In this article, you’re going to learn the exercises that go with the previous article. You’ll be using your horse’s tail as your “spot” to move in the beginning of this lesson, but-through gradual steps-you’re going to change your “spot” to a belt loop on your jeans. Remember that if that belt loop moves, your horse’s feet have moved as well. All you’re changing is where you look and how you measure movement.
Your goal with this exercise is to “connect the tail to the rein.” In the beginning, that means you’ll be able to pick up one rein at a time and get the tail to move away from that rein. Later, you’ll be able to pick up one rein and get the tail to move toward that rein, backward, to the right, to the left, or wherever you want the tail to be. Then you’ll have complete control over the hindquarters.
From Ground to Saddle
You’ll begin this step exactly as you did when you were working with your horse from the ground in the last issue. Your “spot” will be your horse’s tail. You’ll treat that tail exactly as if it were the tiller of a boat. Your horse’s different responses will simply depend on how much you turn the tiller. Your goal is to be able to move the tiller (the tail) just slightly, a lot, or to any position in between, getting reliably different responses each time.
Your “go forward” cue will change slightly from the previous exercise in the last issue because you’ll be in the saddle now. Instead of the dressage whip you used from the ground before to tell your horse either to “go forward” or “increase your speed,” now you’ll use your legs.
Let’s keep this cue very simple for both you and your horse. All your legs have to do is to both squeeze evenly to tell your horse to “move your feet” or “move your feet faster.”
You may have to reinforce this cue at first with the “kiss” sound you made when you taught him the “go forward” cue from the ground. If so, first “kiss” and immediately give that steady, two-leg squeeze. Repeat often, gradually reducing the “kiss” until your horse responds reliably to just the squeeze.
Don’t worry about shifting your weight or using one leg or another-or any part of your leg-to apply separate pressure at any specific part of your horse’s side. Keep both legs hanging quietly and naturally along your horse’s sides as if they were a pair of wet towels hanging from your belt. Your heels should be down and your weight evenly balanced in each stirrup. Squeeze evenly with both legs. That’s it. Your legs don’t ever have to do anything else except help keep you balanced in the saddle.
You don’t have to shift the position of your legs any more than you would have changed the position of the dressage whip that you used to cue the horse for groundwork. You didn’t tap the dressage whip sometimes on his hip or sometimes on his hock and expect one cue to send him forward and the other to back him up. A tap just meant “forward.” Nor did you set the whip at a specifically different angle in your hand when you asked him to go forward, move sideways, go back, move his hindquarters over, or speed up.
Could you teach your horse to respond to those specific cues? Sure. But why bother? Just like people, horses generally find “keep it simple” a lot easier to learn and remember.
You didn’t have to make any changes in location with those cues when you were working with your horse on the ground, and the same is true of your leg cues when you’re in the saddle. Leg speed and movement are always the result of the same cue, given in the same position. (See “Clearing Up Your Cues” in the April 2009 issue of John Lyons’ Perfect Horse.)
Move the Tail
Start by riding your horse at a walk in the arena. The direction isn’t important, but go about 30 feet. Next, pick up one rein. It can be the left rein or the right rein, but only pick up one of them. Think about and focus on the top of the tail. Don’t look at your horse’s head, mouth, or neck. Slowly put constant, even pressure on the rein until the tail begins to move away from the rein.
The right rein will cue the tail to move to the left, the same as it did in the ground exercise. When the tail moves far enough to the left as your horse makes a big step with his hind leg, the front foot on the right side will actually stop and pivot. You want that front foot to stop and pivot every time, but as you practice and learn to gauge your horse’s reactions, you’ll be able to release the rein just before it actually does so. It takes time for you to notice his response and give your release. If you respond as soon as you notice he’s about to complete the action, by the time he actually does stop moving he gets an instantaneous reward.
If the front foot only stops for a second before your horse starts to walk off again, that’s okay. Just let him continue to walk for another 10 or 15 feet. There’s no hurry in any of this. The more he walks off, the more you get to practice moving the tail without having to ask your horse to go. Drop the rein you were using, slowly pick up the opposite rein, and repeat the exercise. Keep repeating the exercise. Eventually your horse will stop as soon as you cue him to begin that big step to move the tail over, which is what you want.
Repeat this exercise many times with your horse, swapping sides frequently.
Remember that you’re working on putting less and less pressure on the rein and having your horse bend his head less and less to the side. For that to happen, you must assume that he’s going to respond more quickly each time you pick up the rein. This can be a challenge for you because it’s natural to assume that if you bent his head to the side a particular distance the last time you picked up the rein, you’ll automatically have to move it to that same place the next time.
This is another reason it’s so important not to focus on the mouth or head of the horse. Put mental blinders on yourself and don’t even look at what that head and neck are doing.
It seems to contradict logic, but for your horse to respond more quickly to less pressure on the rein, you have to pick up the rein more slowly. You also have to increase the pressure more slowly. And you have to release sooner. Release as soon as you think the tail is going to do what you’re asking. (Review “Why You Need Good Hands” in the April 2009 issue of John Lyons’ Perfect Horse.)
