Feel the Footfalls

Improve your feel so you can tell which lead or diagonal you’re on without looking.

Do you consistently glance down at your horse’s shoulder to check if you’re on the correct lead or diagonal? That quick glance can throw off your horse’s balance, not to mention cost you points in a judged class. Riding bareback can be just the thing to put you in close contact with your horse to feel every footfall so you can correctly identify which lead you’re on at the lope or diagonal at the trot.

If you’re not comfortable riding bareback, you can complete this exercise in a saddle; it just might take you longer to really feel every stride your horse makes. When riding bareback, be sure you’re in an enclosed arena for safety. When you begin, it’s best to have an extra set of eyes in the arena to let you know when you’re right or wrong in identifying footfalls. Be ready to put in a lot of reps—repetition is the only way you’ll gain the feel so you don’t have to look down ever again.

1. Begin at the walk. Without looking down, feel each front leg step forward for the stride. Say the pattern of footfalls out loud. For example, “left, right, left, right.” After saying the pattern a few times, go silent and just ride. A few strides later, feel your horse’s steps and begin saying the pattern again. Do this off and on, with directional changes and stops to break up monotony, until you reliably identify the footfall pattern. Your partner on the ground can let you know if you’re right or wrong.

2. Advance to a sitting trot, and follow the same steps you completed at the walk. Pay close attention to which pair of legs swings forward with each stride, and call out every other pair to your friend. It’s easier to say “left, left, left” every time the left feet come forward at the trot than saying “left, right, left” in quick succession. If you’re wrong, start over again. Go silent, and then begin calling out one pair of strides, “left, left, left,” as you travel straight lines, circles, and corners to keep your horse guessing.

3. Get ready to test your strength and stamina: Post the trot on the correct diagonal without looking, while riding bareback. (A diagonal refers to your seat rising out of the saddle—or off your horse’s back if riding bareback—and back down in rhythm with your horse’s legs. The best way to remember: Rise and fall with the leg on the wall. Raise your seat from your horse’s back as his outside-front leg reaches to stride forward, and lower as the opposite front leg comes forward.) Whether you ride Western or English, you should understand and recognize posting on the correct diagonal at a trot. It helps you better understand your horse’s gait. Post a few strides, then take a break and sit the trot. Return to posting frequently, first feeling your horse’s stride so you can pick up the correct diagonal on your first try. Don’t be surprised if it’s easier to pick up one diagonal without looking than the other; most riders experience this at first.

4. The steps to this point have helped you build your feel enough that you should be able to lope off and identify which lead your horse picks up. Work on a straight line, from one corner of the arena to the other. (So your horse doesn’t favor picking up the correct lead for the direction he’s traveling.) Place easy, equal pressure on both sides to cue your horse for a lope. Without looking, call out which lead he picked up, then have your partner confirm or correct your choice. If you’re riding alone, make a silent choice and then look down to determine if you were correct. Strike off at a lope many times, and try to identify the lead every time. With repetition, it’ll become second nature.

5. It’ll be much harder to feel your horse’s stride when he’s saddled, but that’s how you spend most of your time horseback. Every time you warm up, think about what you felt bareback. Focus on your horse’s movements, and identify his steps. By recalling what you felt bareback, you can relate that to what you feel in the saddle.

6. Repeat the lope-off exercise, from one corner of the arena to the other, now that you’re saddled. Again, it’ll be harder to feel the lead at first, but if you think back to what you felt bareback, you can more easily identify the stride pattern. Push your horse into a lope using both legs, feel his stride, and then make a choice—left or right? The more you practice, the easier it’ll be to choose correctly.

Lindsay LaPlante is the lead instructor and manager of Silver Spur Riding School (silverspurridingschool.com). She and Liz Place founded the school in 2014 with hopes of creating a program to introduce people to the world of horses. LaPlante, an AQHA world champion in junior trail, has coached riders through their first ride up to the top level of competition.

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