On the trail, in the arena, anywhere, in fact, it’s easy to get stuck. You’re trying to turn or stop-or simply to move-and you can’t seem to get anything right. You pull on your horse’s nose to turn him and your horse keeps walking in a straight line. You’re trying to communicate to your horse, but something isn’t working. That’s when you’ll need a little creative thinking. That’s how John Lyons developed his “steer the tail” concept.
Pretend for the next half-hour that you’re riding in one of John’s clinics.
“Point the tail where you don’t want to go,” John calls to your group.
“Huh?” says everyone. “Point the tail where we don’t want to go?”
Okay, we all know where the tail is. But we’re still trying to get our horses to go where we point the nose, with limited success. We need to change our focus.
“That’s why we’re going to steer the tail,” John patiently reassures.
By tackling an old problem from a new perspective, we have breakthroughs. If we don’t give up too quickly, we eventually get it, and end up with an amazing new communication tool.
Drive the Boat
We’ve all heard it said that the hindquarters are the engine of the horse. They’re the power station, pushing the rest of the horse along like the motor on a boat. If you can control the hindquarters like a rudder, you can control the horse. But how does that play out in real life?
Although “steering the tail” seems counter-intuitive-and your brain has a hard time making sense of it-John has learned that, when it comes to horse training, some things are better understood after the rider experiences them.
During the clinic, John will remind you to sit straight in your saddle and ask your horse to walk. Perhaps your first objective will be to point your horse’s tail toward a gate.
You’ll think about what you want your horse to do, and then you’ll take the slack out of your left rein. Shortening the rein this way may seem awkward at first, but it will help you get the best rein length. Hold the shortened rein, perhaps even brace it against your saddle horn if you need to, until you feel your horse’s hindquarters take a big step to the right. The moment that happens, you’ll want to release the rein pressure.
Now, your horse’s head will turn to the left. But again John reminds you not to focus on the head. Think instead about where your horse’s tail is. Only when you have successfully moved the horse’s hindquarters-steering the tail-will you release the rein and walk off in the new direction.
If your horse stops before his tail moves, John will instruct you to squeeze with both your legs to get the horse walking energetically. Forward motion makes steering easier-it softens your horse and keeps him from getting stuck.
Once you’ve gotten your horse’s tail pointed toward the gate, more or less, release the rein pressure and encourage your horse to step forward. Then follow John’s instructions to try the same exercise using your right rein to point your horse’s tail toward the opposite side of the arena.
Of course, being able to point and position your horse’s hindquarters won’t be precise with either rein at this point. You may overshoot the target, with the tail continuing to drift a step or two even after you release, or because you’re pulling the horse in a circle, thus ending up where you began. It’ll feel awkward, and you’ll be unsure of the timing. But with a little practice, you’ll get the hang of it. In no time, you’ll be able to point the tail to whatever target in the arena John calls out to you…the post, the roping chute, the round pen.
Before long, you’ll notice that when you pick up the rein, your horse’s nose turns and his front feet automatically follow his nose, something you may have been having trouble with before the lesson started. It was as if the tail had taught the rest of the horse what you wanted. Bingo!
Full Stop, Please
John also shows how we can steer the tail a short distance, which might be helpful when we want to straighten a horse on the trail. He also demonstrates that by moving the tail far enough, we ask the horse’s front feet to stop. “Steer the tail” now becomes a stopping exercise as well.
Think about asking the horse’s tail to move far enough to stop the front feet. Pick up the left rein and hold light tension on it. Feel your horse’s left hind foot step in front of the right hind, and the right hind take a big step to the right. As those two steps are happening, your horse is pivoting on his left front foot, which means, of course, that the left front foot is stopped. Sure enough, after that big hindquarters move, you’ll have to tell the horse to walk, because all his feet will have come to a full stop.
Why It Works
Amazing things happen during the steer-the-tail process:
• First, it’s fun. If you’ve been afraid of making a mistake, you’ll quickly see that each maneuver is a mini-lesson. If you mess up one time, you can do better the next.
