Control of your horse’s feet without having to handle them, even if you don’t compete in halter, conformation or showmanship classes, will come in handy for vet work, photos or even stepping your horse off the hose during bath time.
To be competitive in a showmanship class, your goal will be to get the job done in a couple of seconds and move each foot only once. Nothing makes time stand still and faces flush more than trying to set up a distracted horse while he does the Texas shuffle as the judge waits…and waits.
Set ups are the least practiced manoeuvre, simply because it’s time-consuming work, boring in comparison to pivots and trotting in hand. Following are the ingredients necessary for an efficient set up:
Although shifting feet can be done with a bridle, halter and plain rope or, theoretically, any other signal you choose, show halters and lead shanks with chains are accepted show ring tack. A chain under the chin affords precision, delivering the signal at just the right amount and direction for the horse to determine which foot to move and how much. It is crucial, however, that your horse understands the language of the chain – especially one used under the chin. As a judge, I’ve seen one too many explosions as a horse encounters chain pressure that makes him feel scared and trapped. Before manipulating his feet, teach him to yield and flex to gentle chain pressure rather than bracing against it, beginning with a chain over the nose before training with one under the chin.
When a horse is tuned in to his handler, his ears will be independently active and listening. If they are pricked forward, he’s focused on something else. If stuck out to the side, he’s likely just tuned out. When you capture his attention by wiggling the shank a bit until he moves his ears and yields his chin backward a bit, he’s “picked up the telephone” and is ready to receive your message.
If your horse is distracted during a set up attempt and is surprised when you increase the pressure, you must regain his focus. Use a graduated, spongy-type pressure rather than the dead weight of a heavy hand to do so.
Move the hind left (near) foot
Leave the right hind (off) foot in place. It’s the foot he’ll “plant” for pivots, so it makes the most sense for this one to stay put. First, lower his neck to shift weight to his forehand, freeing up the back leg to move. This will also help him to differentiate between the various head positions he’ll associate with the other feet. Then direct the shank down and forward to shift the foot up or down and back to step back.
If your horse moves a front foot, ignore it. Simply don’t release until he lifts the back foot. He’ll associate a correct move with your timely release.
If he moves the right (off) hind, don’t release/reward this move. Don’t step the right hind back where it was. Just move the left hind to match it. Eventually, he’ll learn that the right hind doesn’t move – it sets, creating the guideline for the other three.
If he moves the foot a big step, never stopping next to the right hind, release the shank the moment he lifts his heels off the ground. Like failing to lift a foot off the accelerator, missing the timing of your release always gives you more than you want.
Move a front foot
Select which front foot you want to move by determining which one is least centred under your horse’s shoulders. First, lift the head up and over, displacing the weight to the opposite leg. The head will come toward you to manipulate the right front, and away from you to shift the left (near) front. Next, shift the pressure rearward or frontward, depending on whether you want the foot to step up or back.
If your horse moves the wrong foot, make sure that your signal is clear. Head placement may need to be exaggerated in the initial stages and eventually more subtle.
If he doesn’t move foot at all, a dressage whip can help – tickle his knee with the whip as you hold the head in the correct position.
Breathe out and relax your body language, shifting your eyes up and away from your horse’s feet. This tells him to park and prevents anticipation.
Practice, practice, practice
Ten to 15 set ups a day are a good guideline and can be done on the way out to the paddock or during grooming.