In previous articles, we have discussed many ways in which you can influence your horse’s mind. This time, we will talk about the physical aspects of manoeuvring your horse’s body in order to achieve an even greater level of balance, control and partnership.
From the Ground Up
I like to focus on the feeling of my horse being ‘weightless’. I want my horse to move forward, backward, left and right, equally well and with ease.
There are many things you do in your day-to-day routine to encourage your horse to be in better physical balance and to be responsive. For instance, if part of your normal daily routine is to lead your horse out to pasture in the morning and catch him later in the day to lead him back to the barn, use this as a training opportunity. Instead of just leading your horse from the barn to the pasture, you could back him, or side pass him all or part of the way. Most horses lead well because they are normally led everywhere. I go to many different barns throughout the year and very seldom do I see horses backed or side passed while being handled. You can also move your horse in different directions around you while grooming him, or back him into the wash stall, for example. Making small changes like these while handling your horse will add up and help you in your riding.
When it comes time for more advanced training, such as developing a better stop or lead change, you will find that you may run into difficulties when your horse’s physical awareness is not what it could be. A horse that does not back well, for example, will seldom stop well and a horse that does not side pass well will seldom change leads well.
Seeing every moment as a training opportunity will also help reduce your horse’s stress level during those times when you are putting a lot of concentrated effort into training specific manoeuvres. Making the most of every opportunity spreads the lessons out, instead of simply making things intense for short periods of time while riding.
This is an under saddle exercise I use to help soften a horse through his body and improve balance in his feet (or body awareness). I call it the 1-2-3-4-Spin Exercise.
Begin by walking in a small circle. While on this circle, look for your horse to be soft and willing as you ask him to gently bend to the inside. The bend in his body should match the arc of the circle you are on.
Use your inside leg and outside rein to ask your horse to match this arc by applying outside rein and inside leg. Your outside leg is used for motion, while your inside leg establishes the bend.
At first, your horse may be slightly confused, so remember that patience is key. Wait for the slightest try and then simultaneously release the leg and rein to let your horse know he has found the right answer.
If your horse struggles and just cannot figure out what you are asking, give him at least a few minutes to try – you can always reach down and help by using the inside rein. However, if you show him the answer too quickly, it will take much longer for your horse to figure out that the inside leg and outside rein means “bend to the inside of the circle.”
Once your horse is walking nicely on this circle, ask the shoulder to cross to the outside of the circle while keeping the same bend in the body. Increase the size of the circle by moving your inside leg slightly forward and increasing leg pressure until you feel the shoulder move out onto a larger circle.
Imagine walking a five-metre circle and then increasing your circle to 10 metres by gently drifting out as you continue to circle. The key is to maintain the inside bend as the size of the circle increases. At first you may find it necessary to use the inside rein to help maintain the bend.
The third part is normally the most difficult; do not let yourself get too frustrated here and be forewarned that it can take some time and muscle development before you and your horse get this part.
You will now ask your horse to step underneath with his hindquarters – towards the inside of the circle – while maintaining the same arc in his body. Think of asking your horse to side pass back into the center of the circle.
To execute this part of the exercise you will need to keep your inside leg forward to help keep the shoulder up while you slide your outside leg slightly back, thereby pushing your horse’s hip into the middle of the circle.
Use your reins to help keep your horse from moving out of the circle altogether and to also maintain the arc in his body – be aware this will likely be most difficult part.
At first, it might be necessary to allow your horse to straighten his body, but eventually the goal will be to complete every part of this exercise with the gentle inside bend you established at the beginning.
Once you are ready to move on, ask the front feet to move around the hind feet (towards the inside of the circle) by opening your inside leg and using your outside leg and outside rein to help push the front feet over into the turn.
Use your reins to keep the horse slightly bent while also preventing him from walking forward.
From here you will then ‘release’ your horse into the spin. Open your inside leg (the ‘door’) and allow your horse to straighten his neck. His front feet will move around his hindquarters into a turn-around or ‘spin’. Because you are doing the more difficult manoeuvres first, he will see the ‘spin’ as a release of pressure and will eagerly want to do it.
Once your horse develops an understanding for this exercise, the ‘spin’ will become one of the easiest manoeuvres as opposed to one of the hardest (as is often the case).
If you remember and use the concepts from the previous articles, you have taught your horse to search for the release by actively trying to find answers. When you structure any exercise in this manner, your horse will willingly search for the easiest answer since you have consistently offered him options – as opposed to only one choice – which will help further his development.
In this particular exercise, you are helping your horse to balance his feet and develop softness in his body. In the end, you are also providing an outlet that would normally be a harder choice but by using this article’s approach, the spin should be easier than the other manoeuvers.
Depending on the horse and/or the day, certain elements may need more work than others. Just remember to get out there and have fun with your horse.
I hope you have enjoyed this series of articles and I look forward to writing a new series next year. Until then, enjoy the ride!