• The initial problem of the horse not turning smoothly is solved, as your horse learns to walk and turn.
• You’ll sit better in the saddle, because you’ll be thinking and feeling for hindquarters movement.
• Your horse will begin to bend in the turns.
• You’ll learn the language of ask-and-release, and become comfortable with your own sense of timing.
• You’ll discover you can stop your horse’s front feet any time by moving his hindquarters over.
• Your horse will learn to follow the pull of the rein-or else he’ll have to move his hindquarters over.
As you’ve probably noticed, a horse can turn his head quite far to the right or left without turning his body, and that can be frustrating. In fact, not only can he walk without turning, the longer you hold his head off to the side, the more he leans on his opposite shoulder, making it all the harder for him to move his shoulders to follow his nose. So, if you find yourself in a situation in which you’ve asked your horse to turn to the right, and he only turns his head and is still walking forward, try steering the tail.
Instead of letting him walk with his head turned to the right, you can use the right rein you’re already pulling to tell him to move his hip. When the hindquarters take a big step to the left, the whole horse will be facing to the right. It’s a way of mechanically moving the horse, but it’s also something that tells him, “You missed the cue.”
If your horse has a choice, he would rather not make that big step over with his hindquarters. With just a little practice, he learns that it’s easier to turn to the right by letting his front feet follow his nose than by having to make half of an about-face. So “steer the tail” becomes a way to enforce a much more subtle use of the rein.
Of course, a natural question is: “How does the horse know what you want when it looks like you’re using the same rein cue to mean two different things?” John’s answer is always the same. When the rider has one thing in mind, he “is” one way, and when he has something else in mind, he “is” another way. And the horse can tell the difference.
The horse recognizes subtle changes in the rider’s body position or weight distribution, or the way the rider gathers his reins. If you try to just be yourself, and think about what you want your horse to do, you’ll instinctively position yourself to ride that maneuver. So, in effect, the rein tells the horse part of the message, and the rider himself clarifies it. Concentrate on steering the tail, aligning the hindquarters with a designated point, and you’ll be more likely to accomplish that goal.
Putting It into Play
So, is all this just a training exercise, or is there some practical purpose to it? As you might guess, it’s both. Certainly we’ve seen that it’s a steering and stopping exercise, as well as a way to train the horse to obey a subtler steering cue.
Let’s say that you’re on the trail, and you’re having a hard time getting your horse to make a turn. He wants to stay with his buddies on one path, and you want him to turn left onto another. You’ve picked up the rein and his nose is facing left, but his body is drifting to the right. What to do? Move his hindquarters to the right. Now he’s facing left. Squeeze him with both legs, and you’re on your way.
Maybe you’re riding in an arena, and your horse doesn’t want to go to the rail. You can get his nose there, but the rest of the horse is leaning toward the middle. Swing his tail to the middle (where you don’t want him to go). Now he’s facing the fence. Ride him to the fence, do another half turn, and there you are.
Perhaps you’re having a hard time getting your horse to do “anything.” He’s frozen in space, or he seems on the verge of getting out of control. Do one thing: Point the tail where you don’t want to go. That will have you facing where you do want to go, which can help to limit the problem. If you still don’t feel like you have control, move the hindquarters again and again. That will prevent the horse from straightening out and limit his ability to spook or leap forward while you gain control.
Or maybe your horse is fussing with the bit. Rather than fighting with him, since his head is all over the place, steer the tail. That will eliminate the fight, because you’re telling the horse clearly what you want, then you’re releasing the rein.
Then there’s always the case where the horse is moving faster than you want, and your normal “whoa” isn’t working. What to do? Steer the tail. Keep moving that tail until the front feet stop-at least momentarily. Do that again and again, perhaps changing sides. By giving the horse a release, his energy doesn’t build and he knows there are moments of calm. You’ll find his pauses becoming longer, until you finally have control. And you can thank the tail for delivering the whole horse to you.