Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Teaching the Turn-around

As soon as my horse is solid in basic maneuvers, I start teaching him the turn-around (spin). He must be reasonably responsive to rider aids in order for me to “place” him in a correct position so I wait until he is far enough along in his training to accept what I am asking - usually after 30 days or so. At that time, he is far from finished but has enough understanding of my aids to begin learning a basic turn-around.

Before I work on turn-arounds, I warm my horse up well with basic exercises, jogging, trotting and loping. Then I let him walk relaxed for a few minutes.

At first, I ask only a half-turn. Sometimes I work on the large circle I have just loped, turning to the inside, walking a few steps then turning to the inside again. This means I change directions every time, though, so more often, I will only work one direction at a time, asking a half-turn, releasing, walking forward in a straight line anywhere in the arena, then asking another half-turn the same way. When my colt is responding as well as I think he is capable of for his level of training I work the other direction.

Example to the right with two hands on the reins: Walk the horse forward (spins need forward motion!), brace your body just enough to stop most (not quite all!) of the forward motion and at the same time place the left rein on his neck (in the direction of your right shoulder but not pushing on the neck or over the neck). Now “help” him with the right (inside) rein with a pull-release motion and, if necessary, your left leg until he turns 180 degrees (half-turn). Release all aids and walk forward. Repeat several times. Change directions and repeat several times in that direction.

  • Do not completely stop before you ask for the turn.
  • Do not pull the outside rein across the neck. Instead, “ask” with only a touch.
  • Do not lift your outside rein high – 4 inches or so is about right. Remember it is the asking rein and you have other aids to back it up.
  • Maintain body aid until turn-around is completed. (If you release body aid the horse will walk forward out of the turn-around.)
  • Use pull/release pressure with inside rein.
  • Apply leg pressure with a “bump”, not a steady push.
  • Make sure your outside leg is not asking for the spin first (It will be a correction if used last and hopefully the time will come when you do not need it.)
  • Apply leg pressure last and only if it is needed.
  • Release all aids and walk forward to a “new” spot to repeat.
Note: It's necesary to release rider aids slightly before the turn-around is completed because the horse is in motion and will complete it on his own. After your know your horse well, you will know how fast your horse "shuts off."I release most of mine at about one-eighth before the completed turn. In a class, this will ensure that I don't pick up a penalty for over-spinning.

When my horse has mastered a half-turn, I ask him to make a full turn (or one spin) by putting two half-turns together with a slight release at half. That is: walk, brace body, outside rein, inside rein, outside leg if necessary, then after one half-turn, release rein pressure slightly (but not body aid), ask for another half-turn. Release all aids and walk forward. Repeat as necessary. The following video is the only one I could find in my collection to demonstate teaching the turn-around:


It could be several months before I feel my horse is ready to perform multiple spins but when he is, it's only a matter of adding to what he already knows. After all, multiple spins are only multiple half-turns! i.e. four spins is eight half-turns. What is important in the first few months of training is correctness. A horse cannot spin fast if he is not correct. Conversely, when he is correct, the speed is easy - the spin almost takes on a life of its own. Speed, however, will magnify any little problems at the basic level. Speed increases the degree of difficulty (that's why we are rewarded for it in the reining pen!) In future posts, I will address several spin "issues", spinning with one hand and specific exercises to make a spin better and faster.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Neck Reining 101

As everyone knows, reining horses must perform all the difficult and demanding maneuvers of a reining pattern with only one of his rider’s hands on the reins. Ideally, that rein should be loose so that a mere touch of the rein on the horse’s neck (combined with body and leg aids) guides him to – and through – each maneuver. This means the horse must respond to the outside rein or indirect rein (as opposed to the inside/direct rein) - no small thing to ask but definitely trainable over time.

There’s no mystery or magic formula to teach a horse to neck rein, but there are a few principles to understand it:
  1. Neck reining doesn’t mean forcing the horse to turn with a lot of pressure on the outside rein.
  2. Neck reining means asking the horse to turn with a touch of the outside rein.
  3. Neck reining isn’t learned overnight. It’s learned with consistent signals from the rider.
Much of the schooling of a reining horse is two-handed. Certainly I use two hands to teach my horse. However, I never lose sight of the ultimate goal – one hand on the reins – so from the very beginning I think about the outside rein. I ask with it first, then back up with the direct rein and/or legs. And I never pull it across his neck. This applies to circles, spins and roll-backs. If I pick up my outside rein first to ask him to perform the maneuver, then back it up with my inside rein (and leg if necessary), he will learn to respond to the first signal – the neck rein. Here are two photos of my stallion, Running With Wolves. In both photos I am asking him to spin. In the first photo, as a immature, two-year-old in training, I am riding with two hands but asking with the right rein first to spin left; in the second, I am showing one-handed and he is responding to the touch of the left  rein to spin right.
Pick up outside (right) rein to ask, back up request with inside rein.
Pick up left hand toward right shoulder so rein touches neck to ask to spin right.
 For example, when I lope a circle to the right and am riding two-handed, I might pick up my left rein first on my horse’s neck and follow it with a direct pull with my right hand. It’s so important to not “baby-sit” with the inside rein. If there is always pressure on the inside rein, not only will the horse “lean” on it – he will rely on it to turn. And that is counter-productive. If he is relying on the inside rein all the time, he’s going to wonder what happened when he’s asked to perform off of the outside rein in a one-handed reining class when his rider cannot have contact with the inside rein!

The other thing I keep in mind is how close my hands are together. In the beginning of training or if I have a problem, I will widen the distance between my hands but to keep on track for “Neck Reining 101” I ride much of the time with my hands close together in front of the horn – just where one hand on the reins would be! This is especially true for the inside rein. If he can see my inside hand (even if I don’t move it), I will be baby-sitting my horse. If I have to use the inside rein to correct, it is truly a correction because my horse has not seen my inside hand when the outside hand (neck rein) asks.

A third consideration is the level of my hands. If I am thinking ahead to showing one-handed, it’s not much good to apply pressure to either rein with my hands below my horse’s neck. (Just try to do that with one hand on the reins!) So I try to keep both hands above the neck (just like one hand has to be).

