Just think about the hindquarters!” “Focus only on the tail!” The concept sounds so easy. But we’re going to say up front (as it were) that it isn’t easy at all. In fact, in the beginning, these exercises will probably seem doggone unnatural. If you stick with them, however, and put in the effort and dedicated practice, it will produce a quantum shift in your horsemanship. And we’ll say this again: everyone can do this, not just some elite few!
Right in Front of You
The reason steering from the hindquarters seems so difficult is smack in front of you. That beautiful front end of your horse acts like a giant magnet for your attention. Your horse’s nose, head, ears, and neck draw your eyes and your mental focus. They more or less point in the direction you want to go, so it’s easy to think that they’re what you need to steer to get where you want to go.
But, in reality, your horse’s motor and steering are in the rear.
If you’ve been guiding your horse by his nose for years, it’s going to take focus and practice to change your thinking. If you’ve been taught to use your leg to move your horse’s hindquarters to the right or left, it’ll be natural to want to do that during these exercises. It can be very difficult to change these patterns. These moves may feel natural, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best way for you to communicate with your horse. Giving multiple cues for one maneuver complicates the cue system for you both.
When you catch yourself trying to pull your horse’s mouth around, don’t beat yourself up. Just become more conscious of what your hands are doing. If you find yourself pressing with one leg, just leave that leg slightly forward in a soft position. In any case, relax your seat and sit up straight in the middle of the saddle. You don’t have to lean forward, backward, right, or left.
One of your goals during these exercises is to teach your horse to become more responsive to the bridle, so try to focus on just using the reins for your signal to the hindquarters. This is going to require that you exercise the deliberate practice we talked about. It’ll take effort and concentration on your part, so it would be a good idea to make your work sessions shorter than usual to make this as easy as possible for you.
The amount of time you spend practicing these exercises is going to depend on you, not on your horse. The exercises themselves aren’t physically demanding for him. In fact, he’s really only about 20% of the equation. The other 80% of the equation is time and effort spent training you. So don’t go on to the second exercise until the first lesson is solidly rooted in your mind. You should have definite “Ah ha!” moments when the light bulb suddenly comes on with a very bright light.
When you have an “Ah ha!” moment, you need to convert these skills into habit. That will take many repetitions on your part, but not a long time-span. You can master these techniques in just a few hours of practice, possibly even less. The time it takes depends on your concentration and effort. Just remember that this is not a race. If a friend or barn mate is working on these exercises as well, don’t see who can get them done fastest. Focus on your own progress.
Choose a specific number of repetitions you’ll do before you go on to the next exercise. This helps give you, your mind, and your seat time to learn. It also keeps you from jumping ahead to the next exercise before you’re really ready.
I’d suggest that you do at least 200 repetitions before moving on. This sounds like a lot, but it’s actually an easy number to reach during just part of a riding session. Each repetition only takes a few seconds and you’re not going to be doing a lap of the arena between each one. Do the exercise, get a correct response, release, and do the exercise again.
It would also be good to begin your next training session with a review of the exercises you did the previous day in the same order. And maybe the second day you only have to do 50 repetitions for each exercise, but while you’re doing them, don’t slide into “simple” practice and just go through the motions. Be deliberate. Focus on the details of the exercise so that the larger part of it becomes almost automatic. This doesn’t happen when you do fewer repetitions. It happens when you do more.
More repetitions also help your horse. Yes, he may only be 20% of the equation this issue, but those repetitions make it easier for him to advance and learn the next exercise. The exercise itself improves and develops other areas of your horse’s performance.
For instance, while you’re concentrating on your own improvement, this exercise-if done correctly-will teach your horse to become much lighter on the bit. He’ll lower his head, soften his neck, stop bending his head so much to the side, and relax more. If you only do 20 repetitions instead of 50, your horse won’t improve as much.
Remember that each exercise is based on both you and your horse doing the previous exercise well. Don’t skimp, skip, or worry about doing any of these exercises too much because you think the repetitions will hurt or bore your horse. They won’t.
It’s like baking a cake. You put in all the right ingredients, mix them the right way, and add to a pan. You put the pan in the oven, and then cook the cake for the correct amount of time. No matter how much of a hurry you’re in, five minutes won’t bake that cake, but an hour might make it perfect. That cake and these exercises take about the same amount of cooking time to really develop something good, so relax and look forward to a great result.
Get the Feel on the Ground
The exercises themselves are simple and easy to accomplish. This is good because it lets you focus on a specific part of your horse. You’re also going to use one of the natural things your horse does when he has a rider on his back. He’s going to bring his head in one direction and move his tail in the opposite direction. This is easy for him, so don’t be fooled or distracted by how quickly the horse learns the correct response. Remember that the lesson isn’t for your horse, it’s mostly for you.
In fact, for the first exercise, you don’t need your horse at all. This exercise shows you how and why it really is best to use your horse’s hindquarters for a turn rather than pulling on his face. You may want to do this when no one is watching unless you’re ready to explain why you’re pacing, turning, and (probably) muttering to yourself.
Walk a straight path next to a fence or wall. Say your right shoulder is next to the wall. You’re going to do a reverse toward the wall, like a rollback or turn-around. Don’t rush or do anything out of the ordinary, just walk a few steps, stop, turn all the way around to the right, and end up facing the way you came. It worked. No big deal.
Now do it again, but this time use your right hand to grasp the top of your right back pocket. Repeat your walk down the wall, stop, and now use your right hand to cue your right hip to move to the left-away from the wall-until you’ve turned all the way around and are facing the other way. You’ve just changed direction using your hindquarters! And I’ll bet you were better balanced, quicker, and did a tidier turn than you did before.
