A lot of horses don’t know how to move their front end and keep their hind end still when turning. Whether it’s for a succession of spins in a reining pattern or a quick half-turn to chase a cow, your ability to cue your horse to move his front end around his hindquarters is essential for good handling.
Here, I’ll outline the steps for a counter-bend exercise that’ll free up your horse’s front legs so they flow around for a turn. This exercise is good for teaching a horse to spin, as well as working with a horse that’s started to resist your cues.
This 5-year-old mare is outfitted in a shanked bit (the same bit she’s shown in) and a cavesson to remind her to flex her neck and poll without opening her mouth. On a younger horse, use the same setup with a ring snaffle bit.
1. For this demonstration, the rider will begin working to the left. Start out by walking a small circle to the left. Tip the horse’s nose to the inside of the circle, so you can just see his inside eye. This initiates the forward motion necessary for a correct turnaround. Forward motion frees the front end; backward motion tends to hinder the shoulder motion.
2. When you add outside rein and leg pressure, your horse should make a step across, following his nose—his left front should step to the left and back, and his right front should step across and in front. But, if your horse is resistant or not familiar with the turnaround cues, this is probably where he braces against your aids and where the counter-bend drill begins.
3. When your horse resists that crossover movement to bring his front legs around his stationary hind legs, slowly reverse the arc of his body. When you started the turnaround, he was arced toward the left; by changing your hand, seat, and leg positions, you can reverse the arc to the right, as shown here. Continue walking a circle to the left, and slowly move your horse’s head so that it straightens out and then you see the inside of his right eye.
4. Here’s a close look at the hand and body position you’ll need for the counter-bend. Lightly lift your right rein up and to the left to tip your horse’s nose to the right, just so you can see his eye. Put your left rein in a neutral position, ready for support when needed. Use your right leg to bump your horse to maintain consistent forward motion to the left. Keep your left leg in a neutral position. Your upper body must stay centered over the top of the horse.
5. Your horse must flex properly at the poll to be able to step his left front leg back and cross his right front leg over on the counter-arc, as the horse in this photo demonstrates. If your horse roots his nose into your hands or stiffens, he has to step his left leg out instead of back. Use your legs for momentum but remember to be soft with your hands.
6. This counter-bend position should free up your horse’s shoulders. Bump his barrel with your right foot to encourage his forward motion. If he gets too bound up, then move him more forward and to the left, while maintaining the counter-bend position. Once he’s loosened up, release the pressure and go forward.
7. Here’s how pushing your horse to the left will free up his shoulders for a turn to the right. After you release and walk forward a few steps, initiate a turn to the right. Maintain the horse’s bend, so you can slightly see the right eye; shift your hands to the right side; and use your left leg to start the turn. If his shoulders hang up when you begin the turn, go through the same steps outlined earlier in the process. Be patient, and remember the drill goes like this: walk, arc, reverse arc, release, go forward, and turn in the opposite direction.
Al Dunning, Scottsdale, Arizona, has produced world champion horses and riders in multiple disciplines. He’s been a professional trainer for more than 40 years, and his expertise has led him to produce books, DVDs, and his own online mentoring program, Team AD International (teamadinternational.com). Al’s assistant, Jade Keller, is shown here.