Jeannine March introduces three important principles in the training of any western horse.
The first principle is motion. A horse must move forward freely under saddle at the walk, jog and lope. He should be able to increase and decrease speed, and stop with ease, responding to the voice, seat and/or leg aids.
You can train a horse to move forward from a variety of cues, but in the majority of western riding a horse should move forward on voice commands and/or light leg pressure. The horse should slow down when the rider transfers their weight backwards, slowing down their hip movement. A relaxed, well-balanced rider with good feel should be able to affect a horse’s forward motion by their seat alone.
Lazy horse - the lazy horse must be trained to respond immediately to the commands given and stay in the gait requested. Constant spurring often leads to horses switching off from the rider. Many times riders apply too much rein pressure because they are insecure. Show your horse that it is OK to move by having a longer rein, so it feels the reward of moving on. It is essential not to babysit your horse by cueing him forward every stride. Ask your horse to jog and then sit still. If he quits ask him again harder as a correction and sit still again. This way the horse learns to stay in the gait requested and is rewarded by you quitting to ask.
Rushing horse - The rushing horse must be made to wait for the rider’s cue. Often the rushing horse has some tension or anxiety, and this must be addressed by calm and precise riding. Some horse may just be ‘fresh’, and this refers to their work attitude. Give your horse a good work out on the longe line or in the round pen before your ridden session and let him run off his steam. You will then have a more focused horse. Also, it is a good idea to try and exercise your horse regularly (at least four to five times a week) and provide daily turn out.
If your horse still rushes after you have done the above, you have two options. With the generally speedy horse, you should put him on a circle and let him run his energy off with you. Often horses are lazy on the longe but fast with the rider. Maybe your horse expects you to pull on his mouth hard as you want to slow him down all the time so let him have some rein. Show him that being ridden is OK but also show him that running means working – remember to keep him running that bit longer then he wants. Your horse will soon learn that rushing means hard work.
With a horse that always speeds up when you release the rein pressure, try putting him into a walk or stop (depending on his level of training) when he speeds up, and let him have a break for a little. Repeat this exercise until your horse understands it’s not about speed. But before all the above check yourself! Are you stressed from work and have taken your anger and stress onto the horse’s back? Are you out of balance when riding? Is your breathing regular? Take a deep breath and relax. All these things cause horses to quit or to run off. Remember, it’s not always your horse’s fault.
Left to his own devices when under saddle, a horse will carry his rider in a hollow outline. This is because horses are not made to carry any weight on their backs. To carry a rider without suffering long term damage, the horse has to be shaped. In order to perform western manoeuvres, the horse should be straight with a medium to high degree of collection. The horse should be able to give in the ribs, curving around your leg, and also push his back up for straightness. The term ‘straight up in the bridle’ describes this scenario. This horse is ‘over bent’ a common form of resistance to shape.
Biomechanically, a horse performs its best when it brings its back and shoulders up and its hindquarters under itself while moving forward. We need to be able to channel its energy in terms of forward motion and transfer this power into collection. A rhythmic, well balanced, healthy horse will be the result.
Once the horse is travelling forward we can channel the motion energy and use it to engage the hindquarters, bring the backup and lift the shoulder. This can be achieved by a combination of leg, seat and rein aids. The horse needs to learn respect and to give to light rein pressure without pulling. It should be soft in the mouth without trying to avoid the bit. The rein contact should be gently applied when the horse is moving forward rhythmically, and the rider is sitting deep and balanced. The rein pressure transfers some of the forward energy through the horse’s back to its hindquarters. As a result, the horse will bring its shoulders and back up and travel ‘straight up in the bridle.’
Resistance: Ask your horse to soften to the bit by applying light pressure upwards (1-2 inch) and slight pressure with your legs. Your horse should now respond by shifting its weight to its hindquarters, giving to the rein pressure it feels in its mouth. If your horse puts its head up, gently play with the reins and keep the leg pressure on until your horse gives. As soon as it does, put your hands down and forward immediately. First, do it while standing or in the walk. When this works well proceed to jog and then lope.
Over bending - if a horse tucks his nose behind the vertical it may be because the rider is too hard in his hands and never releases the rein pressure even though the horse may have ‘given’ several times. First, watch yourself. Be nice with your hands and legs and reward your horse immediately as above. If this was not the reason, you might need to take one rein to the side and high to get your horse’s nose gently out of the wrong place. Repeat this every time it crawls behind the vertical.
Once the horse is travelling forwards and can be shaped, we now have to control its direction. The correctly trained western horse is always a neck reined horse. When being neck reined, the horse moves away from the pressure of the rein against his neck by moving its shoulder in that direction. This can be seen as a clear step over to the new direction in any gait. The western horse should also be trained to follow its nose while staying collected. It should travel in a straight line when its body is straight. It follows, therefore, that the horse should always put his head or nose in the direction it is going. It should only change direction when asked to do so.
To be able to control the direction of your horse is essential. Ultimately, it should be achieved by a minimum of effort with one-handed rein carriage. This is fundamental to the perfection of any of the western discipline. How A novice horse will be ridden two-handed in a snaffle or bosal whereas a more advanced horse will go one-handed in a curb. Two-handed, a rider will use the outside rein (an indirect rein) against the neck and the inside rein (direct rein) to guide. This way, the horse learns to follow its nose and also to move away from the outside rein pressure. One-handed, a horse should guide by applying indirect rein pressure only. The leg aid should be applied to keep the horse in the correct shape while turning.
On a straight line or circle, allow your horse to put his head where he wants. You will then soon find out if your horse will follow his nose or not. Avoid sticking to the outside track in the arena and don’t allow your horse to anticipate your next turn. Your horse should only turn when you tell him (don’t worry if he comes to a fence and stops, just redirect him). Every time your horse sticks his nose to the outside when turning, pick up the inside rein slowly and bump his nose gently to the inside. You may apply inside leg pressure when you do so, to prepare/remind your horse for one-handed shaping. Inside leg means ‘give in the ribs’ where the pressure is applied, which will help enormously with more advanced manoeuvres.
If every time you ride you keep the principles of ‘motion, shape, direction’ in mind, you will have a clear measure of where your horse stands. Error analysis can be performed with ease within this structure, and if you can tick all the ‘motion, shape, direction’ boxes, you know you have a ‘broke’ horse. Enjoy the ride.