Walking With Wolves running circles in his first year showing one-handed
To re-cap:
  • Ask with the outside rein first.
  • Hide the inside (correction) rein hand until you need it.
  • Don’t let hands drop on each side of the horse’s neck when riding with two hands.
So – two hands on the reins are good (and should be used for much of the training) if the rider always keeps the ultimate goal in mind throughout training – one hand on the reins or "neck reining".

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Half Pass to Walk

My horse now knows how to give to the bridle, give to my legs, walk, jog, trot and lope. I can half-pass him at a walk, jog and lope and can half-pass into a lope departure in the correct lead. The next step in this progression is to half-pass from a lope back down to a walk.

Purpose of this exercise: To encourage the horse to be respond willingly to rein and leg pressure at the highest level without fear.

The Exercise
Warm your horse up as usual, including jogging, trotting and loping. Then ask him to half-pass at a walk, jog and lope in a large circle – both directions – as in previous exercises (The Half PassHalf Pass at a Lope). After half-passing at a lope a few times, leave your leg on (spur if necessary), maintain the half-pass position but with your body language asking him to walk. When he walks with head and haunches to inside of circle, release leg pressure and rein aids. When he has walked relaxed for a few strides, half-pass into a lope and repeat. After two or three times, change directions. Timing, consistency and “feel” is of utmost importance in teaching the horse this exercise but, once learned, he will willingly execute a half-pass to a walk because he is allowed to walk! Also, he learns to be unafraid of leg and spur pressure for the same reason – because he is allowed to walk and relax!

Where can it go wrong?
  • The horse will not maintain a half-pass position to a walk. Either the horse has not learned the half-pass well enough (does not give to rein and leg) or the rider is not able to “time” his aids well enough. Practice the half-pass more at a walk until the maneuver is more refines.
  • The horse loses forward motion. Without at least enough forward motion to walk, the maneuver fails. The rider may have braced up (as for a walk or stop). If the horse is in a half-pass position but has stopped, encourage him to walk (with half-pass aids still in place) by bumping him with the inside leg. That is, if you are half-passing to a walk in a left circle with your right leg on him and your left rein asking and releasing, bump with your left leg)
Note: If it seems impossible to convince my horse to half-pass to a walk from a lope, I will allow him to take his head to the outside of the circle to move his hind quarters into the circle – because it is easier for a horse to leg yield with his head away from the direction of travel and because I will at least accomplish half of the exercise this way (rather than letting him out of the exercise when he fails to perform it).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Half-Pass at a Lope

Before I attempt to half-pass my horse at a lope, he must thoroughly understand basic leg yielding and half-pass at a walk and jog. When he can perform a half-pass at a walk and a jog, I progress to a half-pass at a lope. The aids are exactly the same except I need to keep my horse in a lope. This can be quite demanding for both horse and rider.

The Exercise
Warm your horse up as usual, including jogging, trotting and loping, collecting at all three gaits as in previous exercises. Then ask him to half-pass at a walk in a large circle – both directions. (The Half-Pass) Repeat the half-pass at a jog in both directions and then pick up a lope.
After loping a circle or two, apply half-pass aids to move your horse’s haunches in to the circle. In a circle to the right, apply give-and-take pressure with the right rein toward your left shoulder (to indicate to the horse where his head should be but without holding it there) and hold him on the track with light but steady left rein pressure, then apply pressure with your left leg to move his haunches into the circle and at the same time continuing to urge him forward with your body.  At first, accept any decent attempt by your horse to do the maneuver.

Where can it go wrong?
  • The horse will not give to rein pressure. A horse will not ever half-pass at a lope if he is resisting and/or throwing his head in the air. Go back and review the basics up to and including half-pass at a walk and jog.
  • The horse will not give to leg pressure. Review the basics as above.
  • The horse will not assume the half-pass position at a lope. Review the exercise at a walk and jog, then try again.
  • The horse breaks down to a jog or walk when you apply half-pass aids at a lope. Although this may be a natural response when a horse is learning, it is the rider’s responsibility to keep him moving forward. Either too much rein pressure (telling him to slow down) or not enough encouragement from the rider’s body to keep him loping will put the damper on loping. The first requirement is that he is moving forward so get that first, then ask again making sure you are using a give-and-take pressure with your inside rein, not steady pressure.
  • Horse overbends and drifts to inside of the circle. Either you are asking too much with the inside rein or not enough with the outside. Be sure to apply enough outside direct rein to keep him on the circle and only enough inside rein in a pull-release motion to keep his head in the direction of travel.
Note: This is very a very physically and mentally demanding exercise for the horse so, at first, accept any attempt on his part to perform it. Even after he has learned what you want, ask only a few times, then walk. Remember, it’s a huge reward for your horse when you release your aids, so take advantage of that and soon he will happily half-pass the length of the arena – because he knows the pressure will be end!
Don't be fooled by thinking the half-pass is a English-rider only maneuver. Although no where in a reining pattern is a half-pass found, it is a useful training tool for total control, flexibility and multiple training situations.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Half-Pass to Lope

After my horse has learned to half-pass, I ask him to lope off in the correct lead from a walk. It usually is not difficult if I have done the work on the half-pass. It’s virtually impossible for him to pick up the incorrect lead since, if he is half-passing correctly, his inside hind leg (the one that strikes off into a lope) is well under his body. Because of that, he is also in a collected frame where it is easy to lope. Most of my horses find themselves trying to lope and hardly know why because it so comfortable.

The Exercise
Walk your horse in a large circle. Half-pass to the inside several times, releasing after your horse performs the maneuver and walking a few steps. When you want to lope from a half-pass, keep your weight on the outside seat bone, release the rein pressure and “kiss”. Repeat a few times until your horse understands. Reverse and half-pass to lope in the other direction. Don’t expect too much too soon if your horse is learning. I accept any attempt to lope, then do it again.

