Whether we’re riding our horse in the arena or down the trail, having a horse that easily changes direction certainly makes the experience more enjoyable. It is akin to driving an automobile that has power steering versus one that does not. Not many of us would choose to go back to a vehicle that requires those hard, hand-over-hand turns on the steering wheel, and you wouldn’t want to use those same muscle-wrenching techniques on your horse either.
Trainer Craig Johnson of Gainesville, Texas, will show us some simple steering exercises that will make guiding your horse easy. He points out that directional control in your horse is primarily achieved by controlling a horse’s front feet.
“The feet are where the action is,” he states. “In standard walking and trotting motion, a horse carries up to 70% of his weight on his front feet. That is where he gets most of his balance. So I focus on moving his front feet in the direction I want him to go. His body will follow.”
When Craig practices directional control, he doesn’t necessarily turn a horse’s nose in the direction he wants him to go. “That is something I will add later,” he clarifies. “In the beginning, since I’m most concerned with moving the horse’s feet, I’m not too concerned with his head and nose position.” In fact, there are even times when his horse’s head will be looking toward the outside of the circle. That is fine for the time being, he says.
“My focus is on what my horse is doing underneath…where his feet are going,” Craig continues. “Sometimes I’ll pretend there is a curtain in front of me so I can’t even see what he’s doing with his head, because the point is to isolate what is going on with his feet. Later on, once I get his feet going where I want them to go, I can start worrying about his head.”
Guiding Principles Simplified
- Don’t worry about your horse’s nose or neck position.
- Remember, your horse will go where his front feet take him
- Improve your steering at the walk and trot rather than at a canter.
- Push, rather than pull, your horse in the direction you want him to go.
- Encourage your horse to center his body beneath your hand.
- Promote a “neutral” state of mind so your horse is ready to go the way you ask.
With this in mind, Craig’s goal is to get the horse to move his feet in such a manner that he centers his entire body under the rider’s hands as they move to the left and right. During the first stages of these exercises, Craig primarily uses hand cues, supported by leg pressure, to affect the necessary foot movements to achieve the proper body position in the horse.
It is also important to note that Craig recommends doing each of these drills at a walk or trot in order to make the learning experience as easy as possible for the horse. The maneuvers are always done while keeping the horse moving forward.
“Practicing these maneuvers is easiest for a horse at a walk or trot,” Craig explains. “If we’re loping, my horse will be on the correct lead sometimes and at other times he won’t, which will make it hard for him to find his balance. At a walk and trot, I can change directions without my horse having to make those big moves, so he stays really level with his body and doesn’t raise up every time I ask him to change directions.
“It is imperative that the horse is always moving forward while performing the drills,” he says, “since we are ultimately teaching him to steer while in the normal course of riding.”
Power of “Neutral”
The first step in training for directional control is to put the horse in “neutral.” Neutral, as Craig explains it, is a mental state of mind for the horse that results in his body being straight and supple and ready for the next directional command.
“Simply put, this means that my horse isn’t making any predictions about which way we’re going next,” he says. “Once he starts making predictions about going left or right, his body will follow his idea. If I’m riding in an arena and my horse is drawn to the gate like a magnet pulling on him the whole time, that’s a mental problem. His mind is going out the gate and he’s trying to take his body with him.”
To achieve this neutral state of mind, Craig practices getting the horse’s body straight underneath him, head to tail. With most of his exercises, Craig uses his outside-or
indirect-rein to push the horse into his turns, rather than using the direct rein to pull him in the direction he wants him to go.
“I don’t do much direct rein steering. I push my horse around. If I want to go left, I use my right rein and push it against the horse’s neck and give him a little leg pressure with my right leg if I need to. I want the horse to learn to be pushed left and right.” He explains that this keeps a horse in a straighter body position than utilizing a direct rein does, making it easier for the horse to go left or right when he’s cued to do so.
During the first stages of this training, Craig may use leg pressure to support his hand cues; but his goal is to have his horse respond to his hands independently, without the assistance of leg pressure.
“I imagine that my hand is a video game controller. If I move it right, my horse goes right,” he says. “If I move it left, he goes left. If I keep it in the center, he keeps moving in the same direction.
“The horse’s job is to figure out where my hand is and get under it; in other words, to keep my hand in the middle of his neck,” he continues. “If my hand goes left, he should get under it. If I put my hand right, he should go right in order to recenter himself beneath it. The ultimate goal is to be able to keep my hand as close to the middle of my horse’s neck as possible, and still have him go in the direction I’m asking. I will eventually be able to use subtle suggestions with my body to tell him where I want to go. But I have to get him responding to my hand first,” the trainer explains.
Craig also notes that, if his horse becomes agitated or tries to move outside of this neutral position during the drills, he will shorten his reins and take a hold of the horse until the horse gets back into a straight position.
He also says riders should not be concerned about moving their hands too much.
“I want my horse to get very accustomed to me moving my hand, and responding to that movement by putting his feet and body under my hand,” says Craig. “If I only move my hand once and then leave it there, my horse won’t have as much opportunity to respond correctly. So repeating the exercises gives him the chance to practice.”
Craig also points out that proper hand position is necessary to achieve the best results. Since the ultimate goal is to achieve ease of steering with one hand, if you must ride with two hands, do so with them fairly close together.
“A common mistake people make is holding their two hands too far apart,” says Craig. “Doing this decreases efficiency. Ride with two hands close together and place them near or over the horn.
