Dances with Horses

John Lyons teaches you how to control your horse's shoulders so you can create a delightful dance.

You’re loping a circle with your mare. the circle size is good, but you begin to feel a distinct tilt, kind of like an airplane banking into a turn. As that awful feeling grows in your stomach, your mare speeds up and scrambles for balance. How can you help her?

Or perhaps you’re finishing up a really nice trail ride. The horses are eager to return to their pens for supper. Your gelding hustles too close while passing through the farm gate, whamming your knee into the gatepost. How can you prevent this?

Actually, the answer to these questions is something called “shoulder control,” and you and your horse are perfectly capable of learning this training tool. It takes time to teach the cues so your horse knows how to respond. It takes time to refine the cues.

It takes even more time to build the horse’s muscles so it looks effortless and seems to others like you’re dancing with your horse. But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, the dance can be delightful.

Where the Head and Hindquarters Go…
Your horse’s shoulder doesn’t just follow where his head and hindquarters go. Controlling his shoulder is an important part of developing a more responsive, more balanced, and therefore safer partner. It produces a lower, softer head and neck as he learns to break at the poll and give to the bit. It’s a basis for leads, neck reining, diagonal movement, flexibility, and general balance.

Shoulder Control

• Control your horse’s shoulders to develop a more responsive, more balanced, and safer partner.
• Always perform these shoulder exercises with your horse moving energetically forward.
• Shoulder-control exercises are very demanding on your horse, so take it slowly.
• Results can show up fast, so stick with it to help your horse become a beautiful partner who floats over the ground with a feeling of lightness.

Shoulder exercises improve speed control and steering. They keep your horse’s shoulders between the reins while giving you more control over his hindquarters. They let you move your horse straight forward, straight backward, forward at an angle, back at an angle, and directly sideways. They can be an excellent introduction to neck reining and are the beginning of collection. They build your horse’s muscle, and improve flexibility and obedience. They develop lightness and responsiveness to the bridle.

Most important, shoulder control teaches your horse to carry himself in better balance, which also helps you to be in better balance.

It’s also a really fun thing to do with your horse.

Good Training for All
Teaching shoulder control is appropriate for any age horse, from weanling on up. As with any training, remember not to overdo it. Young horses are still building body strength. Older horses may start out with stiff muscles and joints.

You may see results the first day you try these training exercises. And if you stick with it, you’ll end up with a more powerful, more beautiful horse that floats over the ground with an extraordinary feeling of lightness.

How does all this happen? When we ask a horse to lift his shoulder, he stretches all the muscles along the top of his body and contracts the ones in his belly as he lowers his hindquarters to move his hind legs more underneath him to carry more of his weight. This action shifts his balance to a degree that allows greater agility. It also involves a lot of weightlifting, which is one of the reasons really well-trained horses are always beautiful to look at. They’re extremely well muscled.

The exercises are a lot of fun to learn and do. And that’s why we have our horses-so we can have fun! So let’s get to it.

Let’s begin this work on the ground in a safe area, such as a round pen or enclosed arena with good footing. Your horse should be bridled. He should know the “go forward” and “hips over” cues, and he should turn his nose toward you if you put gentle, direct pressure on one rein (which is immediately released when he complies).

Outfit your horse with protective boots and leg wraps, because it’ll be possible for him to clip himself with an opposite hoof while he figures out how to move diagonally, especially during the initial training.

A dressage whip is very useful for teaching this exercise, but only use it to cue him with a light tap. You’ll be doing ground work, walking up by your horse’s head. If you have to cue his hindquarters to go forward, it’s nice to have this to extend the reach of your arms.

Getting Started
Always perform these exercises with your horse moving energetically forward. Shoulder-control exercises are very demanding on your horse, so take it in slow, easy stages, changing from left to right sides often. Reward any “try” by your horse, no matter how small, with an instant release of rein pressure and praise.

Keep in mind that horses aren’t born with pre-programmed responses to our cues. When we teach a new cue, we try to put our horse in a position so it will be easy for him to do what we want. In this case, he’ll try different things to find out what will release bit pressure. Eventually, he’ll hit on the one answer we want, so we respond with praise and an immediate release.

This doesn’t mean your horse now knows that cue cold or that he even knows it works on both sides. It can take hundreds or thousands of repetitions before a cue is really ingrained.

First Steps
Some horses are stiffer through the neck and back than others, so ask for small changes at first as you see where your horse is comfortable.