Where can it go wrong?
  • The horse will not lope or trots a few strides before he lopes. When this happens, your horse is either not collected enough in a half-pass positon or you have not released rein pressure to allow him to move forward. Go back to the half-pass and be sure he is moving forward with his haunches slightly in, then ask again making sure you are releasing rein pressure so he can lope without restriction.
  • Horse overbends. If your horse is overbent, he may be drifting to the inside of the circle too. Be sure to apply enough outside direct rein to keep him on the circle and only enough inside rein in a pull-release motion to keep his head in the direction of travel.
  • The horse tries to lope before you ask after you have half-passed. This is almost for sure because you have been doing only one half-pass, then loped off. He has learned that you are going to lope after only one half-pass. To correct and to ensure it does not happen, always half-pass a few times in a schooling session so he does not guess when you are going to ask for a lope. Of course at the show, you will only slightly move the haunches in and lope off right away so as to look the prettiest but still not incur a penalty.

Note: Although it’s, very correct to lope off from a standstill in a reining pattern, you are allowed to walk a few steps into the lope and many riders do. I do not want to walk more than four steps, two is better. Since you will be penalized for trotting or, of course, loping off in an incorrect lead, it’s important to prepare your horse for the lead departure. This exercise does that.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Half-Pass

I know. The half-pass is better known as an English maneuver, but I don’t know what I would do without it! A half-pass ensures that my horse will lope off in the correct lead, teaches lead changes, positions for spins and is a great tool for correcting if he  charges in a run-down (half-pass to a walk).

The half-pass is the most demanding form of leg yielding, so my horse needs to know how to leg yield in the simplest way – that is, giving to pressure from my inside leg and moving forward sideways to the outside of the circle – before I teach the half-pass. I also teach him to move into the circle (off of my outside leg) before I teach half-pass. So, if you are walking a circle on the right rein, you should be able to leg yield your horse to left a few steps as in Basic Exercise: Leg Yielding and also leg yield him off of your left leg a few steps to right (still walking in a right circle) before you try to half-pass. (Note: When you leg yield into the circle, apply outside leg and outside rein wide to tip the nose to the outside, then inside rein (on the neck) until he moves a few steps forward/sideways into the circle.)

What is a half-pass?
A half-pass is a form of leg yielding whereby the rider re-directs the forward motion of his horse into forward sideways motion with the horse’s head in the same direction as the direction of travel (as opposed to basic leg yielding where the horse’s head is away from the direction of travel).

The Exercise
Walk your horse in a large circle on the right rein. Make sure your right leg is not in contact with your horse. With your weight to the left (it helps to really exaggerate this at first), apply right rein pressure in a “give-and-take” in the direction of your left shoulder – a rein of opposition. I find I need quite a short rein to do this so my hand doesn't get too high. Apply left leg pressure and steady direct left rein pressure until your horse steps to the inside of the circle with forward sideways steps. Your right rein will be holding your horse on the circle and your left leg will be moving his hind quarters into the circle. Ask for only a step or two at the beginning, using your voice or bumping softly with your inside leg for forward motion. Release all aids and repeat, then repeat to the left.

Where can it go wrong?
  • The horse loses forward motion. If your horse does not want to move forward when you have him in a half-pass position, “cluck’ to him (voice) and/or bump him with your inside leg. If you cannot convince him to go forward or he backs up, release the half-pass aids, walk forward (you always have to have forward motion!) and try again.
  • The horse will not give to the inside rein. Make sure you are pull/releasing the inside rein. If you are solid on both reins, your horse will be confused, especially if he is just learning the maneuver. If he is not giving to the inside rein, the rest of the aids for the half-pass are not going to make it happen, so get this working first!
  • The horse does not give to the leg. If your horse does not give to the leg, you might have to go back to more basic leg yielding until he responds better. Also, turns on the forehand might help. Then go back to try the half-pass. Remember, you need only a step at first.

Note: On horses that really resist my attempts to teach the half-pass, I will break it down like this: On the right circle, for a half-pass to the right (inside of the circle), I first apply my right leg to leg yield out of the circle (the simple exercise). When he responds, I shift my weight to the left (outside), apply my left leg, and change my inside rein to the rein of opposition (toward my left shoulder). If he takes a step, I reward with a release of aids; if he does not, I go back to the simple leg yield and repeat. I might also try the opposite approach: leg-yield into the circle (weight in outside and outside leg pressure but with the head to the outside). When he moves off of my leg, change the right rein angle from “on the neck” to toward my left shoulder. He is now in half-pass position. Again, reward for one small step.

The half-pass is not easy for horse or rider if they have not performed it. More balance, engagement of the hind quarters and impulsion is required than a simple leg yield. As the horse learns, the rider must be able to feel when his horse is out of position so he can adjust rein or leg to help. As with all the exercises, when the horse learns at a walk, I first ask for more refinement and more steps, then at a jog and eventually at a lope.

I will try to post a video in the near future on this post to demonstrate the exercise with variations.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Lope and Leads

There’s no faster way to a low score in a reining class than your horse loping in the incorrect lead. Since you will deducted one point for every quarter circle that you are not in the correct lead, and there are twelve circles in every reining pattern, the penalty points can add up! And before we go any further, if your horse is correct in front and incorrect behind, he is not “half right”!!

The lope and leads are hand-in-hand. When a horse lopes, he will be in the right lead, the left lead, or disunited (not ever desirable!) If you watch a horse loping, it will appear that either the left or right fore and hind legs are carried more forward. He is in the left lead if the left legs are extending forward; he is in the right lead if the right leads are extending more forward. If he is disunited, he will be in the right lead in front and left lead behind or vice-versa.

The “correct” lead for left circles is the left lead; the correct lead for right circles is the right lead.