“I use my leg, or legs, as a way of supporting what I’m asking him to do with my hands,” he adds. Pushing a heel into the horse’s side, or using the side of his foot in a slight flapping motion against the horse’s shoulder, are ways to apply leg pressure and get the front feet to move.
Craig uses patterns to work on directional control. “I ride in a circle about 15 feet across and practice staying on its diameter,” he says. “Then I perform an exercise I call the ‘wagon-wheel drill,’ which serves to keep my horse focused on the middle of the circle.”
In this exercise, Craig keeps steering his horse toward the inside of the circle at various intervals, or “spokes,” on the wheel.
“I want my horse to act as if there is a bale of hay sitting in the middle, drawing him toward the inside of the circle.”
Craig chooses a spoke, turns his horse on that imaginary line, and rides right through the middle of his circle. He then goes back to the outside of the wheel and continues around.
“I’m using my outside rein to push my horse into the circle,” he explains, noting the importance of using the indirect rein. “After a lot of practice, I will eventually be able to just turn my body or head toward the center of the circle and my horse will go there.”
A common problem that arises with the wagon-wheel drill, according to Craig, is that a horse will begin to anticipate going into the middle of the wheel.
“This is actually a better problem than having a horse who wants to leave to the outside of the circle,” he clarifies. “But it’s possible that the horse will do what we call “drop his shoulder” to the inside of the circle, veering into the turn before I give him the cue to do so.”
One cure for this is the “stop-sign exercise.” During this exercise, Craig rides his horse forward for a few strides, then makes an angled turn and heads off straight again, making an octagon shape instead of a circle.
“Doing this stands my horse up straight again and puts him back in the neutral position,” he explains.
Once Craig is able to easily put his horse’s mind and body in a neutral position, and the horse is responding to hand cues when going left and right, Craig moves on to the next step.
“I then start playing a game that I call “follow me.” I pick a spot down the trail, or use a fence post in the arena, and I focus on riding my horse directly to it. Doing this puts him in that neutral zone, where he isn’t making predictions about where we’re going next. If he is steering correctly, he will move straight to the spot I’ve chosen without leaning left or right along the way.”
While steering, Craig stays focused on his horse’s feet. “If he keeps his feet moving in the direction I’ve asked, instead of thinking about where he’d rather be, then we’re making progress.”
Relieve Steering Anxiety: Open a Can of Worms
While many of us are hesitant to “open the can of worms” associated with asking our horse for better directional control, reining horse trainer Craig Johnson assures us that avoiding the problem is not the best solution.
“Some people don’t want to move their hands, so they won’t have to deal with their horses not responding,” he states. “What you have to do is practice it over and over again so that your horse becomes accustomed to being steered.
“The best way to eliminate anxiety within people and horses is to do more of what they have a problem doing. Avoiding a problem isn’t fixing it. We need to remember that horses are creatures of habit. And, if we work on changing those undesirable habits, riding will be much more fun in the long run.”
As the horse begins to master his responses to the rider’s hand cues, Craig will begin cuing him to change direction in more subtle ways. One subtle cue would be taking a leg off him to allow the horse to go a particular direction.
“In other words, if I want my horse to go right, I will move my right foot and leg away from his side slightly, ‘opening that door’ to go right,” Craig explains.
“Another cue might be to slightly turn my head and shoulders in the direction I want him to go. I just keep adding cues I want him to respond to before moving my hand.”
At that point, Craig’s hand movement becomes the back-up system; he moves his hand only when the horse does not respond to his more subtle cues.
“As long as my horse continues riding toward the spot I’ve chosen, we just keep going,” he adds. “But, if at any time the horse begins to lose that neutral position while I’m riding to that spot, if he starts to veer off that line, then I will steer him in the other direction. Whenever my horse makes a move on his own, I steer him in the opposite direction. If he wants to veer left, I go right. If he wants to veer right, I steer him to the left. If he’s leaning toward the gate, I steer him away from the gate.”
Practice, Practice, Practice
This successful trainer’s daily program involves repeating these exercises on a regular basis to increase and maintain supple directional control. His slogan is: “Clear the mind, move the feet, do it again.” By repeating the drills often, he is able to help his horse master the “neutral” state of mind he considers essential to achieving power steering.
“Once you master the wagon-wheel and stop-sign drills,” he says, “you can use them anywhere, anytime to practice your steering control.”
Craig illustrates his use of repetition during a typical day’s training session.
“I move my hand at least one hundred times when I ride a horse, and I expect him to follow. If I were to get on a horse and go into an arena that had been freshly dragged, with no hoof prints in it at all, in about 20 to 30 minutes it would look like a herd of horses had been turned out there. That’s what I call good riding-when you steer all over an arena.
“When I’m doing the follow-me exercise, I look around the arena for a spot that doesn’t have a footprint yet and I steer toward it. That’s being creative. You can do the same thing when you’re riding down a trail. Move your horse around instead of letting him just stick to the path. Move him left and right, or do a little weave while you’re riding out.”
The good news, according to Craig, is that horses have an incredible sense of humor!
“You can do something wrong again and again; but once you do it right, you’ll feel the result almost immediately because your horse will respond. A lot of people get hung up on needing to do everything perfect. This isn’t a game of perfect. You need to remove the anxiety of whether you’re doing something right or wrong,” he stresses. “It’s a game of fun.”