Now go back to just walking down the fence and turning without using your pocket as a cue. Pay close attention to what your body does. Depending on how much military training you’ve had, you probably turned your head to look where you were going, which turned your neck, your shoulders, your upper body, and then your hips and legs. You weren’t nearly as well balanced. This is what happens when you steer your horse from his nose.
Now try turning from tugging on your pocket again and have some fun for a little while. Try it walking fast, walking slow, using your left pocket to make a left turn, walking in a circle, and turning to the inside or outside, always pulling your pocket away from the direction you want to turn. Sometimes move your pockets a lot. Other times move them a little. In every case, you’ll find it significantly easier to turn your body if you start that turn from your hips.
There are several points that this exercise addresses. First is to reinforce where your focus will be when you’re on your horse-that is, on his hindquarters. His head and neck will come along for the ride without your fussing with them.
Second, watch what happens when you move your hip pockets a lot or a little when you’re going faster or slower. Each changes the speed and direction your feet are moving. The same thing happens with your horse.
Practice this exercise on the ground until it really makes sense to you. When you have the feel of starting the turn, stop using your hand to tug your hips around.
Move Up to the Saddle
Now you’re going to do this same exercise with your horse. You’ll move those same jeans pockets in the same direction until you get the same feel in the turn that you had on the ground. When you’re in the saddle, if your hip pockets have moved, so has the horse’s back end. Your pockets and his tail, hindquarters, and hips will all move in unison.
Your short-term goal will be to bring the horse to a stop by swinging his hindquarters (hips, tail, your pockets) toward the center of the arena. The fence helps to explain to the horse that although we’ve used the rein to turn his whole body before, now we only want his hindquarters to respond to the rein. We don’t want him to walk forward or to make a small circle toward the fence.
Here we go! Walk your horse along the fence line about two feet in from it. Slowly begin to reach for the outside rein while focusing only on his tail. Gradually add pressure to the rein until the instant his tail begins to move toward the center of the arena. As soon as it does, release the rein.
Ideally, your horse will stop with his hindquarters toward the center of the arena and his chest facing directly at the arena fence.
More likely, though, your horse didn’t stop. He only slowed a little. As soon as you released the rein, he continued to move down the arena fence in the same direction. This is okay because he did move his hips in response to your cue.
Repeat the exercise. This time, release the rein just a little later, as the tail moves a little further toward the center of the arena. Or, pick up the rein, move the tail a little, then release. If the tail doesn’t move as far as you wanted, pick up the rein again and move it just a little further, then release again. If the response from the tail was still not enough, pick up the rein a third time and move the tail a little more. Finally, you will have the tail moved far enough that the front end of the horse stops.
Repeat the exercise on both sides from the beginning of your walk down the fence. Each time you pick up the rein, try to use less pressure than you used the last time your horse responded. We tend to like to repeat success, but for this exercise don’t automatically use the same amount of pressure or bend his head to the same spot on the last time you got his tail to move. Each time, try to use less pressure and get less bend. One of your goals is to put less pressure on the rein and have the horse move his head less to the side while you achieve the same result with the tail. This is what makes the horse more responsive to your cues.
Trying is Believing
It’s very important to remember that you don’t have to do everything perfectly right away. This can be a hard concept for us to learn. We have the “correct” exercise already pictured in our mind before we start. We know how we want our horse to respond. It’s natural for us to start trying to achieve perfection, but this can really mess up the progress and performance of your horse.
Remember that cake we put in the oven? It looked very different when we first put it in than it did when we took it out an hour later. Continue practicing this exercise until the amount of pressure you put on the rein to cause your pockets to move and face the center of the arena (as your horse faces the fence) is less than one or two ounces. At this point, you can move the hindquarters without taking all the slack out of the rein. You’re now causing the hindquarters to move by using the rein only. You’re seeing a connection between the rein and the tail. Be sure that you’re isolating in your own mind the movement and control of the hindquarters. Finally, you can feel the hindquarters moving while the front end of the horse is staying in one spot.
Watch your saddle horn as you walk your horse down the fence. When his tail (your pocket) moves toward the center of the arena, the saddle horn stops moving forward and slowly rotates in one place. This represents what the horse’s front feet are doing.
Continue doing the same exercise, but move the tail more and then less. Sometimes move it past the center of the arena and watch what happens to your horse.
As you practice any exercise, become more observant of how many different aspects of your horse change. The art of doing anything spectacular is perfecting the simple and seeing the detail of all that has happened.
Does he completely change direction? Does he do a partial turn on the forehand (a half turn that keeps his front end in one spot as he rotates just his hindquarters)? If you move the tail halfway toward the center, but keep the horse moving the same direction down the arena fence, does this cause your horse to slow his forward motion? What about his inside hip bone? Can you feel what his hip is doing? What does your own hip pocket feel like on the same side? What about the hip bone closest to the fence? What does it feel like and how different is that compared to the other hip bone?
Can you as a rider visualize the tail as it is moving to the right or left? Can you cause it to move exactly the amount or distance that you want?
What does his mouth feel like now compared to when you started? How much less pressure do you have to put on the reins to get the tail to move? How much lighter has your horse become in your hands?
What about his head? Is he bending it less to the side? Is his neck softer and more flexible? Is his head lower than when you started? Is he more relaxed and focused on you?
These are all great questions. Keep observing the reactions and changes both in your horse and yourself. Remember that any change your horse makes is a reflection of a change you have already made in your own riding habits.
This is deliberate practice, but it’s fun because the joy is in the trying. Anyone who wants to give it a try can do it. Even if you’re not sure how or what to do, try something. Even if you don’t understand completely, try. Even if you don’t do it exactly as I’m thinking, try. The try will improve you and your horse.