Body control can mean many things to different people. It’s a broad concept, but to me it means I know where each of my horse’s feet are at all times, and I can move any part wherever I need, whenever I want.
Almost all high-level maneuvers—and even something as simple as picking up the correct lead—require body control. Establishing it takes time, patience, and practice. I’ve sometimes questioned why I spend so much time on it. But when I sell a horse and the buyer comments on the great body control the horse has, or when I get in a new horse for training that lacks it, my dedication to establishing body control is reaffirmed.
Lateral work, shown here, is an easy way to show and explain body control. This includes the sidepass and the two-track. Here I’ll explain gear considerations, rider positon, and horse response.
Every Horse Is Different
Every horse’s response to body control—and degree of cueing required—is different, but will fall somewhere on the scale of wiggly (more sensitive to pressure) to stiff. If your horse lies on the wiggly end, you’ll need to work slowly so you don’t scare your horse by asking with too much emphasis. On the positive, it’ll probably come to that horse quickly. A stiffer horse requires more pressure and more time to grasp the fundamentals of body control and respond to your cues.
The Right Gear for the Right Job
I’m riding in a shanked bit for these photos—the bit I regularly ride this mare in. I’d suggest you do the same and ride in the bit your horse responds best to. However, if you find that you struggle to get results, go back to the snaffle. Or, if you’re starting a young horse, you’re probably already riding with a snaffle.
Protective legwear—splint boots, leg wraps, bell boots—can be important when working laterally. Some horses will step on themselves. I find that most of the interference comes at the coronet bands of the hind feet. If you notice this is a problem for you horse, use bell boots on his hind feet.
Rider Body Position
Your body plays a major role in the control of your horse’s body, especially in the beginning phases. What you see in the far-left photo demonstrates both the beginning and the end of the process—my cues and her response moving as I direct.
When moving to the left, I have more tension in my left rein than my right rein. That allows me to block my horse’s left shoulder. Without it, she’d be free to move more forward than sideways. My right leg applies pressure to her ribcage to move her body to the left. If I completely block her forward motion with my hands, I can move her hind end around her front end.
I could put my hands down if I had shorter reins. However, with this length of reins, when I do put my hands down, my horse gets a total release. She’s rewarded for responding correctly by removing all pressure. Notice, too, that my hands are close together. That’s because, eventually, I’ll want to execute this maneuver one-handed.
With the addition of forward motion, my cues elicit a two-track. (Going laterally to the left, in this example, with forward motion.) Working at the lope, my mare lifts her left shoulder and moves her ribcage away from my right leg, as demonstrated in the middle photo. I don’t use my left leg for pressure—that would confuse her—but I do use it for support to keep her from bowing her midsection too far out to the left. In this frame, she crosses her hind legs to two-track to the left, following my body’s cues.
Her response is the result of my using the correct amount of pressure. If I was too weak in my cues, she’d continue loping straight forward. Too strong, and she’d jump sideways to the left. But with the correct combination of my body position, cue strength, and response I can control all of her body parts.
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.