Before you can go on to do more difficult maneuvers with your horse, you need to know that if you go to your hand and leg, you’re going to get a response. If you go to your hand and leg, and your horse presses against the bit or wants to lean into your leg at a trot, you know you’re not going to have the control you need when you’re doing something at a higher degree of difficulty.
I use this drill on all of my horses, and even include this into my warmup with finished horses to make sure my steering is where I need it before putting them on a cow. Depending on the experience level of my horse, I’ll go through this drill two or three times. Once I feel that my horse is steering off my hands and legs, I’ll move on to working other things with him.
However, when I’m working with a young horse, this drill might be what I work on the entire riding session. Not only does this exercise help my horse learn how to steer when I go to my hand and leg, but it also introduces him to neck reining, which is something he needs to learn before progressing to a one-handed bit.
I start by finding a place in my arena where I can complete a 30-to-40-foot square and ask my horse to trot. When I’m on a straight line I like to have my horse on a loose enough rein so I don’t have constant pressure on his face, but still tight enough that if I need to go to my hand to help him stay straight, I can.
If I run into trouble and notice my horse struggles with doing this drill at a trot, I’ll slow it down even more, starting him at a walk and then slowly building back up to the trot. I can’t expect him to understand how to guide at a faster speed if he can’t confidently do it at a slower speed, so I take as much time as I need to help him fully understand what I’m asking him to do.
Instead of making a sharp corner and then going straight again, I take my horse into a 10-foot circle. To help teach the neck rein, I keep my hands about a foot apart from each other and when I go to guide into my circle, I make sure not to let my outside hand go past my saddle horn.
If my horse isn’t wanting to steer around the circle, I’ll use more outside leg to guide the shoulder around. If he’s starting to lean into my circle, I’ll use my inside leg to stand his shoulder up and block him from leaning to the inside.
Once I feel my horse circling properly I’ll go back to my straight line and give my horse a loose rein again until it’s time for my next corner.
It’s important that my horse can guide going both directions, so once I successfully complete a few squares where my horse is circling correctly, it’s time to go the second direction.
I have his head slightly bent to the inside, so I can see his inside eye, but I don’t want his whole body to be bent. I also want him to be framed up when I go to my hands. I want him to move his body like a gate when it opens. The hinges of the gate are the center of my horse’s hips, and he should be driving through the circle with his hind end, with his body straight.
Just as before, I keep my hands the same distance apart and use my feet to help my horse stay straight and steering without dropping his body into my circle.
When you can do your square and circles going both directions at the trot, it’s time to up the degree of difficulty and ask for your horse to do the same at a lope. You’ll want to adjust your square size to be a little larger because of the increase in speed, but try to keep your circle small enough that you can work on your steering without breaking gait or losing your forward motion.
Just as before, when I’m working on the straight lines, I put my horse on a loose rein and use my legs to keep driving him forward.
I ask for my circle and complete the same steps I did at the trot. I’m using my hands to help steer him, and I’m tipping my horse’s nose to the inside without letting him bend his whole body. After I complete a few squares going one direction, I’ll switch leads and attempt to go the other way. Don’t be surprised if your horse steers better one direction over the other, that’s normal. Just make a mental note of it, so you know which direction might need some additional attention during this drill.
If I go to my hand and I feel my horse stay in the bridle, then go into the 90-degree corner without me needing to guide him hard, I know my steering is where it should be and I can move on to working other maneuvers.