Simple Breakthrough Exercises

Work your way through John Lyons' simple training exercises to help connect your horse's tail to your rein.

Now we’re ready to continue our work on connecting the tail and rein. It would be helpful for you to re-read the article on this topic in the May 2009 issue and practice those exercises again. Or, at least, read through the sidebar on page 14 that reviews this information before you add more exercises to your list of “can-do’s” in learning to control your horse’s hindquarters.

In this issue, I’ll give you several ideas for exercises to refine the control that we began in the May issue. Try to come up with some additional exercises on your own that fit your circumstances and sense of fun. Any exercise that helps you to isolate the hindquarters will be useful in helping you control and ride your horse better, more comfortably, and more safely.

You’ll need a number of cones or other low markers and some lime or maybe a rake or hoe to mark a line in the dirt. Unless you’re blessed with access to an indoor arena with mirrors, it may help to have a friend who can be your “eyes on the ground” and watch how precisely your horse’s feet follow that line until you get a feel for when your horse’s body is actually straight.

Set two rows of cones about 30 feet apart. Allow about 20 feet between the cones on each side. This gives you plenty of room to maneuver. Measure to find the exact middle of the alley between the cone lines. Mark a straight line using lime, a rake, a hoe, or any other method that will let you keep looking ahead rather than swiveling your head left and right to determine how far away you are from the cones on either side. We don’t recommend using string or rope because it’s too easy for your horse to get it tangled around his feet.

Walkin’ the Line
Ride your horse at a walk down that center line. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Just like people, horses are left or right “handed,” with one side that’s stronger than the other. To compensate (and also to balance a possibly-less-than-perfectly-positioned rider), they tend to drift or travel crookedly. If you’ve never ridden a truly straight-travelling horse-and most people haven’t-you may not be able to feel this right away. A set of watchful eyes on the ground can be really helpful to let you know if those hind feet really are tracking where you think they are.

Your horse’s front feet will probably be all over the place at first. Ignore that for now and concentrate on keeping his hind feet walking that straight line. Catch yourself if you find yourself riding your horse’s nose, neck, or front end. Remember to focus on the tail, moving it right or left to keep it on the line. That front end will eventually behave and politely come along for the ride.

When you reach the end of the arena, turn around moving the hindquarters of your horse with a “hips over” cue. In other words, pick up one rein and move the tail enough in one direction or the other until one of his front feet (your saddle horn visual) completely stops as his hindquarters swing around to face the opposite way. Now go straight down the line in the opposite direction. Change directions at the end of the line again and repeat. At the end of one pass through the line, turn the hindquarters left and on another pass go right. Repeat this many times and mix up the turns so your horse does not always turn in one direction at one spot.

This is where that “deliberate exercise” we talked about earlier comes in. This isn’t the flashiest exercise you will ever do with your horse, but it’s one of the most important. Keep your sense of humor. Closing your eyes and alternately touching your nose with the tips of your fingers as if you were doing a DUI test is not actually recommended until you and your horse are really solid at this, but it can be a goal and reward. Watch for small changes and improvements in your horse’s movements and reactions, as well as your own awareness of where his feet are at any given moment. It should take fewer and fewer corrections with less and less effort to get your horse straight.

Back and Forth
When you can do this exercise perfectly, it’s time for the next challenge. As you ride down that now-so-familiar middle path between the cones, move your horse’s hindquarters off the line on purpose. As the first cone begins to come up on your right side, pick up the left rein. As you pass that cone, swing the tail toward it four inches. Release the rein. As the second cone approaches, pick up your right rein and move the tail four inches to the left, bringing your horse’s tail back onto the line. Release. Repeat.

So, you’re walking down that center line, moving your horse’s hindquarters left and right. Don’t worry about him wanting to turn and walk toward the cones with his front end. Keep your focus on the hindquarters and don’t release that rein until the hindquarters (tail) moves those four inches.

