Ace Your Pivot

Per­fect your horse’s turn­around with these trou­ble-shoot­ing point­ers.


FROM THE VERY BE­GIN­NING of train­ing, steer­ing is im­por­tant—it’s right up there with stop­ping in terms of be­ing an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of con­trol. The pivot ma­neu­ver builds on the con­cept of steer­ing, be­cause cue­ing your horse to pivot is ask­ing him to move left or right by steer­ing. In the show pen, a good pivot will line you up for the rest of your pat­tern. A bad pivot can set off a chain re­ac­tion for fur­ther mis­takes—missed mark­ers or crooked de­par­tures that take away from the rest of your pat­tern—re­sult­ing in a poor score. Here I’ll ex­plain what a cor­rect pivot looks like, the steps to get there, and trou­bleshoot­ing tips in case you en­counter road­blocks in your pivot train­ing.

What to Look For

A cor­rect turn on the haunches starts with your horse step­ping across with his front feet, while plant­ing his rear foot on the in­side of the turn. You want your horse to main­tain a frame with his head straight out from his body—not too low, high, poked-out, or over­bri­dled—and you want him to stay in the ma­neu­ver with­out back­ing up or jump­ing out.

From the ground, a pivot should look a lot like a show­man­ship turn, with your horse main­tain­ing straight­ness, ex­cept for his neck be­ing slightly tipped in the di­rec­tion of the turn.

As a rider, you should feel a two-beat rhythm as your horse steps across with his out­side front foot and holds the ground with his haunches. He should plant his in­side rear foot with­out pick­ing it up as he ro­tates.

Prac­tic­ing the Pivot

Keep these six tips in mind when prac­tic­ing piv­ots at home or school­ing be­fore you show.

Choose proper equip­ment. To work on a pivot at home, I ad­vise you to start with a snaf­fle bit, rid­ing with two hands for con­trol and cor­rect­ness. As your horse pro­gresses, move up into a small cor­rec­tion bit, and work on bring­ing your hands closer to one-handed show po­si­tion un­til you’re ready to try it one-handed.

Leg wraps or boots and bell boots are im­por­tant to keep your horse from nick­ing his legs or trip­ping. They help keep his con­fi­dence up in­stead of build­ing his ap­pre­hen­sion if his feet in­ter­fere.

Start with lat­eral move­ment. To start the turn, be­gin by teach­ing your horse to side­pass and move lat­er­ally off of your legs and hands. Start with

ask­ing your horse to move away from your leg on a cir­cle. If you’re go­ing to the right, use your in­side—right—leg to hold your horse’s shoul­der up through the cir­cle and your out­side— left—leg to drive his body lat­er­ally.

Hold your hands hip-width apart in front of the sad­dle horn, and use them to gen­tly block for­ward move­ment as you ask your horse to move side­ways. If you’re mov­ing to the right, slightly open your right leg to en­cour­age move­ment in that di­rec­tion, and ask your horse to move over us­ing your left leg and calf, un­til you feel him cross over with his legs as he moves to the right.

Once your horse un­der­stands the side­pass, move your left leg for­ward to­ward the girth, and ask him with that leg to only move his front end around to the right. Keep his in­side back leg still while main­tain­ing for­ward mo­tion and rhythm. Your out­side (left when go­ing to the right) hand keeps him from over­flex­ing to­ward the in­side rein. Keep your horse’s head and neck straight. If he over­flexes in one di­rec­tion or the other, there’s a good chance he’ll ei­ther step for­ward out of the pivot or back out of it.

When your horse can per­form these ba­sics each time, and you feel that you can ex­e­cute a 90-de­gree turn cor­rectly, with your horse’s in­side hind foot planted and front feet cross­ing over, then add more to the turn rev­o­lu­tion. You can move up to a 180-de­gree turn, a 270-de­gree turn, on to a 360-de­gree turn, and then add speed to your pivot. Add more steps in the turn and speed in­cre­men­tally to in­crease the de­gree of dif­fi­culty to see if your horse can do more.

Stick to the ba­sics. When you’re hav­ing trou­ble in the turn, go­ing faster rarely helps. Break the ma­neu­ver down, take your time, and work on the ba­sics of lat­eral move­ment and for­ward mo­tion. Go back to the side­pass. Ask your horse to two-track (side­pass with for­ward mo­tion) off your legs in­stead of turn, so he doesn’t an­tic­i­pate al­ways turn­ing. Make sure your horse can do the ma­neu­ver cor­rectly, slowly.

Mas­ter the two-track turn.

Two-track­ing en­sures that your horse’s body is straight in his shoul- ders and back and his legs are cross­ing over. Af­ter two-track­ing a few strides, ask for a 90-de­gree turn. If you feel your horse tends to back out of the pivot, swings his hip to­ward your leg dur­ing the turn, or turns on his belly (doesn’t stick a pivot foot), use the twotrack-turn ex­er­cise.

Be con­sis­tent. When it comes to horses, con­sis­tency builds con­fi­dence. The more times you prac­tice your turn, the more con­fi­dent you and your horse will be when you get to the show pen. This ma­neu­ver doesn’t hap­pen overnight. Al­ways ask for your turn on the haunches the same way, and keep your in­struc­tions clear. Prac­tice like you’re go­ing to show, and show like you prac­tice. My rid­ers prac­tice the pivot for a short amount of time ev­ery time they ride. This leads to suc­cess­ful train­ing with­out burnout or over­train­ing.

