When competing in events like horsemanship, you must sit quietly while guiding your horse. There’s no room for wildly flapping legs, heavy-handed reining, or over-exaggerated riding cues. That said, no matter how sensitive your horse is to your cues, you can’t be a mannequin propped up on top of you mount. You must have a connection with your horse in any riding event you choose, whether competitive or recreational. When you can cue your horse quietly and invisibly, there’s no doubt that you’re a more effective rider.
To achieve subtle communication with your horse, there are three principles to keep in mind. I’ll detail these first, and then tell you how to implement them in four drills—two for speed control and two for steering—that’ll help perfect your cues.
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Start With Connection
The No. 1 way you have to connect with your horse is through your seat bones. You also use your legs, specifically your ankles. Finally, you have motion from your hand to the bridle. But I feel your seat controls everything about the horse. It’s important to keep your seat soft—don’t be too tight or rigid—because when you’re tight, you’re going to move quickly and sharply. That’s going to make your horse move in the same way. It’ll startle him, and it’s going to make him react quickly and make your cues more obvious.
Find Your Horse’s Rhythm
When your horse is traveling, he carries a distinct rhythm and pace. You must mimic that same rhythm and pace. Don’t create it for your horse; let him create the rhythm. When you try to cue quickly, or you hold yourself rigidly, you’ll be out of rhythm with your horse. That makes it difficult for him to respond properly, accurately, or even at the right time.
Find your horse’s rhythm, then cue while his legs are in motion, not while they’re on the ground. Always cue your horse with his stride, and only give one cue per step. It’s better to make five small moves over five strides versus one big, poorly timed cue that can be seen from Mars. You strive for trust and respect from your horse; not fear and resentment. If you make multiple small cues, your horse will respect and listen to your request.
Aim for Acceptance of Pressure
Horses learn to give to pressure. When a horse is young, you teach him to give to pressure, and then you release that pressure. But that response must advance in some manner; otherwise he’ll turn into an accordion. Let me explain: If you use pressure to push your horse’s body together in collection and then let go of it the moment it gets in a frame, he’s going to fall back apart again. That’s just like the expansion and contraction of an accordion. So to take his response to pressure to the next level, you must be able to ask with pressure, release it, and your horse stay in that frame. This is the hardest part: Your horse must learn to give and to stay in frame out of trust, not fear. To achieve this, use pressure to get the response you want, and then release only slightly. Stay there, helping your horse until you feel him understand exactly what you want, and then stay there a little longer until you feel your horse trusts everything you’re doing. Then release it. All of that might take two steps, or it might take 20 steps.
1. The Speed-Control Drill
Ideally, the speed you ride with your seat is the speed your horse travels. Your horse dictates his rhythm or cadence, and your body dictates the speed at which he travels. Ride for 5 minutes at that speed, keeping your body moving at that tempo, and then slow your body down using your seat. Your horse should respond by slowing his pace, but maintaining his cadence.
The first test for your horse is slowing your body’s rhythm and seeing if he follows you. If he doesn’t follow you by slowing his speed, then reconnect with him via your legs and seat. Speed him back up, and ask him to go a little faster. After staying at the forward tempo for a few more laps, slow your body back down and see if your horse follows you.
If your horse doesn’t slow down when you ask him to with your seat, don’t reprimand him, just return to the faster speed. It’s kind of like reverse psychology: Your horse will eventually learn to look for your cue to slow down.
2. Slowing From a Faster Speed
Once your horse has mastered slowing down from a slightly faster speed in response to your body cues, test his response to your cues. Try moving from say, an extended lope to a lope. Starting with your legs, then your hands, and then your seat, ask him to stay in your pressure, give to it, and accept it. Gather your horse, hold him for five or six strides, and then physically show him how to slow down. Begin by holding your horse with your legs to support his body. You don’t want to use your legs to slow your horse—your legs tell him to pick up his back up and use it. But leg pressure is an important component when slowing your horse down. Next, slow your body’s rhythm and leg cues. Your seat controls the speed your horse is going. If you stop your body’s motion altogether, your horse should stop. Then use your reins as a final cue in the series to pull your horse to a slower speed.
