Anticipation comes from repetition. When you school a maneuver, like a flying lead change, over and over in the same place, it teaches your horse to anticipate what’s next. Even a seasoned show horse—who isn’t over-schooled—gets to know his job so well that he might attempt to do the pattern on autopilot. In either case, when your horse anticipates a maneuver, he’s ignoring your cues and thinking for himself.
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When your horse is paying attention to you at home, he’ll carry that habit to the show pen, even when you’re both surrounded by distractions—whether it’s the crowd, other horses, or the loudspeaker shouting draws. This will translate to fewer penalties—and when your horse’s full attention on you, it gives you the opportunity to receive additional points that could make all the difference in one class and the year-end standings.
Here, I’m going to show you a turnaround exercise you can do at home or in the warm-up pen to refocus your horse’s attention on you and keep him from anticipating a lead change when it comes time to show.
Asking your horse to execute a turnaround is actually about asking him to work off his hocks. So, this simple exercise accomplishes two goals: it eliminates anticipation of the lead change and encourages balance. When done properly, this exercise will redirect your horse’s mind to your cues; it also teaches him balance and helps set him up for the next maneuver.
It’ll also help you be clearer when cuing your horse. If you ride through the center of an arena and don’t have even pressure on your legs to hold your horse square through the center, but instead allow him to lean one direction or the other, your horse is more likely to anticipate the change. And he’s able to do it because your leg isn’t there to support him through the center. Eventually he’ll start ignoring your cues and set himself up to change, whether you ask for it or not.
Because a majority of this exercise revolves around the turnaround itself, practicing it can also help you reinforce proper execution.
However, if used too often, your horse will learn to anticipate the exercise itself, defeating its original purpose. To avoid that, only use sparingly.
Practice this drill in any size arena and include different sized circles on each end of the arena, to keep your horse’s mind fresh and focused on you.
Start in the center of the pen and lope two large-sized circles to the left, pushing your horse forward into a pace that forces him to drive with his backend. Avoid going too fast to where you lose control of your horse’s body, but also make sure you’re going faster than you would in a Western pleasure class.
As you come to the close of your second circle and hit the center of the arena, ask your horse to stop square. If he starts to drop his shoulder to the right and shift his hips to change leads, don’t stop and continue loping another circle. Pay attention to what your horse does when you cue him. Is he listening to your go-forward cue, or is he still thinking about the change that usually happens in the center of the pen?
At the completion of your third circle, ask for the stop again. If your horse listens to your cue this time and stops, begin a turnaround to the left. While you don’t want to settle for too long before asking him to turn, make sure that you don’t rush it and ask for him to start moving his feet before his feet have had a chance to come to a full stop from loping. If you ask your horse to turn before he’s fully stopped, not only will his body be in the wrong position, but it could lead to frustration.
Focus on keeping your hands low on your horse’s neck, and guide him through the turnaround with your leg. When turning to the left, apply pressure using your right leg, and slide your reins up your horse’s neck and across to encourage him to shift his weight back over his hocks without losing forward motion. When you pick your hands straight up, rather than use your neck rein, you create too much resistance and can make your horse rigid in the neck.
Pay attention to how your horse is moving his feet. His left-hind leg should be set as his pivot foot, and his right-front leg should cross over the top of his left leg. This sets his body up to be in the correct position and avoid having him swing his hind end around throughout the turn. Avoid letting your horse draw back during the turn rather than stepping forward and crossing over on the front end. When you don’t have that forward motion, your horse is more likely to pivot on the wrong foot and it increases the likelihood of stepping off into the wrong lead when you ask him to lope back off.
Once you’ve completed a turnaround, ask your horse to lope back off on the left lead. Complete two additional circles to the left. As you come to the end of your second circle and approach the center line, ask for another stop—this time, ask for 540-degree turn to the left. At the close of your turnaround, repeat the first steps and lope two more circles to the left.
The next time you ride across the center and stop, this time ask your horse to turn to the right. Then repeat the circles and turnaround sequence going to the right.
Whether you’re working on this drill or just riding around, your focus should always be on correctness. If you notice your horse starts rushing or becomes uncomfortable at any part, try slowing down different elements within the drill. If your horse tends to be lazy, push him forward, and ask for an extended lope. If he wants to wait several strides before going into a lope, work on having him step off to the lope immediately—just as you would in a pattern class.
While a majority of this drill focuses on circles and the turnaround, don’t forget about the quality of your stops. In between each set of circles and turnarounds is a halt. You want your horse to be straight and square as you approach your stop, and you want him to stop on his hind end when it comes time to say whoa. Avoid letting him half-heartedly trickle into a stop. Good practice makes good habits. Encourage your horse to stop straight and under himself every time you ask for one, and make sure to correct a sloppy effort. Sit deep in your seat, move your legs off your horse’s sides and forward before saying whoa to let him know you’re preparing to stop, and give him an opportunity to set up correctly.
If he still doesn’t want to stop square and under himself, immediately ask for a backup and then lope him off. After you have a cadenced lope, ask for the stop again.
Change it Up
You’ve probably heard that too much of any one thing doesn’t necessarily equate with a better end result. The same is true with practicing this or any drill. This drill is designed to eliminate anticipation as much as it is to work on your horse’s turnaround. Once you get comfortable performing this exercise, change up the number of circles and turnarounds (both shorter and longer) you do during your practice. Also rotate which direction you go, so your horse doesn’t assume it’s always going to be a left or right circle. This ensures that your horse doesn’t start to anticipate this drill.
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