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Step 10: Steering the Shoulder

Front-Wheel Drive

Back to Step 9: Despooking    Next to Step 11: Passing Other Horses

Editor's note: This article is part of a multi-lesson training series.

Even non-horse people get the idea that if you pull the horse's head to the right with your right rein, ultimately, the horse will follow its nose and turn to the right. This is similar to how cars drove before power steering. If you've ever driven a car without power steering or tried to steer the front wheels while the car was not running, being pushed, etc., you know how hard it is to turn the front wheels. This is why you should teach your horse to steer his front feet without needing to send a cue to his head. To give you an idea of what I mean, a roll back or pivot on the hindquarters is the easiest way of turning the shoulder without forward motion from the hind legs. This kind of power steering will make your whole riding experience that much more enjoyable because your horse will be more sensitive to cues from your seat and leg. And there are more benefits for you and your horse from this approach than you may realize, no matter in what discipline you ride. You can teach a neck rein for this, but not everyone rides on an indirect rein, so we'll work on teaching the horse to turn with our legs instead. By being able to move the shoulder from of our leg, we can later teach the horse these other important moves:

  • Shoulder in/out
  • Haunches in/out
  • Spins
  • Rollbacks
  • Side-Passing
  • To take the correct Lead
On the ground, let's start by facing your horse on a long lead or lunge line in your left hand and with a long whip in your right. Pick up just enough slack in the lead rope so that he feels you on his nose, point to your left (his right) to move his nose slightly to his right. Now, raise your right hand with the whip and point at his left shoulder (the one nearer your right hand). If he doesn't start stepping off to your left away from the whip, then tap his left shoulder until he steps away and starts walking or trotting a circle around you like a lunge circle. Tapping his shoulder, even just having the end of the whip or your hand near his shoulder applies psychological "pressure" from which a horse will want to move away. The key piece of this lesson happens right when your horse steps away from that pressure to his shoulder. If you're "pushing" on his left shoulder with the whip, then his RIGHT front foot must step out and away from underneath his chest to his right and then his left front leg can follow.

If your horse steps forward or moves his left front foot over his right to turn, then you must stop him and try again. Your horse MUST NOT move forward into your personal space — not ONE INCH! He also must not just turn and walk away from you — that is his way of ignoring you. His shoulder has to YIELD to your space, or basically move almost sideways parallel to your personal space with the horse's front right hoof stepping out and away to the right of himself.

By forcing your horse to step out and away, he is yielding his shoulder. This is very important because the shoulder is the part you're trying to control, not his feet. Continue this on both sides until he consistently performs this exercise correctly on both sides of his shoulders. Next, stand alongside him and place your hand firmly just behind his shoulder on his side, the barrel of his chest, and push with medium force until he steps away exactly the same way as he did when you worked him with the whip. Do this on both sides until he learns to move away from that pressure by stepping out from under himself and to the side. At no point should he step forward. If he does, keep a little more hold on his nose so he doesn't want to move forward and you can even back him up, if necessary, before each attempt.

Now, it's time to control him this way from his saddle. Mount your horse and start walking in a circle. The circle can be as big or as small as you feel is comfortable. I find that somewhere around a 50 - 60 foot diameter circle works well. Start walking to the left so your left leg and his left shoulder are inside the circle. Then, take up your left rein and bend his nose into the circle. He may start walking a tighter, smaller circle, and that is OK because you're going to do the next steps together to get good results. Right after you bend his nose in, take up the slack in your outside rein so you can place his nose exactly half way between straight and fully bent toward your left knee. Your horse will shorten his stride a little with his left front leg and start to step out with his right front. He's also going to want to send his hip over to the right, but by bracing the outside rein, you can keep him straighter.

Now, apply left leg pressure against his side like you did with your hand while on the ground, but push with your left leg each time he steps out with his right front leg. Allow him to keep moving forward in a circle. Each time you push, you'll feel his right front leg stride out further and step away from his body to the side at almost a diagonal to his shoulder. Get into a rhythm of push/step, push/step.

I try to describe this process to my clients like rolling out pizza dough. You place the dough in the middle of a round cookie sheet and push the dough out and away from the center as you turn the sheet. Each time your push it away, it slowly gets bigger, but a little of it springs back so you keep pushing and turning. That is how it will look as you ride your horse. You'll push out from the center and then he'll float in a little and you'll push out again, slowly making the circle bigger. As your horse gets more responsive to your leg cues, you can release some of the inside rein until you can feel him move off your leg with little cue from the rein.

Next, try stopping your horse and preventing forward motion only by using your rein and try pushing him sideways to the left with your right leg. If he doesn't get it right, bend his nose a little left and try again, still preventing forward motion until he walks sideways to the left. Add energy and speed to this exercise as your horse gets more responsive. I often find that if I release my reins completely and leave my leg on him, he'll actually side-pass one to two more steps before realizing his head is free and he was moving just off my leg. Such a response from your horse means success!

From now on, every time you turn your horse with the reins while riding, push with your leg as well and you'll feel a quicker and lighter response, maybe even a tighter turn than you were expecting — so be prepared. The faster you travel, the more responsive your steering can get. This exercise teaches your horse to send his energy to the side opposite the side from which your leg is pushing — this lets you direct his lead.

To test your horse's ability to "read" your leg, use little or no rein contact and try weaving in and out of poles at a canter similar to a pole bending exercise as used in gymkhana games. Your horse should easily perform flying lead changes as he bends around each pole. A figure eight or weaving around objects at a canter would also simulate this exercise.

This exercise to steer the shoulder only gets better with practice and the more you ride your horse using it correctly, the better your control of him will become.

Back to Step 9: Despooking    Next to Step 11: Passing Other Horses

Jennifer Goddard has been training horses of various breeds for over 20 years using her natural horsemanship methods. She has also ridden and shown in multiple disciplines and is owner of Levaland Farm, a 30 stall horse farm in Massachusetts. Jennifer has a degree in Finance and Entrepreneurial Studies from Babson College, and is also President of Equine Business Solutions, a business specializing in the starting and running of equine businesses.

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