Once your horse slows back down, release the pressure, and then ramp your speed back up to repeat this move. Your horse will learn to feel the dramatic change in your body’s rhythm, and as soon as he feels your seat slow, he’ll start to slow himself down. This drill works even on a finished horse, and it’s great for show-pen warmup.
Transition Tips: If you have trouble controlling your horse’s speed with subtle cues, try a cue your horse knows. For example, when transitioning from an extended jog to a jog, cue for the jog by slowing your seat, but then take your horse from an extended jog to a stop because he knows how to stop. You’re still slowing the motion down, you’re just using a maneuver he knows. Do that a couple of times, and then try the original cue again to check his response.
Don’t be afraid of your horse breaking gait. If you’re afraid of your cue, it won’t be strong enough and it won’t work. If your horse breaks gait while practicing, that’s not a bad thing; it means your cue worked. But now you need a tiny bit less of it. Don’t reprimand your horse, just keep playing with your cue until it gets the desired response.
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3. Guiding Through a Square or L
The source of your cues for guiding are the same as for speed—your seat and body. For example, if you want to go right, open your body and leg to the right and close the left side of your body and your leg.
When working on steering, I recommend going through a square maneuver. Set ground poles in a double “L” formation, with a track in between. (Similar to an L-shaped back-through.) Practice riding a square, then riding between the two poles, taking hold of your horse’s body and then riding around the corner.
If you’re cornering to the right at a walk, jog, or lope, your horse first needs a good body position—hip underneath him, rib cage, shoulders, head, and neck square and straight underneath you. The right hip (direction you’re turning) might be slightly to the inside, but not excessively—you just don’t want it to be to the outside of the direction you’re turning.
Pick up your horse’s body with both legs so he’s upright and square. You might need to use your hands to cue more to start, and that’s fine. Use one cue per step to turn that 90-degree turn to the right. A horse can’t do a 90-degree turn in one step. Pick up his body with your legs, supporting with your hand. When you’re ready to turn to the right, softly open your right leg, and press with your left leg to push the front part of your horse’s body around the corner. Then say to yourself, “go right.” This opens the right side of your body, and it helps you lean on your outside hip a little bit more to help steer your horse, in rhythm. As you complete the turn, return to pressure with both legs, bringing back the support with your inside leg to straighten your horse.
4. Guiding Through the Figure 8
Use the same guiding cues you taught your horse for the square to make a figure 8. Circle to the left, for example, and then connect it to a circle going right to form a figure 8. Change it up to keep your horse interested and finesse your steering. You might circle one way and change direction to another one, then circle away from that one, for example.
Troubleshooting Tips: Many times, when your horse doesn’t steer properly, it’s not his mouth that’s not steering. It’s his body leaning the wrong way. If you can get your horse underneath you, he’ll follow you where you want him to go. Any steering drills you can do will help. But riding around aimlessly isn’t going to help your steering at all. Ride in different directions and do things where you have to take ahold of your horse’s body first with your legs and feet, moving his body out from underneath you, and then releasing them. Practice going fast and steering your horse at the faster speed by guiding primarily with your body, keeping your hand centered.
Need help with guiding? Try using some cones to help you navigate.
If you have trouble guiding quietly, be sure you both understand that steering is a form of giving to pressure. Your horse must respect you when you use pressure by moving away from it. If he leans against you, repeat your cue, pushing a little harder with your foot to encourage him to bring his body underneath you, before you release.
Final Note for Success
When your horse is in training, your cues are going to be visible. But repetition will get you moving toward lighter cues. That repetition often starts with soft pressure, increased as needed until your horse reacts. Release and try again, starting with soft pressure.
Robin Frid, of Argyle, Texas, is an AQHA Professional Horseman and has trained all-around horses and coached riders for 25 years. Together with his wife, Jenny, Frid has trained youth, amateur, and select riders to win 55 world and reserve world championships and 70 All American Quarter Horse Congress championships and reserve titles. Learn more at robinfrid.com.