I expect my horses to learn to lope a lot of circles. After my horse is well warmed up with basic suppling exercises, jogging and trotting, I will usually (always on the youngsters) ask for the lope from a posting trot. On the two-year-olds, if I am trotting, I sit down (but lightly – not hard enough to stop), keep some weight in the outside strirrup, move my hands forward and say “lope”. Then I make a “kissing” sound. This works like a charm on a colt that I have never loped but have asked to lope on the lunge line with a “kiss”. Later, and on my trained reining horses, I school the lead departure in the correct lead from a walk or stop (a future post on Reining Training Tips) so I don’t incur penalty points by starting my circle in the wrong lead. The following video demonstates the lope and leads:
What can go wrong?
Sometimes a horse does not seem comfortable in one lead and always uses the other – even when it is the outside lead e.g. he lopes in the right lead on a left circle. This often happens on a two year old that is just learning to lope. If he picks up the incorrect lead, I do not punish him. If it is the first time we loped, I want to make sure to reward him for loping! But this can’t go on for long, of course. After I know he will lope when I ask, I want the correct lead too. I drop back down to a trot if he picks up the wrong lead and try to feel his natural balance and use that to my advantage. There will usually be one part of the circle where I can feel he is more likely to be correct. If he has missed the lead several times, I make sure to change the place in the circle where I asked because he has “learned” to miss it in that spot. Also, I make sure I keep outside rein pressure on him to keep him on the track and help with the outside leg. So much of this is timing – feeling when the horse is in a position to automatically take the correct lead.

I like a pretty loper. There can be quite a difference in the way horses lope. Some of it is training and the different styles of the trainer – very collected or natural way of going for instance. That is personal preference, but the way a horse lopes – the way he is built and the way he uses his body – cannot be changed. My opinion is: Ride a good loper because a great portion of the time the judge is watching him in the reining pen, he is loping!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Circles and Collection

Every reining pattern has six circles so my horse better know how to execute, not only a circle, but a correct, pretty circle. Also, circles are the backbone of a reining training program.

If my horse gives to my hands and gives to my legs, the theory is I can teach him to walk, jog, and run circles. If he gives to the right rein and gives to the left rein, I can direct his head; if he moves away from leg pressure, I can position his ribs and body; if he understands to move forward when I ask, I can ask for any gait I wish - in a circle. That’s the theory…

From the first rides to the finished reining horse, my program is to correct my horse when he leaves the circle and leave him alone when he is on the circle. That, to me, is fair and easily understandable to my horse. Also, that is the way to have a horse that will gallop circles with no rein contact – or even bridleless! In other words, if I am loping a circle to the left, my hand is low as long as he stays on the circle. If he drifts out of the circle, say to the right, I pick up my hand and leg yield him back on the path, then lower my hand again and leave him alone. If he drifts out again (or collapses in), I correct again, then leave him alone again.

Before I go any farther, I must talk about what a circle is. A circle is a figure bounded by a curved line that is everywhere an equal distance from the center – no more, no less.  A circle is round - not oval or lopsided - round! If you are having difficulty ascertaining whether you are on your circle, it might be a good idea to “chalk” one with lime in your arena. Practice walking and trotting this circle until you have the feel of keeping your horse in the correct frame to stay on the circle, and then try at a lope.

Hand in hand with circles is collection (although a horse needs to be collected to be able to perform all reining maneuvers). A “collected” horse is balanced between the rider’s hands and legs. As I drive my horse forward into my hands with my legs, he shortens his frame, rounds his back, and strides deeper behind. He cannot do this if he is not giving to the bridle. When he softens to rein pressure, he can then round his back; when he rounds his back, he can stride deeper with his hind legs. Collection starts with giving to the bridle and is completed when the horse gives to leg pressure. As always, if my horse is green, I expect less.

The Exercise
Walk your horse in a large circle and slowly apply pressure with both legs. Then slowly apply rein contact and hold (I tell my students to “lock their elbows”) for four or five strides, applying enough leg pressure to keep your horse moving forward. You should not keep pulling with your hands – stop your hands and drive with your legs. (Your reins should be at a length so that your hands are not behind the horn when you have taken the slack out of them with your horse giving vertically). The goal is for the horse to give his head to rein pressure and become lighter on the forehand as he places his hind feet farther under his body.
Repeat the exercise at a jog, a posting trot and lope as the horse understands. 

  • Apply legs before hands.
  • Apply more leg than hands.
  • Do not restrict more forward motion than you can create with your legs. In other words, if you have very strong legs, you can apply more pressure with your hands because you can overcome it with your legs. A child, on the other hand, with very little leg strength, needs to be very light on the reins.
This is what keeps your horse moving forward. If you apply more rein pressure than leg pressure, you are actually asking him to move backwards. We want to keep forward motion. At first, relax pressure for three or four strides before asking again but as your horse gets more trained or if he is already trained, you can release pressure for only one stride or even a half stride. The goal is for the horse to maintain the collected frame because he BELIEVES that you will always put him back in that frame. The following video demonstrates collection at a jog, trot and lope on a two-year-old.
I do a tremendous amount of schooling work on circles. After warming my horse up, I jog, then trot, then lope circles, collecting at every gait and, of course, reversing directions. Only after my horse is relaxed in a circle will I ride straight lines. I like to say he has to “earn” his way into straight lines. If he is chargy or not focused in the straight line, I go back to circles and collection in the circles.

Monday, April 4, 2011

How Basic Exercises Relate to Reining Maneuvers

I’ve been talking a lot about basics – simple exercises to warm up your horse for more difficult ones. I’ve explained why I do basic exercises and how they train a young horse. I’ve also said that giving to rein and leg pressure (what basic exercises are) is the “whole program”. That may seem too simple, but it’s true. Of course, my horse must learn to “give” with refinement and at different gaits (which increases the degree of difficulty) and in combinations, but if I keep it simple in my mind – asking my horse to give to my hands and my legs – then he has the best chance to learn and execute anything I ask. And (I’ve said this before but it bears repeating!), if there is a problem at a higher level, it can and should be fixed at the basic level. Those basic exercises are closely related to the reining maneuvers.

Circles: Circles are an integral part of a reining training program from the first rides to the finished reining horse – and I want very correct circles. I use basics to position my horse in the correct frame to lope a circle – forward motion, give to the rein, give to the leg – and I use basics to keep him on the circle. For example, if my horse collapses into the circle, I apply inside leg to leg yield him back on the circle; if he bows out of the circle, I apply outside leg to leg yield him back on the circle. In a reining pattern, circles are performed at a lope but, if my horse is very resistant, I will drop back to a trot, jog or even a walk to correct.

