Be A Good Leader

All herds have a leader.  The herd leader is one that they trust to lead them safely where ever they go.  It’s the horse that the other horses respect and will follow any where.  To your horse you are part of his herd.  If you want your horse to go where you tell him to he must accept you as a leader.

There are three basic ways to get your horse to do something.  The first is to force your horse to do what you want.  You use intimidation as a tool and whip or beat your horse into doing everything.  The second way is to bribe your horse.  You use a bucket of grain on the other side of an obstacle to get your horse to cross.

Then there is the way that falls in between.  You are nether overly aggressive nor overly wimpy.  You earn your horse’s respect by asking them to do something, then applying enough pressure to get your horse to do the task at hand.  And as soon as your horse makes an effort in the right direction, you release pressure.  This person must be assertive so the horse will know exactly what is wanted from him.

If you watch your horses interact in their pen, you will see which one is the leader.  He will get first pick of the food, and if he goes somewhere the others follow him.  Now to get his buddies to go with him or do what he wants does he beat them or bribe them?  Of coarse not.  He may bite one of his herd mates to get a point across, but most of the time he will just lay his ears back and move his head to get the others where he wants them.

Pictured to the right is Mirandah and Dollar in a trail class.  The object of this obstacle is for the rider to dismount and lead the horse over the post.  If you’ll notice Dollar isn’t paying any attention to Mirandah.  And Mirandah is pulling on him to get his attention.  Now Dollar isn’t afraid of this obstacle .  He’s just pretty sure Mirandah isn’t his leader.    If she was just practicing at home she would have several options.  One would be to get a whip and smack Dollar around.  Another would be to get some grain and walk over the log and coax him over.  But perhaps the best way to get him over, would be  to stand at the log with her reins in her left arm extended over the log.  Then swing a rope (or stick and string or whip) with her right hand towards his rump till he decides to move forward.  She would start swinging pretty far away from him to start and continue to get closer.  He may even require a tap, but as soon as he starts to go she would quit swinging the rope.

The same would be true if she was mounted.  She could start by swinging the reins back and forth over the saddle horn.  Progress to snapping them on the leather of the saddle.  And if that didn’t work she could pop him on the rump.

It’s a little different if the obstacle is something that frightens the horse, such as a water crossing.  With something like this, I like to approach and retreat from the obstacle while progressively get closer. Eventually you will get close enough for your horse to check things out, and eventually he will cross.

Being assertive with your horse can help establish you as his leader.  Respect and trust are also major components that you must earn from your horse for him to look at you as his leader.  Once it is established that you are a good leader your horse will be willing to do almost anything for you.

Sensitize or Desensitize?

When working with your horse you actually want to do both: sensitize and desensitize him.  However, if you make the wrong move at the wrong time you may end up sensitizing him to something you want to desensitize him to or visa versa. That’s why timing is so important when working with your horse.

Sensitizing

When you cue your horse, it would be great if he would do what you want with the lightest cue.  To achieve this you must sensitize your horse.  The concept of sensitizing is simple. You apply pressure to your horse.  Your horse moves away from the pressure.  You release pressure.  However, applying this concept can be a little tricky.  At first your horse may not know what the pressure you’re applying means for him to do.  He may move the wrong direction, and if you stop applying pressure here, he will learn to do the wrong thing.  Or perhaps your horse has moved ever so slightly in the direction you are asking, but you didn’t feel the movement so you don’t release the pressure.  This can confuse your horse.

To properly sensitize a horse you must apply a cue only until your horse makes an effort to perform what is being asked.  As soon as any effort, no matter how small, is made all pressure must stop.  Then basically repeat, repeat, repeat, until your horse responds with just the slightest cue. Here’s an example.  You want your horse to move smoothly into a trot from a walk.  You bump your horse’s sides with your legs and continue to bump him until he starts to trot.  The first step he makes that is a trot, you stop bumping him.  He may only take a couple of steps at a trot and slow down into a walk.  Once he starts walking again, you need to bump him again until he starts to trot.  As soon as he breaks into a trot, stop bumping.  Eventually, he will put it together that when you bump his sides, you want him to trot.

A mistake often made is that a rider will continue to bump their horse once he is trotting.  By doing this you will desensitize your horse to the cue.  If you don’t reward him by stopping the application of pressure, he will learn to ignore the cue.  What benefit would there be for him to trot if you are just going to continue to bump him.

