Win­ning In­sights

Not reach­ing your rid­ing goals? The key might lie in let­ting your horse do his job.

Horse & Rider - - Contents -

How to stay out of your horse’s way.

Your per­for­mance horse knows his job. Sure, he might re­quire some tun­ing and guid­ance, but he prob­a­bly has a solid grasp on the fun­da­men­tals of what’s re­quired for his event. When you get in his way—pulling, think­ing you can out-mus­cle him, try­ing to use force—he can’t do his job and learns to pull, push, and lean against you.

No mat­ter your event— rein­ing, West­ern plea­sure, all-around, or cow horse— the more you stay out of your horse’s way, the bet­ter off you’ll be and the more likely you are to achieve your goals. I’ll iden­tify four ma­neu­vers where I com­monly see am­a­teur riders build re­sis­tance in their horses. Read on to see if you iden­tify with any of these sit­u­a­tions, then learn how to get out of your horse’s way.

Lead Changes

Here’s the sit­u­a­tion: You’re lop­ing a cir­cle on the right lead. Your horse is lean­ing to the left, so you pull harder to the right. He matches your pull, lean­ing left even more. You’re not guid­ing your horse; you’re try­ing to mus­cle him so he gives to your will. When you ask for the lead change, his body po­si­tion means his left front foot will hit the ground first, and he’ll dive into the lead change and to the left. He won’t be bal­anced and smooth—what the judges are look­ing for—when he changes leads.

In­stead, work on straight­ness and guide. Turn to lat­eral work to straighten your horse’s shoul­ders and im­prove his steer­ing. Then when you change leads, ap­proach with straight­ness and balance, move your horse’s rib cage, and cue for the lead change—and stay out of his way so he can ex­e­cute it cor­rectly.


The harder you pull, the heav­ier he gets. I’ve had cus­tomers who think they can lit­er­ally out-mus­cle their horse in this sit­u­a­tion. The short an­swer is no, you can’t out-mus­cle a 1,000-pound horse. Whether it’s a set of spins for rein­ing or a pivot for horse­man­ship, pulling harder isn’t the an­swer. It only makes your horse heav­ier on his front end and harder to turn.

Think about us­ing all of your aids as well as how you use them. Start with a “please” cue—the light­est re­quest for the ma­neu­ver—from your hand. Then build from there, adding leg pres­sure to urge his

shoul­ders to lift and move for the turn.


The fastest way to a slow back-up? Pulling, pulling, and pulling some more. If you drag on your horse’s face to cue for a back, he’ll brace against the bit and get heavy on his front end, as if his feet are stuck in ce­ment.

Think be­fore you cue for a back. Start with a light hand cue by pick­ing up your reins (and his shoul­ders), mov­ing your hand back­ward to­ward your buckle, and lightly bump­ing his sides with your feet. Tell him which way to go, ask him to lighten his feet, then let him do what he al­ready knows how to do.


The run­down sets the stage for the slid­ing stop in rein­ing pat­terns, but the ad­vice about let­ting your horse do his job ap­plies to trav­el­ing any straight-line ap­proach, whether it’s on the way to a set of lopeover poles in a trail class or part of a ranch rid­ing pat­tern. Get your horse straight, and let him stay straight by get­ting out of his way.

Say you’re lop­ing on the right lead for a run­down. Your horse starts to lean left, so you try to mus­cle him to the right to stay straight. When you get to your stop­ping point, all of your pulling will get in the way of his ability to stop. When he does stop, your horse’s left front leg—the di­rec- tion he was pulling you— will hit the ground first in­stead of his hindquar­ters. He can’t go to the ground with his rear end be­cause your in­ter­fer­ence threw off his balance.

Think about run­ning free and straight. If your horse tends to lean, prac­tice at home. When he wants to lean left, send him off his path by mak­ing a hard right turn. Use lat­eral work to straighten his shoul­ders and balance his body. Then when you run to a stop, stay out of his way and let him show you what he knows.

For­get About Force

Per­for­mance horses are trained to do their job; you can’t force them. You’re there to be the driver—to tell him where to go and when to do what ma­neu­ver. The more you can stay out of his way, the bet­ter he can per­form.

Let your horse do his job. Get­ting in his way builds re­sis­tance in him and cre­ates frus­tra­tion for you.

LEFT: You can’t force a horse to do a job. Be the driver that points him in the cor­rect di­rec­tion, and then let him per­form. RIGHT: A harder pull results in a more re­sis­tant horse. Be­gin with a “please” cue, then in­crease pres­sure as nec­es­sary.

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