I have already talked about the importance of my horse responding to the outside rein – the “neck” rein. Although I do a major portion of early training with two hands on the reins, I never lose sight of the ultimate goal – a horse that is comfortable and can be guided with one hand. This exercise is another step toward that goal – it refines signals from the outside rein while continuing to tap into the horse’s comfort zone, thereby encouraging him to work for me.
My horse must already be thoroughly schooled in basic exercises and must be willing to be schooled before I introduce him to this exercise. The object is to ride a small square with square corners, the size of the square determined by the level of training of the horse. Beginner riders and green horses may have to ride a larger square just to give them time to accomplish each step.
Part 1: At a jog, I establish a straight line anywhere in the arena away from the fences - across, lengthwise or diagonal of the arena. (It is easier to visualize the pattern if I ride - "square” with the arena...) As my horse jogs, I collect him between my legs and hands (position), hold him in this frame for a few strides (balance), turn 90 degrees without losing the collected frame (turn), release the aids for a stride or two (relax) and then repeat . . . and repeat . . . and repeat . . . and repeat, turning the same way every time to make a square. On each side of the square I release (after the turn), collect and hold to the next corner so that his body is straight and he is in the bridle for the turn.
Note: I find I have to concentrate to get this timing right. It helps if I repeat the sequence to myself - position, balance, turn, relax – and it’s imperative that the aids are not released until after the turn is made and the horse is straight again to fulfill the purpose of the exercise.
By repeating these steps over and over, my horse can jog a precise square. At the beginning, I must take whatever time it takes to ensure he is straight with body aligned, neck low and relaxed before I turn. The square may be quite large at first but I work toward the goal of a very small square.
When my horse has performed the exercise to my satisfaction one way, I allow him to walk a bit then change directions, jog and repeat to make the small square in the new direction.
- Horse should be balanced between legs and hands before and during the turn.
- Turn is made with both reins with emphasis on outside rein.
- Ride with two hands at first; when the horse is very good at the exercise, change to one hand on the reins
Note: Sometimes, after executing the square several times, I allow my horse to continue in a straight line out in to the arena for a few more strides and, with my hand down, ask him to stop and maybe back up. The better he has performed the “square” exercise, the better he will do this! Usually my horse "melts" back.
Part 2: I repeat the exercise at a lope, a more demanding exercise but with fabulous results! As my horse works the square, he drives his inside hind leg deeper and deeper under his body as he prepares for the next turn. The sequence – position, balance, turn, relax –is demanding for me but is of utmost importance to achieve the response I am looking for – a willing, relaxed horse staying balanced between the reins and turning off the outside rein. This is not an easy exercise and if the horse indicates he is not ready, I drop back down to a jog for a few days. Of course I work both sides.
- Horse should be straight, neck low and relaxed before turning
- Horse needs to remain straight in turn.
What Can Go Wrong
- Horse loses frame in 90 degree turn. Of course this could be part of the learning process but as a rider, I need to be aware of any deviation from straight and correct.
- Corners of square are not “square” but rounded. This problem is the same as above and it's usually because I have allowed my horse to bend into the turn by giving too much with the outside rein. I might lift that rein a bit to establish a better connection.
A horse is always most comfortable when he is correct – when his body parts are all aligned and his neck low – and that’s when he is most relaxed, a perfect state for schooling and competition!