This simple drill teaches your horse to guide without rein or leg aids.
Jaton Lord would rather not dictate every step his horse takes. Instead, he prefers the horse to learn a job and be responsible for executing it, whether going down the trail or competing in the show ring.
“If you’re in the show pen and you’re having to micromanage everything, pretty soon there’s going to be a mistake,” Lord says. “If you can give responsibility to the horse, where he knows his job, it’s a lot easier. I think he becomes more willing to [perform], and one that wants to do it looks a lot cooler than one that doesn’t.”
Lord, a cow horse trainer and clinician based in Prescott, Arizona, often utilizes a simple arena drill he learned from fellow trainer Ben Balow. It involves riding circles around a set of four cones and teaching the horse to guide without rein or leg cues.
“I do it almost every day on my horses,” Lord says. “The cones give you a target to look at, but you don’t even need cones. You could use a patch of dirt. You’re riding circles around and between the cones, and you’re keeping your hand down and you’re not using your feet to guide them.”
The cones can be arranged differently, but most of the time Lord places the four in a straight line, with the first two about 6 feet apart, the second and third cones about 30 feet apart, and the last two about 6 feet apart. Lord starts by riding in a 30-foot circle that passes between the two sets of cones, which are each 6 feet apart.
“The first time I do this on my horses, I’m going to help them all I can,” he says. “I use my feet and hands, and try to make a perfect circle. And then whenever I feel like they can hold it for maybe a second, I turn them loose and see what happens.”
If the horse veers off, Lord uses his reins and legs to guide it back on the circular path passing between the sets of cones. It’s a process that requires repeated cycles of the horse veering off and the rider steering it back onto the circle, and then abandoning rein and leg aids. The goal is to ride perfectly round circles at a trot or lope in both directions, without using his hands or feet to guide the horse. Lord simply turns his head in the direction of the end cones through which the circle passes.
“I try not to use my legs at all and just look where I’m going,” he says. “If they somewhat get it, then quit for the day and build on it tomorrow. If it gets a little better each day, then you know you’re doing a good job. Most horses will usually get it in 30 circles or so. You just keep showing them the job, and pretty soon they figure it out. If they don’t seem to be getting the drift, then I’ve got to do something else so they get the message.”
That might mean stopping between the end cones and ending the session so the horse finds reward in passing through the cones. It may involve making the horse work harder whenever it wanders off the path.
“I’m going to make them work right there—bridle them up and get them shaped up,” he says. “Then I’ll drop my hand and see where they go.”
Lord adds that simply pointing your head toward the cones causes a slight change in your seat, and that should be enough to guide the horse. Essentially, the drill teaches the horse to align itself with the rider, whether moving in circles, sharp turns or straight lines.
“If they are listening to the seat of your pants and looking where you look, it’s pretty easy to teach them something,” he says. “I think they retain information a lot better that way, and it tells you where their mind is. What I like about this drill is they feel like they are a part of it because you hand a responsibility to them. And I think they enjoy that.”
Finally, Lord says the drill also helps riders become more subtle, softer and more patient with their cues.
“Gosh, it shows you how much more you can do as a rider,” he says. “At clinics, I see people ask their horses to do something, and before the horse even answers they are asking for another thing. So this drill shows them how much more they’re doing [inadvertently], and how much less they should be doing.
“Also, you have to have a relaxed seat to do this. So I think it’s a great exercise in calming yourself a little bit. Sit back, let the horse carry you and do his job. You don’t have to micromanage all the time.”