Rundowns: As in circles, I use basics are to position my horse until he understands how to keep his body straight. A lot of times, training is about exaggerating the correction, so if he fades towards the wall, I might leg yield him well off the track. For example, if I am loping in the left lead in a straight line twenty feet away from the fence and my horse starts to fade over to the right toward the wall (he will be pushing into the right rein as well), I can leg yield him left off of my right leg well into the arena (farther than twenty feet!), then allow him to go straight again.

Lead changes: I cannot teach my horse to change leads if he does not give to pressure from reins and legs. That, along with forward motion executes a lead change. If I am loping in the left lead and want to change leads, I will collect my horse (give to the reins), move him off of the right leg a bit, then switch to move him off of my left leg for the change.

Spins: Spins are a series of half-turns on the haunches and a half-turn on the haunches uses all the basic exercises – forward motion and giving to reins and leg. For example, for a half turn to the left: With the left leg off the horse, I ask my horse to turn with my right (indirect or neck) rein, apply left rein in a give-and-take motion to keep nose turned (give to the reins), bump with the right leg (give to the leg). This is for a horse just learning a half-turn. For a trained reining horse, with one hand (give to the reins), I ask him to turn to the left and use my leg only if he needs it (give to the leg).

Stops: Stops are taught, and then executed, using all the basics. I ask for a sliding stop exactly as in the exercise:  vertical flexion, which is about response to my weight, voice and hands. That is, I change my weight (behind center of balance), say “whoa”, and then lift hand only if I need to.

Rollbacks: Rollbacks are merely putting two maneuvers together – a stop and a half-turn on the haunches – along with forward motion. Perfect rollbacks are the result of a good stop, correct response to the reins and timing (the rider’s responsibility!).

Back-ups: My horse learns to back up at a basic level (Basic Exercise: Vertical Flexion) and the maneuver is refined with training, using basics of giving to the reins, legs and weight. The basic exercise in vertical flexion is not really a back-up exercise (it is more about giving to both reins) but it does begin my horse’s understanding of the maneuver. Later, I want him to respond to the motion of my hands and the change of my weight for a pretty back-up.

This is a summary of how basic exercises relate to reining maneuvers. I will deal with each of the maneuvers specifically in later posts.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Basic Exercise: Leg Yielding

There are several kinds of leg yielding exercises, all resulting in the horse responding or “giving” to leg pressure from the rider, but the most basic (and the first) leg yielding exercise I want my horse to learn is giving to inside leg pressure and re-directing forward motion into forward sideways motion to the outside of the circle.

Purpose of leg yielding
• To teach the horse to give to pressure from the rider’s legs.
• To teach the horse to be unafraid of leg pressure.
• To encourage the horse to willingly give to leg pressure in combination with rein pressure.
• To continue to warm up the horse’s mind and body for more difficult exercises.

The Basic Exercise
Leg yield to the left: As you walk your horse in a large circle on the right rein, keep you left leg off of the horse, apply your right (inside) leg a little behind the cinch, pick up your right (inside) rein to encourage your horse to keep his nose slightly into the circle to maintain the arc, then slowly apply pressure with the left (outside) rein in conjunction with increased pressure from your right leg until the horse changes his forward motion to forward/sideways motion and takes a step or two. Keep your body light in the saddle to encourage forward motion; if he loses forward motion, “cluck”; if he still will not move forward, bump him with your left (outside) leg. When he responds with at least one lateral step, slowly release the reins and remove right leg pressure. Walk relaxed to a new place in the circle and repeat. As he understands the exercise and/or warms up, ask for two or three steps – no more – and walk on. As in the previous exercises, you must only ask what your horse is capable of at his level of training – if he is a two-year-old that you are just starting to ride, you will be satisfied with very little; if he is a trained reining horse, you will expect more correctness and refinement. He should perform the lateral movement, giving to the rider’s hands and legs and stepping forward and sideways, crossing both front and rear legs.

Illustration: leg yielding to left off of right leg
When your horse is responding well to the left, repeat to the right. If he is more advanced in training, repeat both directions at a jog.

The order of aids to the left: left leg off, right leg on, right rein, left rein.

Note: This is the very simplest form of leg yielding – giving to the rider’s inside leg and moving to the outside in a forward-sideways direction. When your horse is more advanced, you will want to leg yield him to the inside of the circle, leg yield directly to the side (as to open a gate) and half-pass.

• Your inside rein should be away from your horse’s neck in a straight line from your horse’s mouth to your elbow; your outside rein should be against your horse’s neck (your hand will be close to outside of the horn). The length of your reins should be such that your hands do not go behind the horn when you apply pressure. Also, your hands should be at the same level even though one is close to the horse’s neck and one is away from the horse’s neck.
• Apply rein aids slowly.
• Release rein aids slowly.

What can go wrong?
• Your horse may “lead” with his shoulder instead of true lateral movement. This is almost always because the rider does not apply enough pressure with the outside rein – that is the rein that restricts forward motion and encourages use of the hind quarters. Gradual increased pressure of the outside rein with increased inside leg pressure corrects this problem. Again – be satisfied with very little until your horse understands where the release is.
• The horse does not move sideways at all, ignoring pressure from your leg. Often this means the rider has not applied enough rein pressure to stop some of the forward motion. Slowly apply more pressure with both reins while at the same time firmly asking him to yield to your leg. If he takes a step – or even a half step – slowly release reins and legs, walk on and repeat. Ask for more when he understands.
• The horse stops or stops and backs up. Cluck and bump his side with your outside leg to ask for forward motion but do not release the rein aids until he moves forward (assuming you are not pulling too hard!) If he still does not move forward, release one rein still asking for forward motion and ask for lateral flexion in that direction (The ladder… step down a step) Walk on and repeat, correcting as necessary until he moves forward/sideways even a half step. Again – don’t ask for too much until he understands.

