These exercises will teach your horse to remain arrow-straight between your reins and legs — until you tell him to do otherwise.
- Take a rein in each hand. You’ll school your horse two-handed to teach him correct body alignment through the correction phase of this exercise. But the benefits will be there when you switch to one-handed riding. To block the temptation to help guide him, rest the heels of your hands on your pommel. You need to allow your horse to make some mistakes to teach him the stay-straight skill.
- Ask your horse to walk. Pick a marker, then head straight toward it. (Your marker can be a cone, a tree, a fencepost or even a hoofprint.)
- Keep your eyes fixed on the marker. (you can’t tell if your horse is off track when you’re looking at his head!) You may go only a step or two when you feel him drift to the left or right. (You’ll know he’s done so when you feel his shoulder drop in his chosen direction; his head and neck will then drift that way.)
- The instant you feel his drift, send your horse firmly I the opposite direction, using a 90-degree turn. (I’ll give you the following cues for a turn-right correction; simply reverse them for one to the left.) Lay your left rein against your horse’s neck, keeping your hands the same distance apart, as thought you had a stick between them. That way, your neck rein will “push” him to the right, rather than having your direct rein pull him over. (This is key, as you’ll be using neck rein alone when you make the switch to one-handed riding.)
- Keep your right hand low and wide to keep your horse’s chin down and slightly tipped to the right, which will prevent a head-flip while you’re turning. Press with your left leg at the cinch to send his body through the turn. (If your horse flips his hips to the left, press with your left leg about 4 inches behind the cinch to put them back in line with his body.)
- Maintain your cues until your horse has turned approximately 90 degrees (about two front-leg steps). If your horse doesn’t respond, his neck-rein response needs some fine-tuning. Reinforce that cue with a light inside rein (right) tug until he figures out that his best option is to move away the instant he feels the outside (left) rein touch his neck.
- Immediately pick a new marker, and repeat the exercise. You may not go one step before your horse drifts again. That’s ok — it’s the only way he’ll learn. Repeat this exercise daily at the walk, correcting him every step or every other one, if necessary.
When he’ll consistently stay straight between your legs and reins for about 100 yards — with no help from you — graduate to the jog. When he’s reliable at that gait, move on to the lope. (By the time you reach the lope, your horse should be pretty reliable. I’ve found that most horses, if they drift at this gait, will drift opposite the direction of the lead you’re on — say, to the right, when you’re on the left lead. That means you can correct them in the direction of the lead. However, if he drifts in the direction of his lead, go back to the jog until he improves his straight skills. Otherwise, the correction will be in the direction opposite his lead, which could set you up for resistance. If you do want to correct him at the lope in such a scenario, stop him before turning.)
Nancy Cahill has ridden straight into the winner’s circle on many occasions. In 1996 she was honored with the prestigious AQHA Horsewoman of the Year title for her many contributions to the breed. Nancy is featured in this month’s Horse & Rider in “Show Stoppers: Five Roadblocks to Success.” The trainer and her family reside in Madisonville, Texas.