At first, you’ll look like you should be pulled over for a breathalyzer test. You and your horse will be all over the place, and it will seem like you’ve lost all control of the exercise. That’s okay. Smile and stay focused on what you’re practicing. When his tail has moved over four inches, pick up that other rein, move the tail and guide it back to the line, then start again. You should be able to do all this really well in less than an hour.

Cone Straddle
When you’ve gained control of your horse’s hindquarters to this extent, you’re ready for the next exercise. This time, ride about a foot to the inside of one row of cones. As you approach a cone, try to move your horse’s hind feet to one side of the cone while the front feet are on the other side.

Again, your horse will likely want to change directions. That’s okay, and it’s actually a good sign. That’s how he has learned to respond to the rein cue up to this point. Just be patient as you quietly teach him that there’s more to learn.

Start off by just moving over a single cone. When you can do that easily, proceed to two cones and so forth, until you can travel down the whole row. Make sure you work equally on both sides. Be prepared for one side to take a little longer for your horse to master because he’s left or right handed.

Curved Straight Lines
Next, you’ll refine that curved straight line (a circle) that you started working on in the May issue. Start with a long one-about 90 feet or so. Picture a very specific three-inch line on the ground, like a limed arc on a baseball field. You’re working on keeping your horse’s tail on that line.

His tail is always in one of three places, and determines what you do with your reins. If his tail is on the line, the reins should be completely down and loose. If it’s to the left of the line, you pick up the left rein to move it back toward the right. If his tail is to the right of the line, you pick up your right rein to cross the line and move his tail back toward the left.

I know this sounds hard when you’re reading it, but it’s actually not hard when you’re on your horse. If you’re not sure how the exercise works, step off your horse and walk the exercise using your own back pockets, as you practiced earlier. Don’t feel bad, but your horse will pick up the idea within a few minutes. This really is the fastest way to teach your horse to do nice circles. It also really improves your directional control.

When you’ve mastered the larger circle, begin changing the size and direction of your circles. Don’t try to make a circle less than about 15 feet because it gets really hard for your horse to bend correctly if it’s smaller than that.

Speed Control
Your next exercise is to ride your larger circle and work on changing speeds on that circle again by using the tail. Start at a walk. Stop on the curve, using that turn on the forehand exercise you already practiced. Practice turning your horse’s tail both to the inside and to the outside of the circle.

When you’ve mastered the stop, speed up your horse’s walk. Practice slowing his walk by just moving the tail either in or out of the circle. When (not if) your horse wants to come off the circle’s line, just move him back slowly to where you want him and let him continue on the line at the slower speed.

One of the benefits of speed control through the tail is that it teaches your horse that-if you reach for the rein-he’s going to change what his feet are doing. He’s either going to change his direction or change his speed. You’re teaching him the importance of responding to the rein whenever you begin to reach for it.

It’s easy to end up pulling on both reins to slow your horse down and then to hold on to them to keep him from speeding up. But when you do this, you’re teaching your horse to become less responsive to any rein request. That isn’t good.

This exercise helps teach your horse to go at whatever speed you want on a loose rein. Because you’re using only one rein to slow him down while focusing on moving his tail and releasing as soon as he does, he has nothing to brace against. He pulls less, so he responds more quickly to whatever we’re asking and becomes lighter on the bit.

Practice speed control on the circle using the tail exercise at different speeds of walk and then all speeds of trot. After several practice sessions at the trot-and if you feel comfortable-work into the canter for one or two strides. Then go back to the trot and walk, then up and down through all three gaits again.

Through all of these exercises, don’t worry about anything your horse’s head or neck may be doing. Don’t focus on anything other than your horse’s tail, hip bones, or your own back pockets. Just watch the benefits that controlling the tail give to your horse’s mouth, head elevation, and control of speed and direction.

Remember that you and your horse are unique. Think up other exercises that help you to isolate your control of your horse’s hindquarters. Any exercise is good that leads to the achievement of that goal. Just try one. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t. In either case, you’ve learned something.

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