Invisible Cues

When getting your maneuvers solid, don’t forget that making your requests imperceptible to the judge should be part of the plan.

At the top levels of any judged event, the communication between horse and rider is almost invisible. Whether in my sport of reining or other classes, using as small a cue as possible to get the perfect maneuver increases the degree of difficulty, thereby potentially raising your score.

Achieving those invisible cues begins at home. You must use the same cues when you practice as you will in the show pen, even if they adjust slightly to correct mistakes in training. Using the same cues in practice as in competition builds your horse’s confidence: He’ll always know how you’ll ask for something and how to respond.

Here, I’ll discuss how I cue for different maneuvers at home and in the show pen. Keep in mind that it’s about building and maintaining your horse’s confidence, so he’s sure he knows what you’re asking and you’re positive he’ll respond accurately and quickly.

1. Lope Departure, Step 1. A lot of riders bridle up their horse, move the hip over, and really work to set their horse up to lope off. To keep my cues quiet, I prefer to ask for a lope departure using my legs and voice. This increases the degree of difficulty. So when I’m at home, I give the lope-off cue (for a right lead, I put my left calf on my horse’s body and kiss) without doing much with my hands.

2. Lope Departure, Step 2. If my horse doesn’t pick up the lope the way I want him to, then I put both legs on and bridle him up, as shown in Photo 2, and ask again. By repeatedly asking with the cue I want him to respond to and then going back and setting him up, he begins to associate the departure with the subtle cue.

3. Turnaround. For a turnaround, I try not to use my hand too much, so my horse doesn’t confuse this cue with the one for a rollback. For a turn to the left, I open my left leg and silently count to two. If my horse hasn’t initiated the spin yet, then I pick up my hand toward my left-hip pocket and put pressure on my horse’s side with my right leg. Through repetition, the horse learns that when I open my left leg, he should begin a spin in that direction.

4. Rundowns. The key to a rundown is getting your horse to wait for you. A lot of horses connect the corner of the arena with running to the end, and that can result in your horse running off. To combat that anticipation, I begin the rundown; lope straight for 20 or 30 feet; and then peel off that line into a small, slow circle. My horse will pay better attention to me in future rundowns, because he doesn’t know if he’s running to a stop or if I’ll guide him to a circle.

5. Rollbacks. I start my rollback cue with just my hand, moving it back toward my hip pocket. So my horse never doubts what I’m asking for. Once he starts moving his feet, I put on my outside leg in the middle of his ribcage to help him follow through the 180-degree turn. Once he’s out of the turn, I put both legs on to lope off. I’m careful to not put both legs on before he finishes the move, or he’d lope out of his rollback too early.

6. Back After a Stop. Your horse should never question what he’s supposed to do after the final stop of a pattern. Should he stand still or back up? You never want him wondering. Every time I stop my horse while schooling, I take my legs off him to tell him to back up. This keeps my horse thinking “back” and puts his hindquarters deep in the ground. I cue for this by pushing my feet into my stirrups and taking my legs off my horse’s sides. When I put my legs back on, that tells him to stop backing.

7. Stand Still After a Stop. If I stop my horse and keep my legs on his sides, that means “stand still.” It’s an essential cue, because a rider incurs a penalty for backward steps at the end of a pattern that doesn’t call for them. You can see a big difference in my legs in this photo and in Photo 6—my legs are much closer to my horse’s sides, preparing him to freeze at the end of the stop. n

Andrea Fappani, Scottsdale, Arizona, has won every major National Reining Horse Association event, was a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. reining team at the 2014 World Equestrian Games, and is an NRHA $3 Million Rider. In addition to showing Quarter Horse and Paint reiners, Fappani has also had success competing with Arabian and Half-Arabian reining horses. Learn more at

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