Does your horse clearly understand what you ask him to do? If your riding-communication skills could benefit from more precision and Lynn Palm’s philosophy, read on.
You can communicate with your horse via three natural aids: your seat, legs, and hands. Using them properly, and in the right sequence, makes a huge difference in how well and how quickly your horse responds. The foundation to giving clear cues is good balance and a solid seat.
Think of your cues as though you’re producing a great movie. Your seat is the director, while your legs and hands are the supporting cast. If you tend to use your legs and hands, but not your seat, your cues will be unclear, leading to inconsistent responses from your horse.
More specifically, if you grip with your legs, kick and spur your horse indiscriminately, and jerk on the reins, your horse will respond at first, but will likely end up resenting such harsh, unclear cues. He’ll express his resentment by tossing his head, swishing his tail, balking, rearing, and running through the bit – undesirable and unsafe behavior in a trail horse.
But learn how to use all three aids effectively, and you’ll get a much quicker, lighter and more consistent response from your horse, leading to greater control on and off the trail.
The following exercises are designed to help you cue your horse clearly and effectively. First, practice each step in an enclosed arena with good footing. Then progress to coordinating your cues on the trail. Before you begin, your seat should be solid at the walk and trot. If you’re still working on your seat at the lope/canter, take heart: These exercises will help by giving you confidence.
Step #1: Use Your Seat Aid to Increase Speed
Your seat is a useful aid. Your horse can feel your seat/hip action through the muscles that run from his poll, down through his back and into his hind end, which controls his speed. Use your seat cue first whenever you want to increase speed within a gait, or when transitioning to a faster gait.
To use your seat clearly as an aid, you must be able to move your hips back and forth with your horse’s motion, as discussed in Part 2. To increase speed, increase this forward-and-back motion.
After you give this seat cue, you can offer leg-aid support, but just give a light squeeze. Think of holding a ball between your legs and squeezing enough to hold it in place without compressing the ball.
“When asking for an increase in speed, riders often use their legs first, with a quick, pinching action,” Palm says. “But if you use your seat first, you won’t have to be as aggressive with your leg aids.”
To use your seat to ask for a lope/canter from the trot, picture yourself in a swing, then mimic the “scooping” motion of your hips you’d do to go higher. Support this seat cue by applying light pressure against both sides of your horse simultaneously.
As you practice giving seat cues, you’ll have to exaggerate the motion at first for your horse to understand what you’re telling him. When he “gets it” and responds accordingly, you’ll find your hip/seat movements can be very subtle.
Step #2: Use Your Seat Aid to Decrease Speed
Also use your seat first when you ask your horse to decrease speed, whether within a gait or to slow to a slower gait.
When you’d like your horse to slow, first stop your hips from moving by tightening your lower stomach muscles and buttocks muscles. Then add leg- and hand-cue support: Lightly touch his sides with both legs, and slightly lift the reins upward, between 6 and 12 inches above his neck.
This upward rein movement encourages your horse to put less weight on his front end (that is, be lighter on the forehand) and more weight on the hind end. The more weight he places on his powerful hindquarters – his “engine” – the better he’ll slow and stop.
If you apply these cues and your horse fails to immediately slow/stop, bring him into a slight turn, then repeat the cues. It’s easier to slow your horse if he’s turning slightly, rather than going straight, because his forward motion is impeded.
Now, practice using your seat as the primary cue to increase and decrease your horse’s speed. Change gaits, and change speed within a gait. For instance, go from a walk to a jog to a trot to an extended trot. Then stop your hip motion to slow to a jog, then a walk. When you’re ready, practice using primarily your seat to move into a lope/canter, then back down to a trot.
Step #3: Use Your Leg Aids for Support
As mentioned, your legs serve to support your seat cues. They control the two-thirds of your horse’s body from the withers on back. Specifically, your right leg aid controls the right side of your horse’s barrel back to his right hip and right hind leg. Your left leg aid controls his left side similarly.
For leg cues to be effective, your horse must first learn to move away from pressure (or yield). Because he’s a flight animal, this response will come naturally to him.
First, teach your horse to move away from pressure on the ground. Leave the saddle on, but remove the bridle, and outfit your horse in a halter and lead rope. Find an enclosed area with good footing.
Stand at your horse’s left shoulder. With your left hand, hold the lead rope so his head is very slightly turned toward you. With your right hand, apply pressure on his side in the exact place where your leg would contact him, about two inches behind the cinch or girth.
The idea isn’t to spin your horse in a circle, but simply to have him yield to the pressure placed on his side. Ask him to move his hindquarters around his forehand. When he yields to pressure on his left side, move to his right side, switch hands, and repeat the exercise.