The Basic Exercise with Refinement
As your horse becomes more trained or if he is already trained, you should expect more correctness, refinement and willingness in his response to the aids for leg yielding. Expect more lightness in his mouth and response to more subtle cues. As in all training, when the horse is learning, cues are exaggerated and, as he becomes trained, more subtle. At this time, you need to “feel” your horse’s response, strive for correctness, feel where the problem is and correct if necessary. You may need spurs to encourage him, but use only what is needed. I apply my leg first, then the heel of my boot, and then, if he still does not move away, I gradually turn my foot so the spur is in contact and push. The next time you ask, start with the softest aid first.

When your horse gives to your hands and gives to your legs (lateral and vertical flexion and leg yielding), it’s the whole program. Everything you do from this point on is about responding to rein and leg pressure. Some maneuvers are simply a combination of these basics. As training progresses, you will expect more refinement and a higher degree of difficulty, for example leg yielding in different way and at different gaits.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Basic Exercise: Vertical Flexion

The second warm-up exercise I ask my horses to do is vertical flexion. This exercise teaches response to the rider’s weight and direct pressure from the rider’s hands. It is also the beginning of the reining horse's hallmark maneuver - the sliding stop!

Purposes of vertical flexion:
  • To teach the horse to respond to pressure from both reins.
  • To continue to warm up his mind and body for more difficult exercises.
  • To encourage engagement of the hind quarters with vertical flexion
The Basic Exercise
After your horse responds softly to lateral flexion (Basic Exercise: Lateral Flexion), ask him to walk forward on a large circle.  Walk several steps, correcting him if necessary to stay on the circle and keeping your body in the center of balance.  Then, with your hands low and reins loose, brace your body against the forward motion by pushing your feet in the stirrups, locking your hips and squaring your shoulders. Give him time to respond (count to two) and then (and only then!), SLOWLY start drawing back on the reins with firm constant pressure until he steps back one or two steps. As he steps back, SLOWLY release rein pressure until your hands are back in the original position low on his neck in front of the saddle. Bring your body back to the neutral position and let your horse stand quietly for a few seconds. The goal is for the horse to willingly stop when you brace your body and say “whoa”, then give his nose vertically to rein pressure.
Repeat several times as you walk around the circle, then reverse and repeat in the other direction. If your horse is a green two-year-old, you will be happy with that. If he is farther along in training or is a trained reining horse, do the exercise at a jog. You might be tempted to react faster at the jog if he does not respond to your weight and voice aids, but you still must apply pressure with your hands SLOWLY.

Illustration:vertical flexion 1

Illustration: vertical flexion 2
Important! After you have stopped, backed up and stood for a few seconds, always walk a few steps before jogging again. Even at this basic level, you are teaching your horse the rules of stopping. You don't want him jumping out of a stop - that's why I stand and that's why I walk out.

  • Apply rein pressure and release rein pressure slowly.
  • Keep your hands low when you ask the horse to stop (hands should not be stopping him)
  • Do not immediately ask your horse to walk forward again. Instead, reward him by allowing him to stand for a few seconds.
The Basic Exercise with Refinement
As above, walk forward with your reins loose, your hands low and your body relaxed and in the center of balance. Brace body, say “whoa” and pick up the reins to ask him to back up and give vertically to the rein pressure but now, as your horse learns, or if he is a trained reining horse, you should expect a more correct response and more sensitivity to your aids. Feel where there is resistance (right or left) and instead of adding more pressure, go back to lateral flexion. Release the rein he is NOT resisting and draw him around as in Basic Exercise: Lateral Flexion. That way you are correcting only the side that is resistant.

Note: I like to compare my training program to a ladder. You start at the lowest “rung” and step-by-step climb to the highest. If there is a problem, you step back down, fix the problem, then proceed up the ladder again.

What can go wrong?
  • The horse does not give to rein pressure at all. You can’t out-pull a horse, so this is a battle you will lose. Instead, ask the exercise just as if you expect him to back away from the rein pressure. When he doesn’t, lower one hand and turn him around with the other (Lateral flexion) until his responds softly to that rein. Walk forward, ask again, and this time when he resists, turn him the opposite way until he is soft. Repeat a few times, alternating sides, and then ask him to back off both reins again. If he even takes a step, reward him by standing; if he does not, repeat the corrections. I know this works every time but the secret is not asking too many steps back at first.
  • The horse backs away but puts his head up. He is trying to escape pressure and you have to tell him it where that escape is. You cannot force his head down. Instead, raise your hands (wide apart) to stay with level of his mouth and keep constant light pressure until he puts his head where you want it. Then release. (Your shoulders may get sore waiting this out so if you can’t hold on, lower one hand and turn him around with the other as above).
  • The horse stops backing abruptly when you release the pressure. You might be quickly dropping your hands when you feel him give to rein pressure instead of slowly giving back the rein. I see this a lot because the rider is anxious to reward his horse. I call this “dumping” your hands and the horse is actually responding to that quick movement with a quick movement of his own.
  • The horse pulls his head down too much or is “behind the vertical”. Almost certainly you are hanging on to the reins too long. Try to start giving back as his head is going down. If he has been doing this for a while, you may have to ask him to pick it up, then release.
Important! You are teaching your horse where you want his head by releasing when his head is in that position.

This exercise is not a backup exercise (although your horse certainly learns to back up). It's a back-and-give-to-the-bridle exercise. The purpose is to teach the horse to give to pressure from both reins at once.

In time, your horse will respond to the motion of your hands rather than pressure on his mouth. When that happens, he has developed real sensitivity.

Note: I will post a video later when I can ride in my arena!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Basic Exercise: Lateral Flexion

Other than forward motion, the first exercise I want my horse to learn and, thereafter, the first exercise I ask after I mount up, is lateral flexion. Lateral: to the side. Flex: bend. In other words, I ask my horse to bend his head and neck to the side by “giving” to pressure from each rein, one at a time.

