Serpentine to Success


Have you ever known someone who can’t help but talk too fast when he’s nervous or excited? It’s as if words keep tumbling out of his mouth, even if he doesn’t have anything particular to say. Sometimes a similar thing happens with our horse when he gets all revved up. He’s not talking with his mouth, but his body is tense and his feet seem to have to keep moving.

While we might like to tell the person or the horse to “stop,” we can’t because they probably can’t, and because we don’t want to destroy the relationship. Instead, we can direct their energy. In the case of the person, we can shape the conversation so he will gradually settle down. In the case of the horse, we can tell him where to put his feet, and get control of the “conversation” in that way.

Use changes of direction:

  • For speed control. The horse has to slow down in order to change direction.
  • For high-headedness. The horse normally lowers his head to balance through the turn.
  • For balance. Frequent changes of direction teach a horse not to drift, lean or drop his shoulder through the turn.

This serpentine lesson – a series of “S” turns – will allow you to get control of a horse whose motor is running too fast. But this is not just a basic control exercise. If you work through the serpentine lesson, you’ll also find that your horse is better balanced and that he carries his head at an appropriate elevation. This lesson is one of the foundations for any kind of a performance horse.

We’re going to explain the lesson as if you were riding a well-controlled horse and beginning at the walk. Then we’ll go on to tell you how to take the same lesson to more advanced work, or how to apply it to the horse you’re having difficulty controlling. It’s ideal to work through the lesson at the walk first, so you get the timing down. The most benefit for nearly any horse, though, will happen as you work at the trot.

The Basic Exercise
Put a snaffle bit on your horse, and use reins long enough that you can let them droop completely. Even if you normally ride with contact on both reins, for this exercise you’ll be using one at a time.

Ride in a large area where you can change direction often. Start out by going in a large circle to the left. You’re going to make big loops with your horse, turning to the left and right as if you were making a series of half-circles that are 15 to 30 feet in diameter.

  • Ride your horse forward at the walk. When he is walking freely (when you don’t have to urge him to keep going), you’re ready to make your first loop. Allow your right rein to hang loose. Pick up the left rein and hold light tension on it until the horse turns his nose slightly to the left, ideally about 45 degrees. Slightly release the left rein when he turns his nose to the left. That tells him he did what you wanted, but you want something else, too.
  • Look down at his left shoulder. If the horse steps a little to the left, following the direction of his nose, then release the left rein. Be sure to sit squarely in the saddle, no leaning into the turns.
  • As the horse “follows his nose,” allow him to walk freely. After a half circle, slide the rein through your hands so that you can ask for a curve to the right, using the right rein. Try to handle the rein smoothly and without hurrying. Remember that one rein should be drooping while you use the other.
  • Continue making a series of left and right half-circles – big loops – first to the left, then to the right and back to the left again. The first few won’t be pretty, but as you work with this, the horse will get the idea and the loops will smooth out. Anytime you feel the horse get stuck, move his hip.
  • Do the same exercise at the trot. Try to get into a steady rhythm, and make the loops approximately the same size. You want big, sweeping turns.

Of course, it won’t look smooth the first time. Here’s how to deal with the variations that will occur.

If the horse’s nose turns but he continues walking straight ahead, then use both legs to tell the horse to speed up slightly. Don’t try to steer him using leg aids. (That wouldn’t help him get more responsive to the bridle.) When the horse’s shoulders begin to follow his nose direction for one or two steps, release the left rein.

If a little increase in speed didn’t help, then you’re going to use the “hips over” maneuver to align his body with his new nose position. Increase the pressure on the left rein, and hold it steady until the horse swings his hindquarters to the right (which will turn his whole body). Release the rein the moment you feel the hindquarters swing over, and tell the horse to continue walking.

If the horse turns his head too far to the left or down and back toward his shoulder, then you have to push his head forward without releasing pressure on his mouth in order to show him that’s not what you wanted. It’s a little tricky until you get the hang of it. Slide your left hand forward onto the upper part of the horse’s neck, shortening your left rein as you go. Then use the rein to push the horse’s neck, causing his head to face forward again (as you see John doing in the photo). The moment the horse’s head faces forward, release the rein.

The next time you ask for a turn, use less rein pressure and try to release the rein the instant the horse begins to turn his head. That may help him get the idea that you only want a 45-degree turn. Even with that, some horses will think they’re doing the right thing by turning their head way around to the side or tucking it down toward their shoulder. Don’t scold the horse, but just reposition his head, release the rein and tell him to walk forward. It may take 15 or 20 times doing this before he understands you only want him to turn his head slightly.

Smoothing Things Out
Now that you have the basic maneuver down pat, the real benefit comes as you smooth it out. When you trot, everything happens faster than at the walk. You should consciously slow your hands down as you pick up the rein, but release the rein quickly the moment the horse turns his nose. It’s normal to pull the rein through the turn, but we don’t want to do that or you’ll teach your horse to lean on the bit.

