Sharpen Your Corners

This often-overlooked concept can make or break your pattern work. Bonus: Use it to square-up your horse’s shoulders.
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A square corner can make or break your maneuver. But many riders don’t recognize its importance, whether it’s for an approach to your rundown to a sliding stop or a designated maneuver as part of a ranch riding or horsemanship pattern. I’m here to tell you: The 90-degree angle matters for everything that happens after it.

Here I’ll detail the correct and incorrect paths to make a square corner using the diagram below for reference. I’ll explain the pitfalls that develop when you stray from the correct path. Then I’ll discuss a very simple way to practice your square corners at home using two cones placed in each corner or your arena.

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Examining the Two Paths

The diagram at left explains it clearly. In the orange path, the corner at the cone is cut off. The path veers to the inside of the arena, and then overcorrects to get straight again. Instead of one fluid motion around the cone and down a straight line to a stop (or whatever maneuver comes next), there are three problem points: 1.) letting the horse cut off and round the corner, 2.) steering back in the other direction to get on the correct path, and 3.) straightening out the path. All the extra fuss interferes with building speed for a stop or setting your horse up for the upcoming obstacle. Plus, it’s all unnecessary and teaches your horse that precision isn’t important; you’ll just fix it (maybe) as you go along.

Now look at the blue path. It’s straightforward. There’s no questioning the intent. The 90-degree angle is crisp, and the path exiting the turn is straight. The horse is set up for whatever comes next, whether it’s a transition to a trot to cover a set of logs or a sliding stop.

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Past the Path

Beyond the basics of the path, there are serious consequences when you let your horse lazily cut a corner. The biggest being that your horse is a creature of habit. If you let him get lazy and round a corner, he’ll take liberties to cut it each time. It becomes a habit that’s difficult to break and sets him up to go his own way whenever he wants.

Additionally, when you cut the corner, your horse drops his shoulder into the turn. He’s not traveling squarely, so you have to pick him up, square his shoulders, and set him up to travel correctly. You might find that he’s more apt to drop his shoulders elsewhere, too—not just in a corner turn—which becomes a big problem to fix in the future.

The good news is it’s a fairly easy habit to keep from happening—if you’re an active rider and think about what you’re doing with every stride.

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My Technique

Set cones in the corners of your arena, about 15 feet off the side and end fences. Collect your horse and lope on a straight line. As you approach a corner, pick up your hand to gather up your horse and elevate his shoulders. Lope just slightly past the cone, and then steer your horse into the crisp turn. You can see my horse’s position in relation to the cone and my body position in Photo 1. I use my outside leg to help steer, my inside leg supports to keep my horse on the path, and my hand is elevated to keep his shoulders up.

As we finish the second half of the corner in Photo 2, you can see that my body position is basically the same as it was in Photo 1. My hand moves back toward my horse’s centerline so he can straighten his body and exit the turn exactly where I need him to be for the next steps.

Photo 3 shows our straight exit from the turn. We’re both looking forward at what comes next, and my horse’s straightness sets him up for success at my next request.

The Long-Term Benefit

Your horse will have long-term success if you ride him like this instead of letting him develop bad habits. Once a horse cuts off a corner, he’s not listening. And that lack of attention will creep into other aspects of your riding. A successful horse needs straightness, attention, and collection. This exercise encompasses all three of those things.

Bob Avila, Temecula, California, is an AQHA world champion, three-time NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity winner, NRHA Futurity champ, and two-time World’s Greatest Horseman. He's been named the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year. Learn more at bobavila.net.

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