Trainer and coach Chance O’Neal says riders often forget to let their legs complement their hands to gain effective body control in a horse.
It grates on Trainer Chance O’Neal’s nerves: the sight of a bridled-up horse with a bracey and hollowed-out back. He’s seen it a lot in riders in his years as a trainer and clinician, and now as the ranch horse team coach at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
“Riders understand wanting a horse to give in the face,” he says. “But they tend to just use their hands to get it. If they do that, they can get a horse to drop his face, but that horse will hollow his back and they don’t feel that.
“On top of that, they won’t release their hands when the horse gives, so the horse will elevate his head to get behind the bit, and hide his face. That’s not a soft, collected, bridled horse.
“What I want [my riders] to learn is to get body control with their legs and feet, and let that complement their hands. They should use their legs and hands together to get a horse to lift in his back, drop his nose and get soft in the bridle.”
The trick is that many riders don’t realize they have a problem.
“Most often, they either don’t use their legs and hang onto the bridle with their hands, or they use their legs and reins at the same time, but don’t ever release,” O’Neal says. “The horse moves away from the pressure and the rider just keeps a constant pressure.
“A lot of times I’ll tell them to apply leg pressure, and they think they are but they really aren’t. They’re not using enough leg.”
Not using your leg to complement your hands affects everything you do on a horse. But where it will really tell on you is in cattle work—boxing, cutting or going down the fence.
However, for O’Neal, getting riders to understand and apply that coordination and feel on a cow begins slowly and simply.
Basic Shoulder Control
O’Neal starts with basic shoulder control: asking the horse to give to the rider’s inside leg and rein, and lift its inside shoulder. When the horse gives, the rider releases.
Working at a walk or jog, he applies his leg at the girth and lifts slightly with his inside rein, and asks the horse to step away from his leg.
“It goes back to just getting your foot and your hand working together,” he says. “When you use your leg with your hand, you ask your horse to pick his shoulders up and his head drops and gets soft. That’s how you know you’re getting body control.”
If you only use your hand, the horse’s head and nose elevate, and its back hollows. It makes it difficult for the horse to yield softly to step properly. When you add your leg, that asks the horse to lift through the ribs and withers. The head can drop, which frees up its shoulders to step.
O’Neal says he uses this exercise daily to gauge his horse’s readiness at the start of each ride.
“It’s something I do every day in my riding,” he says. “You start with it and soften your horse. It’s just part of reminding the horse, ‘When my leg is here, you yield here.’”
The benefit for his students is twofold: learning to feel the change in the horse’s body when they use their legs and hands together, and learning the timing of when to release that pressure.
“When you lay your leg on, you want that horse to think, ‘Slow down, yield to that leg and pick that shoulder up,’ ” he says. “You do that for a little while, and if that horse is yielding and softening like you want, go on and work on something else.”
Teaching his students to understand the “feel” is the real motivation for O’Neal. He wants his riders to feel their horses yield to their cues, and how different it is when they use their hands and legs in unison. When they can feel that the horse responds correctly—softening its head and neck, and lifting its back—then they know when to release their hands and legs.
“You have to feel when a horse tries, and as soon as it tries you have to release,” O’Neal says. “Then you can pick it right back up and ask again. Over time, the horse will soften to you quicker and quicker.
“When that horse yields to your leg, he feels more responsive. If you do this exercise and don’t feel the horse give to you, and you just keep doing it, then it means nothing to the horse.”
O’Neal goes back to shoulder control in anything he does. It can help free up spins or help a horse soften through a lead change. And that basic shoulder control is fundamental to a good fence turn in the cow horse.
“I see riders just loping in a circle and the horse is leaning one way or another, and they are trying to fix everything with their hands, holding and holding that shoulder up,” O’Neal says. “After a point that horse will just lean into that bridle rein more and more. Instead of just picking him up with your hands, use your leg with your hand to keep his body in line.”
But again, the release is key.
“Don’t babysit that horse with your leg,” he says. “If he always wants to lean and you hold with your leg in a constant pressure, he’ll just push back. You have to ask, correct him, and then release. If he leans back out, ask again, and so on. Eventually he’ll understand that you leave him alone when he does it right.”
O’Neal enjoys the challenge of coaching riders by teaching them to develop their own horses, and helping them work on their timing and feel.
“When they perform a maneuver and they feel their horse’s body react to what they are doing, and I see that light go on in their faces,” O’Neal says, “that’s what I want.
This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of Western Horseman.