leg just behind the girth. Push his barrel over as you feel your inside hip drop. Help your horse to keep his hip in line by putting your outside leg back slightly and pushing his hip over when you feel your outside hip drop. If the inside shoulder is dropping in, push it over by using your upper inside leg as your horse’s shoulder moves forward. The horse can only respond to your push when his weight is off the leg you want him to move. When working on improving your horse’s bend from your seat and leg aids, recognize when he tries a little. Stop pushing him and reward him with a wither scratch and a short break before asking again.
Practice improving your steering by repeatedly making a small turn then a straight line then another small turn. Working this way helps your horse improve his suppleness and strength while you improve your aids, alignment and suppleness. In time, your horse will have power steering from your subtle seat and leg aids.