How to Turn a Horse

Often when a new client brings me a horse of theirs for a training lesson I ask a few simple questions to make sure all three of us (them, their horse, and I) are all on the same page. Their responses are interesting and surprisingly consistent:

Me: How do you tell your horse to go?

Client: I speed up my seat and then squeeze my legs.

Me: How do you tell your horse to stop?

Client: I slow down my seat and then squeeze the reins.

Me: [So far so good…] And how do you tell your horse to turn?

Client: First I half halt with my reins and legs at the same time, then I turn my head and put my inside hip forward, with my inside leg at the girth and my outside leg back. Then my outside hip pushes forward and around, my inside rein opens, and my outside rein pushes while both legs squeeze alternately and I close my left eye and wiggle my right big toe.

Right. That was confusing. Do you think perhaps the horse is confused too?

Having different cues for different responses that are clearly separated from one another is incredibly important for our horses’ mental well-being. If pressure from the rider’s lower leg sometimes means ‘go’ and sometimes means ‘turn’ in a slightly different combination, it is easy to get a confused horse, and confused horses generally cope in one of two ways: they shut down and stop responding, or they overreact and develop unwanted behaviour.

This isn’t to say that cues can’t become more complicated and closer together as horse and rider both progress. The most physically complicated movement in dressage is the pirouette, a turn on the spot at either walk or canter, which combines three basic responses in the space of three steps—less than one stride! Even then, the cues do not come at the same time. The rider cues for each response one at a time to build it into the pirouette.

What does it take to get to that point?

For both training the horse and training a riding student, I start at the very beginning with the simplest cues, which are pressure-based. In a new or frightening situation, the pressure-based cues are what the horse can fall back on and respond to reliably. I always start, then, with leg pressure for go, rein pressure for stop, and a single rein to the side for turn.

If horse and rider were to stay at this stage, that would be alright, though a bit rustic. But neither would improve, and it is better for the horse to reduce pressure cues. When the basic pressure cues are understood and are becoming reliable, I start to introduce seat cues. These are the rider’s movement patterns in the saddle that the horse can feel and respond to before receiving pressure from the bit or legs. A rider may speed up the movement of the seat for ‘go’, slow it down for ‘stop’, or turn the torso for ‘turn’. The horse quickly learns to feel the weight shift and predict what pressure will come next, allowing him to act first and avoid the pressure. This learning process is called classical conditioning.

Classically conditioned cues like seat or voice cues are less reliable than pressure cues in a new or scary situation. That is why I do not begin with classical cues. I prefer to have a solid foundation for horse and rider that I can build on to create beautiful movement and mutual understanding.

Teaching Yield

It’s cold. There’s no better time to do some slow, finicky training like lateral movements. It’ll improve performance when you can get sweaty again!

Materials

Dressage whip

Horse in a halter or bridle

Helmet and Gloves

Prerequisites

To learn this exercise successfully, your horse needs to know to not run away from the whip, how to go from two light whip taps, and how to stop from light halter or bit pressure. If he doesn’t, go back to this post first: https://clairetyhorsemanship.ca/2021/01/27/training-exercise-slow-down/

Training Yield

Using a series of light taps with a dressage whip on your horse’s stifle, get him to step away from the taps with that leg by quitting the taps as soon as he moves the leg away, crossing it underneath himself in front of the other one. Reward only one step, or even half a step at first, especially if your horse is prone to getting anxious. Next walk forward five steps and stop. This will set up his legs to be in a good position for your next ask. Ask again for one step to the side. See how precise you can be with one step sideways and five steps forward.

Teach this on both sides.

It will be easier to transfer this to your riding once you can do this sequence calmly, slowly, and thoughtfully. Sidepass, leg yield, haunches in, shoulder in, renvers, and pirouettes all use yield to some extent!

Training Exercise: Slow Down!

You’ll see it in sales ads: forward horse, requires experienced rider.

Read: this horse has a tendency to go faster than you’d like and doesn’t slow down if you want to.

This isn’t a safe problem to have with a horse, and it can be scary too.

Here is a simple training exercise to begin installing better brakes on a more-go-than-whoa horse.

Set Up

You’ll want a safe, enclosed area to work in. This exercise can be done ridden or on the ground, depending on the horse’s and handler’s ability levels. For a horse that bolts, the smaller the area, the better. Always wear a helmet, appropriate shoes, and gloves.

Exercise

You will walk the horse forward exactly six steps of the forelegs and then stop. No more, no less. Not five, not five and a half, six. Right front leg is one, left front leg is two, and so on.

This will take some planning ahead on your part. You will begin cuing for a stop as step number four is in the air. If you are on the ground, walking backwards can be helpful so you can see the front legs.

Step four: light stop pressure begins. Always start with light pressure.

Step five: pressure increases smoothly and steadily to a point that motivates the horse to stop.

Step six: release pressure completely.

Aim for three improved repetitions before working on something else or finishing the session.

Troubleshooting

Horse keeps walking after step six: It is likely for the first few repetitions that the forward horse will continue walking through the pressure past the sixth step. Continue to increase pressure until the stop is achieved and release immediately. Next time, make sure your pressure gets up to the effective level faster during the fifth step so you can release on the sixth.

Horse takes five steps: You can use less pressure. Try maintaining the same light pressure you started with on the fourth step instead of increasing pressure. Play with the amount of pressure needed to reach exactly six steps.

Horse walks again immediately after stopping: Make sure you aren’t releasing pressure too early. Apply pressure to stop again if he moves before you cue. Also make sure you aren’t expecting the horse to stay immobile for too long. When just starting the exercise, one to two seconds is long enough. Then have him take six steps forward again. As he gets better at stopping, you can increase the time you expect him to wait.

But I want the horse to stop when I say whoa/lean back/use other classical cue: Classically conditioned cues like voice or seat cues are wonderful. Every horse should learn them. But if the horse does not respond to light pressure, teaching a reliable classically conditioned cue is not possible. In a stressful or different situation, the cue will fade. I always teach response to light pressure first. Then it is very easy to add a voice or seat cue that is reliable.