Hands & Feet: Teach A Horse To Pick Up Their Feet

Mike Major guides his horse across a square made of logs.

Horseman Mike Major uses obstacles to teach his horses to pick up their feet while staying between the reins.

Mike Major calls it “multitasking.” It’s the ability of a horse to think not only about where it’s going, but also how it’s getting there. The horseman from Bowie, Texas—a multiple American Quarter Horse Association world champion—spends a lot of time teaching his horses how to place their feet.

It’s a skill that one might think needn’t be taught. But young horses adjusting to being ridden and learning to do maneuvers, as well as older horses that might get bored, distracted or just plain lazy, have to be reminded sometimes that foot placement is important. “It’s about the horse being able to walk and think, and be in your hands in the bridle,” Major says.

To accomplish his goals, he uses a couple of simple trail obstacles that challenge a horse.

In The Box

Four 8-foot logs put together in the shape of a square can be utilized in many ways, Major says. “I ride back and forth, in and out, and all around that square box,” he says. “It makes a lot of difference on my colts, and even on my older horses.”

With a young horse, he guides it through with his legs and hands at both a walk and a trot.

“I want him to keep his feet moving, but still listen to me so I can guide him through,” Major says. “At the same time, I want him to figure out where to put his feet without me placing him. I want him to think for himself.” A seasoned horse might just need a reminder to watch where it’s going.

“I’m going to trot through the box and want the horse to keep forward motion and the same pace,” Major says. “I’m not going to make it easy on him. I want him to have to move his feet in order not to hit a log.”

The same principle applies if the logs are in a row for a trot- or lope-over.

Mike Major uses obstacles to teach a horse to pick up their feet.
Major rides a young horse through a square-shaped obstacle, guiding him with his hands and feet. Using obstacles can help horses learn to pick up their feet while staying collected, and not break gait. Photo by Ross Hecox.

Logging Time

As the 2016 AQHA world champion in junior ranch riding and a three-time AQHA versatility ranch horse world champion, Major works to prepare his horses for anything they might encounter in the show pen or out on the ranch.

Because riding over logs at a walk, trot or lope is a required obstacle in ranch trail, it becomes especially important to teach a horse to handle itself over these obstacles. Hitting or stepping on a log is a one-point penalty in versatility ranch horse trail classes, and stepping out of or knocking over an obstacle is a five-point penalty. Therefore, it’s essential to teach a horse to pick up its feet and pay attention.

Sidepassing over obstacles teaches a horse to pick up their feet.
Sidepassing and directional changes over obstacles teach a horse to pay attention to where all four feet are landing. Photo by Ross Hecox.

“You can take a horse that comes from the mountains or country with a lot of brush or trees, and that horse has to watch where his feet go all the time,” Major says. “Those horses are more adept at watching where their feet are and listening to the rider. Horses from flatter land or those that have just been ridden in arenas sometimes struggle moving their feet. This will help those horses.”

Although flat logs are usually used in trail courses, Major also uses round logs at home so that they’ll roll if a horse hits them.

“As you get into the ranch trail course, the biggest obstacle is keeping your horses from hitting the logs. If I get a horse that won’t pick up his feet, I’ll use those round logs,” he says. “A horse will really get to watching them.”

The ultimate goal, he adds, is straightforward. “I want to get his feet and his mind in the same place,” Major says.

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Western Horseman.

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