What if the tail doesn’t move fast enough or far enough? In that case, it will seem natural for you to pull harder on the rein. Don’t. Try to stay focused on what cue does what. If the tail stops moving or it slows down, that is a speed problem, not a steering problem. You have already turned the tiller. Just step on the gas if you want more speed. You wouldn’t pull harder on your car’s steering wheel if the car wasn’t going fast enough. The same is true with your horse. Direction is direction. Speed is speed.
Because you’re asking the tail to move to the side, it’ll also be natural for you to want to move your leg back and squeeze on one side. Don’t do that either. That would be like changing the placement of the gas pedal in the car when you want to go in a different direction. It’s just not necessary.
Instead, picture in your head that you and your horse are going straight down a nice trail. You would like your horse to speed up, so you squeeze evenly with both legs while you just sit pretty in the middle of the saddle. The movement you’re asking for from the hindquarters is actually a forward motion, even though there is some sideways movement as well, so it’s necessary for you to be thinking “forward.”
Also remember that this is supposed to be fun. You’re literally playing with your horse’s tail while you’re learning to be aware of where it is at all times. You aren’t trying to discover a cure for cancer. You’re finding out what that tail can do for you in developing a nice, fun, safe horse to ride anywhere. Relax. Don’t work too hard at this. Let the exercise do the training and the teaching.
After you’ve been working on this exercise consistently for about 30 minutes, stop and take inventory of what has changed since you started. Your horse should be stopping sooner. You should be putting less pressure on the rein. Your horse should not be bending his head so far to the side.
If you think he could do even better, great. Keep doing the same exercise. Keep your focus on the tail. If you feel safe doing it, you can even close your eyes when you ask the tail to move over so you can both feel and visualize the motion. Just don’t fall off!
Move the Tail a Little
Your next step is to work on moving the tail less, so you have more precise control over how big a movement your horse gives you when you cue with that rein. Again, this is like gaining a more positive response in the steering wheel of your car. You found out what happens if you move the tail a lot. Now what if you only moved it a little?
When you moved the tail a lot, you were working on much more than you may have realized. You were actually:
• practicing stopping more quickly
• using less pressure on the rein
• making turns on the forehand
• sidepassing just the hindquarters
• engaging the hindquarters
• setting up for lead changes
• teaching haunches in
• establishing speed control
• creating diagonals with the hindquarters
• getting your horse lighteron the bit
• lowering his head
• softening his neck
Not bad for playing with the tail for half an hour or so!
To practice just moving the tail a little, you’ll use the same process you’ve been working on so far. Have your horse walk forward. Pick up one rein slowly and move the tail about six inches to the right or left. Remember to keep your focus on the tail. The front end of the horse will try to trick you on this one by trying to do the turning. Don’t let that happen.
When you move the tail just a little, you will notice that your horse will slow down. Here’s another service the tail can provide you as a rider. It’s a great speed control device. The tail really can be your enforcer when you ask your horse to slow down. If you find yourself pulling harder and harder on the reins and he doesn’t slow down, you can enforce your “slow down” cue by changing your focus from the front of the horse to his tail.
After you’ve practiced moving the tail a little for about 10 minutes-and if you feel safe doing so-ask your horse to trot. While he’s trotting, pick up a rein and sometimes move the tail a lot and sometimes move it just a little. You’ll notice your horse will stop better when you move the tail a lot and he’ll make a nice downward transition to a walk when you move the tail a little.
Point the Tail
Your next step in the exercise is to pick a spot in the arena. It can be a post, a tree, a gate, or anything else that you can use as a marker. Ask your horse to walk or trot and keep his tail pointed toward that marker. (Of course, you’re actually riding directly away from it.) You know where it is without looking at it because your marker isn’t going to move. Just clearly picture it behind you and keep the tail pointed exactly toward it. If the tail comes off that line two inches to the right, immediately pick up the right rein and return the tail where you want it to be by moving it two inches to the left.
Ride three quarters of the way across the arena, then pick another spot and turn. Line up the tail with your marker again and go directly away from it yet again. Keep going back and forth across the arena until your horse travels in a perfectly straight line on a loose rein.
If your horse starts going too fast on your line, use the tail to slow him down.
This exercise is the fastest way to cure a horse that’s buddy sour, barn sour, or gate sour. At the same time, you’re teaching your horse to go in a straight line, which is actually one of the more exacting demands of horsemanship. If your horse is going in a straight line, he’s well balanced and using both sides of his body equally.
A circle is nothing more than a curved straight line, so now practice riding a perfect circle just by steering with your horse’s tail. If you’re riding a large circle to the left and the horse’s tail moves to the left-or inside-allowing the horse to move right and make the circle larger, pick up the right rein and push the tail toward the left, back toward the curved line. If the tail then crosses the line, pick up the left rein and push the tail to the right, back toward the line again.
You’ll get the hang of it after a few times. Start at the walk. When you have that down, go to the trot. If you’re comfortable, then go to the canter. Keep in mind that you’re still riding a straight line. It’s just curved.
You can do all of this in one or two sessions. Jot down some notes on note cards you can stick in your pocket, then take them out with you when you ride as reminders of what you want to accomplish at different points. Now, just play with your horse. You won’t believe all the areas of performance you’re teaching your horse while you’re making him calm, safe, and fun to ride