This Month’s Expert Sean Johnson
A fourth-generation horse trainer, Sean Johnson was a successful three-day eventing rider as a teenager but always had a fascination with reining. Under the tutelage of his mother, Lee Troup, he was on the long list for the 2000 Olympic Games. Two years later, he began working with reining horse trainers. He established Sean Johnson Performance Horses in 2005.
Johnson has accrued more than $175,000 in lifetime earnings in National Reining Horse Association competition, and has been a finalist in open and aged events at the National Reining Breeders Classic, NRHA Futurity and All American Quarter Horse Congress. Johnson trains horses and coaches youth and amateur riders on a ranch located 30 miles south of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He and his wife, Kiera, have a 3-year-old daughter, Audrey Jo. For more information, visit johnsonreining.com.
Q: My horse has the habit of cross-firing when I ask for the change. He will change lead in the front, but not behind. How can I set up his body so that his gait is correct and the transition is smoother?
A: To me, cross-firing at a lead change nine times out of 10 comes due to a horse being “dumped over” on the front end, where he is carrying more weight up front. When you ask him to change leads, he changes by catching his balance and falling to the right rather than stepping to the right. This leaves the front end of his body out of sync with the hind end.
To change leads, I drive the horse up into the bridle, carry my hands higher, and go a hair faster than usual. I’m looking for more forward momentum. When I ask for the change, if I’m changing from the left to the right lead, I’ll take my right leg off and bring my left leg back so that I push the hip, or the right hock, into the change. I don’t necessarily care if he changes up front, but he does need to step into the lead change with the inside hind leg. I focus on moving the horse’s hind end and keeping the front end free. The front end typically changes as the hind end switches, but not necessarily the other way around.
To me, when a horse’s face is being pulled on too much and that horse doesn’t actually understand how to give to that pressure, you’re losing all your impulsion out the back of the horse, causing him to lose balance. I put my hands forward and let him trot until he lopes off and takes the correct step behind.
A lot of cross-firing comes from being pulled on too much. The horse loses his balance point and impulsion. The more you pull on the face, the more you lose the horse’s hocks since the horse doesn’t understand how to collect himself while keeping forward momentum.
When you first start loping 2-year-old colts around, they’re kind of gangly and don’t know where they’re going. When you’re pulling around on a young horse, he can easily lose his balance. If you’re trying to guide a 2-year-old to the right and you pull on that inside rein, a lot of times he will lose his balance and step to the left to catch himself with the outside hip and he’ll end up in cross-fire. In that case, it’s not that you’re pulling on the horse too much; it’s that he doesn’t understand how to give to the pull or the guide.
Q: I’m new to reining and I can’t seem to consistently hit the center marker when I close up my circles. How can I improve my arena position with my horse?
A: When I see people missing their center marker, especially in more of your green classes, it’s because the rider is looking down. An exercise that I make my non-pros do is lope a diamond shape instead of a circle. Think of it like a clock: the starting points of the circle at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock.
When I make my non-pros lope a diamond, they have to pick up their eyes and focus on the wall, then focus on the point in the center of the pen they are riding to before they lope that straight line. Once they hit the point, they have to pick up their eyes again and lope another straight line. They have to think and look ahead.
It’s a quick and easy exercise that will make riders pick up their eyes. Plus, every arena size is different and every center line in the pen is going to be a different length. If you think about loping a diamond, that guide will always put you where you need to be. When you put a little arc in the body when you’re showing, it will look like a circle.
I’m also a big fan, especially in reining, of loping a D-shape instead of a circle. That way there is a straight line in the center of a pen. It makes that lead change a lot easier, too.
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