Review of Hips Over

To ask for “hips over,” you take the slack out of one rein and hold tension on it until the horse takes a big step to the side with his hip (i.e., when you use the left rein, you want his hindquarters to move to the right). This is the same movement that you’d unconsciously ask for if you were changing direction when you were walking with your horse down the barn aisle.

Assume you’re holding the left rein as you’re leading your horse toward the barn door. Someone behind you calls out to you. You turn and walk back to them. As you turn, you automatically signal your horse to turn, too. As his head turns to the left, his rear end swings to the right. That’s the “hips over” movement. As he completes the turn, he releases himself from any rein tension.

When you’re asking him for “hips over,” you should consciously release the rein the moment the horse moves his hindquarters one big step to the side.

Sometimes, instead of all of the horse’s motion going forward into the curve, some of the energy will seem to be escaping out the “outside” shoulder, the right shoulder as you’re turning to the left. We say that the horse’s energy is “leaking” out his right shoulder. It might feel like the horse was getting stuck.

If you were using two reins, you might be tempted to use the outside rein to limit this. In this exercise, however, we want the horse to make the correction himself, so we use only one rein at a time and use “hips over” to realign his body. This correction may not necessarily make much sense to you as you read it, but after you’ve experienced the “leak” and have moved the hips a few times, it will be clear.

After the horse has learned the maneuver and learned not to lean on a rein or to drop his shoulder, we’ll use two reins. But when teaching the exercise and first smoothing it out, it helps the horse if we only use one signal at a time.

Up to now, we’ve assumed that the horse’s neck is relaxed and his nose is somewhat poking out in front, not collected. The next step is to work on asking the horse to “give to the bit” with his nose as he turns. This will work toward collection.

Ask the horse to change directions. When he’s going in the new direction, pick up the rein again and hold light tension on it, asking him to “give to the bit.” You want him to soften, to relax tension on the rein, but not to change the path that his feet are following. He’ll only actually move his head an inch or two. If he gives, release the rein and change direction.

If the horse doesn’t give within two seconds, don’t totally release the rein, but switch directions. When you’re traveling the new direction, ask the horse to give to the bit for two seconds, and change directions after the give. If the horse does not give to the bit after waiting for two seconds, you will change direction anyway. If the horse does not give to the bit at all, move the hip and go back to working on changing directions.

When you have that down pat at the trot, you can serpentine at the canter. Don’t expect the horse to change leads. In fact, it’s ideal if he does not.

An advanced maneuver calls for the horse to do the entire serpentine on one lead. That will mean that he’s cantering on the inside lead going in one direction, and that he’ll be “counter cantering” when going the other direction.

Serpentines for Control
Now that you understand the lesson, let’s look at how it can help solve problems with our horse.

Let’s say that you’re riding a horse that’s too fast, too excited or wants to jig. Pick up the left rein and turn him to the left. If he doesn’t turn easily, move his hips. Release the rein. After about 10 steps, pick up the right rein and make a turn to the right. Release the rein. After 10 steps, turn left, and so forth. Try to get into a rhythm.

The first few turns will be sharp and feel rough. The horse’s head is likely to be higher than you’d like, and his speed will be erratic. As you keep working through this exercise, conscious of when you’re picking up the rein and releasing it (not just hauling him around to the left and right), everything will get smoother. The horse will realize that there’s no reason to rush ahead – he’s just going to have to turn again. And because you’re not trying to force him to stand still or trapping him with the reins, he’s going to fight much less. He also learns that each time he does what you ask, you release the rein. That builds his confidence and he learns the pattern.

It’s also ideal if you’ve taught the horse the “calm down” cue. That way you can ask the horse to drop his head. He’ll drop his head, then it will pop right back up again. That’s OK. Ask him to drop it again. You can mix that into the serpentine lesson to help the horse learn that it’s OK to relax.

Keep him trotting until you feel that if you offer the horse the chance to walk, he’ll take it. Ask the horse to stop for a moment, then allow him to walk relaxed. If he can do that, leave him alone. If he gets too jazzed up, ask him to drop his head. If that isn’t enough, work on the changes of direction again.

Have you ever wished your horse would hold a steady speed? Here’s how to achieve that. Work on the serpentine exercise. When the horse is at the speed you want, allow him to go straight ahead on a loose rein. When he speeds up, ask for a few loops of the serpentine. When he’s at the right speed, release the rein and allow him to go straight ahead. This is a wonderful exercise for Western Pleasure or equitation horses.

Sometimes we encounter a horse who’s obedient, but he’s just a bumpy ride. Working through the serpentine lesson will help him to learn to balance better and to take more care about how he turns and how he puts his feet down. He’ll learn to carry his head in a better position and his body in better balance, and the ride will get smoother.PH*

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