Begin at a brisk walk to the left, holding the left rein in your right hand about 6 to 12 inches from the bit. Keep that walk moving energetically forward at all times as you take the slack out of the rein and apply a steady, gentle pressure, asking the nose to come toward you slightly.

A few horses have necks as flexible as wet pasta. For others, a few wrinkles in the skin at the base of the neck can be cause for major praise. All horses will be more flexible on one side than they are on the other, just as people are right or left handed.

Most likely, your horse will bend his head as far as is comfortable and then start showing some form of resistance as a way of saying, “Wait! That’s hard!” You don’t want him to think this exercise is some sort of punishment, so watch for early signs of discomfort. As long as he’s trying, give an immediate release, and praise him. Repeat the exercise, and switch sides often, always walking him energetically forward.

Little by little, ask for more and more of a bend, bringing the tip of your horse’s nose in the direction of the point where the bottom of his neck meets the bottom of his left shoulder. If he has one of those very flexible necks, remember that the nose doesn’t have to actually touch this point and should never go beyond it. What you’re asking for is the stretch and to feel a shift of balance.

Different horses will shift that balance at different degrees of bend. But eventually, as you pick up the rein and move your horse’s nose toward the base of his neck, that shoulder is going to begin to move away from you. He might give you a big step, but it also might be just a matter of an inch at first as he merely shifts his weight to the opposite side. That’s great. Release the rein pressure and praise him. Repeat and switch sides, remembering that the other side might lag a bit behind on the flexibility scale.

This is very demanding of the horse’s muscles, so reward any attempt, switch sides often, and take frequent breaks. Depending on how stiff your horse is, this step could take several days. Know, though, that it’s time well spent.

Like Clockwork
As you keep working on this exercise, your horse will begin to walk diagonally away from you when you ask. It helps at this point to visualize the hands of a clock. Start at 12 o’clock, which is straight, forward movement. Move to 6 o’clock, which is backing up. Just ask him for a slight angle at first, perhaps at 1 o’clock (or 11 o’clock if you’re on his right side at this point).

You can have a lot of fun with the numbers on a clock with this exercise, starting each number on the ground and then working on it in the saddle once your horse seems relaxed and confident. Remember that this is physically demanding work for him, so work in small increments, rewarding him with instant release every time he tries to cooperate.

As his skill level improves, he’ll need less and less neck bend to shift over when you ask. When you’re riding, you can control this with the opposite rein. Eventually, you want him to stay nearly straight and lift his shoulder with a pretty little neck bend in the direction you’re asking him to go, but that’s a ways down the road.

At 2 o’clock (or 10 o’clock), you’re doing a very nice diagonal movement, with your horse stepping deeply under his body. This is where the weightlifting comes in, so take it in small stages. Once he’s mastered this on the ground, showing prompt, relaxed responses, he’ll be ready to work on it with you in the saddle.

Saddle Work
When you’re mounted, repeat the process. Walk your horse briskly forward. Take the slack out of your left rein, asking his nose to come toward that spot on the base of his neck. Don’t let him slow down, but keep the pressure until he shifts his weight to the right, then immediately release and keep walking straight. Repeat, and switch sides.

If your work on the ground has been solid, your horse should catch on pretty fast when you’re up top. If you hit a snag, go back on the ground and review that work.

Take however much time your horse requires to get relaxed and confident about this maneuver, because now it gets fun as you begin to dance with your horse.

Giving your horse frequent praise and breaks, take him diagonally to the right for a few strides, then diagonally to the left for a few strides, then to the right, then to the left. The distance is not as important as the frequent changes in direction.

In the early stages, especially, he may look like a drunk coming out of a bar late at night, but as his strength and agility improve, you’ll find he’s getting softer in the way he carries the bit, is more balanced underneath you, and that he’s really enjoying this, as well. Once he has that figured out and is physically comfortable, do these “o’clocks” at the trot.

At 3 o’clock (or 9 o’clock), you’re doing a full sidepass. Your horse must stretch muscles he hasn’t used, so again, take it slowly.

When you’re at 4 or 5 o’clock (or 7 or 8 o’clock), you’re asking the most of your horse, so try for only 1 or 2 steps at most as you begin this one. You’re now asking him to go diagonally backward, and you’ll see his “pushing away leg” deepen and really work.

The Dance
If you’ve done your homework on the ground and kept your horse relaxed, you should now be able to move his shoulders anywhere you want them while keeping him in excellent balance. Spins, diagonals, lead changes, stops, or whatever else you want to teach him will be easier with the partnership you’ve now established.

Take your time, have fun, keep building toward perfection, and you can do darned near anything with your horse that you want to do.

Go dance!

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