Desensitizing

Desensitizing should be a major part of any training program.  When desensitizing your horse, you basically repeat the same action over and over until you get no response from your horse.  When I start training my horses, I first desensitize them with a rope.  I rub a rope all over their body.  At first most horses will move around and try to get away from the rope, but I will continue to touch the horse all over with the rope until he decides  the rope won’t hurt him and stands still.  I will repeat this with a brush, then a plastic bag, a saddle blanket and whatever else I find laying around.  Then I will take and twirl a rope around and swing it onto my horse’s back.  Again, I will do this until he decides there is no threat and stands still.   I will also take a saddle pad and rhythmically pat it on my horse’s back until he stands still.  Exercises such as this help your horse become confident that you aren’t going to  hurt him and tell him that you want him to stand still.  The most important part of these exercises are that you stop when your horse stands still.

I’m always doing something to desensitize my horse.  The more your horse is desensitized the safer he will become to ride, and the less likely he will spook.  Friends that ride often with me are use to me twirling my reins around and making goofy noises in an effort to desensitize my horse even more.

The most common mistake made when desensitizing a horse is when the rider or trainer stops applying pressure when the horse moves instead of when the horse stands still.  Let’s say you are wishing to desensitize your horse to having a saddle pad thrown on his back.  You start to swing the pad and your horse moves, then you stop swinging the pad to settle your horse down.  Because you stopped when your horse moved he thinks that is what you want him to do. Now you have sensitized your horse to the swinging pad, and he will move when you swing the pad at him.  It is very important to continue with rhythmic swinging until he stands still.

You can improve your riding time with your horse by properly sensitizing and desensitizing him.  With a horse that is sensitized to cues, you won’t have to try to pull your horse where you want him to go, and riding him will become less work and more enjoyable.  By desensitizing your horse he will become safer to be around.  He won’t worry about you touching him, and he will become less likely to spook.

Bits for the Western Horse

For most riders, the bit is the main means of communication with their horse.   To the rider, the bit is like the steering wheel of a car.  Bits come in all different shapes and styles; however, most of the bits you would use on a western style horse will fall into two different categories: snaffle bits and curb bits.  Finding the right bit for you and your horse can be nerve wracking.   Typically I try several different bits on my horse to see which one works best.  Just because you like the way one bit works with one horse doesn’t mean you will like how that same bit works with another horse.  Likewise, you may have a bit that works great for you and your horse, but with a different rider the same bit will work differently with the same horse.

Snaffle Bits

Snaffle bits are the most common type of bit used in the horse world.  Basically they are some sort of ring with a mouth piece in the middle.  They work by applying direct pressure on the bars of your horses mouth (space between incisors and molars).  In the western world, the snaffle bit is considered a two handed bit, and when using a snaffle you should ride your horse with two hands on the reins.  Also in most western show rings it is acceptable to use a snaffle bit on a horse five years old or younger.  After that the horse should be switched to a curb bit.  Pictured are several different snaffle bits I have in my tack room.  You will notice the bit crossed out.  Many people will refer to this as a Tom Thumb Snaffle bit;  however, since it has shanks on the side it actually is not a snaffle bit, but a curb bit.  On the left of the picture from top to bottom are an eggbutt  snaffles, D-ring snaffle, and an O-ring snaffle. They are named for the shape of the rings on the side.  Most commonly a snaffle bit will have a jointed mouth piece; however, any bit with a ringed side is considered a snaffle bit.  The two bits pictured below are both O-ring snaffle bits. They just have different mouth pieces.

Curb Bits

Curb bits are bits with a shank on the side and a mouth piece in the middle.  The shank on the curb bit creates a lever action and applies pressure to places other than just the bars of the horses mouth.  When using a curb bit, a pull on the reins does a number of things.  First there is pressure on the bars of the mouth.  The curb strap is lifted and puts pressure under the horses chin.  Then the bridle itself will put pressure on the poll.  Also depending on the mouth piece, pressure can be put on the horse’s tongue or the roof of his mouth or the bars of his mouth.  The bits pictured here are type of curb bits. All have shanks, and all work with leverage.  Curb bits are normally used when riding with one hand, or neck reining.

Choosing a Bit

When I first start a colt I like to use a broken mouth snaffle bit.  They allow me to guide my horses better, and let me show them what I want them to do.  Typically I don’t transition to a curb bit until my horse is starting to neck rein and moves off of leg pressure.  Personally when I first move into a curb bit, I start with one that has shorter shanks.  The shorter shanks mean that there will be less pressure on my horse’s poll and chin.  As he progresses I move to a longer shanked bit.