Purposes of lateral flexion:
  • Teaches the horse to give to pressure from one direct rein.
  • Warms the muscles before more difficult exercises.
  • Warms up the horse’s mind by asking for a simple exercise first.
The Basic Exercise
Ask your horse to walk forward with your hands low. As he walks, apply slow, steady pressure to the right rein, drawing the rein back toward your hip by bending your elbow and bringing the rein back with your wrist straight. (Important! Your left hand should remain low with no pressure on the left rein.) The pull from with your right arm should come from your shoulder, not your forearm or wrist. This establishes a straight line between the horse’s mouth and your elbow.  The goal is for the horse to bring his head around and down towards his right shoulder but, if he is a colt, you will be satisfied with less – as long as he gives to the rein. He should not lift his head in the air or try to take the rein away from you. Apply pressure for four or five strides, then release for four or five strides. (As your horse becomes better trained, you can change the timing a little (four strides with rein pressure, two strides without, etc.) but always with a release. It’s important to start giving back when your horse is responding. If you release pressure when he is resisting, he is learning to resist.

Repeat the exercise until your horse responds readily with the appropriate correctness and softness for his level of training, then go to the left side and repeat until he gives to rein pressure on that side. After I have “softened” both sides, I like to alternate the lateral flexion a few times – bend to the right, release, bend to the left, release, etc. Be sure to completely release one rein before applying pressure with the other. You should feel a willingness to respond to the pressure from the rein on each side. If he is stiffer on one side (as horses often are), work that side more...until you feel a response.

  • Keep your horse walking forward.
  • Always start the exercise with your hands low.
  • Always apply pressure slowly.
  • Always release pressure slowly.
  • Do not let your hand come in contact with your body.
This video demonstrates lateral flexion. This horse had several months of riding but was far from finished.


 The Basic Exercise with Refinement
As your horse becomes more schooled, you will want to ask for more refinement in lateral flexion. If he has learned to bend, but does bring his nose down as well, you can gently "bump" (pull, release) him with the outside rein until he drops his nose. So, if you are asking him to give to the right rein and he bends around but does not bring his nose down, add the left rein with give-and-take bumps until he responds.

What can go wrong?
  • The horse pulls away his head away from you. If this happens, you may be releasing pressure too soon. To correct, apply pressure slowly and with increasing strength until he responds so he is rewarded in the lateral position. Release, but re-apply before he brings his head back straight. Also, don't expect him to bring his head completely around until he learns to give to a lesser command. Gradually expect more until he understands.
  • The horse lifts his head as he brings it around. You will have to try to find a spot when he is giving, even if it is only a stride or two into the exercise. It is important to start to release when the horse's head is dropping. If you wait too long, he may be starting to bring it up again. If you release then, you will be teaching him that the release comes when his head is high.
  • The horse gives to the presuure but, instead of walking in  a circle, he continues in a straight line with his nose bent. To corect, bump with the outside leg to encourage him to follow his nose.
When my horses have learned lateral flexion, most will not bring their heads back straight because the know I will repeat the exercise and will stay in a small 6-10 foot circle as I apply pressure with one rein, release, apply, release, etc.

Note: Equipment for this exercise should be appropriate for the level of training. My two-year-olds or horses just beginning training are bitted with a snaffle bit. I usually school trained reiners with a long-shanked snaffle. With the trained reining horses, I want them to be comfortable performing all basic exercises as well as advanced ones in the bit they will be competing with.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Rider Aids: Tools to Teach

The way a horse learns is really quite simple. It's the rider’s responsibility to keep it simple. The simpler you can keep your schooling program the better. It all comes down to a few simple teaching tools and how you use them.

The horse learns and performs through aids from his rider. Every basic exercise is taught with these aids; every reining maneuver is executed with these aids.

What are the natural aids?
• Hands
• Legs
• Voice
• Seat or weight

Applying aids and the order with which you apply them is important. Different maneuvers require the rider to apply the aids in a different order for the desired result. Sometimes aids are applied as a progressively more demanding signal if the horse is not responding. I ask; I demand; I correct; and I always release when my horse gives me a response.

Ask. Demand. Correct. (Then release)
The first aid you apply to ask your horse to do something should be soft (ask); the next one you apply (but only if he does not respond to the first!) is more intense (demand); the third one should leave no doubt in the mind of your horse (correct). Then release all aids when the horse responds.

Example 1: You want your horse to move forward from a standstill. First, "lighten" your body in the saddle and move your hand forward a little. If he does not walk, say “walk”; if he still does not walk, bump with your legs. Ask. Demand. Correct. (Order of aids here is body/hands, voice, legs where legs are the correction). Release all aids when your horse walks forward (don’t keep saying “walk” or kicking).

Example 2: You want your horse to come down from a jog to a walk. Without lifting your hands to pull on the reins, change your body position by stepping into your stirrups, locking your hips and squaring your shoulders (ask); if he does not respond, say “walk” keeping your body in the “behind the center of balance” position; if he still does not respond, slowly apply rein pressure. Ask. Demand. Correct. (Order of aids is body, voice, hands and the hands are the correction). When your horse has stopped, release all aids (release rein pressure and bring your legs and body back in the center of balance).

Example 3: You want your horse to spin to the left. Assuming nothing in your body language is telling him to move forward, raise your hand in the direction of your left shoulder without pulling; if he does not step into the spin, bump him with your right leg; if he still does not move, bump him harder. Ask. Demand. Correct. When he is spinning, do not keep right leg pressure on him; if you do, soon your “correction” with a leg will not mean a thing!

Example 4: You want your horse to stop. Without lifting your hand (your rein hand is low, isn’t it?), change your body from forward motion to a position behind the center of balance (more about that later) as in example 1; say “whoa”; if he does not stop or is not getting into the ground as he should, slowly apply rein pressure. Ask. Demand. Correct. Keep your position until he has completed the stop, then release your aids. (Order of aids is body, voice, hands and the hands are the correction). In a reining pattern, there may be another maneuver such as a rollback or backup after the stop. If so, you will still release your aids and apply aids for the new maneuver.

Very important! In both these cases, the next time you ask for a response, use the softest aid first, etc. When the horse responds to the first signal (ask), you do not need the others. Consistent repetition of the aids is the key to consistent response.