Bridle your horse, and practice the same lesson in the saddle. Walk along the rail in a counterclockwise direction, and ask him to yield to left-leg pressure. (The leg you ask him to move away from is known as the inside leg.)
Maintain slight contact with your right or supporting leg (also known as the outside leg). The supporting leg helps your horse’s body stay straight. It also encourages him to keep moving forward and maintain even speed while moving laterally (to the side) with his hind legs. After several successful left-leg yields, change direction, and ask him to yield to right-leg pressure.
As mentioned, to ask your horse to increase speed, apply the seat cue described in Step 1, then exert even pressure with both legs just behind the cinch or girth.
If he doesn’t respond promptly, move your legs back slightly and press again. This is better than just squeezing or kicking him in the same spot, which would be easier for him to ignore.
To ask your horse to decrease speed or stop, apply the seat cue described in Step 2, then just touch his sides with your legs. Because your legs help control his hind end, such support helps keep him balanced as he slows or stops so he stays light in the forehand.
Practice increasing and decreasing speed within a gait and when changing gaits. Focus on supporting your horse with your legs without using abrupt or vigorous movements.
Step #4: Use Light Hand/Rein Aids
Renowned horsewoman and trainer Jane Savoie says that riders spend a lifetime learning not to pull, and Palm frequently reminds her students of this fact. “The tendency is to grasp the reins and pull back towards your body,” Palm explains. “But the best way to control your horse is with a light sideways rein motion.”
Your hands control the front one-third of your horse’s body, from his poll back to his withers. They work together to apply two basic reining cues: open (direct) rein and neck (indirect) rein. Both methods give you total control of his forehand (and thus, his direction of go); the key is learning to guide him with lightness.
For a turn to the right, apply the open rein cue by moving your right hand sideways to the right. This action applies direct pressure on your horse’s mouth, via the bit. At the same time, apply a neck rein cue by moving your left hand sideways to the right, so that it touches your horse’s neck.
Your horse should give to direct rein pressure; that is, he should move his head in the direction you’re cueing. He should also move away from indirect rein pressure, into the direction your open rein is cueing.
As you apply these rein aids, keep your hands level about the height of the saddle horn if you’re riding Western, or in general, about six inches above his withers. At first, you may need to move your rein hand 6 to 10 inches to the right or left, but once your horse learns what you’re asking, you’ll need to move your hand only a couple of inches.
When you want to decrease speed or stop, apply the seat and leg cues described in the previous three steps, then reinforce your request by applying a slight pressure to the reins in an upward motion no more than 12 inches above your horse’s withers.
Practice these rein aids, and you’ll be able to use them with lightness. Use as little pressure as necessary when slowing or stopping. No jerking and pulling! Make it a point to use slight rein pressure to support your seat and leg cues, and you’ll get more willing results from your horse. Rein tension just gives your horse something to resist.
Lightness is literally a gift to your horse. Both of you will benefit, and your horse will become a more relaxed and willing trail partner.
Avoid holding the reins with your knuckles up, which brings your elbows away from your body and makes it easy to pull backward on the reins, which is exactly what you don’t want to do. (See Step 4.) Instead, your thumbs should be the highest point.
To remind yourself to move the open (direct) rein to the side, turn your palms up. Your elbows will immediately close against your sides, which aids steering while making it difficult to pull back on the reins.
This position also helps your neck (indirect) rein cue: When you turn your palms up, the entire rein touches the side of your horse’s neck. If your hand is knuckles up, only part of rein comes in contact with his neck.
Use this extreme palms-up hand position only when necessary to remind yourself how to correctly handle the reins.
Use the following exercise to fine-tune the coordination between your leg and hand/rein aids. You’ll need eight cones.
Lay out a circle about 70 feet in diameter. Stand in the center and take about 10 large strides out toward the edge of the circle. Place one cone. Take two strides on the circle’s arc, and place another cone, so that the cones are about six feet apart.
Return to the center of the circle, take 10 large strides in the opposite direction, and place two more cones six feet apart. Repeat this action until each quarter of the circle is evenly marked with two cones.
Mount up, and ride in a circle at the walk. At each quarter, ride between the two cones, staying the same distance from each one. You’ll find you have to use both your inside and outside leg to support your horse; the cones make it obvious which leg needs to be more active.
This exercise also helps you coordinate your rein aids as you use an open (direct) rein to guide your horse in the direction you want to go, supported by the neck (indirect) rein. Change directions frequently, making an “S” through the middle of the circle.
After you master this exercise at the walk, move into a slow trot, then a lengthening trot, and finally up to a lope/canter.