Choosing a mouth piece is the trickiest part of bit selection for me.  Once I move out of a snaffle bit, I try to avoid mouth pieces with a single joint in them.  When you pull back on the reins with both hands, they have a nutcracker effect on your horse’s mouth.  I know if I was a horse I wouldn’t like this.  So I tend to select mouth pieces with at least two joints or a solid mouth piece.  The best way to select a bit is to try different bits out on your horse and use the one that works the best with you and your horse.  If you don’t have a tack room full of bits, ask some of your horse people friends if you could barrow one of their bits for a few rides before you decide to purchase one like it.  I know I have bits that have cost me over a hundred dollars, and I’ve seen bit that cost as much as $500+.  That’s a pretty big investment for something that might not work for you or your horse.

With my horses, even after I advance them up to a curb bit, I will have days that I work them in a snaffle bit to try to get them to soften up.  Really the most important thing to remember is that a bit is only as severe as the hands holding the reins.  Whether  you choose to use a snaffle bit or a curb bit, if you don’t have soft hands you can hurt your horse’s mouth.  If you want to develop a horse with a soft mouth don’t pull on your horse or use more force than necessary.

Pre-Flight Check

Any good pilot checks his aircraft to insure it is flight worthy before boarding.  Why shouldn’t a good rider check the safety of his mount before climbing aboard?  Before I even think about putting my foot in the stirrup, I have a check list of maneuvers I put my horse through on the ground to insure he’s safe to get on.  Like people, horses have good days, and they have bad days.  I like to find out what kind of day my horse is having  before I mount up.  Some days my pre-flight goes great.  My horse does everything I ask of him perfectly without hesitation.  Other days my horse may be feeling a little frisky and requires a little more ground work before we go for our ride.

To perform my pre-flight, I saddle and bridle my horse.  I don’t tighten the cinch completely. Just have it snug enough to keep it secure.  I then fasten a 15 to 20 foot long rope (I use nylon rope bought at a farm supply store) to the curb strap of my bridle using a bow-line knot.  Since the bow-line knot won’t pull tight, it will allow my rope to move to what ever side of the horse I am working on.

Flex My Horse Laterally √

First on my pre-flight check list is making sure my horse will flex when asked.  There will be several times during my ride that I will ask my  horse to flex, so I like to make sure he is flexing well.  To do this I pick up the rein on the same side that I’m standing and pull it up to the swell of my saddle.  If all goes well, my horse will tip his nose over to me as pictured.  If he doesn’t I hold pressure on the rein until he turns his nose to me.  Once he does one side well, I check the other side in the same manor.

Disengaging the Hindquarters √

After my horse is flexing well to both sides, I disengage my horse’s hindquarters.  To do this I  tip his nose slightly towards me with one hand, and using my other hand I cue him with the stirrup where my foot would be if I was riding in position three.  We go around in three circles with his legs crossing well. Stop and back.  Then go three circles the other direction. Stop and back.  If your horse is being a little stubborn, you may have to cue him a little harder.  If he is being a little naughty, make him turn three more circles to each side.  The reason I like to disengage my horse’s hindquarter is because it is part of my emergency stop.  I want to make sure my breaks are going to work.

Yielding the Front End √

Now that I have the back end of the horse moving like I want, it’s time to move the front end.  Standing by your horse’s head, start, leading him forward.  Turn and face your horse’s head and walk towards him.  I typically put my hands up, one by his face and one by his shoulder.  Start by asking for one step, where your horse crosses his front legs.  After one step, turn and walk forward again.  Take about ten steps forward then turn and step toward your horse again. If my horse is doing well, I perform five or six turns each direction, more if he is not doing well.  The first few times you perform this maneuver with your horse he may only take one crossover step.  As he progresses he should be able to take more crossover steps.  Horses that I have been working with for awhile can easily turn a half  to a full circle. Until you and your horse get the hang of this exercise it may seem a little tricky.  At first if my horse doesn’t want to turn I will take my thumb and push on my horse where his neck and shoulder connect.  I only push hard enough to get my horse to move.

Moving Hind End and Following the Rein √

This is another test I perform to get my horse’s hind quarters moving.  However, this time I’m going to use rein pressure to get him to move his hind end around.  While my horse is standing still, I take my rope and run it down his side opposite of where I’m standing.  I then bring the rope around my horse’s back legs, making sure to stay above the hocks, and stand  a couple steps away from my horse’s shoulder.

Now I gently apply pressure on the rope.  The object is for my horse to follow the pressure of the rope, turn around disengaging his hindquarters, and end up facing me.  To start you may have to pull a little harder, but after your horse gets the hang of this, it should only take a small amount of pressure.  Also the first few times you do this exercise your horse may try to turn the wrong direction and move around trying to figure out what you want.  Just hold steady pressure until your horse turns the direction you are asking him to move.   I typically run him through this two or three times on each side or until he performs the maneuver smoothly.

