Keep Your Horse on the Rail
Trainer Carol Metcalf helps a reader guide her wayward mare back to the rail—and keep her there.
Position your horse anywhere along the rail without her drifting or dragging you toward the middle of the ring.
Q I have trouble keeping my Quarter Horse mare on the rail. She’s distracted by everything outside the ring and spooks at things she’s seen before. When she spooks, she drags me to the middle of the arena; then, I can’t get her back to the rail. Even when there’s nothing to set her off, she anticipates that there will be and drifts off the rail. I’ve tried to ease her fears by allowing her to stop and look at whatever she’s worried about, but the next time we come around the arena, she spooks at the same thing and runs to middle. How can I stop her from doing this?
ALESE WATSON, Michigan
A Horses stray from the rail for a number of reasons—sometimes spooking or the anticipation of spooking; other times, to avoid work. No matter the reason your mare avoids the rail, the key to correction is the same: Draw her attention away from any distractions and get her to focus on you. Then you use rein and leg cues to direct her back to the rail.
Here, I’ll explain how to recover (and keep) your mare’s attention, and how to effectively use your reins and legs to guide her back to the rail. I’ll also help you avoid a common mistake many riders make in this situation.
When a horse spooks or strays from the rail, your instinct might be to pull on your outside rein to direct your horse to confront the “spooky something.” However, this reinforces your horse’s fear and further prevents her from focusing on you.
When your mare spooks and drags you away from the rail, she’s acting on her natural instinct as a prey animal to flee from a potential threat. Many riders believe (or were taught) that when a horse spooks, they should alleviate the fear by making the horse approach whatever object triggered the reaction to see, smell, and thoroughly investigate it. When the trigger object is outside the ring, riders instinctively pull on their outside reins to direct their horses to the rail.
When I first started riding, I had the same instinct. I thought that encouraging a horse to face the “scary” object would acclimate him to it. But guess what? The next time we came around the arena, the horse spooked at the same object and fled to the middle of the ring. Asking a horse to confront something he’s fearful about as a means of desensitization makes sense to us, but horses rarely “just get over it.” By drawing your mare’s attention to the questionable object, you’re reinforcing her fear and telling her, “Yes! This is scary! You should worry about it!”
Also, consider what happens to your mare’s body position when you excessively use your outside rein to steer her back to the rail. Her head bends to the outside, causing her inside shoulder to drop. Also, her hindquarters is tipped to the inside, out of alignment with the rest of her body. In this position, she’s free to look outside the arena and fixate on anything that could trigger her to spook, which further prevents her from focusing on you.
Ask your mare to lead with her outside shoulder by lifting your inside rein and pulling your outside rein straight out from your hip.
Use both reins with varying amounts of pressure and different actions to guide your mare back to the rail, leading with her outside shoulder. Leading with her shoulder, as opposed to her face, will encourage her to focus on you instead of what’s going on outside
Before you begin, make sure you’re centered on her back, sitting squarely in the middle of your saddle so you’re not leaning to one side or the other—leaning to the outside encourages her to drift away from the rail because you’ll unintentionally apply pressure with your outside leg. Relax your legs and position them directly underneath your body while you maintain even pressure in both stirrups. Sit tall in the saddle, and keep your shoulders back and your eyes up. Looking ahead encourages your mare to stay straight along the rail and makes it easier for you to feel when she starts to drift.
When you feel your mare veer away from the rail, pick your inside rein straight up a few inches, while slightly pulling your outside rein directly out from your hip and applying pressure with your inside leg. The action on your inside rein will encourage your mare to lift her inside shoulder and balance through her hindquarters; the pressure on your outside rein will “open the door” and enable her to lead with her outside shoulder.
Engage both reins simultaneously to maintain your mare’s body alignment as she moves laterally toward the rail. If you only engage your inside rein or apply too much pressure on it, you will pull her onto a circle to the inside. Using only your outside rein enables her to look at whatever object she’s reacting to and pull her body out of alignment; the same will occur if you apply too much pressure on your outside rein. Finding the ideal balance of pressure on your reins is a give-and-take process, so experiment with varying amounts of pressure on each rein.
Troubleshooting: Overcoming Resistance
If your mare is stiff or resistant in her shoulders, simplify the exercise by working off the rail. In the middle of the arena, establish a large circle in either direction, and apply the same cues I described above to encourage her to supple through her ribcage and shoulders. If you’re circling to the left, for example, lift your left rein while opening your right rein straight out from your right hip and apply pressure with your left leg.
Once your mare willingly lifts and moves her right shoulder to the right, change directions and repeat the exercise. Work at a walk or a jog; if, however, you experience difficulty at the walk, progress to a jog. Many horses find it easier to move their shoulders with additional forward motion.
When you can move her shoulders in both directions, return to the rail. If she drifts, employ the cues to guide her back to the rail.
Carol Metcalf, Pilot Point, Texas, holds numerous AQHA world titles in Western pleasure, Western riding, reining, and working cow horse. She was named the 2000 AQHA Horsewoman of the Year and the 2013 NRHA Horsewoman of the Year.