Controlling Movement Under Saddle (Part I)

Beginner horse owners learn how to control the movement of their horse while riding

Do you remember when you started your “ABC’s?”

As adults, having many years of reading experience under the belt, it is easy to under appreciate all that went into getting to this point of literacy.

First you had to perfect the “L-M-N-O-P” part (I know I’m not the only kid who got tongue-tied) before moving on to small words – and then larger words. It took years (and many devoted school teachers) before you were off and running in order to be able to read articles such as this one!

But what if you, as an adorable first grader, had constantly compared yourself to the more highly-skilled, older students? What if you had continually fixated on what you couldn’t yet do-instead of what you could?

You would have quit before you began, that’s what.

So it is with your horsemanship.

My previous article introduced the skills necessary to begin the riding journey. Click here to read In the Saddle.

As we dive farther into your horsemanship learning, please, please, resist the urge to get too far ahead of yourself. In other words, do not put the cart before the horse (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

I commonly see my students get bogged down and bummed out when they fixate on what they can’t do or what they didn’t get right, rather than on their successes.

If you and your horse are able to find success with a new skill two out of 10 times, do not view it as eight failures! Rather, get excited that you found success the times that you did.

There is an awful lot that goes into a harmonious connection between two vastly different species. Therefore, there is definite cause for celebration when you and your horse do connect.

Do not lose hope – the learning process is most definitely an imperfect one, and everyone has their own pace. Instead, focus on the here and now and on what you and your horse can do, and you will be astonished at the results you will begin to see.

Let’s ride!
When it comes to your riding, one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and your partner who has to pack you around is to learn to move together harmoniously. The following exercises will help you develop your balance, enhance you and your horse’s trust of one another, and teach you to both move in a controlled way.

These exercises will develop impulsion in your horse as well as teach you to ride with your horse’s movements, rather than against them. Impulsion is defined as the balance between “whoa” and “go” – not one more than the other. And it is essential to develop before progressing to intermediate or especially advanced riding skills.

Both of the following exercises will be done riding on a loose rein (see In The Saddle for a review on what I mean by a loose rein). Therefore, choose an enclosed space, such as a large roundpen or medium sized arena, for these exercises.

Do not attempt to steer your horse at all during these exercises. It is about teaching your horse to confidently find his way (he can’t go far if you’re in an enclosed space) and about you learning to flow with your horse’s movements.

Go and Whoa (Stop and Walk)
Goal: To be able to do “up” transitions as well as “down” transitions, using progressive stages of pressure.

Up Transitions
An up transition is an increase of speed. For example, an up transition is going from a stop to a walk, a walk to a trot, or a trot to a canter. Ultimately you will be able to do an up transition into any one of those gaits from a standstill (stop to trot, or stop to canter).

Down Transitions
A down transition causes a decrease in speed, such as going from a canter to a trot, a trot to a walk, or a walk to a stop. Ultimately you will be able to do a down transition all the way to a standstill from any one of those gaits (trot to stop, or canter to stop). This takes time and practice, but is a very attainable goal through good horsemanship.

Progressive Stages of Pressure
Before we begin, let’s briefly review the concept of progressive stages of pressure, which was first introduced in Horse Behavior and Psychology (Part II) (makes this a link) some time back. I encourage you to glance back at this article as a refresher on how and why the horse uses this as a part of their communications. Your horsemanship will take off once you can learn to think like a horse and to see things from his point of view.

Understanding the importance and correct use of progressive stages of pressure is key to your ultimate success in the saddle, as the correct use of pressure can create a light and responsive partner (just as the incorrect use of pressure creates a dull and unresponsive partner) – which one would you prefer to ride?

Of course, we would all prefer to share a ride with a light and responsive horse, particularly because at the point that you are in the saddle, there is an awful lot riding on it – – you! Maintaining your safety as well as preserving your confidence is of the utmost of importance.

The language of the horse utilizes the application of pressure and the release of pressure; pressure being the source of discomfort and the release providing the horse comfort. Learning occurs for a horse through the release of pressure as they are seeking comfort continually. Remember, the release is the reward.

If you watch horses communicate with one another, you will see that they are the creators of progressive stages of pressure. We are simply mimicking their behavior in our communications with them.

For example, you might see one horse pin their ears at another (stage 1 pressure), then they may bare their teeth (stage 2 pressure), then, if the other horse has not done what they wanted, they will make physical contact, actually biting the other horse – ouch! (stage 3 pressure).