Have a plan. Don’t keep turn­ing your horse un­til it goes bad. Have a plan of where you’ll start, how far you’ll turn, and when you’ll stop. Don’t let your horse de­cide when to stop. Find some­thing to look at, such as a marker or a fen­ce­post, as a stop­ping point. This prin­ci­ple ap­plies when you show, so prac­tic­ing at home will hone this skill for com­pe­ti­tion.

When you’re ready to stop the turn, say “whoa,” stop cue­ing your horse to turn, and re­lease your legs. Re­mem­ber, your horse is mov­ing four legs—it might take him longer to stop than how quickly your brain works, so ask for the stop a lit­tle ear­lier than when you ac­tu­ally want to end the ma­neu­ver.


Fol­low­ing are some com­mon er­rors I see as­so­ci­ated with the pivot.

Turn on the belly. When a horse moves both its front and back legs as he turns, mak­ing the belly the cen­ter of the turn in­stead of the hindquar­ters, it’s called “turn­ing on the belly.” It’s in­cor­rect. It’s likely your horse is cross­ing un­der/be­hind with his out­side front leg in­stead of over/in front be­cause he’s mov­ing back­ward. Re­lated prob­lems in­clude back­ing up and swing­ing a hip out of the turn. These is­sues can be helped by ask­ing your horse to move lat­er­ally off your leg while mov­ing for­ward

and mak­ing sure your horse al­ways moves for­ward off your leg in­stead of back­ward.

If your horse starts swap­ping ends while you’re show­ing, slow down your pivot to try to get it cor­rect. But if he’s an­tic­i­pat­ing the move, it’s re­ally some­thing you need to fix in the warm-up pen and at home. Again, ask your horse to move off your leg and side­pass in­stead of do­ing the turn in prac­tice. Make sure he doesn’t back up or jump out of the turn.

Back­ing out of the turn. Your horse shouldn’t inch back­ward as he turns; he should stay in one place. A horse might back out of the turn be­cause he an­tic­i­pates a stop and a back-up at the end of the pivot. It could also be that you’re hold­ing your hand too high, which can make your horse want to back up as he turns.

Make sure your horse’s first step into the turn is al­ways for­ward and lat­eral—not back­ward. If your horse an­tic­i­pates a stop and back in the pat­tern, in­cor­po­rate breaks as you work with your horse. Ride around and stop—then do noth­ing. Don’t stop and back, or stop and turn. Stop and sit for a minute. This helps teach him to wait on you for the next cue.

Af­ter you’ve done that a few times dur­ing your ride, stop and ask him to start a turn, cross­ing that front foot over just once, and then walk out of

the turn. Do the same thing ev­ery time. Don’t re­act to your horse by chang­ing up how you’re ask­ing for the turn. If your horse backs up, ask him to go for­ward in the turn. You don’t want him to au­to­mat­i­cally think about go­ing back­ward ev­ery time he feels the pres­sure of your hand. Jump­ing out of the start of the

turn. I’ve seen this hap­pen when the rider tries to train the turn­ing process too fast, in­stead of break­ing it down into pieces. If you just in­tro­duce the whole 360-de­gree turn at once, the horse could get scared and even­tu­ally start jump­ing out of the turn. This is why I rec­om­mend start­ing with teach­ing your horse to side­pass, then adding a 90-de­gree turn, then the 180, and so on. It keeps your horse from wor­ry­ing about the ma­neu­ver.

You also want to start the turn slow and end slow for a con­trolled start and stop. You can add speed in the mid­dle of the ma­neu­ver once your horse has mas­tered the turn.

An­tic­i­pat­ing the turn. Whoa means whoa. Take the time to en­sure that your horse un­der­stands that some­times he’s not ex­pected to do some­thing right away af­ter you stop. Drape your reins and re­lax. Let your horse know that “stand here” is the cur­rent cue; there’s not an­other ma­neu­ver com­ing up right away. If your horse is an­tic­i­pat­ing, af­ter that short break, you can ask for a side­pass for a few steps in­stead of a turn.

Horses are crea­tures of habit. The more you keep your cues con­sis­tent, the bet­ter your horse will un­der­stand. Make ev­ery­thing black and white, and keep it sim­ple. We don’t speak the same lan­guage as our horses, and we’re ask­ing for com­plex ma­neu­vers. Don’t re­act to your horse’s re­ac­tion. Don’t change your cues; just keep ask­ing un­til your horse un­der­stands.


When school­ing your horse’s pivot, it’s a good idea to out­fit him in a snaf­fle and pro­tec­tive leg­wear.

LEFT: Teach­ing your horse to pivot be­gins with lat­eral move­ment in a side­pass, fol­lowed by a 90-de­gree turn on the haunches. RIGHT: If you feel your horse is hav­ing a prob­lem with back­ing out of the pivot, swing­ing his hip to­ward your leg, or turn­ing on his belly, try two-track­ing into a 90-de­gree turn and then walk­ing out.

LEFT: An­tic­i­pat­ing the turn can mean your horse needs more breaks dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion where you drape your reins and let him rest. RIGHT: Have a plan of where you’ll start, how far around you want to turn, and when you’ll stop. Line up with a marker to work on pre­ci­sion.

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