True or false: Fencing a reining horse—that is, running him toward a safe fence and letting the barrier influence where he stops—only works on his stop. I bet even some active reiners will answer incorrectly.
That statement is false. The purpose of fencing is to school the horse’s rundown—his approach to the stop. It’s where you work on running straight and free, building speed rather than bolting, and “running long” (as opposed to stopping too soon). These elements combine to set the horse up for a better stop. Here I’ll explain my goals when it comes to fencing. Compare my thoughts with your fencing practices to see what you should change so you get the most out of this drill.
Goal #1: Straightness
A horse that runs straight stops straight. Without straightness, your horse can’t stop to his full potential. When I fence a horse, I guide him on the straightest path possible. Before I lope off down the pen, I pick a spot to lope to and then guide him on that straight line. This straightness enables him to stop squarely on his hind end. If your horse veers to the left during his rundown, for example, when you say “whoa,” his left front leg will hit the ground first. Your horse is pulling to the left, thus putting more weight on his left front foot. He can’t stop squarely on his hind end in that position.
Encourage straightness by looking ahead, eyes up, shoulders and hips square. Your own tendencies to lean in the saddle can cause your horse’s problems. If it’s your horse that pulls in one direction or drops his shoulder, counter his leaning by overcorrecting him. For example, when you feel him lean left, pick him up and go far to the right. When he’s straight, leave him alone.
Goal #2: No ‘Whoa’
In my program, “whoa” means go to the ground, now. This means I don’t say whoa when I’m fencing a horse, nor do I pull back on the reins to make him stop. I run him from one end of the arena to the other, building speed as we go (see Goal #3), and let him stop on his own. Some horses stop 20 to 30 feet away from the fence and slide right up to it. Others run up to the fence and have a short slide. This method lets them find their balance point.
Letting a horse stop where he’s comfortable also helps keep him “running long,” meaning he doesn’t anticipate the stop cue early in the rundown and instead waits on you.
Overtraining CautionYou can overdo it with fencing. Every horse accepts and adapts to fencing differently, so be sure to treat each horse as an individual . I have horses that hate fencing, so we don’t do it. Others—like the gray horse shown here—are so smooth that I could drink a cup of coffee while fencing. Don’t let fencing become a source of anxiety for your horse. It’s supposed to help him relax in his rundowns (see Goal #4).
On that same note, be cautious when fencing at a horse show. Getting into a wreck in a busy warm-up pen because you choose to fence at the wrong time builds your horse’s anxiety—or worse! Be mindful, and keep it calm and easy.
Goal #3: Steady Speed Increase
You’ve probably seen plenty of horses that go from zero to 100 in half a second in their rundowns. That blast-off effect isn’t what you’re going for. A horse that takes off in that manner isn’t properly set up to stop, so he’s destined to fail from the beginning. Fencing can help prevent this problem or fix it.
Lope off and steadily build speed. Think of it like a gradually rising line on a graph. Continue to build without slowing down until your horse stops. Reducing speed requires your horse to put weight on his front end. So if he’s slowing down as he approaches his stop, he won’t be able to get underneath himself for a solid stop. Instead, he’ll slam onto his front end.
Goal #4: Relaxation
When you’re nervous, anxious, or really focused, do you sometimes forget to breathe? Your horse does, too. He gets so tuned into you and what you want, that the slightest move in the saddle can be interpreted as “STOP HERE NOW.” Which probably isn’t what you want. Fencing can help.
I move around in the saddle when I’m fencing—mostly posting as we lope down the pen. This helps my horse relax because he’s not looking for any tiny movement to signal that I want him to stop. Instead, he can breathe, build his speed, and stop where he’s comfortable. It helps both of us think about running better instead of the stop that comes at the end.
A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at bobavila.net.