Be diligent about using the stages of pressure outlined below and be sure to use them progressively, one following the other, but not all at once. Doing so will help you keep your emotions under control – being able to get firm (for clarity’s sake) without getting mean or mad – as well as will help your horse learn to respond to your lightest, almost undetectable request. Cool!

Instructions: Holding the reins on a loose rein and sitting properly in the saddle (see In the Saddle) ask your horse to walk off. This is accomplished by bringing the life up in your body as you hug the horse’s ribs with your legs (stage 1 pressure). If your horse has not walked off briskly to this request, take the end of a lead rope and begin rhythmically swinging it against your shoulders, going shoulder to shoulder (stage 2 pressure). If your horse has still not walked off, lengthen the rope and using the same rhythmic motion swing the rope behind either side of your body, touching the horse’s rump with it.

Both of these motions cause a commotion behind the driveline encouraging the horse to move forward. So, asking for a walk is squeeze – tap your shoulders – tap their rump. If the horse briskly walks off at any point, there is no need to go to the next stage of pressure.

(I highly recommend mecate reins for this type of exercise, as they offer a combination of rein and leadrope, but if you do not have them, you may carry with you a piece of heavy string or light rope to get the job done. I do not suggest using a crop at this stage, as it is too easy for your body to get tight through the motion of a crop).

Once your horse is at a walk, allow him to walk enough strides for you to feel the motion, but not so many that they get any big ideas about going faster – not just yet. Once the walk feels good, ask your horse to come to a stop. This is done by taking all the life out of your body (take a deep breath and stop riding) (stage 1 pressure), then lifting the reins straight up in the air (stage 2 pressure), then finally sliding your hand down the rein and bending the horses head around (this is simply lateral flexion) until the horse’s feet stop and he tucks his nose toward his armpit (stage 3 pressure).

To recap, you ask for a stop by relaxing in the saddle, lifting the reins straight up, and then bending the horse around. Relax – Lift – Bend.

Practice this over and over until your horse begins to respond to your stage one or two request for a stop. Do not attempt to do it at any more than a walk just yet.

If your horse goes faster than you want at any point, simply slide your hand down one rein and bend the horse in a tight circle until they resume the gait you asked for (i.e. if you ask for a walk and your horse trots instead, bend them until they walk and then let them walk out in a straight line).

Go-With-the-Flow Riding (Walk)

Goal: To enhance your balance and find harmony with the horse’s movements.

Instructions: Once you are confident that your horse understands how to stop, you may walk out for greater periods of time. Resist the urge to steer your horse. Instead if your horse stops or gets stuck somewhere, just ask them to resume gait using the progressive stages of pressure of an up transition learned above. Your horse may go wherever he wants; the only rule is that he doesn’t change gaits. Your horse needs to learn that walk means walk; it doesn’t mean stop and it doesn’t mean trot – this goes back to respect for your leadership.

If it feels like your horse is going to make a mistake (drop to a stop or move off at a trot), allow them to make the mistake first and then correct it. True partnership requires responsibility from both sides. Help your horse learn to be a responsible partner by allowing them to find out what happens when they do what they want, rather than what you asked.

If a horse is never allowed to learn what happens when he makes a mistake, his learning gets stunted and you will have to continually do everything for him. Please, please, please – for your sake and your horse’s sake, do not micromanage your horse. Allow him to make mistakes so he can find out what happens when he makes a decision apart from you.

I encourage you to practice both these exercises many times before we move on to the next lessons. Remember to focus on the here and now, on the lessons where you and your horse are finding success. Many small victories put together lead to the bigger picture of success!

About the author: Emily Johnson, owner of Mountain Rose Horsemanship Training, LLC, located in Broomfield, Colorado, is an accomplished horse professional with a passion for bringing horses and humans together through credible and approachable instruction.

Emily studied Equine Science at Colorado State University before spending the following years traveling, mentoring under many accomplished trainers nationwide, as she developed her own natural horsemanship style. Her training methods utilize a direct approach the horse naturally understands, which she combines with her knowledge of human learning to create the most effective environment for both.

Emily specializes in areas that include young or troubled horses, as well as horsemanship that emphasize the mind and behavior of the horse. Her instruction reflects her passion for equipping both horses and humans for success on their journey toward partnership. She may be contacted at

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