If you notice, when I put pressure on the rope, Dollar’s nose starts to come around, and as he’s turning he crosses his back legs, disengaging his hindquarters.  When he has finished, I reward him with a pat on the head and let him stand a few seconds.Lunging √

I finish up my pre-flight check with lunging my horse.  There are a few theories on lunging.  One is that you run your horse in circles to get him worn down.  The problem with this theory is that, much like an athlete, the more you run your horse in circles, the better shape they are in.  The first few times you longe your horse he may get tired in five minutes, but over time it takes him longer and longer to get tired.

The second theory is that you run your horse in a few circles, changing direction often, to make sure he’s paying attention and listening to you.  If the horse I’m going to ride is well broke, I only trot them in this exercise.  If it’s a green horse, I may push them up to a lope a couple times around, but loping in this small of circle can be hard on the leg joints, so I don’t lope them much.

Start with your horse facing you.  We’ll start going left.   Hold the rope in your left hand and stick your hand out to the side.  You will hold the tail end of the rope in your right hand and swing it at your horse’s left shoulder.  As your horse starts to move away from the swinging rope you  keep him going in a circle around you.  If you need him to go faster, you can swing the tail end of the rope.  I try to direct my swing around the saddle area.  If he needs more encouragement you can pop him on the rump.  I try to keep my body positioned in the drive line of the horse, which is about level with your stirrup.  If you get in front of this line your horse will stop. Behind it and your horse will end up turning  his nose toward you.  Usually, I go three circles and switch directions.  To switch directions you disengage your horse’s hindquarter by bending your body and looking at his hind end at the same time you will gently pull his nose in toward you.  He should cross his back legs, moving his hiney away from you.  As you straighten back up, reach across your body with your right hand and grab the rope out of your left. Pick up the tail end of the rope in your left hand and swing it at your horse’s right shoulder.  From here it is just repeating what you did with your horse going to the left.  I typically go three circles to the left, switch and go three to the right. I perform this exercise over and over several times until my horse is paying attention to me and moving how I want him to, when I want him to.  The most important part of this exercise is not the running of the circles, but the changing of direction.  The more changes of direction you do, the better your horse will pay attention to what you want him to do.  Also this shouldn’t be a tug-a-war with your horse.  If he is pulling on the rope don’t pull solid pressure back on him.  Instead give the rope three good tugs and see if he quits pulling.  If not give him three more tugs.  I have found over the years that little bumps or tugs work better than solid pressure.

Tack Check √

Checking your tack before you mount up is an important part of your pre-flight check.  Most horses will puff out their bellies when first being saddled.  Because of this your saddle is probably fairly loose.  Take this time to tighten your cinch and make sure all the rest of your tack is on correctly.

Now that you’ve done all this work with your horse, you should have a good idea on how your horse is going to act this ride.  Remember sometimes your horse will have bad days where his mind is on something besides you.  On these days he may require a little more ground work before you go for your ride.  Other days, your pre-flight may go smoothly without any hitches, and you can get to your ride shortly after saddling your horse.  But unless you preform a pre-flight check you won’t know what kind of day your horse is having, and you might find out the hard way that he was having a bad day.

One Rein Stop

So imagine, it’s a beautiful October day. You are riding your horse quietly down the road along a corn field.  Suddenly, without warning, a couple of deer run out of the field in front of you.  Which spooks your horse.  His spins around and takes off in a dead run.  Of coarse you want your horse to stop, but no matter how hard you pull back on the reins your horse won’t stop.  Now what are you going to do?  In an instance like this, it is important that you know how to perform an emergency stop or one rein stop with your horse.

The one rein stop is a fairly simple idea.  You use one rein to stop your horse while disengaging your horses hind quarters.  This is one of the most important maneuvers you should learn how to do with your horse for the simple reason that any horse can spook or buck, no matter how broke they are.

There are basically two parts of the one rein stop: lateral flexion and disengaging the hindquarters.