If you train your horse this way, everything you do will mean something to him and he will perform with almost imperceptible cues. I've often been told that it doesn't look like I am doing anything to ask my horse (of course I am!) to perform, My answer is: "Good. That's what it's supposed to look like!" That can only happen if my horse believes I will correct him with stronger aids if he does not respond to the soft one.

I initiate all the reining maneuvers – circles, lead changes, spins stops, rollbacks and backing up – with rider aids. I ask for the maneuver with the softest aid first for the prettiest picture, and hope my horse responds because he understands (from the many schooling hours on a consistent program) that I will back up what I asked with a more demanding aid if he doesn’t. If I have made a believer out of him, he does!

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Basics: Building a Foundation for Reining

Someone (I think it was Dick Pieper) once said, “If a horse improves 1% every time we ride him, he will be trained in 100 days and we know we cannot expect that!”  What this means is: Training a horse for reining is a long, slow process. Yes, indeed. I have been training reining horses for over thirty years and I have yet to find a way to "finish" a reining horse in a few months. I plan for at least 18 months on my prospects to get them to a three-year-old futurity and I do not usually show my horses one-handed until they are four, although those who compete in the NRHA Futurity must show in a bridle with one hand and so must prepare for that.


A reining horse must be relaxed and confident in the reining pen and only a one-step-at-a-time training program will accomplish that. There is no better way to instill confidence and knowledge into your horse than to teach him the first steps first - the "basics". The basics are a series of exercises that are the foundation for more difficult ones and basic exercises are an essential part of every training program. Not only do they progress the horse from simple to complex, but are also essential tools to fall back on when the horse encounters difficulty with any advanced maneuver. I go through basic exercises every time I ride every horse from two-year-olds to fully trained horses (at the level they are currently at - I expect more finesse from trained horses; for the youngsters, schooling the basic exercises can take up most of the session).

Why are basic exercises important?
1. When the horse is learning:
  • Basic exercises stretch and warm a horse’s muscles, preparing him physically for riding.
  • Basic exercises are the simplest level of training of the step-by-step program that best teaches any horse.
  • A horse can only learn a high level maneuver, such as the spin, by first learning the maneuver in its simplest form - a combination of the basics.
2. When the horse is trained:
  • Basic exercises supple and stretch the muscles for the more demanding part of the schooling session.
  • Starting at the simplest level relaxes the horse mentally and physically.
  • Problems at the basic level can be resolved before the rider encounters them at a higher level. Often there won’t be a problem at a higher level if it is dealt with at a basic level.
What are the basics?
1. Forward motion.
2. Give to the rein.
3. Give to the leg.

How do I teach basic exercises?
1. Correct rider position.
2. Clear signals, or rider aids.
3. Repetition – the same message the same way every time.

* Training a horse is encouraging a horse to be comfortable - putting him a position where it is easier to do the maneuver than not do it.

I am such a believer in building anything step-by-step that I don’t know any other way to write this blog either. I feel I must cover some background before I can deal with specifics so bear with me for a few posts. Also, though Reining Training Tips isn't about starting colts - that could be a whole other blog - many tips can be applied to any horse in any discipline at any level of training.

Next week...rider aids.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Choosing A Trained Reining Horse

Riders who are new to reining usually buy a horse that is already trained rather than buying a prospect but finding the right horse – one that is affordable, sound and “fits”- is a process.

 Locating reining horses that are for sale is the first step. Asking around, checking out ads in magazines and on the internet and narrowing it down to those you can afford usually will turn up a few possibilities. (Remember – flights and road trips can add to that purchase price!) Now check the horses on your list against the following guidelines:

 What attributes must a trained reining horse have?
A good reining horse should possess all the same qualities that a reining prospect does, which are: good breeding, good conformation, a "trainable" disposition, a "willing to learn" attitude, courage and heart. (Refer to Choosing A Reining Prospect)

 How do I find a reining horse with these attributes?
Go to reputable trainers and take your coach or an experienced reiner with you when you look for a horse.
 1. Buy a well-bred horse if possible. Check out the performance records of sire and dam just as you would for a reining prospect.
2. Check out the performance record of the horse. If he has been in the reining pen, you will want to look up results. Talk to the person who showed him and, if possible, get a video of the horse to watch and show to your trainer.
3. Conformation is still very important. You want to be confident the horse will stay sound. Look for balanced conformation and soundness. (Check out last week’s post – Choosing A Reining Prospect for conformation points). If you are not sure what to look for, ask the opinion of someone you trust. It's always a good idea to get a vet check as well to make sure there are not unsoundness issues that are not discernible to the naked eye!
4. Ride the horse and ask your trainer to ride him too. Perform the maneuvers and even ride a pattern. Feel how the horse moves, if he is cooperating with you. Is he relaxed? Does he wait for you to ask instead of volunteering. Does he give to rein pressure? Does he yield to leg pressure without jumping away from your leg? Will he run circles both fast and slow? Does he change leads? A rider who is new to reining should ride a good-leaded horse. After all, the worst maneuver ever can only be scored -1 ½ whereas a horse is penalized one point for every quarter circle he is out of lead – that could be 12 penalty points in one set of circles!

What you don’t want to feel when you ride him:
  • He is nervous.
  • He doesn’t want to walk into the pen or stand in the center.
  • He jumps into spins.
  • He speeds up, tries to take the bit or jumps into lead changes.
  • He throws his head or is otherwise scared of the bit.
  • He charges into stops.
  • He does not want to stop.
Riding the horse is by far the best barometer of the reining horse’s talent and attitude. If he is kind, willing and comfortable performing maneuvers, I can overlook less-than-stellar breeding and/or performance record, especially for a first time reiner. And one last hint: Almost without exception, it’s better to ride a horse you have to “push” than one you have to “pull” on. You can be sure that a little anticipation at home will be a lot of anticipation in the pen.

The following video is of Wildwood Magic Miss and a prospective buyer in and out of the arena. The rider had never reined before and this was the first time she had ridden Magic. This is how I want my horses to go for a new rider - relaxed and happy.