Lateral Flexion

By lateral flexion I mean, bending your horse’s head to the left or right with a single rein. By being able to do this you can control what his body does. So how do you teach your horse to flex?  First, I found it is easiest for your horse to learn to flex in a snaffle bit.  Snaffle bits work off of direct pull on the corners of your horse’s mouth making it easier for them to follow pressure.  While sitting on your horse pick up one rein, making sure the other rein will be loose enough for him to bend his head around. Pull the rein back toward your hip till there is pressure on the bit and hold. Now this is important: you don’t want to try to pull your horse’s head around.  You just want pressure on the bit.  At first your horse may move around or pull against your hand.  It is important to not release any pressure until he stops and tips his nose slightly to you.  If you do you will teach him to pulling against you will get you to release pressure.  Be patient, eventually he will quit moving and tip his nose.  When teaching your horse to flex you have to have good timing.  The second your horse tips his nose toward you, no matter how little, release all pressure.  That is his reward for doing the correct thing.  Now you pick up the rein and repeat, repeat, repeat.  As your horse figures out what you want, he will get better about not moving around or pulling against you.  After his is flexing well to one side, work on the other. If you notice in the picture, Dollars head comes around and down.  This is what you want in a good flex.  Flexing is one of the things I make my horses do ever time I ride.

Disengaging the hindquarters

The second part of  your one rein stop is the disengaging of the hindquarters or yielding the hindquarters.  This simply means your horse moves his hind end around and crosses his back legs.  Your horse’s power  to run or buck comes from its back legs. Making your horse cross his hind legs you take away that power to run or buck. To get your horse to yield his hindquarters you must first tip your horse’s nose one direction. Then with your foot on the same side as his nose is tipped, cue him in foot position three.  When you first start working on this, you only want to flex his nose over slightly, then cue with your foot hard enough to get him to move.  To start I walk my horse in a big circle. Slightly turn his nose in and cue with my foot.  As soon as he turns and crosses his hind legs once, I release him and let him walk forward.  Then repeat, repeat, repeat. After he is taking one step well, move him up to two. Then three, four, five, ect. Pretty much till you can get him to turn in a couple of circle for you without any problems.  When one side is going good, work on the other.

Now that your horse is flexing and yielding his hind quarters well we can put it together.  Walk your horse forward. Slide your hand down the rein (around 18 inches to two feet from the bit depending on the horse), and pull back to your hip while cuing your horse with your foot (remember rein and foot on same side of horse).  Hold until your horse flexes, disengages his hindquarters and stops.  Repeat at a walk till you are comfortable, then move up to a trot.  After you are comfortable at a trot, work on stopping at a lope or canter.

Practicing and mastering the one rein stop can be a life saver.  I know that there are many times I’ve been out on the trail and have had a horse spook, and the one rein stop has proven very useful and effective.  Knowing your horse has emergency brakes can give you peace of mind as you ride.  The more you practice the one rein stop, the better your horse will respond if he becomes frightened.  Also practicing will help you become familiar with the movement it takes to cue the stop.

Foot Positioning: Where to Cue Your Horse


If you use your legs when you ride, it will be easier for your horse to understand exactly what you want him to do.  When training my horses my main objective is to teach them to move away from pressure or give to pressure.  I will apply pressure in some way (such as pulling on a rein, or tapping his body somewhere), and when my horse responds to that pressure, I reward him by releasing the pressure.  Leg cues are a form of pressure I use on my horse, and where I apply those leg cues will tell the horse to move in different ways.  I will refer to foot positioning in many of my training posts and videos.  When I ask my horse to do anything, I’m using a foot cue.

Okay the names of the foot positioning can be hard to remember.  Are you ready?  They are position 1, position 2 and position 3.  Okay maybe they aren’t that hard of names to remember.  First let’s look at neutral foot positioning.  Here you can see my legs hang down from my hips.  There should be a straight line running down from your ear, through your shoulder and hip to your heal.

In position 1 your foot will close to where the front cinch is.   When your foot is in this position you are asking your horse to move it’s front end, in turn crossing his front legs.  This is the position you will have your feet in if you are doing a maneuver like a pivot, spin or roll back.  Remember we want your horse to move away from pressure. Cuing here with your right foot will make him step toward the left.

With your foot in position 2, it will be in the middle of the barrel of your horse.  Position 2 is use to cue your horse to move both sets of feet at the same time.  This is use to preform moves such as side passing.  Pressing on the left will make your horse side pass to the right.  This is basically where they should sit when you are in a neutral riding position.

Position 3 is located at the back of your horse’s barrel where your back cinch would sit.  Cuing here tells your horse to move his hind quarters which will result in him crossing his back legs.  This cue is used when you want to your horse to perform a pivot on his front end or at times when you need your horse to disengage his hind quarters.  When you combine proper foot positioning with the right rein, movements you can literally get your horse to move in any direction you wish.  As you progress with your horse, you will find it easier to get him to do exactly what you want when using the proper foot positioning.  Remember these.  They will be referred to in many of my training posts.